For Atheists in the United States, the Personal is Political

Evan Stewart uses survey data in his research to investigate the differences between non-belief and atheist identification. Evan finds that belief in evolution and education are not significant predictors of atheist identification when we control for political views.Version 2


To borrow a phrase from the feminist movement, the personal is political when it comes to identifying as an atheist in the United States. Classic work on nonreligious Americans in social science shows that political views are a key predictor of religious disaffiliation, but how do these ideas shape the way people express nonreligion after they disaffiliate?

Last year I published a review article laying out some of the challenges for studying atheism, particularly in the United States. We know that anti-atheist sentiment in the U.S. is persistent and durable, and that atheists do a lot of collective work to build a common sense of identity. As a result, my work argues that we have to carefully distinguish non-belief in god from atheist self-identification, since self-identification signals far more than non-belief alone. Choosing to call oneself an atheist in the United States means navigating stigma, community affinities, and relationships to authority, and it can therefore become a shortcut for a range of assumptions about matters of public concern. For example, women who are already non-believers are less likely to call themselves atheists than men, and my work with Penny Edgell and Jacqui Frost argues that this has more to do with how society polices women’s religiosity than the choice of whether or not to believe in god alone.

I used survey data to investigate the differences between non-belief and atheist self-identification, but the original analysis from the review article was not conclusive. Most surveys, even those that can measure (non)religion in detail, cannot get a large enough subsample of atheists to make strong claims. The study of nonreligion is developing into a robust field, drawing interest from across the social sciences and humanities. As it continues to grow, researchers who work in this area will continue to face questions about whether their findings are generalizable across different groups and whether they replicate in different social contexts. Luckily, new data have become publicly available that allow for a conceptual replication (more on that here). The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study has over 35,000 respondents, and so while only 3-4% of the U.S. population self-identifies as an atheist, that shakes out to over 1,000 respondents in this survey. Many more people say they don’t believe in god, about 10% of the sample.

For this analysis, I start with the group of respondents who say they do not believe in god. We are interested in the probability that a given respondent from this group will also call themselves an atheist, and, most importantly, we are interested in what other traits associate with a higher or lower probability of that atheist identification. Logistic regression can help us answer these questions, and results from two logistic regression models are presented in the table. One model looks at some basic sociodemographic factors like age, gender, race, and education. The other adds two common beliefs among American atheists: one regarding social issues (support for same-sex marriage) and one regarding scientific authority (belief in human evolution). I chose these variables to get as close as possible to the original models, to see if they produce similar results.

So, what separates the self-identified atheists from “atheistic” respondents? Not much, it turns out. Older non-believers are slightly, but significantly, less likely to call themselves atheists. Non-believing women are less likely to call themselves atheists as well, but it is important to note that this effect does not emerge until we control for substantive beliefs in the second model. As we have argued elsewhere, there is evidence that women are not generally “more religious” across the board, but rather express nonreligion differently in line with gendered social risk. Also, notice which measures are not statistically significant in the table of results. Belief in evolution and education are not significant predictors of atheist identification when we control for political views. In these models, the difference comes down to social and political views more than scientific literacy or support.

Non-believers who are more liberal and express stronger support for same-sex marriage are significantly more likely to call themselves atheists. Each of these measures used a scale to indicate strength of support. The liberalism measure ran from 1 (very conservative) to 5 (very liberal), and the same-sex marriage measure ran from 1 (strongly oppose) to 4 (strongly favor). To get a sense of how strong these relationships are, the graphs below show the changes in predicted probabilities of atheist self-identification at each step on these scales, while holding all other variables constant. Non-believing respondents who strongly oppose same-sex marriage have about a 15% chance of identifying as atheists, while those who strongly favor the policy have about a 35% of identifying. Similarly, each step from very conservative to very liberal on the political ideology scale associates with about a five-percentage-point increase in the probability of atheist self-identification.

