[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.


Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[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

[Admin] End of year message from blog editors

Josh Bullock Photoosakabe

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

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

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

Josh Bullock and Yutaka Osakabe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Where did the ideas for Infidel Feminism come from?

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

Rejecting secularisation as “subtraction” story

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

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

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

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

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

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


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