[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’?


References

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.

 

 

shark

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.

[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.

Background

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.

[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.


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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.

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

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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.

[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.

 

PERCENTAGE OF PEOPLE REPORTING NO RELIGION IN AUSTRALIA, 1971 – 2011

lenehan-census

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.


References

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.

 

[Research] Atheism in Greek society: Breaking the chain of religious memory and the emergence of atheist identity

What are atheists like in Orthodox Christian countries? In this post, Alexandros SakellariouOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA explores this question by examining Greek atheists. His analysis shows that Greek atheists choose to be atheists as a result of breaking the chains of religious memory. At first, formation of their atheist identity is largely to reject their Orthodox identity, but Greek atheists gradually find their own positive identity with atheist beliefs and morality.

 

Even until very recently the dominant perception has been that more than 95 per cent of the Greek population is Orthodox Christian and some polls (2006) have supported it (Orthodox Christians: 96.9 per cent; Atheists: less than 2 per cent). However, according to a recent poll (2015) 81.4 per cent are Orthodox Christians while 14.7 per cent are atheists (Chiotis 2015), which is quite a significant change. The international revival of atheism, especially what has been called “new atheism”, has influenced Greek society as well. Greek translations of all the major works of the protagonists of the international movement (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris); articles about atheism published in mainstream media; websites, forums and blogs that support and disseminate atheist ideas; and the establishment of the Atheist Union of Greece in 2012 are the most important outcomes.

For a long time atheists were, quite stunningly, almost completely ignored by sociologists (Le Drew 2013, 1), but contrary to international interest, atheism in Greece has still attracted no attention among social scientists. Bearing that in mind, in 2012 I started qualitative research on atheism resulting in 63 semi-structured interviews with people self-characterized as atheists. The purpose was to answer the following questions: Who are the Greek atheists in contemporary Greek society? In which family environment were they born and raised? How did they de-convert from the Greek Orthodox traditional and dominant religious paradigm and how did their families react to this rupture with their past? What are their beliefs about religion, morality and life?

With the exception of few interviewees who were raised in rather atheist or secular family environments and some raised in mixed families (e.g. Orthodox and Protestant), all the others grew up in families where the Orthodox religion was the dominant paradigm and was practised by either both parents or mainly by the mother who was usually the parent with the strongest religious affiliation. Living within a Greek-Orthodox society, especially in the past, meant that it was almost inevitable that they followed their parents’ religious beliefs and practices, the family chain of religious memory (Hervieu-Leger 2006).

As a consequence, many of the interviewees in their childhood were close to the Church and they observed the family’s practices like fasting and praying, while some of them attended Mass and Sunday school. In many cases, though, Sunday school and Church attendance were social obligations and practices of social inclusion, not necessarily a manifestation of strong faith, even though at the same time they were not atheists either:

I went to Sunday school from the age of 5 to 8 because all my friends were going and I had nothing else to do during the weekends. (Sotiris)[1]

Most of the interviewees characterized their families as typical Orthodox, middle-class families, not very religious – (below) average – that preserved those teachings and customs the family considered as good and didn’t follow what they considered as wrong or bad.

Greek atheists frequently frame their prior religious identity as something forced upon them by the family rather than a genuine religious belief, a finding confirming other studies (Chalfant 2011, 51-54).

In my early childhood, like every Greek child of my times, I was inculcated by my parents and my environment with the dogma of the Orthodox faith. Because of limited knowledge and without the development of critical thinking, I was persuaded that the God of our religion was something true. (Paraskevas)

But sometimes this chain breaks and interruptions in religious continuity are observed (Bengtson 2013, 131-144). There is a variety of reasons behind the rupture with the dominant religious paradigm both at the family and social levels (e.g. book reading, scientific documentaries, social observations, self-reflection, etc.), but the common thing is time, since for the vast majority the starting point was between early childhood or puberty and their 20s.

