Call for Papers: NSRN 2016 Conference, “Approaching Nonreligion”

The NSRN are delighted to announce their 2016 conference, which will be co-hosted with the ‘Diversity of Nonreligion’ Research Project at the University of Zürich, Switzerland, 7-9 July 2016.

See below for the Call for Papers (deadline 15 January 2016) which can also be downloaded as a PDF. Please share widely.

There is also a dedicated conference webpage that will be updated with information about the conference as and when we have new information:


2016 Conference

Call for Papers

Approaching Nonreligion: Conceptual, methodical, and empirical approaches in a new research field

“The Diversity of Nonreligion” & NSRN Conference 2016

7-9 July 2016, University of Zürich, Switzerland

For some years now, nonreligious phenomena have not only sparked public, but also scholarly attention. A rising number of scholars have begun to engage with both organized and non-organized forms of nonreligion. We want to use this conference to go beyond the discussion of terms and individual findings to facilitate exchange over different approaches, and engage with the following broader questions:

  • What phenomena are approached in research projects on nonreligion and how is nonreligion construed in different studies?
  • What are central theoretical references for studies on nonreligion, and in what way do scholars engage with related broader debates on religion and secularity?
  • What are methodic and methodological challenges and approaches in concrete empirical research?
  • What scientific traditions and sources of inspiration motivate and guide researchers in the field of nonreligion?
  • In what ways is research on nonreligion entangled with religious-nonreligious contestations?

The conference brings together empirical research with conceptual and methodological reflection, as well as a self-reflexive perspective on the research field itself.

There will be room for both individual papers as well as prepared panels. We welcome scholarly contributions from different scientific fields. Please apply with either an abstract for an individual paper or a proposal for a thematic session (2-4 individual papers). Please name your institutional affiliation if possible. Please send your proposal (200-300 words) to:

Deadline for proposals: January 15th 2016, Notification of acceptance: January 30th 2016

Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies (ISEK), University of Zürich, Switzerland (

The Diversity of Nonreligion: Religious-Nonreligious Dynamics in the Contemporary World (

Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (


NSRN Annual Lecture 2015: Outline of a Theory of Religious-Secular Competition

We are delighted to announce our 2015 Annual Lecture, presented in cooperation with the Department of Social Anthropology & Cultural Studies (ISEK) at the University of Zurich, and the Emmy Noether-project “The Diversity of Nonreligion.”

Outline of a Theory of Religious-Secular Competition

Prof. Dr. Jörg Stolz (University of Lausanne)

Thursday, November 12, 2015, 6pm

Venue: University of Zurich (UZH) Oerlikon Campus Andreasstr. 15, 8050 Zurich Room: AND 3.02/06 (3rd floor)

A flyer can be downloaded here (pdf).

NSRN Annual Lecture

New Books in NSRN Book Series

The NSRN and De Gruyter are pleased to announce the first three publications in their book seriesReligion and its Others: Studies in Religion, Nonreligion, and Secularity:

For more on the series, see here:

Download Flyer

NSRN Series 2

289 new additions to our bibliography of relevant publications

After a long hiatus, 289 new items have been added to the NSRN bibliography. These new items can be viewed here:

The bibliography can also be viewed in a list organised by author surname or publication date.

As ever, the bibliography is a collaborative enterprise and we cannot claim that it is comprehensive of all relevant NSRN related publications. If you spot any gaps, at any point, you can let us know via this comment form on the website and we will add the publication at our next update.

Research Assistant for History of Humanism project (London, UK)

History of Humanism in Britain since 1896

University of Glasgow / Oxford Brookes University

Research Assistant (0.8FTE, 24 months), based London

A research assistant is being sought to work on the above project with Callum Brown (University of Glasgow) and David Nash (Oxford Brookes University). With the support and funding of Humanists UK, the objective is to research the History of British Humanism from c.1896 to the present. The post will be based in London. Full details of the post are on the University of Glasgow jobs site at (and enter ‘Humanists’ in Search) and at (Note that fuller details are on the Glasgow site.)

Informal queries are welcomed to

Spirituality: Secular or Religious?

