In this post Helge Årsheim questions what could – and should – the study of law and non-religion be about?
In this post Galen Watts questions whether the paradigm of secularization—exemplified by the recent work of Steve Bruce—is ultimately the most useful for studying spirituality. He contends that scholars might be better off eschewing essentialist definitions of “religion” and instead examining the various ways in which individuals operationalize the term “spirituality,” and for what purposes. Drawing from his qualitative research with Canadian millennials who self-identify as SBNR he argues that individuals who claim “spirituality” do so largely as a result of the religious imaginaries they hold. Thus investigating the nature of these imaginaries might prove far more fruitful than obsessing over whether or notspirituality is “real religion” or not.
The misfits ticking off ‘none’ when asked about religious affiliation. An unrecognised chunk of diverging identities: It’s time to ask how the non-religious are recognised in state, law and politics.
How does the state deal with the considerable portion of the population whose practises, beliefs, identities and belongings are other than religious? How is the phenomenon of non-religion (mis)recognised in different religious, social and cultural contexts on national level across the world today?
The emerging research field of non-religion seems to have become an established part of the sociology of religion and other disciplines addressing the varieties of identities associated with what has become to be known as ‘the nones’ within religious studies of various kinds.
In the Anglophone world ‘none’ denotes a survey option declaring ‘no affiliation’ with listed worldviews, e.g. Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist etc. For obvious reasons, the category of non-religion covers a vast variety of identities that one way or the other are hallmarked as ‘other than religious’ to quote Lois Lee’s minimum common denominator for recognizing the nonreligious.
Image: The Descrier / Flickr
The None Next Door
The lion’s share of available research on nones has been focused on the construction of non-religious identities from below: For instance how individuals come to identify as non-religious. American research in particular has predominantly conceptualised this through apostasy; how people break the chain of memory and join the socio-cultural deviance of having no religion.
As a culturally contingent phenomenon, non-religion is often understood in its dialogue and conflict with the dominant formats of religion in society, hence William Stahl argues that Catholic nones and Protestant nones are different. In addition, non-religious identities appear less defined in societies where religiosity is not socially expected or widespread according to Phil Zuckerman who argues that Scandinavian nones are less prone to identify as atheists when compared to the US, or Greece for that matter.
While apostasy indeed is interesting, it is not a key concept of non-religion in the Nordics where most nones in general are likely to have been brought up without religious guidance and live their everyday lives without expectations of belonging, believing or practicing religion. They are to a large extent what Zuckerman describes as indifferent. In Norway, a large share of the non-religious population is ‘unaffiliated’, i.e. they are not registered in an officially recognised worldview community (e.g. The Norwegian Humanist Association). The unaffiliated is the second largest group in Norway and counts 14% of the population (2012). The largest group are the members of the Church of Norway, which count about 70%. For quite obvious reasons it is difficult to tell what faiths, worldviews, beliefs and identities that are contained under the category of ‘no affiliation’.
Interestingly – that can also be said about the members of the Church of Norway, which is largely based on a system that allows automatic enrolments and passive memberships, and more notably a number of involuntarily memberships. First, new-borns are registered as members of the church if at least one of the parents are registered and will remain so from cradle to grave unless opted out by parents as minors or on their own initiative after turning 15. A new online system for registering with and opting out of the church was implemented in 2016. Up until then opting out was a tedious affair involving written letters and the bureaucratic goodwill (sic!) of the local parish. However – for reasons unknown– such procedures have proven to be futile as there is way too many who regardless of their opt-out have remained registered members of the church. According to the Norwegian newspaper VG, as much as 75 000 were involuntarily members of the church in 2005. In the aftermath of the online registration and opt-out form in 2016 more than 41 000 cancelled their memberships, while 3147 persons registered as members of The Church of Norway. During my own interviews of Norwegian nones, conducted in 2017/2018, several of the interviewees (3/10) discovered that they were involuntarily members of the church. It is therefore reasonable to assume that a significant share of the Church of Norway’s members is so without consent.
Another reason for scholars to engage with the membership number in critical fashion is the fact that membership to the Church of Norway has no practical impact on the individual: Not financially; you cannot opt out of the church tax (which you can in Sweden) and there is no other implications of being a member – you are not reminded about such affiliations through newsletters etc. and church magazines, journals and pamphlets are distributed evenly and regardless of the house’s status as members or not. In other words, you can easily be a member throughout your life completely unaware of it.
The only practical difference is that members of the church are entitled to vote in the church elections, which are held simultaneously as general elections in Norway. One of my informants revealed that the ability to push the church in a more liberal direction through the elections was an incentive to remain member despite her general lack of belief and sense of belonging to the Church of Norway. Her passion for equality (sex, gender and ethnic) was instrumental for that choice. We cannot draw solid conclusions from such trajectories, but they nonetheless underscore the suspicion that official membership stats are not reliable sources when mapping religious de facto practice, belief and belonging. The reasons for why nones remain members are diverse, but the main point here is the observation that they sometimes do, whether it is out of indifference, ignorance, or potential of political impact or utter unawareness.
Turning the tables
While acknowledging the importance of the dominant socio-cultural and religious structures for nones ‘on the ground’ it is interesting to turn the tables and ask how they are perceived from above. Emphasising research of non-religion from above is not to say that the perspective from below is ruled out or wrong in any sense. Instead I argue that the numerous ethnographies of nones make a solid foundation for developing research on other societal spheres, such as within law, politics and institutions. This is the intention of the upcoming conference Formatting non-religion in late modern society – Institutional and legal perspectives, which takes place in Oslo September 26-27, hosted by the GOBA project (University of Oslo) and the international research network Eurel.
