[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.


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.

[Methods Series] On the Virtues of a Meaning Systems Framework for Studying Nonreligious and Religious Worldviews in the Context of Everyday Life

Opening the new monthly issue of the [SSNB]-NSRN [methods blog series], Ann Taves explores one of the central questions in contemporary nonreligious studies – and a long-standing religious studies, too: how to understand and describe the object of study. Providing an overview of recent propositions arising from psychology, sociology and anthropology, she sets out a proposal for a meaning systems approach.taves

In this blog post, I want to take up the central challenge facing those who aim to study nonreligion or secularity and one that has long plagued scholars of religion — that of specifying an object of study.[i] Although several good suggestions have been made, I think we can do a better job of capturing the range of things we want to study by adapting the meaning systems (MS) framework,[ii] already in use in psychology, for our purposes. The MS framework, which was designed to encompass both religious and nonreligious meaning systems,[iii] allows us to conceptualize our object of study in generic terms. It offers a dynamic framework that has already generated a body of empirical research on the interaction between meaning systems (implicit and explicit) and meaning making in particular situations. Although much of this research has focused on how people cope with trauma, psychologists have extended it to other contexts, including conversion and spiritual transformation.[iv] Here I suggest we can build on the framework’s basic distinction between global meaning systems (GMS) and situational meaning (SM) by elaborating the concept of GMS in light of the literature on worldviews and the concept of SM in light of ‘situational’ elements, such as practices, networks, institutions, and ways of life, that are typically studied by scholars of religion under the rubric of ‘lived religion.’

The Problem

The new focus on ‘nonreligion’ helpfully expands our focus beyond the traditional focus on atheism or ‘nonbelief’.[v] In characterizing our object of study as nonreligion, we are indicating that we want to think about it – whatever it is — in relation to religion. In effect, we are setting up a comparison. But we lack two things: an overarching framework in which both religion and nonreligion fit and specific features that we want to compare. It is as if we set out to compare apples and oranges without realizing that they are both fruits or specifying which features of these two fruits we wanted to compare.

Proposed Solutions

Both Thomas Coleman and Lois Lee have made significant attempts to address this issue. Coleman et al. propose ‘horizontal transcendence’ as a way to characterize experiences that people view as profoundly meaningful and at the same time neither religious nor spiritual.[vi] ‘Experiences that people consider profoundly meaningful’ are an important feature that – I agree – we want to compare, but they are only one potential aspect of ‘nonreligion’. We need something more encompassing. Lee makes a case for ‘existential cultures’ as an umbrella term that captures theist, atheist, humanist, and other nonreligious subcultures and allows us to consider lived existential practices as well as more explicit existential beliefs.[vii] In applying this terminology, however, Lee struggled to conceptualize those she characterized as ‘anti-existential’ (or Schnell as existentially indifferent[viii]), that is, those who didn’t want to think about existential questions. Moreover, in defining ‘existentialism’ broadly in terms of ‘ultimate questions,’ she highlights a feature that – as she acknowledges — has long been associated with the concept of ‘worldviews’.

An Alternative

Although I appreciate these attempts, I think that ‘worldviews,’ as discussed in the philosophical literature, better captures the sense of the ‘big questions’ (BQs) that Lee associates with ‘existential philosophies.’[ix] Not only is the term ‘worldviews’ readily recognizable and in widespread popular use, it has generated an extensive academic discussion in philosophy and the social sciences since proposed by Kant.[x] Within religious studies, some have advocated studying religions as worldviews,[xi] and others a shift from studying religions to studying worldviews more generally.[xii] Within psychology, we find explicit discussion of worldviews in the context of terror management theory[xiii] and equivalents in existential theory of mind[xiv] and in the concept of a global meaning system within a meaning systems approach.[xv]

Although there are many different definitions within philosophy, the concept emerged in response to a desire to relativize religious outlooks.[xvi] The interdisciplinary ‘worldviews’ research group led by Apostel and van der Veken explicitly characterized worldviews as offering answers to six fundamental philosophical questions.[xvii]


Variations on these BQs have been used to structure world religions textbooks[xviii] and textbooks in the history and philosophy of science,[xix] where they provide a framework for comparison.

Although worldviews can be used to compare elaborate philosophical and religious systems, we do not need to conceive of worldviews as explicit or well developed. They can be implicit or explicit, taken for granted or reflected upon, and surfaced on a need-to-know basis, through interaction, formal dialogue, or active cultivation. Worldviews, nonetheless, still smack of ‘beliefs’ and don’t capture the range of practices, institutions, or everyday ways of life that we associate with religions and spiritualities, nor do they provide a framework for analyzing how implicit or explicit worldviews interact with these other aspects of life.

Here I would suggest that we meld the philosophical and religious discussion of worldviews with the psychological literature on global meaning systems that researchers have used primarily to study coping in situations of trauma, loss, and bereavement. This is a generic framework that can be (and has been) linked with religious meaning systems.[xx]


Although the MS literature has been primarily concerned with ‘situations’ that stand out because they are traumatic, we can think of ‘situations’ as the generic context in which everyday or lived meaning is made. The situations or events considered could range from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary, the traumatic to the ecstatic, or the mundane to the highly significant. They would, thus, include ‘experiences that people consider profoundly meaningful,’ some of which, as Coleman et al. suggested may be considered as instances of ‘horizontal transcendence’.[xxvii] Situations and events do not need to be described in the ‘thin’ terms characteristic of psychologists, but can be richly characterized in the socio-cultural-environmental terms that characterize research in history, anthropology, and religious studies.

In characterizing situations more richly, however, humanists should not lose sight of the MS researchers’ interest in dynamic processes, e.g., the role of GMS in the appraisal of situations or events, the interactions between GMS and SM in those contexts, and the way that meaning is discovered and transformed in relation to situations or events. Based on our deeper immersion in the particulars of religious and nonreligious contexts – whether historically or ethnographically – we can seek to identify the factors that make a difference in these dynamics across worldviews and cultural contexts.

