Why secularism isn’t happening in India: An alternative perspective

Fernande-smallFernande Pool presents findings from her fieldwork that suggests Bengali Muslims place the failure of secularism within the broader experiences of public life and through her research combats a series of misunderstood arguments about secularism and India.


‘Secularism isn’t happening’, sighed a Bengali Muslim man, dressed in meticulous white Islamic dress, with a wild beard and an Islamic cap. With these words he encapsulated what so many rural Muslims in West Bengal conveyed to me over two years of field research. Their political, social and economic marginalisation demonstrates that secularism isn’t working properly in India. Whenever I asked why secularism isn’t happening, they’d answer that the problem is a lack of dharma (usually translated as religion) in both private and public life.

A lack of religion as the cause of a lack of ‘proper’ secularism will sound contradictory to those assuming secularism denotes a proper separation of religiously neutral, public politics versus politically neutral, private religion. Yet this view places religion and secularism into a binary relationship with each other, despite the scholarly efforts to demonstrate that this binary is the result of a particular Christian cultural-historical trajectory.[1] The religion/secular binary is subsequently reflected in a series of related modern binaries, such as religion/politics; private/public, which are primarily ideological rather than having a basis in lived experience.[2] The lived experience of Bengali Muslims revolves around dharma, a vernacular category that pushes through a religious/secular binary. My ethnographic exploration of Bengali Muslims’ understanding of dharma therefore provokes an alternative way of thinking about the relationship between religion, secularism and politics.

My Muslim interlocutors consider Islam a dharma. Dharma is not best translated to religion because religion tends to denote a particular domain in life that does not fit the holistic lived experience of most Indian people. It is therefore better understood as an all-encompassing, holistic ethics – an embodied ethical potential as well as a macrocosmic ideal, including both local ideas of sociality as well as the Islamic normativity. The observation that dharma is an embodied ethical potential, rather than a set of rules external to a person, is important because it means that dharma is a visceral, integral part of the person: dharma is what allows any human being to act morally. Muslims have an Islamic dharma, and others are expected to have their own dharma with similar ethical potential.

In Western ideology it is commonly thought that the biological human precedes the socialised moral person. But in the local ideology of Bengali Muslims, there is no distinction between the human and the person.[3] Instead, the ‘human person’ (manush) is generated from within moral exchange relationships, first with Allah, and thereafter with other people: within the Muslim community, between Muslim and other communities, and between citizens and the state. There is no human being before the social-moral person with embodied ethical potential. It is thus inconceivable to think of any human person or human sphere without dharma.

The example of the Islamic dharma demonstrates the irreducibility of dharma to religion. In theory, this irreducibility is encapsulated in the intention of ‘Nehruvian’ secularism (sarvadharma samabhav) as the fostering of harmonious religious plurality by ensuring equality of all religions before the law.[4] This intention is echoed in the vernacular Bengali term dharmaniropekkota, which my interlocutors consider to mean the equal inclusion of all religions. All Muslims in West Bengal I spoke to, understand and support Nehruvian secularism. Secularity, in this sense, is not so much an ideological separation of spheres, but an ethical disposition, as it denotes the value of equality of all Indian citizens irrespective of religious affiliation or identity. Then, why are my Muslim interlocutors still experiencing the secularism is not happening?

My field research suggests that Bengali Muslims place the particular failure of secularism (the particular marginalisation of Muslims) within the broader experience that public life and political practice is deeply unethical, due to everyday experiences of corruption and various forms of structural inequality. The problem, they feel, is that Indian politics operate with a religious/politics binary, which reduces the political sphere to a morally empty sphere. They explain corrupt politics with reference to the ideological containment of dharma set apart from politics; and their marginalization with reference to dharma set apart from secular politics in particular.

Because for Bengali Muslims the Islamic dharma is the ground for their ethical personhood, it is impossible to avoid carrying their dharma across artificial boundaries set by modern categories such as religion and politics, unless one is to be amoral (and thus barely human) in the designated nonreligious spheres. As one of my interlocutors put it, ‘politics is taking care of people, isn’t it? And that is dharma’. From this perspective, if politics is to be ethical, it has to be rooted in dharma, and as such, perhaps paradoxically to Western ears, dharma is actually the source of the secular.

Given the observation that a religiously neutral political sphere is problematic, it might be considered that Islam is indeed incompatible with secularism. However, firstly, this would be to misunderstand the critique of my interlocutors. They specifically do not blame the pervasive immorality in public life on Nehruvian secularism. However, the everyday experience of Muslims in West Bengal is that secularity, as an ethical disposition, is absent: they are facing inequalities on the basis of their Muslim identity. The problem is the poor implementation of Nehruvian secularism due to an absence of ethics.

Secondly, it is to misunderstand the nature of dharma in relation to Islam. In the view of my Muslim interlocutors, every person has dharma (otherwise one would not be human). The dharma of Muslims has an Islamic character, but can incorporate other ethical dispositions and values, such as secular liberal values, though complex processes of vernacularisation. So when they say that politics needs to be informed by dharma, they do not mean that politics would have to be Islamic. It just means that politics should be ethical. In turn, whereas the secular ideology could be incorporated into the larger ethical framework of dharma, dharma cannot be limited to the category religion, lest other spheres of life are left devoid of ethics. Bengali Muslims indeed experience an ethical void in public life, which is why, in their view, ‘secularism isn’t happening’.


[1] Asad, T. (2003). Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[2] See e.g. Hansen, T. B. (2000). Predicaments of secularism: Muslim identities and politics in Mumbai. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 6(2), 255-272.

[3] See e.g. Bear, L. (2007). Lines of the nation: Indian Railway workers, bureaucracy, and the intimate historical self. New York: Columbia University Press; Inden, R. B., & Nicholas, R. W. (1977). Kinship in Bengali culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] Bhargava, R. (2010). The promise of India’s secular democracy. Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Fernande first completed a BA in Cultural Studies and a BA in Spanish language and literature at the Universiteit van Amsterdam, before proceeding with the MSc in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE). She has recently submitted her PhD thesis to the Anthropology Department at the LSE, with the title The ethical life of Muslims in secular India: Islamic reformism in West Bengal. The thesis seeks to explore the nature of ethical life of a marginalised minority. It focuses in particular on the everyday experiences and vernacular conceptualisations of secularism, and their relationship to the contemporary transformations in Islamic belief and practice. For more information, visit her Academica.edu page.

[Research] Translating a ‘Religion’, Translating a ‘Culture’: A ‘Non-Religious’ Expression of a Japanese Religion in France


Masato Katō presents an analysis of what he calls a ‘non-religious’ expression of a Japanese religion that has been operating in France since the 1970s. He explores how the translation of a ‘religious tradition’ into a ‘culture’ has been perceived in the changing cultural and socio-political conditions in French society.

Can religious traditions be explained non-religiously? A religious group often attempts to present their traditions as culture in order to increase their visibility and gain legitimacy in the sense of ‘social acceptance’ (Lewis 2003:15) in the public. A group known as Tenrikyō has sought to present itself in French society by translating the image of the little known religious tradition into widely appreciated representations associated with Japan. In the operation of translation, Tenrikyō has faced with not only cultural and linguistic challenges but also been caught up in the socio-political condition, being swayed by how society defines and perceives what ‘religious’ activities are.