In this post Galen Watts questions whether the paradigm of secularization—exemplified by the recent work of Steve Bruce—is ultimately the most useful for studying spirituality. He contends that scholars might be better off eschewing essentialist definitions of “religion” and instead examining the various ways in which individuals operationalize the term “spirituality,” and for what purposes. Drawing from his qualitative research with Canadian millennials who self-identify as SBNR he argues that individuals who claim “spirituality” do so largely as a result of the religious imaginaries they hold. Thus investigating the nature of these imaginaries might prove far more fruitful than obsessing over whetherBio pic (1)galenwatts or notspirituality is “real religion” or not.

Continue reading

Who’s the Master of None?


The misfits ticking off ‘none’ when asked about religious affiliation. An unrecognised chunk of diverging identities: It’s time to ask how the non-religious are recognised in state, law and politics.IMG_8025

How does the state deal with the considerable portion of the population whose practises, beliefs, identities and belongings are other than religious? How is the phenomenon of non-religion (mis)recognised in different religious, social and cultural contexts on national level across the world today?

The emerging research field of non-religion seems to have become an established part of the sociology of religion and other disciplines addressing the varieties of identities associated with what has become to be known as ‘the nones’ within religious studies of various kinds.

In the Anglophone world ‘none’ denotes a survey option declaring ‘no affiliation’ with listed worldviews, e.g. Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist etc. For obvious reasons, the category of non-religion covers a vast variety of identities that one way or the other are hallmarked as ‘other than religious’ to quote Lois Lee’s minimum common denominator for recognizing the nonreligious.


Image: The Descrier / Flickr

The None Next Door

The lion’s share of available research on nones has been focused on the construction of non-religious identities from below: For instance how individuals come to identify as non-religious. American research in particular has predominantly conceptualised this through apostasy; how people break the chain of memory and join the socio-cultural deviance of having no religion.

As a culturally contingent phenomenon, non-religion is often understood in its dialogue and conflict with the dominant formats of religion in society, hence William Stahl argues that Catholic nones and Protestant nones are different. In addition, non-religious identities appear less defined in societies where religiosity is not socially expected or widespread according to Phil Zuckerman who argues that Scandinavian nones are less prone to identify as atheists when compared to the US, or Greece for that matter.

While apostasy indeed is interesting, it is not a key concept of non-religion in the Nordics where most nones in general are likely to have been brought up without religious guidance and live their everyday lives without expectations of belonging, believing or practicing religion. They are to a large extent what Zuckerman describes as indifferentIn Norway, a large share of the non-religious population is ‘unaffiliated’, i.e. they are not registered in an officially recognised worldview community (e.g. The Norwegian Humanist Association). The unaffiliated is the second largest group in Norway and counts 14% of the population (2012). The largest group are the members of the Church of Norway, which count about 70%. For quite obvious reasons it is difficult to tell what faiths, worldviews, beliefs and identities that are contained under the category of ‘no affiliation’.

Members Only

Interestingly – that can also be said about the members of the Church of Norway, which is largely based on a system that allows automatic enrolments and passive memberships, and more notably a number of involuntarily memberships. First, new-borns are registered as members of the church if at least one of the parents are registered and will remain so from cradle to grave unless opted out by parents as minors or on their own initiative after turning 15. A new online system for registering with and opting out of the church was implemented in 2016. Up until then opting out was a tedious affair involving written letters and the bureaucratic goodwill (sic!) of the local parish. However – for reasons unknown– such procedures have proven to be futile as there is way too many who regardless of their opt-out have remained registered members of the church. According to the Norwegian newspaper VG, as much as 75 000 were involuntarily members of the church in 2005. In the aftermath of the online registration and opt-out form in 2016 more than 41 000 cancelled their memberships, while 3147 persons registered as members of The Church of Norway. During my own interviews of Norwegian nones, conducted in 2017/2018, several of the interviewees (3/10) discovered that they were involuntarily members of the church. It is therefore reasonable to assume that a significant share of the Church of Norway’s members is so without consent.