Lee’s conception of existential cultures could be assimilated with this approach. She clearly views existential cultures as constituted by the meaning making processes inherent in everyday life. As she observes,[xxviii] ‘thinking of meaning making, not as a narrow, philosophical practice but as something enacted in multiple ways, small and large, in everyday life calls into question the idea that large groups of people can be easily located outside the existential cultural field’. Within both the MS and worldview literature,[xxix] there are those that would push this point farther, claiming that all organisms – not just humans — require a GMS or worldview, rudimentary as it might be from a human perspective, in order to function. If we view meaning systems this broadly, it allows us to think about them within an evolutionary framework, asking why and under what conditions humans have sought to elaborate the explicit worldviews we think of as philosophies and religions.

Further reading

Leontiev, Dmitry A., ed. 2015. Positive psychology in search for meaning. Routledge. Originally published as a special issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology.

Markman, Keith D., Travis Proulx, and Matthew J. Lindberg, eds, 2013, The Psychology of Meaning. Washington, DC: APA Press.

Ann Taves is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara where, among other things, she is designing an introductory course on “Comparing Religions and Other Worldviews” and supervising the interdisciplinary Religion, Experience, and Mind Lab Group.  She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Fits, Trances, and Visions (Princeton, 1999) and Religious Experience Reconsidered (Princeton, 2009).  Her new book, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths, is forthcoming from Princeton in October 2016.

[i] Thanks to Tommy Coleman, Lois Lee, and Ray Paloutzian for their helpful feedback and comments.

[ii] Roy F. Baumeister, 1991, Meanings of Life. Guilford; Crystal Park and S. Folkman. 1997, ‘Meaning in the context of stress and coping,’ Review of General Psychology 1, 115-144; Crystal Park, 2010, ‘Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events,’ Psychological Bulletin 136(2), 257-301; Keith D. Markman, Travis Proulx, and Matthew J. Lindberg, eds, 2013, The Psychology of Meaning. Washington, DC: APA Press.

[iii] Crystal Park, 2005, ‘Religion and meaning’, in Paloutzian and Park, Handbook. Guilford; Crystal Park, 2013, Religion and meaning, in Paloutzian and Park, Handbook, 2nd ed. Guilford.

[iv] Raymond F. Paloutzian, 2005, ‘Religious conversion and spiritual transformation: A meaning-systems analysis’, in Paloutzian and Park, eds., Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Guilford; Raymond Paloutzian, Sebastian Murken, Heinz Streib, and Sussan Rossler-Namini, 2013, ‘Conversion, deconversion, and spiritual transformation: A multi-level interdisciplinary view’, in Paloutzian and Park (eds), The Handbook of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. Guilford.

[v] Lois Lee, 2012, ‘Talking about a revolution: Terminology for the new field of Non-religion Studies’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1), 129-139.

[vi] Thomas J. Coleman III, Christopher F. Silver, and Jenny Holcombe, 2013, ‘Focusing on horizontal transcendence: Much more than a ‘non-belief’, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 21(2), 1-18.

[vii] Lois Lee, 2015, Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Lois Lee and Stephen Bullivant, in press, The Dictionary of Atheism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[viii] Tatjana Schnell, 2010, ‘Existential indifference: Another quality of meaning in life’, Journal of Humanistic Psychology 50, 351-373.

[ix] Markman et al. (Psychology of Meaning, 1) acknowledge the key role that existential philosophy and psychology played in reflecting on the BQs in a nonreligious context, but indicate that, while ‘once the province of existential philosophy, existential psychology, and the related clinical literature, meaning is a word that appears with greater frequency within the social, cognitive, and cognitive neuroscience literatures’. The shift from ‘existential’ to ‘meaning’ highlights the issue of central concern for existentialists without appropriating their distinctive self-descriptions, and, at the same time, allows to us to shift our focus to processes of meaning or sense making across a wide range of disciplines, contexts, and even organisms.

[x] David K. Naugle, 2002, Worldview: The History of a Concept, Eerdmans.

[xi] Ninian Smart, 2000, Worldview: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs, 3rd ed. Prentice Hall; Mark Juergensmeyer, 2010, ‘2009 Presidential Address: Beyond war and words: The global future of religion’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78(4), 882-895.

[xii] Christa Anbeek, Hans Alma, and Saskia van Goelst Meijer, under review, ‘Contrast experiences and social imaginaries as spaces for truth-seeking’, in Guido Vanheeswijck and Hans Alma, eds. Social Imaginaries in a Globalizing World, DeGruyter; Andre F. Droogers, and Anton van Harskamp, 2014, Methods for the Study of Religious Change: From Religious Studies to Worldview Studies, London: Equinox.

[xiii] Melissa Landau, Mark J. Soenke, and Jeff Greenberg, 2013, Sacred armor: Religion’s role as a buffer against the anxieties of life and the fear of death, in Kenneth I. Pargament (ed), APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, vol. 1: 105-122.

[xiv] Jesse Bering, 2002, ‘The Existential Theory of Mind’, Review of General Psychology 6 (1): 3–24; Thomas J. Coleman III, and Ralph W. Hood, Jr, 2015, Reconsidering everything: From folk categories to existential theory of mind, Religion and Society: Advances in Research 6 (2015): 18-22.

[xv] Park, ‘Making sense’; Raymond F. Paloutzian, 2017, Invitation to the Psychology of Religion, 3rd ed. Guilford.

[xvi] Naugle, Worldview.

[xvii] Vidal, C. 2008,‘Wat is een wereldbeeld? (What is a worldview?)’ in Van Belle, H. & Van der Veken, J., eds, Nieuwheid denken. De wetenschappen en het creatieve aspect van de werkelijkheid, Acco, Leuven, 4.

