[Research] The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age … Continuing the Conversation

In this blog post, sociologist Joel Thiessen follows up on his previous NSRN contribution “Religious Nones in Canada: A Qualitative Exploration” which previewed the findings of his newest book Thejoel Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. Since its release, Thiessen has continued to interpret these findings through “author-meets-critics” sessions at some major conferences. Below, he charts some of the most provocative questions coming out of those sessions, whose as-yet-unknown answers might steer where our knowledge of Canadian nones goes next.


The Canadian Society for the Study of Religion (May 2016) and Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meetings (August 2016) provided me the occasion to receive feedback on my recent book, The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. The following individuals kindly participated in the author-meets-critics sessions (framed by Paul Bramadat as a hazing ritual!): Reginald Bibby, Paul Bramadat, Sam Reimer, Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, Ryan Cragun, David Eagle, Marcus Mann, and Josh Packard. All were generous in spirit and substantive content.

This monograph is based on face-to-face interviews with three groups of Canadians: 30 active religious affiliates (identify with a Christian group and attend religious services nearly every week), 30 marginal religious affiliates (identify with a Christian group and attend religious services mainly for religious holidays and rites of passage), and 30 religious nones (do not identify with any religion and never attend religious services). Contrary to rational choice theorists who contend that there is ongoing demand for the things that religious groups offer (e.g. meaning and purpose in life, life after death), I question the assumption that if we simply adjust religious supply (e.g. better music or preaching, more programming, or more liberal theology) we should expect increased involvement in institutionalized forms of religious life. Further, I develop how and why I think secularization theory remains useful for describing and explaining religious belief and practice in Canada.

Some Questions Raised

As the critics generally affirmed my central premises and conclusions, they raised a range of pertinent questions. Below are some of those questions and my brief responses in turn.

Are the three central affiliate categories fixed or do individuals navigate their way in and out of the different camps during their life course?

Both/and … and a longitudinal panel study (which I hope to do) will help to unpack the specific directions and contexts for such transitions. Still, my hunch – based on data elsewhere – is that most of the transitions, if/when they occur, move toward the secular end of the continuum. That is, active affiliates are more likely to become marginal affiliates or religious nones versus religious nones who become marginal affiliates or active affiliates; and marginal affiliates are more prone toward religious nones than active affiliates.

Does societal secularization cause individual secularization or do these processes occur simultaneously?

This is an insightful chicken versus egg problem. Building on Peter Berger and Steve Bruce, I suggest the former in the project. Yet upon further consideration I see the argument that society is ultimately made up of individuals and thus rather than evoking causational language, correlation is more apt. But I stand by the core assertion that if strong religiosity or secularity are encouraged in the social environment/discourse, individuals will more easily follow the societal norms – as reflected in politics, education, mass media, the law, or healthcare. I hope to nuance this relationship further in future writing on this topic.

Are religious nones as tolerant toward active affiliates as I suggest?

My reading of other data in Canada does not lead me to conclude otherwise. True, a recent study by Angus Reid reveals that those without religion have more negative feelings toward those in conservative religious groups (and vice versa) – but do these perceptions translate into intolerant behaviours toward active affiliates? I have my doubts. There are surely pockets of religious nones in Canada who would be an exception to this interpretation, but religious nones overall do not confront the marginalized or hostile setting in Canada that their counterparts do in the United States – and thus have less reason in Canada to be intolerant toward active affiliates. Only more data and time will help to probe this subject further.

What role does immigration play for the future of religion in Canada and does immigration pose problems for the secularization thesis?

Immigration is essential to this discussion. First, immigration keeps Catholics and evangelicals afloat. How these groups respond to and embrace immigrant communities will factor into whether these Christian communities thrive, survive, or dwindle in the years ahead. Second, immigration contributes to the growth of non-Christian religious traditions. However, I note that Canada is not as religiously diverse as many assume – only 7.2% of the entire Canadian population identifies with a non-Christian tradition. While this figure will continue to rise, it is not as expansive, proportionately, as suggested in popular rhetoric. In the end, immigration slows but does not reverse the secularization process in Canada.

Will secularization give rise to innovative and entrepreneurial activities in Canadian congregations?

Very likely, as my latest research on flourishing congregations in Canada reveals. But what is the source of growth in such congregations? It is primarily transfer growth or retaining children and youth within that tradition. In other words, innovation and entrepreneurial initiatives such as new church plants or “Christian” coffee shops, for example – while occurring – are not reversing the secularizing trends.

Unanswered Questions

Several other questions came my way too. For example:

  • Can individuals pinpoint, understand, or articulate motivations for their own behaviours? What are the limits of micro-level data collection and analysis?
  • Is it possible that belief in the afterlife is a more salient motivation for religious affiliation, belief, and/or behaviour at the point of conversion versus later in one’s life?
  • How do my findings compare with the “believing without belonging” and “spiritual but not religious” literature?
  • How transferrable are the findings in this book for those in religious traditions outside of Christianity? Moreover, how applicable are the findings in Quebec?
  • How do these findings intersect with larger political, economic, cultural, and global realities in late modern society? Related, how does disengagement from religious organizations compare to disengagement from other social institutions?

Space does not permit me to address each question here, though these are all helpful and logical questions to extend the methodological and theoretical underpinnings to my work. The final question is the most intriguing to me, and one that I hope to interact with more completely in my future thinking and writing related to religion and culture in Canada.