Another reason for scholars to engage with the membership number in critical fashion is the fact that membership to the Church of Norway has no practical impact on the individual: Not financially; you cannot opt out of the church tax (which you can in Sweden) and there is no other implications of being a member – you are not reminded about such affiliations through newsletters etc. and church magazines, journals and pamphlets are distributed evenly and regardless of the house’s status as members or not. In other words, you can easily be a member throughout your life completely unaware of it.

The only practical difference is that members of the church are entitled to vote in the church elections, which are held simultaneously as general elections in Norway. One of my informants revealed that the ability to push the church in a more liberal direction through the elections was an incentive to remain member despite her general lack of belief and sense of belonging to the Church of Norway. Her passion for equality (sex, gender and ethnic) was instrumental for that choice. We cannot draw solid conclusions from such trajectories, but they nonetheless underscore the suspicion that official membership stats are not reliable sources when mapping religious de facto practice, belief and belonging. The reasons for why nones remain members are diverse, but the main point here is the observation that they sometimes do, whether it is out of indifference, ignorance, or potential of political impact or utter unawareness.

Turning the tables

While acknowledging the importance of the dominant socio-cultural and religious structures for nones ‘on the ground’ it is interesting to turn the tables and ask how they are perceived from above. Emphasising research of non-religion from above is not to say that the perspective from below is ruled out or wrong in any sense. Instead I argue that the numerous ethnographies of nones make a solid foundation for developing research on other societal spheres, such as within law, politics and institutions. This is the intention of the upcoming conference Formatting non-religion in late modern society – Institutional and legal perspectives, which takes place in Oslo September 26-27, hosted by the GOBA project (University of Oslo) and the international research network Eurel.

When establishing knowledge about sociocultural forms of non-religious identities (from below), it is politically and academically interesting to ask how such social formations are recognised, represented and perhaps negotiated from above. Now, this is however not quite straight forward as it sounds, because nones are to a certain extent an academic construct. That is, nones are not necessarily formally recognised as a worldview category, possibly due to the lack of formal organisation. Meanwhile, the lack of such is completely natural as the group consists of a variety of ways of being ‘other than religious’, the diversity amongst nones means that certain fractions may not want to be associated with each other. For example consider the significant difference between the ‘spiritual not religious’ group and New Atheism. The diversity of non-religious identities and group formations might be a challenge for non-religion to be substantially recognised in governmental bodies, law and politics. However, that does not make research on ‘non-religion from above’ less important if we think about the significant number of people who are not formally represented through officially recognised membership to faith and worldview communities.

This is both significant in societies where the minority of nones are persecuted such as Pakistan as well as in the UK where nones form a possible silent majority or even in Norway despite the impression of 70% church membership gives. Both contexts – where nones are numerous and not – make interesting research phenomena of the state’s handling with these identities in politics and law. We can for instance ask how different forms of secularism facilitates politics to serve nones, religious majorities and minorities alike? How non-religious worldviews are considered in public religious education and other institutions where the state is expected to facilitate for freedom of belief and thought? Or what happens with citizenship and sense of belonging when the state supports an established church in a country with an increasing non-religious population?

Non-religion is arguably an academic construct derived form English survey-lingo, which perhaps is difficult to recognise at first glance. Including ‘nones’ when mapping the religious landscape of late modern societies definitely broadens our horizon. As with the example from Norway, including the unaffiliated and critically examining the possibility of nones formally affiliated with the Church of Norway, changes our perception of the religious demography. It would be worthwhile to conceptualise this complexity further in research of politics, law and institutions. Regardless of the lack of fixed definitions, institutional representation and widespread acknowledgement in scholarly discourses and beyond, ‘non-religion’ is an analytical tool that cannot be overlooked by researchers, politicians, state officials and others who seek to understand, facilitate and marshal contemporary plurality of faiths and worldviews.


This blog has been co-published with Religion Going Public.


Erlend Hovdkinn From Doctoral Research Fellow, Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo.PhD Project: ‘From Protestant to Post-Religious? Researching nones in Oslo’.