[xviii] Stephen Prothero, 2010, God is Not One. Harper One; Brodd, Jeffrey, et al. 2016. Invitation to World Religions, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.

[xix] Richard DeWitt, 2010, Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science, 2nd edition, Wiley-Blackwell.

[xx] Park, ‘Religion and meaning’.  [It should have been Park 2013; I am citing the two version of her ‘Religion and meaning’ chapters in the 1st and 2nd editions of the handbooks 2005, 2013.]

[xxi] Park, ‘Making sense’, 258

[xxii] Johannes Quack and Cora Schuh, eds, forthcoming, Religious Indifferences: Between and Beyond Religion and Nonreligion, New York: Springer.

[xxiii] Schnell, ‘Existential indifference’.

[xxiv] Roxane Cohen Silver and John Updegraff, 2013, ‘Searching for and finding meaning following personal and collective traumas’, in Markman, Proulz, and Lindbergh, eds. Psychology of Meaning, APA Press.

[xxv] Dmitry A. Leontiev, 2013, Personal meaning: A challenge for psychology, Journal of Positive Psychology 8 (6), 459-470; Crystal Park and Login S. George, 2013, Assessing meaning and meaning making in the context of stressful life events: Measurement tools and approaches, Journal of Positive Psychology 8(6), 483-504.

[xxvi] Samantha J. Heintzelman and Laura A. King, 2013, On knowing more than we can tell: Intuitive processes and the experience of meaning, Journal of Positive Psychology 8 (6), 471–482.

[xxvii] Coleman et al., ‘Horizontal transcendence’.

[xxviii] Lee, Recognizing the Non-religious, 172.

[xxix] Jordan B. Peterson, 2013, ‘Three forms of meaning and the management of complexity’, in Markman, Keith D., Travis Proulx, and Matthew J. Lindberg, eds, The Psychology of Meaning, APA Press; Raymond Paloutzian and Katelyn Mukai, 2017, ‘Believing, remembering, and imagining: The roots and fruits of meanings made and remade’, in Angel, H.-F., Oviedo, L. Paloutzian, R. F., Runihov, A. L. C., & Seitz, R. J., Process of Believing: The Acquisition, Maintenance, and Change in Creditions. Heidelberg: Springer; Vidal, ‘Wat is een wereldbeeld? (What is a worldview?)’


[Blog Series] Using Neuromodulation to Change Belief – and Unbelief

Valerie van Mulukom introduces cognitive research exploring how religious beliefs can be modulated. She shows how reframing such research as stimulating of ‘unbelief’ open new avenues for new ways of exploring the nature of unbelief and its similarities and dissimilarities to religious and spiritual beliefs.

Recent technological advances have made it possible to influence brain processes through Valerie van Mulukom_005 - storneuromodulation. This is a technology which influences neurons in the brain through either focused magnetic fields (such as in transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS for short) or a weak electrical current emitted by electrodes placed on the skull (transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS for short). TMS can induce or impede action potentials in neurons, thus stimulating or inhibiting brain regions, while tDCS modulates the neuronal excitability of the target area – this can be positive, when the neuronal excitability is increased, or negative, when the neuronal excitability is decreased.[i]

There are early records of using electricity to influence brain activity: in the 11th Century, a physician called Ibn-Sidah suggested that a live electric catfish could be used for the treatment of epilepsy.[ii] The use of electrical currents for neurostimulation as we know it now did not occur until the turn of the century, however. While most of these early neurostimulation studies focused on the motor cortex, research has since then expanded to questioning whether we can also modulate higher cognitive processes such as beliefs.

There are only a handful of studies where neuromodulation was used to try modifying belief. A number of these concern general mechanisms of belief, such as a study by Takeo Tsujii and colleagues.[iii] They demonstrated that stimulating the inferior frontal cortex through TMS affects the belief-bias effect, which occurs when people reject valid arguments with unbelievable conclusions and endorse invalid arguments with believable conclusions. Consider the example: ‘No mammals are birds. All pigeons are mammals. Therefore, no pigeons are birds’. While the beliefs represented are incongruent with beliefs about the world, the reasoning in this example is actually correct (‘No B are Z. All P are B. Therefore, no P are Z.’). In their study, Tsuji and colleagues found that stimulation of the right inferior frontal gyrus  enhanced the belief-bias effect, whereas stimulation of the left inferior frontal gyrus eliminated the belief-bias effect.

Elsewhere, Colin Holbrook and colleagues from the University of California used neuromodulation methods in a study on explicit religious belief assessed through the Supernatural Belief Scale.[iv] They used a TMS technique called theta-burst stimulation to decrease religious beliefs following a reminder of death.[v] Typically, a mortality reminder or a similar threat increases conviction in religious beliefs; however, when activity in the posterior medial frontal cortex was decreased through TMS, this resulted in decreased conviction in religious beliefs, in particular for positive religious beliefs (such as God, angels, Heaven, as opposed to the Devil, demons, etc.). The posterior medial frontal cortex was targeted as it has previously been implicated in shifts in ideological commitment or abstract beliefs following threats, functions which in this study were impeded by inhibitory TMS.

Two other studies by Crescentini and colleagues suggest that neuromodulation can be used to either increase or decrease religious belief. In the first study, activity in the inferior parietal lobe (IPL) was inhibited through TMS, after which the participants’ religious and spiritual beliefs were measured through an implicit association test (see Blog article by Järnefelt on implicit measures).[vi] They found that the temporary inhibition of the IPL increased implicit religious and spiritual beliefs. They chose this region of the brain because previous research noted its involvement with the awareness of the self and body in space, including the sense of self-transcendence, which many psychologists and neuroscientists claim to be an important mechanism underlying religious and spiritual beliefs.

