The Religious Nones of North America, and the Beginnings of a Book Project

How are ‘nones’ different in the US and Canada? Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme and Joel Thiessen introduce their new 2- year project for answering this question. 

Nearly one-quarter of Canadian and one-fifth of American adults say they have no religion in recent US and Canadian General Social Surveys, with even larger figures present among North American teens and young adults. As scholars explore this growing phenomenon on either side of the 49th parallel,[i] little has been done to compare religious nones in Canada and the United States. Joel Thiessen from Ambrose University and I are teaming up to tackle this topic over the next couple of years in the form of a book project. Specifically, we want to use our existing quantitative and qualitative data to address how religious nones in Canadian and US regions compare in terms of their population size and demographics, in how they became religious nones, in their spiritual and secular practices, in their socio-political attitudes and behavior, as well as how they feel and act towards more religious individuals. As we complete our data analyses and our book chapters begin to take shape, we plan to share some of our key findings, along with the trials and tribulations of the book writing process, with you the readers of this NSRN blog.

Today’s entry is the first in what we hope will be four such contributions to this blog. As a first phase in the project, Joel and I are currently preparing a book proposal over the course of this spring and summer 2017. Joel is currently in the process of brushing up on the existing literature in the field, with many new works on non-religion and secularity having been released over the last couple of years,[ii] and many more on the way from a new generation of scholars in the fields of sociology of religion and religious studies. Meanwhile, at my end I have begun putting some numbers together on non-religion in North America, based on secondary analyses I am conducting with the Canadian and American General Social Surveys from 1971 (US)/1985 (CND) to 2014, as well as some other existing survey datasets. With statistical data, the goal is not only to conduct analyses in order to obtain findings on population trends and relationships between key variables, but also to present these findings in a way non-expert readers can understand (and will find somewhat interesting).

Data visuals are an important tool to help us with this presentation, and of the data visuals I have been working on so far for Chapter 1 (one of our sample chapters), the following map (Figure 1) of the percentages of religious nones in North American regions is my favorite. I am not a specialist in map creation, so I called on some of my colleagues in demography to help me out. Here at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, we have a Geospatial Centre where researchers can bring their findings (in this case, the percentage of religious nones by North American region) and get help in using software to build a map for their results.

Figure 1: Percentage of Religious Nones in North America, by Region, 2010-2014 averages

 

Sources: 2010-2014 CND GSSs; 2010-2014 USA GSSs; 2011 CND NHS (for Northern Canada). 2010-2014 averages, weighted to be representative of general populations.

Figure 1 is still a work in progress, but the map does help us visualize the higher percentages of religious nones in certain key North American regions (darker shades of blue), notably Northern Canada and the Pacific Northwest. This regionalism in the prevalence of non-religion has been shown and commented on in previous studies for the US and Canada separately.[iii] Figure 1 indicates that this regionalism is still present today when we look at averages across the 5-year 2010-2014 period, and that it crosses national borders: for the most part, higher rates of non-religion are found in more western regions in both the USA and Canada. The pioneering history of the West where specific churches never gained as strong a foothold and dominance compared with the East as well as a cultural context influenced notably by large waves of Chinese and Japanese immigration are considered contributing factors to this western irreligious experience in North America.[iv]

These findings are the first among many more that Joel and I hope to share with the readers of the NSRN blog over the next couple of years as our book develops. Until next time!

Map making at the University of Waterloo’s Geospatial Centre. 14th of March 2017.

 


[i] See notably Baker and Smith 2015; Drescher 2016; Hout and Fischer 2002; Lim, MacGregor and Putnam 2010; Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme 2017; Wilkins-Laflamme 2015

[ii] See notably Beaman and Tomlins 2015; Garcia and Blankholm 2016; LeDrew 2015; Lee 2015; Manning 2015; Zuckerman, Galen and Pasquale 2016

[iii] See notably Baker and Smith 2009; Block 2017; Marks 2017; Veevers 1990

[iv] Block 2017; Marks 2017


REFERENCES

Baker, Joseph O’Brian and Buster G. Smith. 2009. “The Nones: Social Characteristics of the Religiously Unaffiliated.” Social Forces 87(3): 1251-1263.

Baker, Joseph O’Brian and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: New York University Press.

Beaman, Lori and Steven Tomlins, eds. 2015. Atheist Identities – Spaces and Social Contexts. New York: Springer.