There are some necessary limitations to these conclusions. The models are not perfect by any means, and their low fit statistics (the small Pseudo R-squared) suggest that other factors which weren’t measured on the Pew survey could explain more of the choice to identify as an atheist. They probably also indicate that the true effect of liberal political views is somewhat smaller than the predicted probabilities shown here. However, this conceptual replication does provide additional evidence that self-identified atheism is as much a political phenomenon as a personal belief system.

In my dissertation research, I tease out what findings like these mean for understanding the political impact of nonreligious Americans more broadly. The cultural work that goes into understanding atheism and other kinds of nonreligion has implications for everything from voting trends to public opinion on the social safety net, racial issues, and environmental policy.

Together, this work suggests that nonreligion in general, and atheism in particular, is an important case for understanding the changing role of religion in American public life.

Probability of Atheist Identification Among Non-Believing Americans
Model 1


Model 2


coef. se coef. se
Age -0.05** (0.02) -0.04 (0.02)
Gender (Female) -0.21 (0.11) -0.28* (0.11)
Married 0.03 (0.14) 0.04 (0.13)
Parent 0.06 (0.14) 0.06 (0.14)
Income 0.02 (0.03) 0.01 (0.03)
Lives in the South -0.08 (0.11) -0.06 (0.12)
Education (Baseline-High school)
Some College 0.42 (0.38) 0.22 (0.39)
Associate Degree 0.47 (0.41) 0.21 (0.42)
Bachelor’s 0.43 (0.38) 0.17 (0.40)
Master’s/PhD 0.44 (0.39) 0.20 (0.41)
Race (Baseline-White)
Black, non-Hispanic -0.15 (0.34) -0.06 (0.34)
Hispanic -0.13 (0.19) -0.05 (0.19)
Other/Mixed Race -0.39 (0.22) -0.30 (0.22)
Liberal 0.28*** (0.06) 0.21*** (0.06)
Supports Same Sex Marriage 0.38*** (0.09)
Believes in Evolution 0.38 (0.33)
Constant -2.02*** (0.44) -3.26*** (0.54)
N 2888 2888
Pseudo R2 0.02 0.03
BIC 3417 3401
*  p<0.05, ** p<0.01, *** p<0.001

Source: 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey

Notes: Models incorporate the RLS survey weights for known population benchmarks



Evan Stewart is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Minnesota, where he has worked as an Edelstein Fellow with the American Mosaic Project and an Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow with the Center for the Study of Political Psychology. His research focuses on political culture, public opinion, and religion and secularism across a range of institutional and community contexts. His dissertation work focuses on the political impact of the growing nonreligious population in the United States, while other solo and collaborative research projects examine prejudice and tolerance, atheist identity formation, attitudes about contentious political issues, and visual sociology. Evan also serves as a graduate editor at The Society Pages.

Beyond the Flying Spaghetti Monster: finding a meta-ethic to save the human species

billIs the human species sacred enough to save itself from extinction?


A recent article in the Atlantic magazine presents a brief review of a spoof religion based on a fanciful deity, the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”, that caught on especially in Europe. While a spoof in some respects, the followers point out that nothing is inherently sacred and that sacredness is simply whatever a group of people choose to deem sacred.

Religion has traditionally been centered on belief in a powerful supernatural being which is turned to by believers for answers to difficult questions about the purpose of life and for support and good fortune in major endeavors, such as war. However, Christianity has been on the wane for decades in the U.S. and Europe.

Theologian John Shelby Spong has challenged Christians, in order to revive their faith, to redefine God in non-theistic terms, not as a human-like being but as an abstract concept around which to focus one’s life.

If citizens in the U.S. and Europe can’t embrace a supernatural being as a source for united, cooperative behavior, we can hope they do better than making fun of life by pretending a “Flying Spaghetti Monster” is a good guide. But perhaps they can define an abstract principle of sacred value.

My research studies in the psychological traits that underlie political behavior reveal interesting information that implies avenues for humans to consider in managing their affairs as a species.