In the second study, they used theta-burst stimulation TMS, but contrary to the previous findings, when activity in the IPL was inhibited, participants’ religious and spiritual beliefs were unchanged. However, when excitability of the IPL was increased, this decreased implicit religious and spiritual beliefs. While the differences in findings between these two studies need be explained (possibly through the differences in neuromodulation methodology), together these initial findings suggest that religious beliefs, at least when measured implicitly, can be modified to some extent by either inhibiting or exciting a region of the brain.

Together these studies suggest that neuromodulation can induce changes in beliefs. The majority of the studies used TMS, and in particular inhibitory TMS. A number of questions remain, and they point to questions of significance for the study of ‘unbelieving’ as well as religious and spiritual forms of believing: How long lasting and powerful are the effects of neuromodulation on belief, and what does this tell us about the stability of belief and unbelief between contexts and over time? Can neuromodulation turn an atheist into a devout believer – or a religious individual into an ardent atheist? Or do articulate forms of ‘positive atheism’ also provide opportunities for self-transcendence so that some forms of unbelief behave similarly to religious and spiritual belief? What brain regions need to be targeted to achieve these changes, and what does this tell us about the nature of belief and unbelief? Can tDCS, a more affordable method of neuromodulation, induce the same effects as TMS in studies on belief?

This is a promising new brave world of research in the science of belief and unbelief. We look forward to what further insights it will bring on the nature, mechanisms and modification of both.

[i] Some of the other main differences between these techniques are that TMS produces more discomfort than tDCS, which makes it harder to create appropriate control trials. Moreover, TMS is expensive, whereas tDCS can be administered with less sophisticated devices, which are more affordable and readily accessible (some can be purchased online for less than 300 USD).

[ii] Kellaway, P. (1946). The part played by electric fish in the early history of bioelectricity and electrotherapy. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 20, 112-137; cited in Brunoni, A. R., Nitsche, M. A., Bolognini, N., Bikson, M., Wagner, T., Merabet, L., … & Ferrucci, R. (2012). Clinical research with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS): challenges and future directions. Brain stimulation, 5(3), 175-195..

[iii] Tsujii, T., Sakatani, K., Masuda, S., Akiyama, T., & Watanabe, S. (2011). Evaluating the roles of the inferior frontal gyrus and superior parietal lobule in deductive reasoning: an rTMS study. Neuroimage, 58(2), 640-646.

[iv] Jong, J., Halberstadt, J., Bluemke, M. (2013). Foxhole atheism, revisited: the effects of mortality salience on explicit and implicit religious belief. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 983–989.

[v] Holbrook, C., Izuma, K., Deblieck, C., Fessler, D. M., & Iacoboni, M. (2016). Neuromodulation of group prejudice and religious belief. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(3), 387-394.

[vi] Crescentini, C., Aglioti, S. M., Fabbro, F., & Urgesi, C. (2014). Virtual lesions of the inferior parietal cortex induce fast changes of implicit religiousness/spirituality. Cortex, 54, 1-15; Crescentini, C., Di Bucchianico, M., Fabbro, F., & Urgesi, C. (2015). Excitatory stimulation of the right inferior parietal cortex lessens implicit religiousness/spirituality. Neuropsychologia, 70, 71-79.

Dr Valerie van Mulukom received her PhD in Psychology from the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her PhD focused on the cognitive neuroscience of memory and imagination, research which she has since applied to religion and belief. More specifically, she did research on memory and religious rituals as a postdoctoral researcher at Aarhus University, Denmark, and research on memory and group bonding as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, England. Currently, she is a research associate at the Brain, Belief and Behaviour group at Coventry University, where she focuses primarily on (un)belief and imagination. She is also interested in creativity and narratives, and plans to extend her work in those directions in the future as well.

[Blog Series] Creating Data about Nonreligious Belief

Abby Day is a leading sociologist of ‘belief’. Here, she sets out what working with ‘belief’ as a significant category of self-understanding can achieve, for religious ‘unbelievers’ as much as for ‘believers’. She encourages the use of analytical tools that respond to the complexity and multidimensionality of belief, and introduces her own seven-point method as one such approach.AbbyDayweb


‘What do you believe in?’ This was the opening question in my interviews research on belief, and it provoked a variety of responses – some perplexed, some religious, some not sure and some, defiantly, nonreligious.[i] Although my intention when creating those interviews was not to test Lois Lee’s definition of ‘nonreligion’ as being a state in relation to or with religion[ii] (she had not yet completed her research at that stage) it is, in retrospect, a question that could serve well in that endeavour. In this blog I will outline two main methodological issues that are raised when researching belief, and how nonreligion may spill out of the data being created.


Data are mute


One of the most common mistakes researchers in human sciences make, using qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods, is to state that ‘the data’ are saying something. Data say nothing. The researcher says it all through the subjective experience of conducting research; and all research in human sciences[iii] is subjective from the moment the research question is formed, through the research design, to the questions being asked and the conclusions drawn. I often wonder why, if 15-year-old kids can understand this, more mature researchers sometimes do not. I’m thinking here of ‘Jordan’ whose answer to my question ‘what do you believe in?’ drew us in conversation to his startling statement that he was a Christian, but believed in nothing. I was only surprised because my Christian-centric idea about belief carried with it all the heavy baggage of creeds, tenets, and words that seemed to define it.

People like Needham (1972) and Ruel (1982) already understood the Christian, unstable and non-generalizable roots to such notions of ‘belief’,[iv] and their solution was to avoid using the term altogether. In many ways, however, this response is to throw out the proverbial bathwater, since a conversation about ‘belief’ can bring up all the interesting, unstable and sometimes Christian-centric ideas that can richly inform our exploration.[v] From our conversations, I argued that Jordan was saying he was Christian because he was wanting to identify with his English culture, which for him (and for many others, I was to find) was constituted partly by a dominant Christian history. The data never ‘said’ that; I needed to, as Malinowski puts it, be an ethnographer who ‘has to construct the picture of the big institution, very much as the physicist constructs his [sic] theory from the experimental data, which always have been within reach of everybody, but needed a consistent interpretation’.[vi] My interpretation helped me revisit, redefine and nuance the notion of ‘belief’.