To conclude, Marcus Mann picked up on the theme in my book where Canadians share the ethos that religion is a private matter and thus individuals or groups should not and generally do not push their religion on others, so as to not offend or exclude them. In turn Marcus suggested an alternative title to the book: How Canadian Politeness Killed Religion. This is a provocative statement that I wish I thought of first – politeness is not the sole variable at work, but in Canada it is an important factor that should not be ignored.

Thanks to all who have generously interacted with The Meaning of Sunday, and to those who continue to use this book as part of an evolving conversation in the sociology of religion, in Canada and elsewhere.

Joel Thiessen is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). The focus of his research is religion and culture in Canada, including secularization, religious nones, nominal and regular church attenders, religious and secular socialization, and congregations. He is author of two books, The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Perspective (Oxford University Press) and The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (McGill-Queen’s University Press), along with a range of articles. He is an avid sports fan, and a drummer, and he enjoys reading biographies, traveling, and exercising. For more information see www.joelthiessen.ca.

[Book Review] Religion and Non-Religion Among Australian Aboriginal Peoples edited by James Cox and Adam Possamai

In this post, Liam Sutherland reviews Religion and Non-Religion Among Australian Aboriginal Peoples edited by James Cox and Adam Possamai (2016, Routledge). He praises that the book persuasivelyliam-sutherland demonstrates hybridity of Indigenous Australian identification and makes contributions to postcolonial studies of nonreligion. However, Sutherland argues that the questions of the necessity and appropriateness of defining nonreligion when one investigates how and why indigenous peoples have identified themselves remain.

James Cox and Adam Possamai introduce this collection of essays by noting that according to the 2011 Australian census, identification as ‘non-religious’ is higher among Indigenous Australians (24%) than the general Australian population (22%). This fact challenges the widespread notion that indigenous peoples are overwhelmingly or irrevocably ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ but leads to questions such as, why is identification higher among Indigenous people and what does it actually entail for them specifically? It is questions such as these which drive this volume and its integration of ‘non-religion’ theoretically and empirically into the study of ‘religion’ among Indigenous Australians.

The key theme of the volume is Indigenous Australian cultural hybridity in relation to questions of religious identification. Cox and Possamai make a persuasive case for the use of ‘hybridity’ as an analytical tool (drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin), rejecting ‘syncretism’ because of its pejorative connotations and disavowing any notion of hybridity as the fusion of homogenised entities. For them the key is to emphasise the agency of the actors involved in this hybridisation, reminiscent of Claude Levi-Strauss’ concept of ‘bricolage’, which should challenge the characterisation of indigenous peoples as ‘passive’ recipients of history. Indeed, it would seem impossible to account for the interaction of peoples as once geographically and culturally distant as Europeans and Australian Aborigines without some concept of hybridity.

The first section of the book is specifically concerned with ‘non-religion’ among Indigenous Australians. Cox in his own chapter, examines the prevailing debates about the definition of ‘non-religion’ to provide theoretical groundwork for the incorporation of ‘non-religion’ into wider discussions of Indigenous Australian ‘religion’ or research on contemporary Indigenous peoples generally. He defines religion as involving ‘identifiable communities’ with an authoritative tradition passed down the generations, with that which does not fit this classified as ‘non-religious.’ In their chapter, Awais Piracha, Helena Onnudottir and Kevin Dunn map Indigenous non-religious identification in the greater Sydney area and Australia as a whole. Although rather thin on available data, I would argue, Alan Nixon sets out to test the links between New Atheism and this rising Indigenous non-religion with online research.

The later chapters move on to discuss the continuing hybridisation of Indigenous traditions with Christianity, highlighting the lack of uniformity or finality of these processes. The linguist David Moore provides a vital deconstruction of the Aranda concept of ‘altjira’ (or ‘alcheringa’), the root of the term ‘Dreaming’, also translated as ‘God’ by missionaries. Moore demonstrates the variety of uses to which ‘altjira’ has been put by different actors. Hart Cohen in his chapter on the Lutheran Hermannsburg Mission in Aranda country locally known as Ntaria, discusses the particular relationship between Indigenous traditions and Christianity evident there. This case involves very particular combination of cultural influences from the Aranda traditional owners, the German Lutheran background of the missionaries and the wider Anglophone Australian culture by which Ntaria is surrounded.

Steve Bevis outlines the development of modern Indigenous Christianity and the changing influences it is subject to, particularly after the decline of the church-governed ‘missions’ to which many Indigenous communities were confined until the 1970s. Increasingly Indigenous self-determination has effected the ways in which hybrid practices or identifications have been negotiated but also other key factors such as generational differentiation are also shown to be significant. He also touches on the use of secular narratives such as ‘education’ and ‘the environment’ to legitimate Indigenous traditions. Theresa Petray reveals the centrality of churches to Indigenous political activists, including many non-religious people, in Townsville in Queensland which reveals how much the practices of those affiliating as non-religious must be thoroughly contextualised.