Originally started as a religious movement in nineteenth-century rural Japan, Tenrikyō has expanded into different parts of the world including France, where its main centre of activities in Europe is located. Aside from the religious association known as Tenrikyo Europe Centre (formerly Tenrikyo Mission Centre in Paris), which was established in 1970 in Antony, a southern suburb of Paris, Tenrikyō founded a legally separate institution called Association Culturelle Franco-Japonaise de TENRI (Tenri France-Japan Cultural Association) in Paris. Founded in 1971 as part of the initiative to reach out to the wider society through cultural exchange between France and Japan, the Cultural Association has been running various programmes mainly associated with Japanese culture including a Japanese language school as well as other activities such as calligraphy, Japanese tea ceremony, and Japanese flower arrangement, among several others.

In terms of the relations with the religious association, the Cultural Association does not conduct any form of proselytisation in its activities as per the French legal regulation prohibiting such activities in a non-religious association (Interviews on 11 November 2014 and 8 July 2015; cf. Koizumi 2005). One can in fact notice when visiting the Cultural Association that there is very little that can be linked with the religious tradition or its religious symbols, except for the name Tenri as well as some of the doctrinal phrases posted on the wall in the form of ‘Japanese calligraphy’ (fieldwork observation). It is commonly understood among Tenrikyō followers working as senior staff members of the Association that cultural activities are intended as contribution to the larger society, in the process of which they hope to have the little known name Tenri recognised among the general public. In this sense, the promotion of cultural activities at the Association is considered by those followers as a ‘non-religious’ way of ‘insertion in society’ (Beckford and Levasseur 1986:41, cf. Beckford 1985) that may help translate the appreciation of the Japanese culture into that of the religious tradition.

In what ways and in what context, then, has this approach allowed the religious group to increase its visibility and legitimacy in France? For one thing, Tenrikyō’s expansion into France has met with a period of growing (and revitalised) interests in Japanese culture and language in France due to Japan’s rapid economic growth that occurred from toward the end of 1970s (Mabuchi 1997:10-12). This is attested in part by the increasing number of Japanese language institutes and students in France in the decades after the 1970s (see Table 1). It can be observed that the relatively high level of interests in Japanese culture in France has generally correlated with the increasing number of students at the Japanese language school of the Cultural Association (see Table 2).


table 1

(Sources: Kokusai Gakuyūkai 1967; Kokusai Kōryū Kikin 1975, 1981, 1987, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2013; Kokusai Kōryū Kikin Nihongo Kokusai Sentā 1992, 1995, 2000; Shuppan Bunka Kokusai Kōryūkai 1970; cf. Iwakiri 2007a, 2007b)


table 2

(Sources: Iwakiri 2007b:10; Kokusai Gakuyūkai 1967; Kokusai Kōryū Kikin 1975, 1981, 1987, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2013; Kokusai Kōryū Kikin Nihongo Kokusai Sentā 1992, 1995, 2000; Shuppan Bunka Kokusai Kōryūkai 1970; cf. Iwakiri 2007a, 2007b)

Aside from the initiative to connect with the local people, there were some cases in which they sought to translate religious language and representations into ‘non-religious’ or ‘cultural’ counterparts, particularly in the period between the 1980s and the early 1990s. One of the most intriguing examples of such expressions is a quarterly magazine called Le Japon, which was published for a total of 14 volumes between 1979 and 1983 by the Cultural Association for the purpose of introducing the current news of Japanese society as well as various aspects of Japanese culture in both Japanese and French. Worth noting about this publication is that each volume has a short article entitled ‘Tenri yūgen’ (a keyword of Tenrikyo), which was written by a non-member of Tenrikyō. Placed at the very end of each volume, the article discusses a selected doctrinal concept of Tenrikyō as one of the intellectual thoughts in Japan without any explicit messages of proselytisation or sectarian interests.

At the same time, however, there were some cases in which the non-religious expressions of Tenrikyō were problematised or challenged by the wider general public due to the shifting social discourse surrounding ‘cults’ (sectes) in France. The French ‘cult controversy’ (Beckford 1985) became prominent from about the 1970s and eventually led to the National Assembly’s report on ‘cults in France’ in 1996 and later to the About-Picard Law in 2001, which significantly limits legal right of groups labelled as ‘cults’ (Altglas 2008, 2010). Notable about this anti-cult sentiment is the changing scope of the very term ‘cult’. The emphasis in the discourse of ‘cults’ in France has shifted at the turn of the 21st century to signify ‘allegations of psychological manipulation, fraud and anti-democratic tendencies’ (Beckford 2004:29; emphasis added). Seen as ‘social deviance’ rather than ‘religious dissidence’, a cult group has come to encompass ‘a wide range of organizations and practices’ that transgress social ‘norms and laws’ (Altglas 2010:501-503).

This indeed explains what happened to the Cultural Association at the height of the cult controversy. In 1996, the Cultural Association was portrayed as a ‘cult’ group in one of the local newspaper in the 14th district of Paris, where the Cultural Association was located at the time. Labelling Tenrikyō’s cultural association as ‘Cult Tenri’, the article asserts that people fell ‘victim’ to the ‘cult’ through the activities conducted at the association (La Page, no. 28, January 1996, p.4). In this case, the cultural association was viewed as a sort of front organisation to lure people into religious activities conducted at Tenrikyo Europe Centre in Antony. As a matter of fact, Tenrikyō was not one of the organisations of Japanese origin that were listed in the aforementioned 1996 report on ‘cults’ in France. The irony here is that the approach of using representations of Japanese culture as a way to present a ‘non-religious’ image of a religious tradition in the public led to an instance of illegitimacy due to the countervailing social dynamic of the cult controversy. The extent to which the translation of religious tradition into as part of the wider culture can be effectively carried out thus relies on how such an expression is seen in a given social context.

The case of Tenrikyō in France provides a window through which we can see the possibility and limitation of an approach that translates religious representations into cultural counterparts that are appreciated in the wider host society. Research on similar expressions in different religious groups in different contexts may further reveal insights pertaining to the translation of ‘religion’ into ‘non-religion/culture’.


Altglas, Véronique. 2008. French Cult Controversy at the Turn of the New Millennium: Escalation, Dissensions and New Forms of Mobilisations across the Battlefield. In The Centrality of Religion in Social Life: Essays in Honour of James A. Beckford, edited by Eileen Barker, 55-68. Hampshire: Ashgate.

––––––. 2010. Laïcité is What Laïcité Does: Rethinking the French Cult Controversy. Current Sociology 58(3):489-510.

Beckford, James A. 1985. Cult Controversies: The Societal Response to New Religious Movements. London: Tavistock Publications.

––––––. 2004. ‘Laïcité,’ ‘Dystopia,’ and the Reaction to New Religious Movements in France. In Regulating Religion: Case Studies from Around the Globe, edited by James T. Richardson. New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers.