Block, Tina. 2017. The Secular Northwest: Religion and Irreligion in Everyday Postwar Life. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Drescher, Elizabeth. 2016. Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. Oxford University Press.

Garcia, Alfredo and Joseph Blankholm. 2016. “The Social Context of Organized Nonbelief: County-Level Predictors of Nonbeliever Organizations in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 55 (1): 70-90.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67: 165-90.

LeDrew, Stephen. 2015. The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann MacGregor and Robert Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49 (4): 596-618.

Manning, Christel. 2015. Losing our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents are Raising their Children. New York: New York University Press.

Marks, Lynne. 2017. Infidels and the Damn Churches: Irreligion and Religion in Settler British Columbia. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Thiessen, Joel and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme. 2017. “Becoming a Religious None: Irreligious Socialization and Disaffiliation.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Online advanced access available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jssr.12319/full

Veevers, Jean E. 1990. “Canadian Regional Differences in Religious Unaffiliation: The Catholic-Protestant Factor.” The Canadian Journal of Sociology 15 (1): 77-83.

Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2015. “How Unreligious are the Religious ‘Nones’? Religious Dynamics of the Unaffiliated in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Sociology 40 (4): 477-500.

Zuckerman, Phil, Luke W. Galen and Frank L. Pasquale. 2016. The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. New York: Oxford University Press.


Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada. She completed her DPhil in sociology at Nuffield College, University of Oxford (2010-2015). Her research interests include sociology of religion, quantitative methods, social change, race, ethnicity and immigration and political sociology.

Joel Thiessen is professor of sociology and director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Canada. He specializes notably in the sociology of religion and non-religion. Dr. Thiessen obtained his MA and PhD at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

 

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[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

[Research] Atheism on YouTube for the last ten years

Looking at the spread and negotiation of a particular controversy between atheists andstaff-photo-1 Christians, Stephen Pihlaja examines how YouTube users negotiate tensions in a particular social space and how the collapse of a recognisable context for these negotiations affect the ways in which they put forth their beliefs. Pihlaja shows how close analysis of interaction on social media can provide insights about the religious arguments and discussions develop over time.

For the last ten years, my research (Pihlaja, 2013; 2014a; 2014b; 2011) has followed atheists and Christians on social media and YouTube. As a social media site, YouTube particularly has played an important role in the visibility of atheism, providing a platform for atheists to challenge religious dogma. This has been particularly true for the American context, where many of the YouTube atheists I have research are located. In America, atheism is still viewed with suspicion, and consistently one of the most distrusted minorities. Particularly in places like the deep southern states, identifying as an atheist remains problematic. YouTube, however, has facilitated ‘coming out’ as an atheist, a topic that has been of interest to researchers in the sociology of religion (Cimino and Smith, 2011, Smith and Cimino, 2012). The interaction of the dominant culture offline, and the emerging, bullish atheist culture on YouTube has created a kind of tension, where Christians would essentially come onto the site to ‘preach the gospel’.

Initially, my assumption about talk around religion on YouTube would focus on issues of theology and religious dogma. Unexpectedly, however, fewer of the disagreements were about the proof of God’s existence, and more were about who had insulted whom. The boundaries between religious and non-religious, as Hutchings suggests in his recent blog post, are not always simple to delineate, particularly when looking at real discourse. My book, Antagonism on YouTube, (Pihlaja, 2014a) looks at how these arguments, that seemed markedly small and petty in comparison to points of doctrine and theology, developed in one particular community of users. Adapting a discourse-centred online ethnographic approach (Androutsopoulos, 2008), I analysed the development of one particular argument, an instance where one Christian user called an atheist ‘human garbage’, after the atheist had insulted the Christian user’s wife.

The argument spread when the Christian user defended calling the atheist ‘human garbage’, using a Bible passage from the gospel of John. This action resulted in several kinds of responses: first, users (both Christians and atheists) who rejected the premise entirely, saying that it was never okay to call someone ‘human garbage’, regardless of the circumstances. Second, there were users who accepted this reading of the Bible (namely Christians) and said that although it was harsh, it was better to warn people about the truth than for them to end up being judged in hell. A third response, however, was the most interesting. These users argued not that it was wrong to call others ‘human garbage’, but that the Bible passage being used to condone it was being misread. The arguments focused on the use of metaphor and how users interpreted the parables of Jesus (Pihlaja, 2013).