The final chapter written by both editors presents the results of interviews conducted among urban and rural Aborigines on their understanding of the categories of ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’, and the relationship between Christianity and Indigenous traditions. What they demonstrate is that these understandings are highly varied, though discernibly distinctive from those of other Australians. Their informants varied in the extent to which they regarded the commonly identified Aboriginal Australian ‘religions’ as religions, most preferring ‘culture’, while one born-again Christian woman did not identify herself as ‘religious’, associating the word with falsehood. It is notable that only 1.28% of the Indigenous population identified with an ‘Aboriginal Traditional Religion’ in the census while engagement with some of the practices associated with them is much wider than this would seem to indicate. To an extent then, the decline of Christian affiliation has led to a decline in affiliation as ‘religious’ akin to what has happened in the wider population but perhaps may not preclude the practice of these traditions.

Cox and Possamai as well as many of the other contributors suggest that this low identification with ‘Aboriginal Traditional Religion’ may reflect the widespread Aboriginal Australian understanding of ‘religion’ as Christianity, with Indigenous traditions being understood as ‘culture’. This is reflected by the widespread Indigenous Australian adherence to a common ‘two ways’ paradigm – identifying with both the ancestors and the narratives and rituals associated with them and Christianity. This would also mean though that declining Christian affiliation would be understood as entailing ‘non-religion’ without necessarily indicating the absence of what some would label Indigenous Australian ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’. This demonstrates the legitimating function that categories such as ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ have. Though the necessity of providing an initial definition of ‘religion/non-religion’ considering that the research is so concerned with the emic perspectives of their Indigenous informants remains unclear to me.

However, this book should contribute to the necessary incorporation of indigenous peoples into the study of ‘non-religion’ and ‘non-religion’ into the study of indigenous peoples. It also provides fruitful theoretical reflection and original research. It is commendable that the study of ‘Traditional’ Indigenous religion, as well as Aboriginal Christianity and Non-Religion, are integrated together into a discussion of postcolonial social identity construction in Indigenous Australia (though other affiliations such as Islam and Buddhism are mentioned, they are not discussed). The book also shows that that hybridity is a vital tool for analysing these processes.

Liam T. Sutherland is a fourth-year PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His doctoral research concerns the representations of religious pluralism and national identity in the literature of Scotland’s national interfaith association (Interfaith Scotland). He is a native of the city and gained his MSc by research and MA also from the University of Edinburgh. His MSc by research examined the role and relevance of Sir E.B. Tylor for debates about the definition of religion and Neo-Tylorian theories of religion, while his MA dissertation looked at modern Indigenous Australian spirituality. His current research interests include: religious pluralism, the critical study of the interfaith movement, religion and nationalism as well as theory and method in the study of religion.

[Census Reflection] The ‘Nones’ and the Australian Census

In the await for the Australian Census result coming out in mid-2017, Kevin Lenehan reflects onlenehan demographics of Australian ‘nones’ from 1971 to date. He demonstrates that inconsistency and complexity of the question of ‘nones’ result in confusion over how to best describe these people and interpret their expression of unbelief, anticipating the upcoming Census report will bring us new insights.

Tuesday 9th August 2016 was Census night across Australia’s states and territories, the night on which a snapshot of key characteristics of the nation’s 24 million people is taken in the quinquennial Census of Population and Housing. For the first time an online option was provided for completing the Census instrument this year. Despite the website being compromised by a number of distributed denial of service (DDoS) events on the night, the gathering of Census data continued in electronic and paper formats and was completed on 23rd September 2016. Researchers interested in the religious and nonreligious identification of Australians are eagerly awaiting the release of the census data sets from mid-2017. Will the significant increase in the percentage of ‘nones’ in the Australian population over recent decades continue in this Census, even outranking any particular religious affiliation?

Since 1911, the Census has provided current information on religious identification in Australia. Since 1933, it has been optional to identify a religious affiliation, and in 1971 those with no religious affiliation were instructed ‘if no religion, write none’, resulting in a seven-fold increase on previous figures for no religion. The number of Australians reporting no religion has continued to rise steadily at about 3.9 percentage points per decade; the decade between 2001 and 2011 saw the largest increase at 6.8 percentage points. In 2011, 22% of Australians (just under 4.8 million people) chose the ‘no religion’ option.




Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Censuses of Population and Housing, 1971- 2011

In the 2011 Census, small numbers of the Australian ‘nones’ further described themselves as atheist (1.2% of the no religion respondents), agnostic (0.7%), humanist (0.2%) or rationalist (0.1%). The number of people who identified themselves as ‘atheist’ almost doubled between 2006 (32,300 people) and 2011 (58,900 people). A campaign by the Atheistic Foundation of Australia encouraging people to mark ‘no religion’ on the Census form may have been a factor in this increase.[i] Additionally, around 10% of the population usually do not respond to the religious affiliation question (11.5% in 2006, 9.4% in 2011). Thus in the 2011 Census over 32% of Australian did not identify a religious affiliation.

Features of the ‘nones’ in Australia include: gender, with the number of females reporting no religion increasing to similar levels as males, especially among younger respondents; age, with those aged 15 to 34 showing the most significant rates of increase; education, where 31% of those with a postgraduate degree reported no religion compared to 20% of those with school level education, and those in the creative arts, sciences, and information technologies the most likely to have no religious affiliation; state of origin, where Tasmania, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory have higher rates of no religion than Victoria and New South Wales; and country of birth, where 63% of Australians born in China reported no religion compared to 23% of those born in Australia.