Beckford, James A., and Martine Levasseur. 1986. New Religious Movements in Western Europe. In New Religious Movements and Rapid Social Change, edited by James A. Beckford, 29-54. London: Sage Publications.

Iwakiri, Kōichi. 2007a. Shukkō kihon hōkoku Tenri Nichi-Futsu bunka kyōkai de no kinmu wo oete (4): Bunka kyōkai no kaiin ni tsuite. Tenrikyō kaigaibu hō 511:12.

––––––. 2007b. Shukkō kihon hōkoku Tenri Nichi-Futsu bunka kyōkai de no kinmu wo oete (5): Nihongo gakkō no unei nit suite. Tenrikyō kaigaibu hō 512:10.

Koizumi Yōichi. 2005. Seikyō bunri no hō: Furansu ni okeru raishite to hōritsu, kenpō, jōyaku. Kyoto: Hōritsu Bunkasha.

Kokusai Gakuyūkai. 1967. Kaigai ni okeru Nihongo kyōiku kikan ichiran (Taiyōshū, Yōroppashū, Amerikashū hen). Tokyo: Kokusai Gakuyūkai.

Kokusai Kōryū Kikin, ed. 1975. ‘Sōhyō’. In Kaigai Nihongo kyōiku kikan ichiran. Tokyo: Kokusai Kōryū Kikin.

––––––. 1981. ‘Sōhyō’. In Kaigai Nihongo kyōiku kikan ichiran. Tokyo: Kokusai Kōryū Kikin.

––––––. 1987. ‘Sōhyō’. In Kaigai Nihongo kyōiku kikan ichiran. Tokyo: Bonjinsha.

––––––. 2005. ‘Shukeihyō 1-1: Nihongo kyōiku kikansū, kyōshisū, gakushūshasū (sōsū)’. In Kaigai no Nihongo kyōiku no genjō: Kaigai Nihongo kyoiku kikan chōsa 2003 nen, 94-97. Tokyo: Kokusai Kōryū Kikin.

––––––. 2008. ‘Shukeihyō 1-1: Nihongo kyōiku kikansū, kyōshisū, gakushūshasū (sōsū)’. In Kaigai no Nihongo kyōiku no genjō: Kaigai Nihongo kyoiku kikan chōsa 2006 nen, 92-95. Tokyo: Kokusai Kōryū Kikin.

––––––. 2011. ‘Shukeihyō 1-1: Nihongo kyōiku kikansū, kyōshisū, gakushūshasū’. In Kaigai no Nihongo kyōiku no genjō: Kaigai Nihongo kyoiku kikan chōsa 2009 nen, 140-143. Tokyo: Kokusai Kōryū Kikin.

––––––. 2013. ‘Sōkatsuhyō 1-1a: Nihongo kyōiku kikansū, kyōshisū, gakushūshasū’. In Kaigai no Nihongo kyōiku no genjō: 2012 nendo kaigai Nihongo kyoiku kikan chōsa yori, 172-175. Tokyo: Kuroshio Shuppan.

Kokusai Kōryū Kikin Nihongo Kokusai Sentā, ed. 1992. ‘Shukeihyō 1-1: Nihongo kyōiku kikansū, kyōshisū, gakushūshasū (sōsū)’. In Kaigai no Nihongo kyōiku no genjō: Kaigai Nihongo kyoiku kikan chōsa 1990 nen, 38-41. Tokyo: Kokusai Kōryū Kikin Nihongo Kokusai Sentā.

––––––. 1995. ‘Shukeihyō 1-1: Nihongo kyōiku kikansū, kyōshisū, gakushūshasū (sōsū)’. In Kaigai no Nihongo kyōiku no genjō: Kaigai Nihongo kyoiku kikan chōsa 1993 nen, 74-79. Tokyo: Kokusai Kōryū Kikin Nihongo Kokusai Sentā.

––––––. 2000. Kokusai Kōryū Kikin Nihongo Kokusai Sentā. 2000. ‘Shukeihyō 1-1: Nihongo kyōiku kikansū, kyōshisū, gakushūshasū (sōsū)’. In Kaigai no Nihongo kyōiku no genjō: Kaigai Nihongo kyoiku kikan chōsa 1998 nen, 108-111. Tokyo: Kokusai Kōryū Kikin Nihongo Kokusai Sentā.

Lewis, James R. 2003. Legitimating New Religions. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Mabuchi, Akiko. 1997. Japonisumu: Gensō no Nihon. Tokyo: Brucke.

Shuppan Bunka Kokusai Kōryūkai. 1970. Sekai no Nihongo kyōiku kikan ichiran. Tokyo: Shuppan Bunka Kokusai Kōryūkai.


Association Culturelle Franco-Japonaise de Tenri. http://tenri-paris.com (accessed on 22 December 2016).


Masato Katō is in the final year of his PhD in the Department of Religions and Philosophies at SOAS University of London. His doctoral research focuses on a Japanese new religion known as Tenrikyō as it operates in France. He is particularly looking at the historical and social construction of the boundary between ‘Japan’ and ‘Tenrikyō’ with regards to the perceived cultural particularity of the religious tradition as well as the non-religious/cultural approach of propagation that the religious organisation has employed in the French context.

[Research] Science and religion conflict for non-religious Britons and Canadians


Rebecca CattoRebecca Catto introduces new project findings from social scientific research conducted in Canada and the UK. She highlights the tendency of non-religious publics and life scientists in both countries to see science and religion as conflicting.

The “conflict thesis” is the label historians of science give to the purported essential and enduring incompatibility or clash between science and religion. However, today this thesis is considered historically inaccurate (Harrison, 2015, Lightman, 2015). So, why then does it persist? This gap between narratives, perceptions, and knowledge was part of the motivation for the current Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum project.[1] Given that the US is already the most researched country and a distinctively polarized one in terms of science and religion debates (Baker, 2012, Ecklund and Park, 2009, Evans and Evans, 2008, Evans, 2016, Guhin, 2016, Hill, 2014, Long, 2011, Noy and O’Brien, 2016), we chose to focus upon two cognate and yet contrasting national contexts: Canada and the UK.[2] The multidisciplinary, multi-sited[3] team has been conducting qualitative sociological, historical, psychological, and survey research in both countries. We also decided to concentrate upon the relationship between evolution and religion, because this has become a focal point for wider science and religion debates (Aechtner, 2016). Fern Elsdon-Baker, a philosopher and historian of science, leads the project and her work has already begun to draw out how such a “clash” gets framed (Elsdon-Baker, 2009, Elsdon-Baker, 2015). I work on the qualitative strand of the project, alongside Stephen Jones and Tom Kaden.