While the Christians in my study argued over whether or not the Bible condoned calling other people ‘human garbage’, the atheists ridiculed the arguments and made the case that even the possibility that the language could be justified using the Bible showed how corrupting religion could be. However, like the arguments among the Christians about the reading of the Bible, an argument arose among the atheists about the extent to which the example of ‘human garbage’ could be used to condemn Christianity more generally, or if indeed, this was just an example of one person misreading the Bible. The atheists then argued back and forth about whether there were ‘good Christians’ and ‘bad Christians’ (Pihlaja, 2014b). These arguments as well were instructive in showing how discussions about religion and ideology can fall into very small, interpersonal discussions.

My research has shown that religious discussions and arguments cannot be divorced from the social context in which they take place. This has grown increasingly more complicated with the development of new mobile technology and the integration of offline and online lives. My research now (Pihlaja, forthcoming, 2017) looks at the ways in which ‘context collapse’ (or the diverse audiences watching users on social media from a variety of different, disparate backgrounds) has affected how users present themselves and their beliefs or lack of beliefs online. In 2006, many users couldn’t say they were atheists in offline settings, but could do so on YouTube; now, it’s potentially much easier to declare a lack of faith, but users have a growing awareness of all the different people watching them. There is an increased awareness of the multitude of online and offline audiences and the effect of this integration on how people of faith and no faith interact with one another is an important area of research going forward.


References

ANDROUTSOPOULOS, J. 2008. Potentials and Limitations of Discourse-Centred Online Ethnography. Language@Internet [Online], 5. Available: http://www.languageatinternet.org/articles/2008/1610 [Accessed June 6, 2016].

CIMINO, R. & SMITH, C. 2011. The New Atheism and the Formation of the Imagined Secularist Community. Journal of Media and Religion, 10, 24-38.

PIHLAJA, S. 2011. Cops, popes, kings, and garbage collectors: Metaphor and antagonism in an atheist/Christian YouTube video thread. Language@Internet [Online], 8. Available: http://www.languageatinternet.org/articles/2011/Pihlaja/ [Accessed 6 June 2013].

PIHLAJA, S. 2013. ‘It’s all red ink’: The interpretation of biblical metaphor among Evangelical Christian YouTube users. Language and Literature, 22, 103-117.

PIHLAJA, S. 2014a. Antagonism on YouTube: Metaphor in Online Discourse, London, Bloomsbury.

PIHLAJA, S. 2014b. ‘Christians’ and ‘bad Christians’: Categorization in atheist user talk on YouTube. Text & Talk, 34, 623-639.

PIHLAJA, S. forthcoming, 2017. Religious talk online: the online evangelical language of Muslims, Christians, and atheists, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

SMITH, C. & CIMINO, R. 2012. Atheisms unbound: The role of the new media in the formation of a secularist identity. Secularism and Nonreligion, 1, 17-31.


Stephen is an applied linguist, discourse analyst, and stylistician researching and teaching at Newman University in Birmingham UK. His research focuses on the discourse dynamics of talk on the Internet, particularly in online video around religious issues. His book Antagonism on YouTube: Metaphor in Online Discourse (Bloomsbury, 2014) focuses on the ways in which Christians and atheists argue online. He is currently completing a second monograph entitled Religious Talk Online: Muslim, Christian, and Atheist Discourse on Social Media, forthcoming on Cambridge University Press.

[Research] Post-Secular as an Alternative Tool

 

In this post, Samantha May challenges the tendency in the disciplines of Politics and International Relations of drawing a sharp line between religion and the secular. May makes a case for scholars in the field to acknowledge much more nuanced reality between the boundaries between religion/secular and public/private. By doing so, she re-introduces the significance of post-secularism as a way of responding properly to the reality that we live in.img_0277

Religious rhetoric appears on the rise yet the divide between the secular and the religious in Western scholarship has left us bereft of useful tools of analysis. From the Archbishop of Canterbury’s meetings with Prime Minister David Cameron (Mendick, 2015) to the Republican candidate Donald Trump calling on a ban of all Muslims travelling to the United States (Pilkington, 2015), religious actors and religious categorisations are repeatedly in the public domain. Thus I call for consideration of the post-secular paradigm which can accommodate and speak to the variety of religious and non-religious positions. Without doubt, this line of inquiry has been apparent in disciplines such as Anthropology and Sociology for decades and more, yet the disciplines of Politics and International Relations (PIR) have remained resistant to the reality of public religion specifically because it challenges the public/private divide which rests at the center of dominant PIR theories.