Another indicator of nonreligion in Australia is the steady increase in those who state they have no belief in God. Australia has been described as ‘the most godless place under heaven’. Over ten years ago Norris and Inglehart claimed that 25% of Australians did not believe in any gods; the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes showed that the number of those who believed in God or some form of higher power had declined to 71%; a 2009 Nielsen Poll Report on Faith in Australia stated that 24% were nonbelievers and a further 6% unsure; the WIN-Gallup International ‘Religion and Atheism Index 2012’ ranks Australia 10th in the world listing of atheistic nations, with 10% identifying as atheist and a further 37% identifying as ‘not a religious person’.

Of course, social researchers prefer more nuanced measures of such a complex personal phenomenon as religious or nonreligious identity, and data-gathering demonstrates that what people mean when they describe themselves or others as nonreligious or nonbelievers can vary a great deal.[ii] Pew Research data (2016) in the US shows that 8% of those who describe themselves as atheists also say they believe in God or a universal spirit. Similarly, the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes found that of those who say they have no religion 29% did believe in a higher power, 10% believed in God with doubts and 2% believed in God without doubts; 32% of these nonreligionists considered themselves to be spiritual, while 54% said they were neither religious nor spiritual.[iii] On the other hand, Andrew Singleton argues that the religious ‘nones’ correlate strongly across a range of measures indicating a secular worldview and nonreligious practices.[iv]

This inconsistency in data responses and interpretive analyses call for qualified assertions concerning religious or nonreligious worldviews. Tom Frame distinguishes between considered disbelief and pragmatic unbelief, claiming the majority of Australians fall into the latter category. Kaldor, Hughes and Black likewise claim that the majority of Australians are ‘practical’ rather than ‘ideological’ atheists.[v] According to these researchers, of those describing basically secular worldviews, significant subgroups claim to believe in a personal God (‘something beyond’, 33%; ‘uncertain’, 15%; ‘nothing beyond’, 8%) or transcendent spirit or life-force (‘something beyond’, 50%; ‘uncertain’, 33%; ‘nothing beyond’ 22%). Such a blurring of the line between religious/nonreligious identification may be a consequence of the ‘expressive individualism’ that characterises late modern societies and constitutes one of the conditions of belief one of the conditions of belief in this context. It may also suggest that people continue to make use of concepts and symbols of a confessional cultural heritage in shaping a meaningful framework in which to live. As Danièle Hervieu-Léger puts it: ‘Today, individuals write their own little belief narratives using words and symbols that have “escaped” the constellations of meaning in which a given tradition had set them over the centuries’.[vi]

So, those interested in the demographics of religious and nonreligious identification in Australia look forward to the results of the 2016 Census. In the lead-up to Census night, internet and social media sites promoting both ‘No Religion’ and ‘I’m Christian’ options encouraged people to make clear their affiliation, emphasising the implication of the results for future social planning and provision of education, health and community services by the Australian Government. The decision by the ABS to reorder the possible responses to the question ‘What is the person’s religion?’ indicates that the Bureau expects the ‘no religion’ option to attract the most respondents in this Census, outranking Catholics, who at 25.3% in 2011 were the largest group in the population. Will the 2016 Census report that ‘no religion’ is now the majority affiliation in the category of ‘religion’ in Australia, as in Britain?

Kevin Lenehan (PhD, Leuven) is Senior Lecturer in Theology, University of Divinity, Australia. His teaching and research are in the fields of fundamental and contextual theology, and theological anthropology. He is editor of Pacifica: Journal of Theological Studies and a member of the Editorial Board of The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Australasian Journal of Bonhoeffer Studies.


Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013, ‘Losing my religion?’ Australian Social Trends, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features30Nov+2013.

Bullivant, S. 2012, ‘Not so indifferent after all? Self-conscious atheism and the secularisation thesis,’ Approaching Religion, vol. 2, no.1, pp. 100-106.

Clifton, S. 2008, ‘Australian theology,’ in W. A. Dryness & V.-M. Kärkkäinen (eds), Global dictionary of theology, IVP Academic Press, Downers Grove, IL, pp. 92-4.

Dawson, L.  & Thiessen, J. 2014, The sociology of religion: A Canadian perspective. Oxford University Press, Don Mills, ONT.

Frame, T. 2009, Losing my religion: Unbelief in Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Hervieu-Léger, D. 2006. ‘In search of certainties: The paradoxes of religiosity in societies of high modernity,’ The Hedgehog Review, vol. 8, nn. 1-2, pp.59-68.

Hughes, P. 2012, ‘The persistence of religion: What the census tells us,’ Pointers, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 4-5.

Kaldor, P. Hughes, P. & Black, A. 2010, Spirit matters: How making sense of life affects wellbeing, Mosaic Press, Melbourne, pp. 6-16.

Lee, L. & S. Bullivant. ‘What’s in a name?’ Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Online Blog, 6 September 2016, https://nsrn.net/2016/09/06/whats-in-a-name/.

National Church Life Survey, 2011, ‘A picture of the religious beliefs of the Australian community,’ http://www.ncls.org.au/default.aspx?sitemapid=6817

Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. 2004, Sacred and secular: religion and politics worldwide, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Pew Research Center, 2016, ‘10 facts about atheists,’ 1 June, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/01/10-facts-about-atheists/

Singleton, A. 2015, ‘Are religious “nones” secular? The case of the nones in Australia,’ Journal of Beliefs and Values, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 239-243.