During the past decade, I have also gathered data on human intelligence trends that is particularly sobering. Human intelligence appears to be waning at the rate of .60 I.Q. points per year. Review of the literature suggests the cause is air pollution. In as few as 50 years, the average I.Q. could drop from 100 to 70, the top of the mental retardation range. If that happens, humans won’t be intelligent enough to maintain society as we know it.

So, it is critically important that we seek ways to inform and inspire citizens everywhere to unite in constructive, cooperative action to “clean up our act” as nations, governments and as a species. Perhaps the United States and Europe can lead this effort, as they have been world leaders in many ways.

Let me share a few highlights of my political psychology research and then offer a suggestion about how we might inspire citizens to proceed. The details are in research reports on my website. They are also available in “lay” language in my book, Party Time, How you can create common good democracy right now.

Human political attitudes differentiate liberals from conservatives on dozens of dimensions, from attitudes toward foreigners to gender attitudes, music preferences, civilian gun use, economics, preferred types of government and political leaders, and even types of religion. These differences are reflected in correlation coefficients. However, if you compare the mean scores of self-identified strong liberals with strong conservatives, these groups are rather close together on all of these same dimensions, and their mean group scores fall on the liberal side of issues, e.g. a peaceful foreign policy, preference for share economics, affordable housing and health care for all, and preference for government that serves citizens as members of the cooperative community overall rather than as members of competing special interest groups. 20% or fewer endorse the current U.S. form of democracy, special interest group democracy.

Related data from biology and genetics reveals that our political attitudes are grounded in our genes. Our genes guide us to choose current cultural ideas that support a preference for “conservative” ideas, “liberal” ideas or somewhere between. About 1/6 are programed to be conservative, 1/6 liberal and 2/3 in between. Our political beliefs and attitudes fall into two clusters, defined by factor analysis (a statistical procedure). These correlate with what we term “conservative” and “liberal” worldviews. The conservative worldview tends to attract authoritarian, militaristic-minded, disease phobic and xenophobic leaders. They and their followers can be valuable to communities in times of threat. The liberal worldview tends to attract kind, compassionate, peace-promoting leaders who trust foreigners. They and their followers can be valuable to communities in times of low threat, promoting trade in raw materials, finished goods, technologies and in genetic material that will help protect the in-group from disease pathogens in neighboring groups against which the in-group does not yet have immunity.

Religious beliefs are part of this picture, taking two forms, Fundamentalism and Kindly Religious Beliefs. About 6% endorse the former and 90% the latter. These forms are operationally defined by the questionnaire items that make them up. See the above references, which include a manual (Publication # 38) of scores of such questionnaire measures. These questionnaires are made of statements such as “There is only one true God”, and “Anyone who disagrees with this first belief is wrong” (Fundamentalism), and “We should do unto others as we want them to treat us”, and “It is inappropriate to be violent toward other human beings” (Kindly Religious Beliefs). Fundamentalism is associated with conservative political attitudes; Kindly Religious Beliefs with liberal attitudes.

Liberals more than conservatives tend to endorse the idea of a “meta-religion”, a concept I thought up for research purposes. A meta-religion could appeal to persons of all religions with the intention of promoting cooperation across humans everywhere on earth. Participating groups would dedicate periodic religious services to emphasizing cooperation and understanding across all religions. They’d send representatives to periodic conventions for the same purpose.

Given this introduction, I suggest a meta-religion whose ultimate guiding principle is not a supernatural being but, as Spong urges, an abstract principle. Taking a page from the Flying Spaghetti Monster faith, the ultimate sacred principle chosen for this faith could be that the human species is sacred, served by serving the common good, much as the Christian Disciple Paul urged (I Corinthians, 12- 7).

To this end, nations would promote termination of all environmental pollutants, controlling population growth, reversing global warming to protect low-lying communities from extinction via rising sea levels, disease epidemic control, etc.

A psychology professor heads up the program at the U. of Oregon for managing undocumented students and faculty. The problems are very complicated and hard to resolve. If we created a new category, “citizen of the world”, into which all persons fall, then it might be easier to solve the problems of citizens who are displaced on every continent secondary to flooding, wars, poverty, starvation, etc. At least such persons could all be recognized by their kinder fellow human beings as having “inalienable” worth as citizens of the world, if not of the nation in which they find themselves at the moment. The new meta-religion could lead this effort.