Post-secularism is an important theoretical position to engage with in PIR precisely because it allows a space for the religious and non-religious to create a dialogue where both positions are respected and neither relegated to archaic practices or private, marginalised domains. It essentially speaks to the empirical reality of our times where both the religious and the non-religious coexist and are mutually dependent even simply in terms of the dichotomy of ‘secular’ makes no sense without its oppositional other ‘religion.’ Additionally it can help us to understand the fluid nature of religion and religious practice which can no longer be contained coherently in the ‘traditional’ boxes of recognised world religions but blur the boundary between the spiritual and the profane. Post-secularism not only adds to the established critiques of secularisation theories but offers an alternative position which allows us all to take seriously religious sentiments and grants the possibility of increased understanding of our contemporary political world. Methodologically post-secularism invites a mutli-disciplinary approach to understanding global political events broadly that can combine existing work from a variety of the social sciences in additional to theological and religious debates. Post-secularism thus opens the gateway for PIR studies to re-engage with religion in the public sphere.

The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, stated that Muslim refugees threaten Europe’s Christian identity (Traynor, 2015). I do agree with the Hungarian PM that remembrance of our Christian history – the good, the bad and the ugly- is imperative, but perhaps for different reasons than Orbán may defend. To forget impoverishes our understanding, of self, history and the presence of the past. Forgetting endangers repeats of the past which include the crusades, the religious wars in Europe, the witch trials, the ghettoisation of Jewish communities and Jewish programs amongst a plethora of other examples. To forget our religious history creates an assumption that religious violence has always been carried out by ‘Them’ and never ‘Us’. Perhaps more importantly forgetting skewers our memories of the enormous potential religion has for the common good, charitable systems, interfaith dialogue, peace and reconciliation and so on and so on. However, the forgetting of our Christian past cannot be blamed on the Other – the responsibility is Ours.

As many scholars have already articulated, secularism can take many forms. Secularism in Britain has been associated with an accompanying normative and ideological process whereby to be secular was to be non-religious (i.e., rational and modern) (Asad et al., 2014: p.vii). The ideological assumption to this notion of secularisation is that religion is ‘backward’ and thus to retain religious beliefs somehow flies in the face of modern science. Thus to publically discuss religion and religious history in everyday life becomes a social faux pas. The consequences of this normative process have been the growth of a generation largely ignorant of the (debated) ‘Christian’ identity of Britain. The point being, that if non-Christian refugees were indeed a threat to Europe’s ‘Christian’ identity, as Orbán suggests, there would need to be a real understanding of what Christian values and practices actually are throughout the population.

Neither should it be assumed that the history of ‘Christian’ values are shared by all of society. A recent YouGov poll indicated that only 32% of the British population believes in a God (Jordan, 2015). The line that religion in general is in decline in Britain (and Western Europe generally) provides the only piece of evidence that secularism- understood here as a decline in religious belief – is a real phenomenon. Yet, what is considered as “religious” perhaps needs redefining in our contemporary society. The same YouGov poll found that 20% still believed in a higher power albeit not a “god”. Another YouGov poll found that while less than half of the population considered themselves ‘religious’ 1 in 3 (34%) believed in the existence of ghosts (Dahlgreen, 2014). The dichotomy between what is secular and what is spiritual is increasingly (if always) blurred and fluid. According to Asad et. al ‘“secularism does not merely organize the place of religion in nation-states and communities but also stipulates what religion is and ought to be…’ (2013: p.ix).

Post-secularism here should not be understood as the absence of secularism but simply that the religious, the non-religious, the spiritual and the secular coexist and are best thought of as ‘overlapping’ (Falk, 2014: p.34). No longer can we claim with any empirical evidence that religion or belief is absent from the public domain, though its nature may have changed. Post-secularism as both a theory and a methodology assists my own work regarding Muslim charities in the UK and the consequences of political policy as it allows religious practice and theological concerns to be taken seriously which in turn challenge pre-conceived assumptions regarding the motivations of charitable giving, and the distribution of alms: which more dominant theories in PIR cannot accommodate while maintaining the public/private divide and marginalising religion and belief to ‘private’ practice.