Here I draw upon initial findings from some of the project’s sociological research to illustrate the observation that non-religious people in Canada and the UK appear to be the most likely to perceive a necessary clash between science and religion. Stephen and Tom have conducted semi-structured interviews (123 total) and focus groups (15 total) with scientifically literate publics and life scientists in the UK and Canada, sampled purposively in order to gain a balance in terms of gender, as well as a range of religious identities, geographic locations within both countries, ethnic backgrounds, and age groups. The sample includes 25 ‘non-religious’ scientists and 31 ‘non-religious’ members of the public.[4]

Among the nonreligious members of the public interviewed, some saw science as important to their identity and thinking, even when their experience and expertise in scientific disciplines were limited. For example, Basil Tipton,[5] a non-religious male member of the Canadian public, said: “But I will say, in fairness, that I’ve seen survey data of scientists and their religious beliefs and I’m always surprised by how many profess to have religious beliefs. It always does surprise me… Objective truth, philosophically loaded word, but taking it at face value for a moment, I guess I would see it as almost part of my identity, that, if that’s the tradeoff to be made, I think I would always want to be on the side of understanding the world and objective truth versus self-comfort.”

Non-religious life scientists in Canada and the UK also struggled to see how a religious person could be a (good) scientist. A non-religious biologist originally from Latin America now working in Canada, told Tom: “So in science, I agree with Dawkins that to be a really good scientist, to actually have a scientific thinking, you…it’s very incompatible if you’re religious.” Another female Canadian biologist said: “I am always surprised when I find religious scientists, because again it’s the, how do you…?” She went on to describe how she has questioned her own husband on his Lutheran upbringing and beliefs. A non-religious British zoologist reported finding it difficult to understand how his medical biologist colleague could publicly “argue the case for religion.” In one focus group with scientists in Canada a staunchly anti-religious participant dominated discussion, and in one with actively non-religious members of the public in the UK the assumption that Islam in particular is anti-science predominated.

This perception held by non-religious participants, that religious scientists, or indeed publics, will struggle to reconcile their religious identity with science as a practice or a scientific world view, is a recurring theme across the project. Emerging data from our survey and psychological research appear to chime with what we have found in our interviews. We must stress, though, that not all non-religious project participants see religion and science as in conflict, and many non-religious scientist interviewees reported that, despite difficulties understanding such a position, they were tolerant of private belief and spirituality, as long as the religious scientist is doing high quality work.

Despite the commonalities in terms of views found in both contexts, Canadian scientists appear to be less aware of their colleagues’ religious or non-religious views than in the UK. Also, the “conflict thesis” appears to form a less significant part of public discourse. This could be due to the relative influence of the New Atheists in British popular culture (LeDrew, 2016). Whilst we still have a lot more analysis to do, the initial data suggest that understanding the persistent power of the “conflict thesis” requires examination of non-religious as well as religious people’s views, in context.

[1] Funded by the Templeton Religion Trust.

[2] The recently completed ‘Religion Among Scientists in International Context’ (RASIC) project led by Elaine Howard Ecklund is, as findings are published, also making a significant contribution to the social scientific study of science and religion internationally.

[3] The project is hosted at Newman University, UK, in partnership with York University, Toronto. The University of Kent, The British Library, Kent State University, and the British Science Association are also project partners.

[4] Here the label ‘non-religious’ incorporates both people declaring an active stance in contrast to religion, e.g. atheist, and those only stating that they are not religious.

[5] We use pseudonyms to preserve participants’ anonymity and are very grateful to everyone who volunteered to take part in the research.


AECHTNER, T. 2016. Terrorism in the Evolution Wars: Mass Media and Human Nature. Theology and Science, 14, 495-517.

BAKER, J. O. 2012. Perceptions of Science and American Secularism. Sociological Perspectives, 55, 167-188.

ECKLUND, E. H. & PARK, J. Z. 2009. Conflict Between Religion and Science Among Academic Scientists? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48, 276-292.

ELSDON-BAKER, F. 2009. The selfish genius: how Richard Dawkins rewrote Darwin’s legacy, London, Icon Books.

ELSDON-BAKER, F. 2015. Creating creationists: The influence of ‘issues framing’ on our understanding of public perceptions of clash narratives between evolutionary science and belief. Public Underst Sci, 24, 422-39.

EVANS, J. H. & EVANS, M. S. 2008. Religion and Science: Beyond the Epistemological Conflict Narrative. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 87-105.

EVANS, M. S. 2016. Seeking Good Debate: Religion, Science, and Conflict in American Public Life, Oakland, California, University of California Press.

GUHIN, J. 2016. Why Worry about Evolution? Boundaries, Practices, and Moral Salience in Sunni and Evangelical High Schools. Sociological Theory, 34, 151-174.

HARRISON, P. 2015. The Territories of Science and Religion, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

HILL, J. 2014. Rejecting Evolution: The Role of Religion, Education, and Social Networks. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 53, 575-594.

LEDREW, S. 2016. The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

LIGHTMAN, B. 2015. The ‘Conflict Thesis’ and Scientific Naturalism. State, Religion and Church in Russia and Worldwide, 4, 11-35.

LONG, D. E. 2011. Evolution and religion in American education: an ethnography, Dordrecht ; London, Springer.

NOY, S. & O’BRIEN, T. L. 2016. A Nation Divided: Science, Religion, and Public Opinion in the United States. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, 2.

Dr Rebecca Catto is an assistant professor in the Sociology department at Kent State University, Ohio, USA. Her main research interest is in religious-secular relations, in the UK and internationally. She is currently a Co-Investigator on ‘Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum’. Recent publications include work on Islam in Europe, material atheism, and the sociology of religion. She co-edited with Linda Woodhead Religion and Change in Modern Britain (Routledge, 2012).

[Reflection] The Sacred Structure of Doubt: Reflections on Christ-Haunted Atheism

BenBen Wood considers the ways in which our Western secular culture is still ‘haunted’ by the Christian story. And like an unruly ghost, this narrative presence refuses to rest, producing the peculiar contradiction of faithful unbelief– in art, philosophy, and literature.  Yet, in the midst of this cultural paradox, there exists a stirring coherence.


Contemporary discussions of religious belief in the media are frequently conducted through the unaccommodating lenses of binary thinking. Either we either ‘believe in God’ or we disbelieve. A religious story either makes sense to us or else we are baffled. What is perhaps less talked about however, are the so-called marginal cases where unbelief owes its structure and vitality to faith. So obsessed is our culture with ‘the fundamentalist’ and the ‘true believer’ that we rarely consider the religious life of the doubter. Such oversight is examined with verve and colour in Simon Critchley’s book Faith of the Faithless. Here the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde is described as one living a religiously ambiguous life. Neither straightforwardly Christian nor flatly apostate, Wilde’s sense of the sacred is continually mediated through the beauties of art, iconography and scripture. Such an aesthetic sensibility is forever slippery, neither rejecting Christianity nor fully embracing it. As Critchley suggests, this is ‘the faith of the faithless and the belief of unbelievers, a faith which does not give up the idea of truth, but reinterprets it.’[1]

How should we make sense of this unbelieving faith? Here we are confronted with what the theologian Jürgen Moltmann has shown to be the Janus-faced nature of Western scepticism. He divides atheism into roughly two temperamental camps. The first form involves a morbid praise of human futility. In this pessimistic mode ‘the history of Western atheism becomes at the same time the history of nihilism’.[2] In ‘the hells of Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Vietnam’[3] the cynical atheist observes the absolute triumph of evil, so that it becomes more credible to believe that the Devil and not God is the administrator of this nightmarish drama. Nietzsche at times fell into this gloomy trap. By throwing away the decaying debris of Christian slave morality, he opened a bottomless chasm of moral and cultural annihilation, which he was powerless to close. Here atheism is the radical proposition that eats everything around it. Like some monstrous event horizon Nietzsche’s myth of a grisly deicide blots out the lights of both piety and metaphysics in its quest for a perpetual throwing down of the idols. Yet, Nietzsche’s chilling ‘death of God’ does not exhaust the meaning of atheism.