Most large surveys measure ‘beliefs’ without the surveyor having the possibility of engaging in such a conversation. This demonstrates that the survey designers assume the term is sufficiently stable and means the same thing to everyone for their methodology to be instructive. And so, for example, they ask people if they believe in life after death, assuming a sort of religious interpretation of heaven or hell. If people say ‘yes’, the surveyors may claim that the ‘data’ show a religious orientation without realising that the question itself is immersed in subjective ideas about what constitutes religion. Most people probably do believe in something like life after death, but they may not couch it in such religious terms. What they believe in, my qualitative studies suggest, is often related to the idea or experience of a spirit world, rather than a notion of an afterlife grounded in the theistic traditions that so often govern our thinking. That is why it is perfectly reasonable for an atheist to believe in life after death.

Nonreligious identification does not necessarily (or even frequently, perhaps) imply a state of materialism; it implies only a state of being other than religious (by somebody’s measure), just as atheism is not necessarily a state of being unspiritual, but a state of being other than theistic. Many nonreligious and nontheistic people in my study believed in ghosts, the continuing presence of deceased relatives, aliens and all sorts of interesting ‘other worldly’ entities and states. Many had even sensed such entities, leading me to create an idea of the sensuous social supernatural. Such categories cut across pre-conceived notions of ‘belief’ and ‘unbelief’, and allow us to build more complicated, and less binary models for understanding believing and believers as part of people’s lived lives.

Methodologically, realising that data don’t ‘speak’ – or, at least, that they are part of a broader conversation in which the researcher has played a determining role – is important because it creates a constant state of tension, uncertainty and, ideally, reflexivity in the researcher. For the study of nonreligious belief, this realisation can also free researchers from the strictures of preconceived concepts of what ‘unbelief’ entails, whilst still allowing us to work with those concepts constructively instead of discarding them altogether.


Beliefs are the stories we tell


One of the most productive ways of working with a more complicated notion of ‘belief’ is to explore what people tell us about believing. People have beliefs because those beliefs say something about them. In many places in the world, ‘believing in’ something or someone is a critical part of their identity. For example, when we want to express our love or support for someone, we tell them ‘I believe in you’. When we want to make a stand for values that orient, or we would like to think orient, our behaviour, we say ‘I believe in that [social justice, fairness, equality and so on]’. That beliefs are not usually seen as ‘facts’ to be proven is their purpose and strength. That is why it is so important for some religious people to depart from belief, to say that they do not believe in God, but know or experience God.

If beliefs are wrapped up in identity, then the only way we will get at them is to prompt people to tell us about themselves, to tell us stories. These ‘belief narratives’, as I like to call them, are stories that are sometimes clear and sometimes messy, and they can provide insights into at least seven aspects of what people believe in:

  • the content of their beliefs,
  • how they practise them,
  • where they got them from,
  • how salient they are to them,
  • what the function is for them,
  • when they exist for them,
  • and where.

Provoking these kind of multi-dimensional stories can lead us into a better understanding of the substance and contours of religion and nonreligion. It is how I discovered that people who said they were not religious in our interview could also be the same people that ticked the ‘Christian’ box on the national census. I created a category of nonreligious Christians who were, in three of the seven aspects (content, practice, source) I analysed above, nonreligious. The only time Christianity arose was when it had a certain salience and functioned to claim a kind of identity that was performed in the time and place of filling out a national census form. Keeping with Lee’s definition, the identity of nonreligion was only sparked when explicitly linked to a religious category by an instrument that forced a choice. That had all sorts of ramifications – some theoretical, some ethical, and some practical.[vii]

Researching such matters may be, at least at first, a little messy, but such are the matters themselves. Analytical tools that aim to disaggregate different elements of believing and to understand their complicated relations to religion, nonreligion and areligion, too, are necessary to grapple with this messiness. Messiness is not the same as meaninglessness. To many people, when they matter they really matter, mess and all.


Dr. Abby Day (Abby.day at gold.ac.uk) is Reader in Race, Faith and Culture in the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, where her teaching, research, writing and supervisions cover sociology of religion, media and religion, and critical criminology. Past Chair of the Sociology of Religion Study group in the British Sociological Association, her work focuses on improving the academic and public understanding of complex religious and non-religious identities, from ‘Christmas Christians’ to ‘Friday Muslims’. These manifestations are often tied to national, ethnic, gendered and historical identities.


[i] Abby Day, 2013 [2011]: Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Lois Lee, 2015. Recognizing The Non-Religious : Reimagining The Secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

[iii] This frequently also applies to natural science, as Latour argued (1993. We have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), but I am restricting my argument here to human sciences.

[iv] Rodney Needham, 1972. Belief, Language and Experience. Chicago: Chicago University Press; Malcolm Ruel, 1982. “Christians as Believers.” In Religious Organization and Religious Experience, ed. J. Davis, 9–32. ASA Monograph 21. London and New York: Academic Press.

[v] Day, 2013 [2011], Believing in Belonging.

[vi] Bronislaw Malinowski, 1961 [1922] Argonauts of the Western Pacific. New York: E.P. Dutton: 93.

[vii] Abby Day and Lois Lee, 2014 ‘Making Sense of Surveys and Censuses: Issues in Religious Self-Identification: Introduction,’ Religion, 44:3, 345-356.