My academic interests are within sociology of religion, and more specific – nonreligion and secularity. My PhD project addresses nonreligion in the Norwegian context. How does the religiously unaffiliated relate to Norway’s cultural heritage of protestant Christianity? Moreover, what constitutes Norwegian nonreligion, politically, socially, existentially and culturally?

My position as PhD candidate is part of the project Good Protestant, Bad Religion (GOBA, funded by the Research Council of Norway, 2014-2018).

I am one of the editors of the collaborative scholarly blog Religion: Going Public (2016->), and I am writing for the Norway section at EUREL, a database of socio-legal data on religion in Europe.

Sacred beyond religion: cultivation of individuality in post-Christendom

In this post, doctoral student Polina Batanova discusses the enduring relevance of the classic work of sociologist Emile Durkheim to the study of nonreligion. She argues his functionalist definition of religion, which emphasizes the fundamental importance of sacred forms, helps to illuminate the nature of “religion” in secular modern societies—that being, the cult of the individual. Tracing its genealogy through liberalism and back to the Reformation, and offering contemporary examples to demonstrate its IMG_0195prevalence in modern societies, Batanova makes a powerful case for thinking the sacralization of the “individual” may be the quintessential sacred form in modernity.

In his classic sociological work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) Emile Durkheim adopted a conception of religion that is based on a dichotomy of the sacred and profane (Durkheim 1995).

At its most general, the sacred refers to those values that in a given social context are considered to be of ‘absolute’, ‘special’, or of ‘vital’ importance for the upholding of a particular social order. The sacred thus concerns those key ideas which exert a profound moral claim over peoples’ lives; these sacred ideas lie at the core of social life and, collectively shared, they secure solidarity. At the same time, the sacred is not to be understood as an ontologically fixed category; the sacred is neither divine, nor transcendent in a Kantian sense. Rather, it becomes tangible only through conceptual and symbolical representations which may vary across historical epochs, cultures, and social contexts. In other words, it is purely social.

From this view, religion is an entirely social phenomenon and its main function is the transmission of knowledge by means of ritual practices, where collective representations are generated and revived. Collective representations define sacred things as well as their relations to the profane, and rituals, in their turn, demonstrate the rules of interaction with the sacred. Both the representations and rituals can be called ‘sacred forms’ (Lynch 2012).

But what happens to sacred forms in modern societies with their religious and cultural diversities, and increasing secularization?

According to Durkheim, although religious traditions are the main sources of general knowledge regarding the sacred (and profane), nevertheless they are not the source of sacred ideas. Religions do not generate the sacred and do not hold a monopoly on defining the sacred and profane. It is not religions that draw the line between the sacred and profane worlds ¾ the social life itself does this (Durkheim and Mauss 2009). As long as we are dealing with traditional society, religion appears to be the quintessence of social life. However, as a society gets more complex, different areas of social life become institutionalized and the emerging institutions maintain the social order just as religion once did. Virtually, each of them – like law, art, science, etc. – becomes a separate system of collective representations. This entails the diversification and multiplication of sacred forms. As part of this process, the vital ideas like that of love, justice, honesty, etc. are increasingly cultivated in non-religious frameworks and can be represented in different ways depending on the context. For example, the representations of love in artwork or scientific research (i.e. psychology) differ, although both refer to the same idea.

In line with Durkheim’s thesis that in traditional society all sacred ideas are represented by religion while in modern society sacred forms transcend religious contexts, I propose to talk about the traditional/modern distinction in the terms religious/post-religious. By ‘post-religious’ I mean newly established sacred ideas which have come to replace previous (religious) ones as they have weakened. In short, sacred forms still exist in our modern secularized world, but in order to spot them, we must refuse always identifying the sacred with religion.

To illustrate the rise of the sacred beyond religion, let us turn to the idea of individuality. With Europe in mind, Durkheim proposed the concept of the ‘cult of individual’ (culte de la personne)[1] which he expected to emerge in modern society. I will not conjecture whether his words came true or not. Instead, I propose to discuss two main issues in this regard: (1) the origin (genealogy) of the cult of individual and (2) the representations of the idea of individuality.