Taylor, C. 2007. A secular age. The Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA.

[i] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013, ‘Losing my religion?’ Australian Social Trends, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features30Nov+2013

[ii] see Bullivant, 2012; Lee & Bullivant, 2016.

[iii] Hughes, P. 2012, ‘The persistence of religion: What the census tells us,’ Pointers, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 4-5.

[iv] Singleton, A. 2015, ‘Are religious “nones” secular? The case of the nones in Australia,’ Journal of Beliefs and Values, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 239-243.

[v] Kaldor, P. Hughes, P. & Black, A. 2010, Spirit matters: How making sense of life affects wellbeing, Mosaic Press, Melbourne, pp. 6-16.

[vi] Hervieu-Léger, D. 2006. ‘In search of certainties: The paradoxes of religiosity in societies of high modernity,’ The Hedgehog Review, vol. 8, nn. 1-2, pp.59-68 at p.59.


[Admin] End of year message from blog editors

Josh Bullock Photoosakabe

Year 2016 was another success with 27 innovative and insightful posts from various disciplines. We anticipate to remain as a platform for sending out exciting and timely research in the field of nonreligion/secularity studies.

In particular, we are hoping that our blog page will put more emphasis on interdisciplinary aspects between academic and non-academic readers next year. We are also planning to send out ‘a call for blogs’ early next year, in which we hope many of you will consider submitting. There may be a couple of other new developments as well. Please stay tuned.

Lastly, we would like to thank you to all the contributors, editors, directors and readers for keeping the NSRN a central network within the study of nonreligion/secularity. Look forward to being back in 2017!

Josh Bullock and Yutaka Osakabe

[Seasonal Reflection] The Christmas bear: merry reflections on the sacred in a secular Christmas

Timothy Stacey reflects on secular spirits of giving in this festive period…  timothy

Standing in the urinals of a pub in Bangalore, India, I look up to see a Christmas-themed poster. A bear, wearing a Christmas hat, invites me to “get merry this Christmas – and not just on our beer”. I was about to dismiss the poster as a depressing example of the needless secularisation and commercialisation of Christmas. Though barely raised Christian, I suppose I had always assumed that Christian symbols such as, say, the nativity scene, still reminded what we might call post-Christian (raised Christian and still influenced by Christian culture despite neither believing nor attending church) celebrants that Christmas was about remembering the poor. I was about to dismiss the poster, but realising I had nothing better to do, decided to read on. In fact, the Christmas bear invited me to get merry by gifting money to a poor child. I had been too quick to judge. Later, I saw how those taking up the offer had been incorporated into a public ritual,immortalized by writing their name beside a picture of the child they had helped on a paper tag, which had been draped in the branches of a Christmas tree, where normally decorative baubles might hang.

I reflected on how a secular Christmas had nonetheless sacralized and ritualised giving and receiving, and this ritual in itself might be a strong enough anchor from which to inspire solidarity with the poor.

To understand how this might work, I began to reflect on the nature of this ritual. I recalled Bloch’s (2010) description of ritual as a performance of transcendental ideals. Notwithstanding the commercialisation, there does seem to remain, at least amongst my family and friends, an authentic sense that Christmas is about thoughtful giving and receiving amongst those we most dearly love. Bloch also tells us that ritual acts as a performance of a possible world that deliberately contradicts the world around us, such as when funerals speak to the continuation of a life despite the evidence to the contrary.

What world might our Christmas ritual of giving and receiving be contradicting? Parry (1986) observes that a capitalist society is one in which there is simultaneously no gift, since everything has a cost, and an absolute gift, whereby nothing is expected in return. Perhaps secular Christmas is a time in which we push through the no gift/absolute gift, and return to a reciprocity grounded in love.

Perhaps the Christmas bear draws its strength from this same binary, luring us towards the absolute gift. Or perhaps the bear invites us to expand the circle of those we love. In either case, in this bar, in Bangalore, the Christmas bear might be all that is required to inspire solidarity with the poor.


Bloch, Maurice (2010). ‘Bloch on Bloch on Religion’. Advances in Research 1. 4-13.

Parry, Jonathon (1986). ‘The Gift, the Indian Gift and the ‘Indian Gift”. Man 21(3). 453-473.

Dr Timothy Stacey is a graduate of and Research Assistant at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London. Against a backdrop of a perceived decline of solidarity in secular modernity, especially in the North-Atlantic West, Tim’s doctoral thesis explored the sources of solidarity in religiously plural spaces. The thesis combined a genealogical exploration of constructions of solidarity in theology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and social policy, with an ethnographic study of groups seeking to develop solidarity in London. Tim is interested in research into and visions of solidarity that defy binaries such as religious/secular, embodied communitarian/cartesian individualist, and socialist/capitalist. His aim is to undertake research that strengthens solidarity by connecting with policy makers and activists.

**Please get in touch with us if you want to add similar reflections on other public holidays.

[Research] Gender, Feminism and the Formation of British Secularism

In this post, Laura Schwartz challenges taken-for-granted binaries between religious and the secularsept_2015-june_2016_076
from historical and gender perspectives. She argues, ‘the “Woman Question” – the question of which was a better system for women – was by no means a by-product of debates between Christians and Secularists but constitutive of and absolutely fundamental to modern definitions of religion and secularism that emerged from them’.