NSRN/SSNB Methods blog series: May Round-Up


We are now one month into the methods blog series – a collaboration between the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief (SSNB) project* and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN). Over the next two months, we are looking forward to contributions from leading researchers working across the social sciences, including Abby Day, Ryan Cragun, Ann Taves, Phil Zuckerman and many more besides. Meanwhile, here’s a reminder of the blogs published in May:







* The Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief (SSNB) project focuses on the beliefs and meaning systems of nonreligious people. These ‘nonreligious beliefs’ include the religious, religious-like, and religion-related ideas and convictions of nonaffiliates and atheists, and a wide array of specific beliefs, such as those about God(s) and supernatural agents, the nature and meaning of life, and the moral status of religious traditions. The full project website is under construction; its launch will be announced on the NSRN website. The SSNB project is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, in collaboration with UCL, St Mary’s University Twickenham, Queen’s University Belfast, Coventry University and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN).

[Blog Series] Not for Girls? Gender and Researching Nonreligion

In the latest contribution to the SSNB/NSRN Methods Blog, Marta Trzebiatowska explores how we need to structure our methodologies to take account of gender – and how our methodologies may themselves be structured by gender.


A study of the intersection of gender and atheism (or nonreligion, secularity and similar, frequently related phenomena) poses complex methodological challenges. From the very outset – the point of research design – we need to decide on the issue to be explained. Take, for example, the striking gender imbalance in the atheist movement – one of the most prominent gender issues in the field. Why so few women? Journalists and bloggers have offered several explanations, the most common of which is the rampant misogyny that pervades atheist organisations (e.g. Marcotte, 2014). In responding to the accusation of sexism among New Atheists, one of its leading lights, Sam Harris, has argued that women simply dislike the movement’s critical posture, which ‘is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women’. He further proposes that the‘atheist variable’ lacks ‘this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe’ that appeals to women.[i] Clearly, Harris views women as fundamentally different from men. Needless to say, his argument can be viewed as reductionist and divisive. It paints women as uncritical, a soft glue which binds communities, driven by a predominantly female hormone. Needless to say, Harris felt the need to defend himself on his blog, saying that he is ‘not the sexist pig you’re looking for’.

But if we ignore the inflammatory rhetoric, Harris’s basic message merits some attention. Studies have shown that statistically (or as Harris puts it ‘as an aggregate’) women tend to be attracted to particular social activities, while men prefer others (e.g. Craig and Liberti, 2007). This is nothing to do with hormonal differences, but a lot to do with gendered socialisation, and what we could call ‘the feedback loop’. Individuals are generally more likely to choose activities and groups they feel an affinity with; for example, walking into a room filled with people very different from us does not encourage most of us to remain. In other words, if an atheist setting is a priori defined as male, complete with the characteristics and types of behaviour we as a culture associate with masculinity, then women, regardless of their personality and convictions, are less likely to feel they belong. This in turn reduces their participation and strengthens the purportedly masculine flavour of the setting. So Harris has a point in that women’s atheism can differ from that of men’s, in this social sense at least. This difference is what often makes everyday female atheism, and non-belief more generally, invisible.

Another possible explanation for the gender imbalance among the nonreligious is linked to commonly held misconceptions about nonreligion and atheism. If statistically women are more religious (and spiritual) than men, the assumed lack of beliefs and rituals associated with nonreligion can be off-putting.[ii] As one of my female (and nonreligious) undergraduate students said: ‘it’s so sad that [atheists] don’t believe in anything’. These are possibilities we can explore scientifically.

But certainly the initial gendering of the field matters too, and maybe even more than women’s inherent preferences. The more we can understand about the highly gendered construction and promotion of nonreligious discourses and activities, the clearer the reasons for women’s reluctance to get involved. Gender is not the property of individuals. We ‘do’ gender, and more often than not we do it as difference, thus a lot of the time individuals perform gender in ways that create and reinforce inequalities. This in turn means that women, more often than men, enter social situations in which they feel judged and restricted because of their female status. If an atheist space (real and virtual) is defined as masculine by the sheer fact that more men are present, a certain version of hegemonic masculinity, and by extension symbolic violence, is enacted on those who do not fit the model.

It may then be the case that women do not differ from men in their initial attraction to atheist activities, but the gap widens as a result of women’s direct experience of the atheist milieu. The initial gendering of the atheist movement, through the high profiles of its male figures and marginalisation of their female counterparts, sets the tone for the subsequent patterns of participation. In powerful illustration of this, we might note that Jennifer Hecht, Susan Jacoby, or Greta Christina – all significant figures in the Atheist movement – do not receive a fraction of media exposure that Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens have enjoyed. The process is part of ‘gender priming’, a psychological term referring to ‘the power of environments to signal to people whether or not they should enter a domain’ (Cheryan et al. 2009: 1058). Harris identifies the problem, then, but he is wrong to blame it on the shortage of estrogen. The atheist setting is continuously presented as stereotypically male, and thus becomes inhospitable to women.

This point can be extended to those of us who study nonreligion. Our research methodologies themselves are highly gendered. We focus on the immediately visible public expressions of atheism (e.g. New Atheism), not on the mundane and largely private actions, many of which are difficult to categorise and quantify. For example, a woman who teaches her children to say ‘LOL’ instead of ‘oh my God’ clearly practises a form of non-theism in her objection to cultural Christianity, but cannot be placed in a neatly pre-defined category, nor identified through studies of organised nonreligion. Her experience is therefore invisible when compared to a male member of an atheist movement.

The focus on atheism in studies of nonreligion is also inevitably gendered because the term ‘atheist’ tends to appeal more to men than to women who prefer ‘agnostic’ or ‘not religious’ (Schnell, 2015). In many ways, despite the strong feminist influence on social science methodologies, traditional notions of rationality and empiricism continue to define scholars’ approach to nonreligion. It can mean that researchers adjust their lens to the existing parameters and consequently block out phenomena that do not fit in.