Atheism can also be a source of spiritual illumination as much as it serves as a marker of desolation. In this second form, unbelief manifests as a mournful dirge dedicated to one’s abandonment by God. Here the individual’s loss of faith is contingent, not upon an absolute surrender to evil, but rather an ethical protest the manifest injustice of the world. In this second state, Atheism serves less as a mark of metaphysical cynicism and more an expression of a deep-seated desire to sustain the righteousness that the Supreme Being has failed to uphold. Such a religiously-sensitive atheist perceives unbelief as a means of sustaining commitment to the ethical primacy of love, despite the failure of ‘the God of love’ to keep covenant. In this mould, we might think of Percy Shelley or Albert Camus, who despite their aversion to conventional forms of religious faith, strode to uphold all the meaning and pathos of a God-shaped world (a world where injustice and indignity matters, despite the evident absurdity of it all). Such stoic fortitude reveals something often ignored in contemporary discussions of the secular. The reason why many people today feel ambiguous about religious faith, is because, even their non-belief in God is conditioned by a prior belief. They disbelieve in ways which keeps intact large rudiments of the Christian moral imagination. Such a spiritual unbelief is more than the twee cultural Christianity of Richard Dawkins (the kind overlain with carols and tinsel); it represents the kind of religiously sensitive doubt which finds its metaphysical protest embodied in the depth of the Christian story itself. Nowhere is such protest more vividly played out, than on the Cross. In the crucified Son of God shouting for the Lord that has forsaken him, we find a stirring expression of the conflicted interior state of our own post-Christian culture. Many may have left God behind in their everyday lives as ‘working hypothesis’, yet they still sense the shadow of his absence, and regularly mourn it. In this respect, we have become in a profound sense Christ-haunted. We continually encounter a ghost that cannot be banished, without losing a part of ourselves.

Many liberal-secular people are ‘Christ-haunted’, not simply because they are capable of weeping at Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion, but because those tears respond to their deep allegiance to the central stories of Christian culture, not just the empty tomb, but Moses parting the waves and Daniel in the lion’s den. Such people do not want to create revival stories to those of the Church (with Shakespeare and John Lennon at their funeral). They would rather exist in an expansive limbo between perfect faith and perfect doubt, never yielding to absolutes and never immune to elemental shifts in mood. Such devout deniers hope against hope that some Church somewhere will take their unbelief as a faithful act, and that these words will still be read over them at the last: ‘Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ (Ps. 23).

[1] Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, (London: Verso, 2012), p. 3.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans R.A. Wilson & John Bowden, (London: SCM Press, 1973), 221

[3] Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans R.A. Wilson & John Bowden, (London: SCM Press, 1973), 220


Critchley, Simon, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, (London: Verso, 2012)

Moltmann, Jürgen, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans R.A. Wilson & John Bowden, (London: SCM Press, 1973)

Dr. Benjamin J. Wood is a political theologian and researcher, specialising in the reception of Christian ethics in secular liberal societies. From 2013-2015 he was lead researcher of the ‘What Next for Individualism’ project at the University of Manchester. Most recently, Benjamin was visiting lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester.

[Reflection] No religion really is the new religion

Linda Woodhead’s recent work has argued that ‘no religion is the new religiHughon’. In this blog, Hugh Rock asks whether is it now high time that the sociology of religion takes this suggestion much more seriously?


Linda Woodhead’s address to this year’s EASR conference in Helsinki titled ‘No Religion is the New Religion’ was, for me, distinctly thought provoking. As a rebellious theologian, I take that title to be literally true. But despite the implication, Woodhead was not theorising ‘no religion’ as religion. What struck me about the disjunction between my conclusion about no religion and Woodhead’s hiatus, was that the title presages a potential conceptual advance that remains something of an obstacle because we have not quite completed the conceptual armoury needed to get round it; but that such an advance would be fertile in connecting up the wave of empirical studies of the non-religious, such as Woodhead, Lois Lee and many others have been engaging, with new work theorising the nonreligious.

It is now nearly 10 years since the NSRN was established, and it is striking how growth in this field remains anchored to religion-centred concepts and methodologies. Recognising the nonreligious as an object of empirical study is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. Given this, I would argue that we need to understand the degree to which actors are invested in these approaches. As empirical evidence for it falls away, so it is harder to resist the argument that the demarcation between religious and secular lives is a clerical frauda theologically constructed, unsociological paradigm. Although this point has been made already by others such as Timothy Fitzgerald, (Fitzgerald 2000), and there are followers of the like-minded Jonathan Z Smith, (Smith 1982) much of sociology remains saturated with disguised, theological apologetics. Hence the need to return to critical arguments which argue that the key term in our discipline, ‘secular’, is an expression of a theologically imposed paradigm (Rock 2015). If that paradigm change was not on the horizon at the EASR conference, perhaps the change might come through the initiative of the NSRN? I make two suggestions of conceptual re-orientation that could be fruitful to progressing the subject of non-religion.

To begin with, the very vocabulary of NSRN, non-religion, secularity, unbelief and atheism, is a theological paradigm that needs to be repudiated. Sociology has already travelled most of the way toward this advance and needs only a few threads drawing together finally to achieve it. To recap the situation as I see it, the conceptual armoury that I refer to is held by the school of the worldview/meaning systems approach to religion. It’s non-theological interpretation already distinctively interfaces non-religion and religion. I have identified the Worldview Studies approach to religion as the front runner for an emerging consensus in the sociology of religion. (Rock 2015) Ann Taves recently endorsed the virtues of the MS approach (NSRN Blog Sept 2016). Andre Droogers and Anton von Harskamp have proposed Worldview Studies as a new methodology to supercede Religious Studies. (2014) The school has pedigree going back at least to Ninian Smart’s perception of ‘non-religious ideologies as an adjunct of religion’ (Smart 1973:16) Smart proposed ‘the analysis of worldviews providing an interpretation of individual and collective experience’. (1981:20) Within this school Lee offers the useful concept of ‘existential cultures’ (Lee 2015)

There is, however, a specific obstacle still presented to sociological theory in repudiating theological approaches to religion. The very terms of debate, ‘no religion’ and ‘nonreligious’ are dictated by a theological paradigm of what constitutes religion. For instance, the word atheism as Thomas Coleman rightly points out, (NSRN blog Nov 2012) has been dictated by ‘the tyrannical hegemonic discourse.’ It is a vocabulary that has resulted from ‘a power struggle which explicit religion always controls’. Worldview Studies, employing as it does, the theologically dictated vocabulary of nonreligion, unbelief, secular and atheist, is still being given the run about from theology. It is this run about that I see underlying Woodhead’s hiatus; religion in non-religion, is, theologically, made to seem contradictory.