Post-secular theory can be considered in at least two ways: the first being simply the recognition of the resilience of religion in the public sphere and the second as a radical critique of secular theory and the emergence of a new intellectual paradigm that questions the empirical reality of the public/private divide (Mavelli and Petito 2012: 931). Importantly, it allows us to understand that neither belief nor non-belief is the default option for individuals in society. A range of options are now available so that non-belief, religion, and spirituality are all now legitimate options amongst many others (Wilson, 2014: p.222). Rather than using the dichotomy of either religion or secularity, post-secularism allows the codependent language of ‘both’/’and’ (Wilson, 2014: 234). As Mahmood has argued, ‘The secular and the religious are not opposed but intertwined both historically and conceptually such that it is impossible to inquire into one without engaging with the other’ (Mahmood, 2013: p.140). Post-secular theory thus allows the breakdown of opposing dichotomies of religion and secular. This then provides a useful tool to examine the abundance of differing perspectives in a world where religion refuses to disappear and is shaped and re-shaped by its co-dependent, the secular.


References

Asad, T, Brown, W, Butler, J & Mahmood, S. 2013.Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech, Fordham University Press, New York.

Dahlgreen. W. 2014. ‘”Ghosts Exist”, say 1 in 3 Brits’, YouGov, https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/10/31/ghosts-exist-say-1-3-brits/

Richard Falk. 2014. “Achieving political Legitimacy in the Twenty First Century: Secular and Post Secular Imperatives” pp.41-48 in pp13-38 (eds) Mavelli and Petito, Towards a Post Secular International Politics: New Forms of Community, Identity and Power, (Palgrave Macmillan; Basingstoke).

Jordan, W. 2015. ‘A Third of British Adults don’t believe in a higher power’, YouGov, https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/02/12/third-british-adults-dont-believe-higher-power/

Mavelli and Petito. 2012. ‘The Post-Secular in International Relations: An Overview’, Review of International Studies, 38.5.

Mendick, R. 2015. ‘Archbishop of Canterbury spoke with David Cameron and to the House of Lords regarding plight of Syrian Christian refugees’, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/11860902/Archbishop-warns-Cameron-over-Syrian-refugees.html

Pilkington, E. 2015. ‘Donald Trump: ban all Muslims entering U.S’, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/07/donald-trump-ban-all-muslims-entering-us-san-bernardino-shooting

Traynor, I. 2015. ‘Migration Crisis: Hungary PM says Europe in grip of Madness’, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/03/migration-crisis-hungary-pm-victor-orban-europe-response-madness

Wilson, E. K. 2014. “Faith-Based Organisations and Post Secularism in Contemporary International Relations” in (eds) Mavelli and Petito, Towards a Post Secular International Politics: New Forms of Community, Identity and Power, (Palgrave Macmillan; Basingstoke).


Samantha May is a Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen and award holder of the Leverhulme Early Careers Fellowship for the project entitled: “ Zakat in the UK: Islamic Giving, Citizenship and Government Policy”.

Blog: A Glance at Central Asia through Post-Secular Lenses

Henrik Ohlsson Picture

In this contribution, Henrik Ohlsson draws on research conducted in post-Soviet central Asia to clarify what it means to be “post-secular”, arguing that this term is distinct from the idea of a “return to religion”.


Given that debate continues around the much contested terms “secular” and “secularisation”, it is perhaps unsurprising that the “post-secular”, contingent as it is on the former concepts, remains ambiguous. In this article, I argue that the “post-secular” is distinct from a “return to religion”.  Drawing on the work of Mustapha Kamal Pasha (2012), I suggest elements of a framework for studying and thinking about post-secularity, using the post-Soviet states in Central Asia as example cases.

Colonized by Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries, and subsequently part of the Soviet Union, post-Soviet Central Asia shares some historical experiences with other colonized regions. However, the long period of Soviet socialism sets the region apart, and the abrupt break with the Soviet system and its ideology adds another dimension to the region’s unique historical situation.