This is why methodology and methods both matter enormously because they inevitably shape the findings and the eventual conclusions of our study. For many years sociologists of religion focused on the problem of leadership and gender in religious institutions but ignored the experiences of ordinary women who, by that point, constituted the majority of Christian churchgoers. This was a serious omission which negatively affected our understanding of gender and religiosity.

A similar mistake is being reproduced in the study of nonreligion. Obviously, female atheists who are vocal, active, and visible in the organised movement are worth studying (see Schwartz, 2013). We can learn a lot about the systemic barriers to women’s participation, as well as the dynamics of the interaction which set the tone in a way that may be hinder women’s activism. However, just like in the study of religion, we need to pay more attention to what goes on under the radar. There are plenty of female ‘nones’ out there who do not join a movement, or share their views on a public online or off-line platform – whether because they don’t want to or because they are prevented from doing so if they do. And yet their convictions inform their daily lives in ways we are only just beginning to realise, and to understand. We know that women ‘do’ religion differently than men, so why wouldn’t the same rule apply to nonreligion?


Cheryan, S. VC Plaut, P.G. Davies, and C.M. Steele. 2009. Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, no. 97: 1045-1060.

Craig, M.L. and R. Liberti. 2007. “‘Cause That’s What Girls Do”: the Making of a Feminized Gym. Gender & Society, vol. 21, no. 5: 676-699.  

Marcotte, A. 2014. Atheism’s Shocking Woman Problem: What’s Behind the Misogyny of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris? Salon, Oct 3.

Schnell, T. 2015. Dimensions of Secularity (DoS): An Open Inventory to Measure Facets of Secular Identities. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 25:4, 272-292.

Schwartz, Laura. 2013. Infidel Feminism: Secularism, Religion and Women’s Emancipation, England 1830-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[i] See https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/im-not-the-sexist-pig-youre-looking-for

[ii] See http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/23/qa-why-are-women-generally-more-religious-than-men/


[Blog Series] Measuring Atheism: Differentiating Non-religiosity and Anti-religiosity

In this post, Egbert Ribberink, Peter Achterberg and Dick Houtman explore the problematic nature of measuring and differentiating atheism, non-religion and anti-religiosity and call for using existing large-scale surveys to understand said phenomena. From their recent research they detail the particular obstacles they overcame and elucidate how different questions on measuring non-belief produce much different answers.


peter achterberg

Dick Houtman





In quantitative analysis, atheism is often used as a concept to describe those who state that they do not believe, when asked what they believe about God (for example Becker and de Wit) or those that indicate that they are not a member of a religious organization (for example Norris and Inglehart, p. 186). It seems as if researchers treat atheism as the ‘residual category’ in their study of religion. However, the recent debate on atheism, religious ‘nones’ and non-religiosity suggests that this sociological habit of categorizing non-believers and non-affiliates as atheists, does not do justice to the intricacies of the atheist identity (see Lee, Smith, Ribberink and Houtman, and LeDrew). There exists a great difference between say, an attender of an atheist gathering like the Sunday Assembly and a supporter of the American Atheists movement. Therefore, quantitatively oriented scholars should be very careful in their operationalization of the tolerant and almost spiritual kind of atheism on the one hand (better described as non-religious or a-religious; see Day and Lee for a discussion on these concepts), and the militant and provocative atheism on the other (better depicted as anti-religious).[i]

In our recent studies on non-religiosity and anti-religiosity in Western Europe, we discovered that operationalizing these differences is not so easy. We encountered three particular obstacles. First, the commonly used surveys for the study of religion, culture, and politics (for instance, EVS, ISSP) use different questions for measuring similar religious beliefs and attitudes. Second, they have very few items that lend themselves to distinguishing anti-religiosity from non-religiosity in general and religious indifference in particular. Third, there are a limited number of options for operationalizing different kinds of anti-religiosity, for example anti-Muslim sentiment. Now, researchers like us have two options: we could decide to dismiss datasets designed to measure religiosity as useless for understanding non-religiosity; or we could gloss over the differences and imagine that non-religiosity really is quite a straightforward matter. With this blog, we describe the way in which we overcame these pitfalls. We do not provide an exhaustive list of what can be achieved with these datasets on religiosity, but in discussing these three obstacles, we point to a number of important nuances to the data that analysts should attend to when quantitatively studying non-religiosity.


Different questions, different answers


In general, scholars of religion distinguish three different ways of measuring religiosity: practice, beliefs and affiliation. The same is true for non-religiosity. Looking at the most common measure of non-religiosity, namely non-belief, we find different outcomes, depending on which question is used.


  EVS 2 options EVS 4 options   ISSP 6 options
Czech Republic 54% 32% 37%
Germany 49% 35% 24%
Norway 45% 18% 18%
Table 1. Percentage of non-believers per country for different measures (Source: EVS 2008 and ISSP 2008).


In the EVS, the most commonly used question is: ‘Do you believe in God?’ with the answer categories ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘don’t know’. Furthermore, the EVS contains an item that asks what statement comes closest to describing the respondents’ beliefs. The answers are ‘I don’t really think there is any sort of spirit, God or life force’, ‘I don’t really know what to think’, ‘there is some sort of spirit or life force’, and ‘there is a personal God’. These measures reveal huge differences in the percentage of non-believers in several European countries. For the Czech Republic, for example, comparing the first yes/no measure with the second four-option measure reveals 22% fewer non-believers (32% of total population instead of 54%) and comparing the same two measures for Norway reveals an even larger difference at 27% (see table 1). Including the ISSP, the picture varies even more. This survey also gives several answer options (six possible answers, ranging from ‘I don’t believe in God’ to ‘I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it’). Out of the 22 countries that appear in both surveys, 6 have larger differences than 5%, with Germany as an outlier with 11% fewer non-believers according to the ISSP-measure. For Norway results are similar, while for the Czech Republic the ISSP-measure reveals 5% more non-believers. Scholars of religiosity, spirituality, non-religiosity and secularity should be aware how each of these measures reveals a different number of non-believers living in each country.