This vocabulary fabricated by theology can only be dismantled by speaking to theology in its own terms. What I would like to see is sociology turn about face and confront theology with a sociological theology that explains, in theistic terms of reference, how nonreligion may indeed be stated to be religion. In other worlds Worldview Studies needs its own understanding of God. It needs a proposition that does theological work. Without that engagement all attempts at theorising nonreligion are destined to be stuck in the clerically constructed polarity of religion and mere humanism.

The vocabulary represents ecclesiastical colonialization. It is the creation of ‘the other’ that parallels the regimes relating to women and black people. We need to deconstruct this ecclesiastical bastion. We need, as sociologists, to take the analytic initiative and to field a conceptual term which will dissolve the enforced opposition between atheism and religion. This concept needs to capture, as Stephen LeDrew put it, that atheists are believers in something positive (NSRN blog March 2014).

I offer Social Theism as a supplementary dimension to the concepts already available in the Worldview Studies armoury. Social Theism is intended to engage that analytic initiative. The two components of the term are intended to express its bilingual fluency with both sociology and theology. The ‘Theism’ component, frames God as a symbol of meaning systems. The ‘Social’ component frames those meanings as socially constructed. The term is intended to repudiate the theologically erected boundary between the secular and religious enterprises of world-making: Atheism undertakes the same project as Theism. At the same time the term is intended to state both the continuity and the discontinuity of the theistic and Humanist endeavours. It frames the ‘secular’ life project as no less religious than the ‘religious’ life project. The ongoing result of my methodological steps is a second proposed conceptual re-orientation which I am finding useful in my own research. This is that the modern world has not experienced a split between the secular and the religious world. It is experiencing a clash between two types of religions which have different bases for their authority.  A new religion, or rather a complex of naturalistic religions, has grown up and displaced the old, which is engaged in an agonised fightback. People don’t go to church anymore because they have a different religion. This two religions framework works, for instance, in relation to Steven Kettell’s article on anti-secular and intolerant secular positions (NSRN blog Oct 2015) Kettell notes that the same sex marriage legislation may be perceived as ‘restricting faith-based rights’. Social Theism identifies that we witness here a clash of two religions faiths with incommensurable values.

To summarize the result of this theorising, the category ‘no religion’ for me comprises a raft of world-building, life-meaning-making endeavours, within the framework of a naturalistic worldview, that are sociologically indistinguishable from the world-building, life-orientating endeavours carried out within the framework of a theistic worldview.

Therefore, I see in ‘non-religion’ a spectrum of new naturalistic religions. As examples, I count the Humanist belief in reason, education and technological progress, as one naturalistic, life-meaning-making, religious enterprise. I count the ecological movement as another. I count, as most significant and under-theorised, what I identify as the unarticulated new religion of the liberal European democracies. This is the communal enterprise to encourage the self-chosen fulfilment of the potential in every life. These naturalistic commitments are as much passionate endeavours to live meaningful lives in community, as are the theistic religious endeavours.

There is a fertile road ahead for the study of non-religion. If this year’s EASR was a lost opportunity, perhaps the forthcoming Understanding Unbelief project may, in the event, take matters forward by departing from the tyrannical paradigm of ‘unbelief’?


Cotter, C., and Robertson, G., Editors, 2016 After World Religions, London: Routledge.

Coleman, T., Silver, C.F., and Holcombe, J., 2013, ‘Focusing on horizontal transcendence: Much more than a ‘non-belief’, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 21(2), 1-18.

Droogers, A and van Harskamp, A., 2014 Methods for the Study of Religious Change, Sheffield: Equinox.

Eliade, M., 1958, Patterns in Comparative Religion, London: Sheed and Ward.

Fitzgerald, T., 2000, The Ideology of Religious Studies, Oxford University Press.Lee, L., 2015, Recognizing the Non-Religious, Oxford University Press.

Der Leeuw, G.,1967, Religion in Essence and Manifestation, Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith.

McCutcheon, R., 1997, Manufacturing Religion, Oxford University Press.

McMullin,  N., 1989, The Encylopedia of Religion, MTSR 1.1:80-96.Rock, H., 2015, Secularisation is an ecclesiastical regime of truth, not a sociological event: a practical definition of religion re-visited. International Review of Sociology Vol.25/3 2015

Ninian Smart, 1973, The Phenomenon of Religion, Macmillan

Ninian Smart, 1981, Beyond Ideology, London: Collins.Smith, J. Z., 1982, Imagining Religion, University of Chicago Press.


Hugh Rock is an independent researcher into the meaning of religion.

[Event Report] Nonreligion at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Atlanta: Addressing the Whale Shark in the Room

In this event report, Nick Stauner covers the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) annual conference 2016. Stauner summarises a number of Nick Staunercaptivating papers, as well as detailing difficulties in language and the Western understanding of nonreligion.




On one hand, we’re all just fish that crawled out of the sea (ancestrally speaking). Much of what social scientists of religion say about religion can be said of nonreligion; much of it is the science of humanity, perhaps of life itself.  Yet one of these fish is not like the others, and it’s getting a little big for the tank.  It’s been swimming along nicely with the others for some time now, mostly going with the flow of a mostly religious society.  It’s still a minority, but it’s not exactly a small fry among the masses anymore (Growth in the religiously unaffiliated subpopulation was a major topic of last year’s meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Newport Beach.)  This nonreligious subpopulation is making waves in the science of religion and catching sincere, undivided attention.

The fair and proportional influx of representation of nonreligious people in the psychology of religion is good for everyone. It’s been a peaceful process lately (especially compared to more acrimonious times in the field’s early history), even serene from my perspective.  The tide of mutual acknowledgment and respect has been rising, even as it carries news that prejudice against atheists may be uniquely universal and severe in many regions of the world, along with news that mainstream Christians suffer discrimination and microagressions too.  But this is old news.  What’s new as of October in Atlanta?

On the topic of discrimination, Jacqui Frost and Penny Edgell brought a real pearl: might women affiliate with religion more than men because atheist women suffer worse discrimination than men?  In fact, they counted insignificantly fewer women than men in nonreligious categories overall: definitely fewer atheists and “nothing in particulars”, but no fewer agnostics, and many more “spiritual-but-not-religious” women.  Dan Delaney reported common sentiments among secularists who do not wish to be seen as superficial: having to say “spiritual but not…” is a pain in the tail, but labels don’t do us justice, and the plain language of values is even more laborious.  How do you identify your ideology without an hour to talk?  Do you say anything if you’re in a country like Argentina, where Catholics predominate to the point of prejudice, or do you try to remain invisible?  Thankfully, Ryan Cragun speaks Spanish, so he understood when an interviewee told him that it’s easier to be a serial killer or pedophile in Argentina than to be an atheist!  (Being a vegetarian in Argentina might be harder still; I wonder about pescetarians…)

Other issues of language in general complicate the identification of nonreligious people across cultures. According to Mary Heimann, in the Czech Republic, “ateista” may reflect more about one’s opposition to organized religion than it does about one’s personal beliefs or spirituality.  Czech atheists’ behaviors at holidays and cemeteries imply spirituality.  Similarly, Steven Heine described the nonreligious majority of Japan’s population as atheistic and unaffiliated, yet behaviorally involved in spiritual traditions.  Rather than opposing religions, many Japanese people relate loosely and circumstantially to two religions, observing Shinto ceremonies to celebrate births or marriages, but holding Buddhist funerals.