I had doubts from a very early age; I was in my mother’s village, 6-7 years old….I came across my mother’s uncle who was a priest; I went near him to kiss his hand and I asked him about other religions. He replied that all the others are wrong and only we [the Orthodox] have the true religion. To my childish mind this was irrational, because every religion believes that, so either they are all right or all wrong, you can’t base your faith on this kind of argumentation. (Xrysanthi)

For the majority of the interviewees this process of de-conversion took some time. As one of them described it:

It is like a ship leaving port and gradually distancing itself from the coast. (Dimitris)

Besides breaking this chain of religious memory atheists seem to form an atheist identity through the expression of their own views regarding morality, life meaning and personal beliefs. When asked to comment on the Church’s argument that atheists are immoral because religion is the only way to moralise human society, or the Dostoevskian saying that “without God everything is permitted”, they completely rejected it, arguing that religions have been extremely immoral and referring to a number of issues like violence (e.g. the Crusades, the Islamic State), financial scandals, child abuse, etc. They argued that they help other people not because a divine power is watching and judging them or because of the fear of hell. They claimed that they as atheists are also moral, because morality is a social construction and religion has nothing to do with it, confirming the findings of other studies (Bengtson 2013, 155). As one of them wondered,

Am I immoral because I don’t go to Church? Am I immoral because I have premarital sex? (Themis)

All the interviewees were asked to say what they believe in, i.e. their raison d’etre. They all rejected every supernatural power power influencing people’s lives or any power that has created the universe. As in other studies (Bengtson 2013, 155), some of them said that they value science and scientific and technological achievements, others said that they believe in human beings, in society, in nature or animals and others in themselves and in freedom. This last point was also common to other qualitative studies in which atheists stated that they have stopped worshiping God and they now worship freedom (Zuckerman 2012, 11), even if worshipping in this case has a metaphorical meaning.

The outcome of my research is that Greek atheists having brought up as Greek Orthodox Christians decided to break this chain of religious memory and change their ethnic nominal Orthodox identity at some point of their life course following a variety of paths. However, as it came out, after an initial stage of rejecting their Orthodox identity they gave moved towards a positive formation of an atheist identity. This means that the vast majority of them reflected on a number of issues, particularly life meaning and morality, building this way a distinct atheist identity which is not any more identified exclusively with anti-Orthodox attitudes. It is not easy to argue whether there are more atheists in Greece now, or that they have started to speak out, or both. The truth is that atheism in Greece is still in its infancy compared with other western societies and which also applies to its scientific study.

References

Bengtson, L. Vern. (2013). Families and Faith: How Religion is passed down across Generations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chalfant, Eric. (2011). Thank God I’m an Atheist: Deconversion Narratives on the

Internet. Unpublished MA Thesis. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Wake Forest University.

Chiotis, Vassilis. (2015). “Orthodox Christians, but once a year”. To Vima, 12-13 [in

Greek].

Hervieu-Leger, Daniele. (2006). Religion as a Chain of Memory. Cambridge: Polity

Press.

Le Drew, Stephen. (2013). “Discovering Atheism: Heterogeneity in Trajectories to

Atheist Identity and Activism”. Sociology of Religion, 74 (4), 454-463.

Zuckerman, Phil. (2012). “Contrasting Irreligious Orientations: Atheism and Secularity in the USA and Scandinavia”. Approaching Religion, 2 (1), 8-20.

[1] All names used are pseudonyms.


Alexandros Sakellariou is currently teaching sociology at the Open University of Greece and is a post-doctoral researcher at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences of Athens, studying the forms of atheism in contemporary Greek society. He earned his PhD on Sociology of Religion from the Department of Sociology of Panteion University. Since 2011 he has worked as a researcher at Panteion University in EU Projects on young people’s socio-political engagement (MYPLACE 2011-15), young people’s well-being (MYWEB 2014-16) and the evaluation of innovative social policies (INNOSI 2015-17). His interests include among others politics and religion, religious communities in Greek society, religious freedom, religion and globalisation, youth activism and civic participation, and right-wing extremism. Email: sociology.panteion@gmail.com