The cult of the individual begins with the idea of the individual being, which lies at its core; the process of turning the abstract individual into a sacred form is inseparable from the process of individuation. Both emerge from the springs of liberal thought and humanism (precisely, the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and, later, Alexis de Tocqueville) and develop into the Enlightenment project and the division of labor, which characterize modernity. Yet it is not a coincidence that humanistic virtues were shaped within a Christian context. Despite its secular tone and claims to universalism, liberal thought derived from Christian theology. For instance, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber demonstrated the elective affinity between the Protestant idea of salvation and the notion of ‘calling’ (der Beruf) which contributed to the development of capitalism. As Zygmunt Bauman puts it: “Reformation was from the beginning pregnant with humanist secularism – it set humans free to focus on things other than those kept in the secret compartments of divine offices” (Bauman 2008). In addition, Rodney Stark argues the Christian cherishing of human reason was what made the project of European Enlightenment possible (Stark 2006).

Thus the sacralization of individuality should be seen as the extension of the Christian belief-system which eventually gave birth to secular morality. This understanding aligns with Gianni Vattimo’s considerations about the continuity between Christianity and secularity.

Like any sacred idea, ‘individuality’ is not fixed, but constantly reconstructed via conceptual or symbolic representations, so we can speak of it in terms of a process, as the ‘cultivation of individuality’. Obviously, the twentieth century witnessed an intense period of this cultivation, and today we can point to numerous loosely related conceptualizations of individuality: ‘subject’, ‘person’, ‘self’, ‘agent’, etc. These conceptual representations have become entrenched in people’s minds. We are witnessing contemporary social life become increasingly oriented towards representations of individuality as sacred. Among others, the United Nations Declaration on human rights, the widespread acknowledgment of the importance of personal freedoms (civic liberties) in liberal democracies are all grounded in, and presuppose, the sanctity of human life and respect for human reason. All these representations – both conceptual and symbolic – relate to different domains of social life and obviously are not religious as such (although they also may hold on Christian meanings). Nevertheless, they are influential social facts: people do refer to and recognize them as moral forces guiding their lives (Bellah 1985; Levine 2006; Joas 2013).

The most striking thing about this is how pervasive it is; the cult of the individual is found across diverse cultural, linguistic and social contexts[2]. In my doctoral project, I am doing a comparative study of how students living in the U.S.A., Russia and Finland conceptualize individuality and what the primary meanings which inform this idea in their personal lives are. So far I’ve found that almost all of the interviewees (both religious, spiritual, and atheists) acknowledge the ultimate primacy of individual freedoms. Basically, this tells us that moral individualistic values have great potential for solidarity without restraint. Using the words of Bill McConochie, we might call moral individualism a meta-religion. Anyway, the idea of individuality seems particularly important for both understanding modern morality and finding a common ground for people with various religious and non-religious outlooks.

[1] Durkheim E. 1991. De la Division de Travail Social. Quadrige. P.396

[2] Drawing upon the empirical data of the international research project “Young Adults and Religion in a Global Perspective” (Abo Akademi University) ( that I am involved into.


Bauman Zygmunt. 2008. Individualized Society. Polity Press

Bellah N. R. et al. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. University of California Press

Durkheim Emile. 1991. De la Division de Travail Social. Quadrige.

Durkheim Emile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. The Free Press

Durkheim Emile and Marcel Mauss. 2009. Primitive Classification (Routledge Revivals). Routledge

Joas H. 2013. The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights. Georgetown University Press

Levine D.N. 2006. Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America. University Of Chicago Press

Lynch Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford University Press

Stark Rodney. 2006. The Victory of Reason: How Christianity led to freedom, capitalism, and Western success. Random House

Weber Max. 2016. Die protestantische Ethik und der „Geist“ des Kapitalismus (eds. Lichblau K., Moebius S.). Springer


Polina Batanova is a doctoral student of Comparative Religion at Abo Akademi University (Finland). She is also a researcher at the “Sociology of Religion” laboratory at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University (Russia). Her research interests include the sociology of morality, theories of the sacred, and individualism. She is currently working on a doctoral thesis tentatively titled, “Sacred individual: conceptual and narrative cultivation of individuality among young adults in Russia, Finland, and the USA.