The term post-secular has mostly been used in relation to Western countries – societies assumed to be quite thoroughly secularized. In that context, the framework of post-secularity was developed as a critique of older theories, which tended to assume that secularization was an inevitable, one-way process. It was used as a framework to understand the continued presence and relevance of religion. However, the post-secular should not be confused with the pre-secular. It is not merely incomplete secularization, nor is it a “return to religion”. The post-secular develops in a landscape already transformed by secularization. Thus, it seems quite pointless to apply this terminology to parts of the world which have not passed through the same historical stages and processes as Western countries.

Mustapha Kamal Pasha (2012) has tried to widen the post-secular framework to include Muslim dominated parts of the world. He criticizes existing secularization narratives for essentializing Islam – portraying a singular Islam that resists modernity and struggles to return to age old customs. Instead of interpreting recent changes as a return to the religious, Pasha points to the rupture and displacement of religion in Muslim dominated countries in late modernity. He uses term rupture to refer to the discontinuity and breakdown in religious practice and tradition. Displacement refers to the ways in which religion is placed in relation to other spheres of life and society. Thus, displacement entails an ontological dislocation – a shift in the meaning of religion.

The post-Soviet territories may constitute a special case of post-secularity, due to the abruptness of the ideological and political changes that took place first in the revolution of 1917 and the following civil war, and later when the Soviet system collapsed. This collapse opened an ideological vacuum which is often described as having enabled a “religious revival”. However, this idea is dangerously close to the problematic idea of a “return to religion”. Using a post-secular framework, where the rupture and displacement of religion are taken into account, we can understand the developments after the collapse of the Soviet Union in a more multidimensional way.

Applying this framework in discourse analysis, we can direct our attention to the meaning, contextual placement, and historical continuities and discontinuities of words like “religion”. The very fact that the concept “religion” is widely used in post-Soviet states, in colloquial as well as official language, is an indication of the secularization process the region has gone through.  Secularization takes place in, and is evidenced by, language.  As the term “religion” is used, the concept becomes distinguished from other spheres of life.  From this perspective, we can talk of a post-secular turn when “religion” has already become a distinct concept, and then we observe significant shifts in its meaning, role and status.

The Russian colonization of Central Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Soviet era in the 20th, had an enormous impact on religious life in the region – a rupture, in the terminology used here – causing discontinuities in religious practice and religious memory. In the course of the Soviet era, the official strategy changed, ranging from efforts to eradicate religion, to the incorporation of religious structures in the state apparatus on a central as well as on a local level. Thus, the rupture caused a displacement and, through this, a redefinition of religion.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian governments all had to develop new strategies for coping with religion. On the one hand, these governments had recently been part of the staunchly secular Soviet political culture. On the other, they saw a need for new unifying identity factors in the nation building process. Their strategies ranged from embracing traditional Sunni Islam in an officially approved version (as seen most clearly in Uzbekistan, where the government draws heavily on the country’s past as a centre of Islamic civilization), to assigning cult status to the leader’s person (as in Turkmenistan, where quotes from Saparmurat Niyazov’s own spiritual writings are chiseled on the portal to the capital’s main mosque). Some parts of the region have attempted to rejuvenate pre-Islamic religious traditions, such as Zoroastrianism.

In the course of conducting research for my Master’s thesis, I examined secondary school textbooks in Kazakhstan – officially approved teaching materials. I found attempts to accommodate religion in culture and society, assigning to it a continuously important and positive role in societal and cultural development.

This positive accommodation stands in contrast to the way in which religion is handled by the judicial system:  Kazakhstani courts uphold a strict separation between religion and politics, a pattern inherited from the Soviet Union. This is seen on a constitutional level as well as in criminal law, where restrictions on religious activities are increasingly severe.

A discourse analysis using the post-secular framework, in the way I have sketched it here, means paying attention to the (dis)placement and meaning of the word “religion” in different discourses (e.g. school textbooks, legal texts, and political rhetoric).  A comparative discourse analysis, involving material from different historical periods, could add a temporal dimension by observing ruptures (discontinuities) which have occurred gradually over time, or suddenly at particular historical moments.

References

Pasha, Mustapha Kamal, 2012. Islam and the postsecular, Review of International Studies, 38(5), pp.1041-1056.


Henrik Ohlsson holds an MA in History of religions from Stockholm University. He specializes in the Central Asian region, and is co-founder of the think-tank Eurasia Forum: http://forumeurasien.org/en/.