My 2013 book, Infidel Feminism, has been largely received as an intervention into the history of feminism, pointing to a previously unexplored strand of ‘Freethinking feminism’ which existed in Britain throughout the 19th century, and arguing that anti-religious or secular ideas were fundamental to the development of first wave feminist thought. I intended the book as a response to, and partly a reaction against, the ‘religious turn’ in gender and feminist history of the last 20 years or so, which (in quite rightly pointing to the importance of religion as one of the ‘founding impulses’ of modern feminism) has now so dominated the field that many of my students today assume that religion is essentially complementary to feminism, and find it difficult to articulate why it might ever have been seen as an obstacle to women’s rights in Britain.

But Infidel Feminism, was also intended as an intervention into scholarship on secularism, to say something new about the category of the secular as a whole and to take forward debates on the secularisation thesis and ‘post-secularity’. Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age (2007) has proven pivotal in this scholarship, though much of attention it has received as been critical as well as positive. Without wanting to endorse the whole of his agenda, I was particularly interested in Taylor’s critique of narratives that portray secularisation as nothing more than a “subtraction story”, as an absence of religion. Responding to this call, I attempted to approach secularism as a substantive rather than a negative category, to analyse the positive content of that particular form of secularism that emerged in 19th century Britain (and to some extent across the Anglophone world). What values did it embody? And what kind of identities did it generate? This was obviously crucial to a historical study that focused, as mine did, on the National Secular Society and wider milieu of self-proclaimed Secularists and Freethinkers, actively engaged in constructing a secular public sphere. Secularism, for them, was not merely an absence of religion, but powerful intellectual and ethical framework structuring every aspect of their lives which compelled them to think counter to the majority of Victorian society.

Where did the ideas for Infidel Feminism come from?

I began my project at the University of Oxford, where I participated in the religious history seminar which was run by many of those scholars engaged in the redefinition and expansion of the category of ‘religion’ in histories of modern Britain (most notably the authors of Garnet et al.’s Redefining Christian Britain). These scholars expanded the definitional parameters of ‘religion’ to encompass personal beliefs, linguistic structures and modes of identity. They have identified religion with a variety of phenomena beyond those traditionally associated with ecclesiastical institutions and doctrinal belief-systems, leading some historians to argue that ‘transformation’ rather than ‘decline’ ought to be the key organising factor when thinking about religion in modern society. And of course this group of scholars at Oxford were building upon and responding to Callum Brown’s highly influential concept of ‘discursive Christianity’ which defined religion not as an institution, or even a set of beliefs, but as a ‘dominant discourse’ which ‘infused public culture and was adopted by individuals, whether churchgoers or not, informing their own identities’. I was also reading, when starting out my research project, a related set of debates by historians, such as Alex Owen, who were revealing the extent to which modernity, far from being wholly secularised, has in fact continued to be permeated with ‘enchantment’, with religious and magical beliefs co-existing with and sometimes complementing scientific and rational modes of thought that were previously thought to define modernity and, in the sociologist Max Weber’s terms, signify the end of enchantment.

Rejecting secularisation as “subtraction” story

All of this scholarship was crucial in confronting the orthodox secularisation thesis, and in opening up many new and important avenues for understanding the workings of religion in 20th century Britain. But it was not terribly informative for me as someone wanting to trace not the continued influence of religion in an age of modernity, but rather the emergence of the distinctive category of the secular in this period. For better or for worse (perhaps because of the historical moment in which it emerged – the end of the 20th century with the re-emergence of religion as a powerful force on the global stage), the effect of this historical scholarship has tended to be to obscure the secular rather than to offer more meaningful understandings of it. My feeling, from attending panels on secularism at various modern British history conferences is that sometimes more zealous advocates of an expansive and discursive definition of religion, wrongly conceive of it as an all-encompassing intellectual and linguistic framework which structures the thoughts of believers and non-believers alike, causing the secular sphere to effectively disappear, an turning the ‘religious’ or the ‘sacred’ into such capacious categories that they too lose any descriptive purchase.

So that was my problem, and some of my concerns – what did I try to do differently? Firstly, I tried to take seriously the reasons that individual Freethinkers and Secularists gave for renouncing Christianity and embracing a Secular view of the world. It was tempting, in light of much of the recent scholarship on the porosity of boundaries between the religious and the secular, to read Freethinkers’ accounts of their loss of faith as simply inverted evangelical conversion narratives. (Indeed this is what Edward Royle, the pre-eminent historian of the British Secularist movement, has tended to conclude when he defines Secularism as an inversion of Victorian evangelical Christianity). Certainly, Christian metaphors and narrative structures were overtly present in the writings and autobiographies of self-proclaimed 19th century Secularists, yet to simply conclude that they were deluded in their belief that they had left the much-hated religions of their youth behind, would have been to deny the reality they themselves experienced. It was hard to stop being a Christian in 19th century Britain, one risked not only alienation from one’s family and community but also – for women especially – accusations of sexual impropriety. So to treat these historical subjects simply as inverted Christians would have been to do them an injustice. Instead, I wanted to convey a sense of the fundamental transformation they felt they had undergone, as well as the antagonism they felt towards Christianity. I therefore chose the term ‘counter-conversion’ to capture this. And I focused in the book on outlining the new ethical vision that Secularists promoted – one that was committed to complete moral and bodily autonomy, freedom of speech, abhorrence of enforced ignorance and an unflinching commitment to the democratic dissemination of knowledge.