We can’t expect people to give up traditional forms of religion, so this new meta-religion should be packaged as a supplement to other traditional religions. To help assure buy-in it should be designed with contributions from all interested parties in all nations and from all traditional religions and even from non-religious and governmental groups. The United Nations might lead this effort. Our survival as a species may hang in the balance.


Bill McConochie is a psychologist in private clinical practice who does research in political psychology.  He has a non-profit corporation for the latter and a website: where his research papers appear.  He’d also written a book of his findings for the lay audience, Party Time! How you can create common good democracy right now.

[Event Report] Philosophy and Faith in Europe Today: Vattimo’s ‘nonreligious’ Christianity

Davide Monaco reports on the event organized by the Normativity Research Group on May the 5th, 2016, titled: Philosophy and Faith in Europe Today; A day with Gianni Vattimo. A cycle of seminars on the work of Gianni Vattimo, addressing his theories and writings on politics, religion and secularity, and his dialogue with Heidegger and Girard on these topics. What is secularity in relation to religion, particularly, Christianity? Vattimo’s thought develops an attempt to Davideunderstand Christianity in a post-metaphysical way, a “secular” Christianity. 

The Normativity cycle of seminars “Philosophy and Faith in Europe Today”, which took place at the University of Aberdeen on May 5th, 2016, was a great occasion to address the relevant issues of the relation between religious and secular understandings of moral life through an analysis of the thought of Gianni Vattimo. Exploration of these issues has been the focus of the studies of the Normativity research group, under the supervision of Prof. Philip G. Ziegler. This project has focused on questions of morality, by evaluating normative claims from the point of view of law, philosophy and theology. Three main “sources” of normativity have been analysed: nature, narrative and nihilism. This last theme received special attention during our seminar, since it is a key-term in Heidegger’s and Vattimo’s philosophies. Alongside philosophical nihilism, the main topics and themes discussed during this event include the relationship between Christianity and secularity, and the reflection on the current political situation of Europe. The morning session was devoted to Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, as a fundamental inspiration for Vattimo’s own philosophical work, while in the afternoon, we moved closer to Vattimo’s thought, by comparing it with René Girard’s views on Christianity. As a Ph.D. student working on this project I chaired the morning seminar on Heidegger’s Introduction to the phenomenology of religious life.

I believe this cycle of seminars addressed the question of great relevance for the debate on nonreligion and secularity. In our first seminar, we have seen how Vattimo’s own project proposes a post-metaphysical age in which early aspects of Christianity are still at work, albeit in their non-metaphysical qualification. According to Vattimo, a secular society should possess a non-dogmatic, non-metaphysical, moral structure inspired by early Christianity, which keeps its fundamental moral claims at work without relying on an ultimate metaphysics.

In our seminar, we addressed more deeply the relevance of Vattimo’s thought for an interpretation of secularity and its post-metaphysical character through another text: Christianity, truth and weakening faith (2010). In this book, Vattimo faces the criticism of René Girard against his philosophy of “weak thought”. In Vattimo’s intentions, the age of secularization corresponds to a post-metaphysical philosophy: in this regard, secularization is viewed as a positive aspect and a necessary outcome of a new philosophical paradigm. A weak interpretation of Christianity, which is particularly visible in Vattimo’s own reading of Pauline kenosis, was contrasted to René Girard’s ‘dogmatic’ interpretation. In other terms, Vattimo’s concept of Christianity has been purified of all its dogmatic and metaphysical aspects (e.g., it has been “weakened” and freed from its Catholic framework), while Girard is more sympathetic with a structured conception of Christianity, and in this regard, his Catholicism is much more prominent.