Non-believers, religious ‘nones’ or non-attenders?


Looking at other measures of non-religiosity, namely religious affiliation and attendance rates, the differences between countries are even more striking, in particular for the Scandinavian countries (see Table 2).


no belief no affiliation no attendance
Denmark 18% 14% 91%
Finland 11% 18% 92%
Norway 18% 16% 93%
Sweden 19% 29% 94%
Germany 24% 34% 84%
Netherlands 20% 41% 80%
Great Britain 14% 33% 72%
Table 2. Percentage of non-believers (6 categories), non-affiliates, and non-attenders (less than monthly) per country (Source: ISSP 2008).


Compared to other former Protestant countries, the Scandinavian countries boast low levels of non-affiliates and high levels of non-attendance. Students of non-religiosity (and media reportages quoting them) should be well aware of these differences and their underlying historical, cultural and political reasons (see Sherkat). In our studies we mostly use the attendance measure for determining country-level religiosity and non-religiosity, because this gives the best idea of people’s active, day-to-day religious practice. However, the reason for choosing one or the other measure should depend on the theoretical question at hand.


Non-religiosity and anti-religiosity in ISSP and EVS


Thus far we have discussed different ways of measuring non-religiosity. Choosing a proper measurement of anti-religiosity is even more difficult, because of the limited availability of answer categories in the different surveys. Anti-religiosity is an attitude of opposition towards religions and the religious. Several possible ways of measuring this attitude are found in the ISSP. For example, two items inquire into attitudes towards the influence of religious leaders on governmental decisions and peoples’ votes; and two items inquire into responses to statements about the intolerance of religious people and whether or not religion creates conflict. We used a combined scale of answers on these items in our 2013 article on anti-religiosity in Western Europe. One of the interesting findings of this article was that people with higher education were significantly more anti-religious when living in a religious country (and vice versa), whereas on average the level of anti-religiosity was lower in these countries (see figure 1, and article for further details).

figure 1Figure 1. Predicted anti-religiosity for lower educated and higher educated in contexts of low and high national church participation in 14 Western European countries, source: ISSP 2008.


Bruce (see p. 221) uses the same four questions, studying sympathy for religions in Britain in 1998 and 2008, but adds two more on tolerance of religious power and confidence in religious organizations. Alternatively, one could also include items that inquire into the possible dichotomy between science and faith, but we follow Greeley in his concern that these questions are biased and do not measure a general attitude of anti-religiosity but a very specific pro-science attitude.

The EVS has richer data on people’s attitudes towards cultural, political, economic and national issues, but has fewer options for operationalizing anti-religiosity. It contains two items that can be seen to measure respondents’ hostility towards religion, albeit indirectly. One item asks whether respondents consider themselves religious. The possible answers differentiate between religious, non-religious and ‘convinced atheist’. Although the term ‘atheist’ can mean many different things, it is clear in this case that respondents are led to view it as something distinct from non-religiosity. It can therefore be argued that respondents read the term ‘convinced atheist’ to mean ‘anti-religious’. The item that asks for people’s confidence in the church as an institution can also be seen as an expression of religious tolerance (or the opposite: intolerance). Its answer category is a 4-point scale, ranging from ‘a great deal’ to ‘none at all’. Taken together, an index for anti-religiosity can be created (see our article). Nevertheless, statistically, this two-item index is less robust than the 4 (or 6) item-index that can be made using the ISSP-data.


Anti-religiosity and anti-Muslim sentiment


The availability of cross-national survey-data is very important for quantitative research. As we have shown, the different options for operationalizing anti-religiosity as distinct from non-religiosity are quite limited. This is even more problematic, considering the perspectives on anti-religiosity that now remain underexposed. For example, current opposition by Pegida to Muslims in Germany seems to be a typical anti-religious expression, although it can also be seen as an expression of an anti-immigrant prejudice. These two attitudes are hard to differentiate, using ISSP or EVS datasets.  In the ISSP there is no question that deals with attitudes towards Muslims, while in the EVS, there is only one item that deals with it very indirectly. It is a so-called “social distance” question about which groups of people (among others homosexuals, drug addicts, large families and Muslims) respondents find undesirable as neighbors. In the literature, this crude, dichotomous measure is used (see Strabac and Listhaug), sometimes combined with anti-immigrant attitudes to create a more robust measure. For most Western European countries, this latter construction is legitimate, since almost all larger non-European immigrant minorities are Muslim (with the exception of Indian people in Great Britain). When people are asked to think of immigrants, they tend to think about Muslims, and several studies have shown that anti-Islamic sentiments are closely related to types of prejudice related to immigrants (see Spruyt and Elchardus), like ethnocentrism, cultural and economic xenophobia, and authoritarianism. However, opposition towards Muslims, mosques, wearing of veils or other Muslims practices can also argued to be something purely anti-religious and not related to anti-immigrant sentiments. Thus, to differentiate these attitudes from each other, more specific survey data is needed.

Finally, one of the most intriguing questions in relation to measuring anti-religiosity is to what degree the secularization (Bruce) of the West leads to religious indifference (Bagg) or to polarization and conflict over questions of public religiosity (Casanova). Thus far, this question has not been settled, perhaps also because indifference or apathy is hard to measure. We can only hope that apart from qualitative research (Lee) and experimental surveys (Scheitle and Ecklund), the larger surveys are also improved to the point that we can answer questions like these conclusively. In the meantime, we hope that the possibilities and nuances provided above, will help analysts of non-religiosity to make the most of present survey data.

[i] Note that we use the term ‘nonreligion’ in its conventional sense to indicate the general absence or irrelevance of religion, in contrast to the sense used by Lois Lee, Johannes Quack and others, which describes a meaningful relationship of difference with religion. Anti-religion is therefore distinguished from (rather than an example of) nonreligion in our work.