The ‘Woman Question’ and the formation of modern concepts of religion and secularism

A crucial aspect of (to quote Charles Taylor) these ‘new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices’ was Secularists’ response to the ‘Woman Question’ – which can be briefly summarised as a rejection of God-given gender roles, and thus the sacred bonds of marriage which entailed support for the right to divorce and various (albeit fraught) articulations of greater sexual freedom for both men and women; the inclusion of women in secular societies on a more or less equal basis, an affirmation of women’s right to speak in public and act as intellectual leaders; and a rejection of certain forms of ‘imperial feminism’ whereby, unlike large portions of the women’s movement at this time, Secularists refused to valorise the treatment of women in the Christian West as superior to that in the Muslim or Hindu world.

Yet this form of Secularism was itself highly gendered, sometimes posing problems for feminism in its celebration of science and reason (masculine characterisations) versus superstition and religious enthusiasm (feminised attributes). The central argument of the book is that the ‘Woman Question’ – the question of which was a better system for women – was by no means a by-product of debates between Christians and Secularists but constitutive of and absolutely fundamental to modern definitions of religion and secularism that emerged from them.

But what of the highly apparent continuation and/or vestiges of religious language, metaphors and intellectual frameworks deployed by these self-proclaimed Secularists and Freethinkers? Ultimately, although this remains a tension in the book, I was able to accept the significance of Christianity to modern Western forms of secularism, without having to collapse one category into the other, precisely because I was no longer working within the parameters of the orthodox secularisation thesis and its assumption that, in modern society, religion would necessarily give way to a secular world. Aided by some of the scholars of religion that I discussed above, who had rejected secularism as an inevitable process, and an abstract and universal concept, I was able to examine more closely a particular form of 19th century British secularism that was historically constituted and geographically specific. Of course, then, in 19th century Britain – a society dominated by Serious Christianity at the level of the state, civil society and personal identity – the form of secularism that emerged was strongly influenced by the form of religion it reacted against, in particular evangelical Protestantism. But to argue that religion and secularism in this context existed in an antagonistic and symbiotic relationship (as I did) is not to say that they are one and the same thing, nor to deny the existence and influence of ethical, intellectual and political traditions that were overtly and distinctively Secularist in their make-up. What this points to, in terms of future areas of research, is the need to distinguish between different kinds of secularism which emerged in different places at different times, and to assess them (especially in terms of their gender and race politics) according to the particularities of their content rather than some pre-determined and assumed definition of what secularism really is.

Laura Schwartz is Associate Prof of Modern British History at the University of Warwick. She has published widely on the history of British first wave feminism. Her most recent work on the history of gender, religious and anti religious thought is an article entitled ‘”Enchanted Modernity”, Anglicanism and the Occult in Early 20th-century Oxford: Annie Moberly and Eleanor Jordain’s “Adventure” Revisited’, forthcoming in Cultural and Social History.



[Research] “Of” or “For”: Studying “Spirituality” and the Problems therein…

How might “spirituality” relate to “nonreligion”? In this blog post Galen Watts reflects on this question galen-wattswith respect to the category of “spiritual but not religious.” Noting how a distinction between the study of spirituality and the study for spirituality is rarely made in the field of spirituality studies, he challenges scholars of spirituality to define their object more clearly and to declare their stakes in it.

There is a category that has recently begun to rise in popularity in those societies often deemed Western and which seems to fall—albeit somewhat uneasily—under the label “nonreligion.” I am speaking of those who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Having recently conducted research on Canadian millennials who self-identify as SBNR, it has become clear to me that SBNR spirituality, or contemporary spirituality, is a type of nonreligion that is quite distinct in form and content from, say, atheism, or even agnosticism (of course, as signifying discourses, these labels do not reflect reality, in any sense, flawlessly, but I think you get the point). We might then say the recent upsurge in the number of people in North America who self-identify as SBNR (Pew Research Center 2013) troubles any simplistic narrative one might tell about the secularization of Western states, whereby societies simply move from a “religious” standpoint to a “secular” one—“secular” understood as the decline of religious belief and practice. I am not alone in holding this view (see Fuller 2001; Heelas and Woodhead 2005; Carrette and King 2005; Gottlieb 2013; Mercadante 2014). Indeed, the rise of SBNRs has engendered an increase in the number of scholars, based in a variety of disciplines, who research “spirituality.”

In this post, I want to discuss a specific issue that continues to stifle the nascent field of what we might call “spirituality studies.” It seems to me that those of us interested in “spirituality” have not yet figured out how to adequately study this puzzling phenomenon. I believe this is in part because we have not been entirely upfront about how we approach our subject of interest, and what our underlying motivations are.