In the world at large, Ariela Keysar highlighted divergences among disbelief in god and self-identifications as “nonreligious” or “atheist”. Using the World Values Survey, Keysar counted many more people without religious affiliations than people identifying as atheists, even majorities in Azerbaijan and Thailand. Perplexingly, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, more identify as atheist than disavow belief in god directly.  China also prompts concerns about interpreting global statistics: excluding China halves the world’s proportion of nonbelievers.  Keysar also echoed Frost’s implications about religious women, suggesting that socioeconomic disparities may suppress deviations from religious norms disproportionately among disadvantaged women in patriarchal societies.

Clearly the Western understanding of nonreligion doesn’t stay so clearly applicable to other cultures overseas. However, research across transatlantic Western societies has produced new insights on the deeper meanings of nonreligion, and they are quite deep indeed.  Nonreligion is not unfamiliarity with religion; if anything, the opposite is more plausible.  As Jeffrey Cox pointed out, religious education is often compulsory in Western Europe (e.g., the UK, Germany), yet religious belief is relatively low, probably for many reasons.  Previous researchers have estimated more negative relationships between religiousness and well-being in Europe, but new research indicates that “anxious atheists” may be mislabeled in America.  Joseph Baker found that atheists in the Baylor Religion Survey generally reported good psychological health, and agnostics fared only slightly worse, but other unaffiliated people expressed much more depression, paranoia, obsessiveness, anxiety, and other problems.

Nonreligious identities predict more than personal outcomes, and sociocultural factors may also be outcomes of nonreligious identity. Evan Stewart noted that atheists, agnostics, and “spiritual but not religious” people support Social Security and welfare programs more than “nothing in particulars”.  Those favoring public expressions of secularity also supported the social safety net more, whereas personal nonreligiousness predicted less support.  Richard Cimino also connected liberalism to public secularity via secularist organizations, of which Democrats often constitute majorities.  Political affiliation and activity may be outcomes of secularist affiliations, since many of Cimino’s participants reported changes in each after joining their groups.

Much of society may change as its religiousness changes. and it is changing. Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme described a shift in Canada’s political divide: away from Catholic versus Protestant ideological conflicts, toward religious versus nonreligious disagreements.  This realignment may reflect the decline of religious groups.  Buster Smith’s longitudinal analyses of recent General Social Survey panels revealed people abandoning Catholic and mainstream Protestant religions most often, while “nones” increased in number and reaffiliated less often. Intuitively enough, past religious changes predicted future changes, but so did changes in sexual orientation and so did divorce or separation.  Alex Uzdavines outlined a plan for further predictions of non/religious identity changes from stressful life events (SLE) using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

To this wealth of new insights distilled from the SSSR’s annual October meeting in Atlanta, I can add little more. While SLE may change religious identity, according to research I presented, religiousness may do little to change our spiritual or existential struggles with SLE. In our responses to SLE, these struggles unite people regardless of non/religiousness.  This may be a silver lining, especially in the wake of the USA’s exceptionally stressful, divisive election and pending power shift, which bears further implications for the intersections of religious and political cultures.

If anything is certain, one can forecast a different climate for next year’s conference scheduled to meet at the country’s political epicenter, Washington DC. In the midst of the ongoing upheaval, we need to preserve and promote respect for ourselves, others, and for the very idea of diversity itself.  The spirit of skeptical scientific inquiry is alive and well, and the science of nonreligion grows at least as fast as its section of the population.


Nick Stauner is a postdoctoral scholar at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. With Julie Exline, he co-leads a $2.5M research project funded by the John Templeton Foundation (grant #59916) entitled “Understanding supernatural attributions: Types, predictors, and consequences”.  His new work entails structural equation modeling of latent cognitive and spiritual personality factors, and maintains roots in existential psychology and research on religious and spiritual struggles.  Endeavors in progress include collaborative cross-cultural research and experimentation in virtual reality.

[Methods] Beyond ‘Religion versus Emancipation’. Formulating Methodological Considerations about ‘the Secular’ in Public Controversies.


nella-2016In this post, Nella van den Brandt introduces the 2016-2021 project “Beyond ‘Religion versus Emancipation’: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Conversions to Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Contemporary Western Europe”, hosted at the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department of Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She argues that, by examining controversial events, her project sheds new light for understanding of how secularity shapes and is shaped by public discourse.

In 2016, the five-year research project “Beyond ‘Religion versus Emancipation’: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Conversions to Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Contemporary Western Europe”, funded by the Dutch Scientific Council, took off at the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department of Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Its main initiator is Anne-Marie Korte, and currently Lieke Schrijvers and I are involved as researchers.

My subproject, ‘Contemporary Controversies about Religion and Women’s Emancipation in Western-European Contexts: Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium’, started in September 2016. It will select and analyse contemporary controversial cases from public debates about religion, gender and sexuality. Of central importance to this project is the assumption that public debates predominantly constitute secular discourses about religion, gender and sexuality that emphasise women’s equality and sexual freedom (Gerhards et.al. 2009). An analysis of controversies in public debates, therefore, reveals secular normative understandings about women’s emancipation and the presuppositions underlying them. A second assumption is that these understandings about women’s emancipation are constituted partly through scrutinising and critiquing the norms, positions and roles laid out for women in monotheistic religious traditions and communities. Secular normative statements about women’s equality and emancipation can, therefore, be studied as ‘identity markers’ over and against religious communities. Voices from the religious communities scrutinised by ‘outsiders’, do, however, ‘speak back’. The controversies can therefore moreover be approached as constructing ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ religious identities through religious voices positing differences between religious communities and taking distance from mainstream secularised society (Anderson 1991, Aune 2011, van den Brandt 2014).

Following the angles described above, the main questions are: What are the interests, stakes and affective resonances of present-day constructions of women’s emancipation in public debates? How is women’s emancipation and equality discussed and

presented in relation to religions that profile themselves with strict rules on gender relations and sexuality? By studying current controversies in public debates, the project aims to clarify secular discourses which women converting to different religious traditions in West-European contexts have to negotiate.

What theoretical/methodological considerations does it require to study ‘secular discourses about women’s emancipation’? As mentioned above, the project conceptualises public statements and discussions about religious minorities as constituting secular discourses and understandings about women’s emancipation. There are three concepts which are central to this subproject – i.e. secular, discourse, and emancipation. Secular is conceptualised as being shaped discursively, and importantly, as emerging in relation/opposition to religious minoritised communities. Discourse is understood as narratives that enable the construction of particular concepts, identity positions and self-understandings. As such, discussing women’s emancipation, equality and sexual freedom in the context of critiquing religious traditions, enables a secular/ised self-understanding as ‘different from religious subjects’. Emancipation includes both implicit and explicit assumptions about what is beneficial for women and how to further this. In West-European public and academic thought, emancipation very often refers to ideas about equality, inclusion and freedom. Emancipation also at times refers to difference. Policy-making therefore often combines measures to further women’s equality and support their difference.i Religious traditions arguably pay more attention to women’s difference than their equality with men.