This led us to discuss the problem of violence, which is crucial for Vattimo’s reflection, given that his concept of Caritas (charity) at the core of his ethical project involves the progressive reduction of violent mechanisms within a secular society. For Vattimo religious metaphysics must be regarded as violent in its own nature and its elimination would correspond to an equivalent decrease in violence. This happens because metaphysics is viewed as the expression of a dogmatic and “totalitarian” thought. In its search for a universal truth, Western philosophy seems to have forgotten that truth is just an army of metaphors (Nietzsche), or a disclosure (Heidegger) and therefore not something that could be grounded once and for all. Secular societies, in this sense, guarantee a reduction of violence through their total rejection of any given metaphysics. Girard, instead, believes that secular societies as well possess the tendency to resort to violence and “scapegoating” to escape their inner contradictions.

Both Vattimo and Girard agree on how Christianity has played a fundamental role in the historical development of Western secular societies. The main difference between their interpretations concerns the relationship between secularity and Christianity: for Girard there is a clear dialectic relationship between them, while Vattimo considers secularity as the fulfilment of Christianity. According to Vattimo, secularity is just the continuation of Christianity by other means. Secularity has appeared just as one mask (the latest) of a long-time historical and hermeneutical process.

These problems, then, call for a discussion about the status of the discipline of ‘philosophy of religion’, which was the common thread around which the seminars have been developed. For example, in Heidegger’s perspective, which was our starting point, one can notice the uttermost complexity of the link between philosophy and religion. While lecturing in Freiburg in the early Twenties, Heidegger did not mind calling himself a ‘Christian theologian’ (Letter to Löwith: 1921)[1] while at the same time remarking that philosophy must be a-theistic in principle (1922). In 1919 Heidegger formally abandoned Catholicism and, therefore, started to re-think his relationship with the Christian tradition. In his opinion, philosophy of religion as such is a problematic discipline. What kind of relation exists between the words ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ contained in this definition? What is the nature of their connection, expressed by the preposition ‘of’? For Heidegger, the religion with which the philosophy of religion deals is not an object. Namely, philosophy of religion does not aim toward «a scientifically valid, essential determination of religion». If this were the case, religion would be absorbed by philosophy and it would be not the primary element of the investigation. We would have, in this case, a Theologia ancilla philosophiae. Instead, truly reflected philosophy of religion arises «out of a certain religiosity», which in Heidegger’s case is early Christian religiosity. In this regard, both religion and philosophy are altogether overcome, while the main attention is drawn to religiosity. Religiosity is, for Heidegger, a historical life-experience, a primordial phenomenon that cannot be trapped neither in metaphysical nor in theological categories.

What is instead religiosity for Vattimo? In fact, it must not be forgotten that Heidegger represents a direct model for his philosophy. If this is true, then also Heidegger’s “conversion” from Catholicism to his own personal form of Lutheranism can be considered as a model for Vattimo’s “conversion” to a form of religiosity which is nothing but «to believe in belief», i.e. «believing that one believes». In other words, his personal variant of Christianity includes both elements of certainty and uncertainty in a paradoxical mixture: «to believe means having faith, conviction or certainty in something, but also to opine – that is, to think with a certain degree of uncertainty». Therefore, secularity is the stage in which Christianity reaches its post-metaphysical form; only within it is possible to welcome Christian values such as ‘charity’, allowing us to escape religious violence.

[1] Papenfuss D. – Pöggler O. (edited by), Zur philosophischen Aktualität Heideggers, vol. II of Im Gespräch der Zeit (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1990), 27-32.


I graduated from the University of Naples Federico II in 2012 with a thesis on Ernst Mach’s philosophy of science.  I started my PhD at the University of Aberdeen in 2014 (Normativity Project Award Scheme) under Dr. Beth Lord’s supervision. I’m currently working on Spinoza’s theory of parallelism and monism and their relation. I’m also interested in other conceptions of monism (e.g. Haeckel, Mach) and parallelism (e.g. Fechner, Wundt, Mach). Besides early modern philosophy, my areas of interest include continental philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of science and German philosophy of the 19th century.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


table 1

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


table 2

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Association Culturelle Franco-Japonaise de Tenri. (accessed on 22 December 2016).


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Funded by the Templeton Religion Trust.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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