Let me explain. There are a number of scholars—usually arising out of the fields of health studies, management, or education (but not always)—who view the emergence of “spirituality” as purportedly distinct from “religion” as a positive thing, but are nevertheless reluctant to articulate how they define “spirituality” or what political commitments underpin their use of the term. For instance, Christopher Cook (2004), in offering a comprehensive overview of 265 published books and academic articles on the broad topic of “spirituality and addiction,” found what he calls “a diversity and lack of clarity of understanding of the concept of spirituality” (539). He writes: “It is therefore somewhat concerning that the authors of well over one-third of the papers studied here felt no need to attempt to define or describe the concept [of ‘spirituality’] or even to comment on the difficulty of definition” (547). This is by no means uncommon outside of the realm of “spirituality and addiction,” either. More amazing is the fact that many who remain reluctant to provide a clear explication of their use of the term nevertheless argue that “spirituality”—whatever it is—ought to be embraced and promoted, for it is universal, and therefore transcends religious and/or secular contexts.

I would argue this rests on the (implicit) view that “spirituality” is inclusive (understood positively) while “religion” is exclusive (understood negatively). Indeed, many SBNRs I spoke to seemed to endorse “spirituality” over and above “religion” on this very basis (as Joel Thiessen notes in another NSRN post, this is not uncommon). The basic assumption is something like, “religion” is exclusivistic, ideologically charged, and (in some cases) dogmatic, whereas “spirituality” is universal and inclusivistic in nature. Of course, this assumption is problematic because it is, in fact, self-contradictory. For no discourse is truly universal, most especially those discourses which claim a universal scope; in the end, a discourse that is founded on the principle of inclusivity is at least exclusive of those which are founded on the principle of exclusivity. Thus it is somewhat curious how those who herald discourses on “spirituality” in many instances are reluctant to embrace those discourses which they deem “religious.” Nevertheless, this dichotomization helps to explain why and how even a New Atheist like Sam Harris can embrace a “secular spirituality.”

Of course, there are those who propose such a vague definition of “spirituality” that it becomes truly universally applicable. Ursula King (2011) has done this in offering her open-ended definition of “spiritualities”: “[they] quite simply connote those ideas, practices and commitments that nurture, sustain and shape the fabric of human lives, whether as individual persons or communities” (21 emphasis in the original). This definition is useful in that it provides a framework with which to begin discussions about different kinds of spirituality. However, it should be noted, it offers no substantive description of any specific spiritualities. Under it, one could just as easily call Christianity, American Football or Nazism types of spirituality. And although I see nothing intrinsically wrong with these applications, such examples should lead us to recognize why we ought to be more forthright and articulate about the kinds of spirituality we wish to endorse, and the substantive moral and political commitments that underpin them.

Disciplinary boundaries clearly play a formative role here. Scholars that work in health studies, management, or education tend not to study “spirituality” in order to better understand what it is or what it signifies, but rather to find out what a specific kind of spirituality – that they usually normatively endorse (or disparage) – might do for their workplace. In other words, these scholars are motivated by a personal interest in contemporary spirituality and the positive benefits (or negative consequences) they believe it yields in practical application. This approach, I believe, is better understood as the study for spirituality. In contrast, religious studies, cultural studies, or critical theory scholars generally take a broader (perhaps less practical) approach to “spirituality,” framing it as a socio-cultural and/or discursive construct that is everywhere and always political. These scholars therefore may seek to offer a description of contemporary spirituality as it presents itself in a specific social or cultural context, and/or critique it from a normative standpoint. This approach rightly falls under the study of spirituality.

Nevertheless, this is not to suggest these two approaches cannot, or do not, overlap. One may hold a normative understanding of contemporary spirituality, while at the same time, seek to better understand it as an abstract concept or as a lived phenomenon, or, wish to criticize that which one views as an inauthentic or perhaps corrupt form of it. And conversely, one may seek to better understand how spirituality operates within certain spheres (e.g. healthcare, education, etc.) from a critical perspective, all the while hoping to promote its application in said spheres. Thus I do not wish to give the impression that these approaches are inherently at odds. What remains true, however, is that they are, in important ways, distinct endeavours; and the confusion surrounding the study of spirituality, I argue, originates in their not being recognized as such.


Carrette, Jeremy R., and Richard King. 2005. $elling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. London: Routledge.

Cook, Christopher C. H. 2004. “Addiction and Spirituality.” Society for the Study of Addiction. (99) 539-551.

Fuller, Robert C. 2001. Spiritual But Not Religious. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gottlieb, Roger S. 2013. Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Heelas, Paul, and Linda Woodhead. 2005. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

King, Ursula. 2011. “Can Spirituality Transform Our World?” Journal for the Study of Spirituality. (1) 17-34.

Mercadante, Linda A. 2014. Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual But Not Religious. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Pew Research Center. “Canada’s Changing Religious Landscape.” 2013. Pew Religion Public Life Project. Accessed June 26, 2016. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/06/27/canadas-changing-religious-landscape/.

Galen Watts is a PhD Candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Program at Queen’s University. He has a broad and diverse range of academic interests. Currently, his research could be classified as convening at the intersection of political philosophy, religious studies, and social theory. For his Masters, he sought to articulate and analyze how Canadian millennials (ages 18-34) who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” conceptualize the relationship between their “individual” spirituality and their commitments, or lack thereof, to a number of social justice issues. For his PhD, he is continuing to research the basic values, belief-systems, and practices that inform contemporary spirituality among millennials in Canada in order to discern its ideological nature, as well as its social and political implications, broadly understood.