Second, we need to deconstruct the notion of power that underlies the above conceptualisations. Secular narratives and self-understandings are considered to reveal the enabling powers of secularity – i.e. the conceptual, institutional and daily life arrangements and possibilities created after/during political and social-cultural processes of secularisation. The diminished (but not disappeared) impact of religious traditions in politics and society, and in the identities and everyday life of many individuals is not just about the retreat of disciplining religious narratives. Instead, secularity is as much about possibilities for new or different narratives about certain concepts, bodies, practices and self-understandings. In this conceptualisation of secularity and emerging secular discourses, power is considered from a Foucauldian perspective as both enabling and disciplining, as both fluid and limiting. As such, secular discourse can be critically studied as productive of particular fluid/normative understandings, and as constructing and performing particular ‘selves’ and ‘others’. The subproject takes ‘emancipation’ as its central focus and investigates the ways in which ‘emancipation’ receives meaning, through associations, affects and assumptions, in the controversies about religious minorities. From a feminist, postcolonial and queer perspective, this is a relevant approach to ‘concretise’ the secular – i.e. to look into the ways in which secular discourses shape and are shaped by public debates, policy-making, and daily life discussions and thoughts.

I analyse two examples of recent issues in Dutch and Flemish political and public debates and popular culture that provide material for two case studies in this subproject.

Popular representations of female converts will be one of them. Material for this case study includes the Dutch television series Van Hagelslag naar Halal (From Hagelslag to Halal – the first term referring to a typical Dutch type of chocolate toppings, and the second to food that is considered ‘allowed’ in Islamic law, 2015) which portrays the relationships between white female Muslim converts and their mothers; the recent Dutch exhibition Bekeerd (Converted, 2014) that presents various white female Muslim converts; and the recent Flemish theater play Reizen Jihad (Travels Jihad, 2014-2015) in which a female Muslim convert who travels to Syria to participate in armed Islamist struggles takes center stage. These examples immediately point to a fascination with/fear of white women converting to Islam, an affective response to female Muslim converts that can be analysed in terms of understandings about religion, gender and ethnicity. An analysis of representations of female converts reveals implicit and explicit notions about women’s emancipation and freedom that are constitutive of secular discourses and self-representation. The emergence of secular/ised discourses is then dependent on an ethnicisation of women crossing particular religious/ethnic boundaries.

A second case of the subproject is the current controversy (2013-2016) about the Dutch dating website Second Love. This website creates a community for people who are looking for an ‘exciting love affair or adventure’, and explicitly goes beyond the norm of the monogamous couple. The launch of the website, and its wide advertisement, raised critique from religious voices, such as media figures from the Evangelical Public Broadcasting Company (EO), and politicians belonging to the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP), which represents orthodox Calvinist communities. This religious critique considered the website and its advertisements as filthy and encouraging infidelity and cheating, and the latter as threatening the stability of families, and the well-being of children in particular. While the former case about female converts mainly looks at secular/ising discourses about religion, gender and sexuality, this second case rather looks at religious/religionising discourses about gender and sexuality in a secular/ised society, but also at the responses this religious critique received from other politicians and in media coverage. The assumption here is that an analysis of the Second Love controversy will reveal oppositional voices that create/reinforce secular/religious collective boundaries. Gendered and sexualised notions about relationships and families may then emerge as secular/religious identity markers in a discursive landscape inhabited by secular and Evangelical/Calvinist subject positions. I emphasise the ‘–ising’ in both secularising and religionising. Formulating secular and religious discourses and identity markers as verbs draws explicit attention to their conceptualisation as always in the making, notably in contexts of controversy (Latour 2005).

In conclusion, this subproject aims at developing a controversy-based methodology to explore how secularity enables certain discussions, practices, identities and bodies. As such, it contributes to current interdisciplinary debates across the humanities about religion in the public sphere of secularising and culturally diversifying West-European contexts (Braidotti 2008, Casanova 2009, Nynäs et al. 2012). Of course, there are many other potential approaches that might reveal the contours, contents and materialisations of the secular. I am looking forward to learn about other approaches to the secular, especially those that allow us to reveal the dynamic between various voices and religious/secular positionings (Mahmood 2005, Braidotti 2008, Bracke 2008), and to critique ethnicised/racialised, gendered and sexualised power relations between individuals and groups in society (Auga 2014, King & Beattie 2005) based on assumptions about ‘proper’ agency, identity and belonging.


Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Revised and extended edition. London, UK: Verso.

Auga, U. (Ed.) (2014). New perspectives in resistance and vision: The challenge of postcolonial, postsecular and queer theory for theology and religious studies. Special Issue. Journal of the ESWTR 22.

Aune, K. (2011). ‘Much less religious, a little more spiritual’: The religious and spiritual views of third wave feminists in the UK. Feminist Review, 97, 32-55.

Bracke, S. (2008). Conjugating the modern/religious, conceptualizing female religious agency: Contours of a ‘post-secular’ conjunction. Theory, Culture and Society, 25(6), 51- 67.

Braidotti, R. (2008). In spite of the times: The post-secular turn in feminism. Theory, Culture and Society, 25(6), 1-24

Cady, L.E. & Fessenden, T. (Eds.)(2013). Religion, the secular, and the politics of sexual difference. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Casanova, J. (2009). Religion, politics and gender equality: Public religions revisited. New York, NY: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Gerhards, J., Schäfer, M. & Kämpfer, S. (2009). Gender equality in the European Union: The EU script and its support by European citizens. Sociology, 43(3), 515-535

King, U. & Beattie, T. (2005). Gender, religion and diversity: Crosscultural approaches. London, UK: Continuum Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mahmood, S. (2005). Politics of piety: The Islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nynäs, P., Lassander, M. & Utriainen, T. (2012). Post-secular society. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Scott, J.W. (2007). The Politics of the veil. Princeton University Press.

van den Brandt, N. (2014). Religion, secularity and feminism in a West-European context: A qualitative study of organisations and activism in Flanders. PhD dissertation (Dec. 8). Ghent University, BE.

Nella van den Brandt started at 1 September 2016 a postdoctoral research that is part of the NWO-funded project “Beyond ‘Religion versus Emancipation’. Gender and  Sexuality in Women’s Conversions to Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Contemporary Western Europe”, supervised by prof. Anne-Marie Korte. She studied Cultural Anthropology, Arabic Languages and Cultures and Women’s Studies at Utrecht University (2002-2010), and completed a PhD thesis at Ghent University (2010-2014) about contemporary discourses on religion among feminist activists and civil society agents in Flanders. Her current postdoctoral project (2016-2020) explores public controversies about religious minorities (Jewish, Christian and Islamic) in the Netherlands, Belgium and the U.K with a focus on debates in which assumptions about women’s emancipation are at stake.