When establishing knowledge about sociocultural forms of non-religious identities (from below), it is politically and academically interesting to ask how such social formations are recognised, represented and perhaps negotiated from above. Now, this is however not quite straight forward as it sounds, because nones are to a certain extent an academic construct. That is, nones are not necessarily formally recognised as a worldview category, possibly due to the lack of formal organisation. Meanwhile, the lack of such is completely natural as the group consists of a variety of ways of being ‘other than religious’, the diversity amongst nones means that certain fractions may not want to be associated with each other. For example consider the significant difference between the ‘spiritual not religious’ group and New Atheism. The diversity of non-religious identities and group formations might be a challenge for non-religion to be substantially recognised in governmental bodies, law and politics. However, that does not make research on ‘non-religion from above’ less important if we think about the significant number of people who are not formally represented through officially recognised membership to faith and worldview communities.
This is both significant in societies where the minority of nones are persecuted such as Pakistan as well as in the UK where nones form a possible silent majority or even in Norway despite the impression of 70% church membership gives. Both contexts – where nones are numerous and not – make interesting research phenomena of the state’s handling with these identities in politics and law. We can for instance ask how different forms of secularism facilitates politics to serve nones, religious majorities and minorities alike? How non-religious worldviews are considered in public religious education and other institutions where the state is expected to facilitate for freedom of belief and thought? Or what happens with citizenship and sense of belonging when the state supports an established church in a country with an increasing non-religious population?
Non-religion is arguably an academic construct derived form English survey-lingo, which perhaps is difficult to recognise at first glance. Including ‘nones’ when mapping the religious landscape of late modern societies definitely broadens our horizon. As with the example from Norway, including the unaffiliated and critically examining the possibility of nones formally affiliated with the Church of Norway, changes our perception of the religious demography. It would be worthwhile to conceptualise this complexity further in research of politics, law and institutions. Regardless of the lack of fixed definitions, institutional representation and widespread acknowledgement in scholarly discourses and beyond, ‘non-religion’ is an analytical tool that cannot be overlooked by researchers, politicians, state officials and others who seek to understand, facilitate and marshal contemporary plurality of faiths and worldviews.
This blog has been co-published with Religion Going Public.
Erlend Hovdkinn From Doctoral Research Fellow, Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo.PhD Project: ‘From Protestant to Post-Religious? Researching nones in Oslo’.
My academic interests are within sociology of religion, and more specific – nonreligion and secularity. My PhD project addresses nonreligion in the Norwegian context. How does the religiously unaffiliated relate to Norway’s cultural heritage of protestant Christianity? Moreover, what constitutes Norwegian nonreligion, politically, socially, existentially and culturally?
In this post, doctoral student Polina Batanova discusses the enduring relevance of the classic work of sociologist Emile Durkheim to the study of nonreligion. She argues his functionalist definition of religion, which emphasizes the fundamental importance of sacred forms, helps to illuminate the nature of “religion” in secular modern societies—that being, the cult of the individual. Tracing its genealogy through liberalism and back to the Reformation, and offering contemporary examples to demonstrate its prevalence in modern societies, Batanova makes a powerful case for thinking the sacralization of the “individual” may be the quintessential sacred form in modernity.
In his classic sociological work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) Emile Durkheim adopted a conception of religion that is based on a dichotomy of the sacred and profane (Durkheim 1995).
At its most general, the sacred refers to those values that in a given social context are considered to be of ‘absolute’, ‘special’, or of ‘vital’ importance for the upholding of a particular social order. The sacred thus concerns those key ideas which exert a profound moral claim over peoples’ lives; these sacred ideas lie at the core of social life and, collectively shared, they secure solidarity. At the same time, the sacred is not to be understood as an ontologically fixed category; the sacred is neither divine, nor transcendent in a Kantian sense. Rather, it becomes tangible only through conceptual and symbolical representations which may vary across historical epochs, cultures, and social contexts. In other words, it is purely social.
From this view, religion is an entirely social phenomenon and its main function is the transmission of knowledge by means of ritual practices, where collective representations are generated and revived. Collective representations define sacred things as well as their relations to the profane, and rituals, in their turn, demonstrate the rules of interaction with the sacred. Both the representations and rituals can be called ‘sacred forms’ (Lynch 2012).
But what happens to sacred forms in modern societies with their religious and cultural diversities, and increasing secularization?
According to Durkheim, although religious traditions are the main sources of general knowledge regarding the sacred (and profane), nevertheless they are not the source of sacred ideas. Religions do not generate the sacred and do not hold a monopoly on defining the sacred and profane. It is not religions that draw the line between the sacred and profane worlds ¾ the social life itself does this (Durkheim and Mauss 2009). As long as we are dealing with traditional society, religion appears to be the quintessence of social life. However, as a society gets more complex, different areas of social life become institutionalized and the emerging institutions maintain the social order just as religion once did. Virtually, each of them – like law, art, science, etc. – becomes a separate system of collective representations. This entails the diversification and multiplication of sacred forms. As part of this process, the vital ideas like that of love, justice, honesty, etc. are increasingly cultivated in non-religious frameworks and can be represented in different ways depending on the context. For example, the representations of love in artwork or scientific research (i.e. psychology) differ, although both refer to the same idea.
In line with Durkheim’s thesis that in traditional society all sacred ideas are represented by religion while in modern society sacred forms transcend religious contexts, I propose to talk about the traditional/modern distinction in the terms religious/post-religious. By ‘post-religious’ I mean newly established sacred ideas which have come to replace previous (religious) ones as they have weakened. In short, sacred forms still exist in our modern secularized world, but in order to spot them, we must refuse always identifying the sacred with religion.
To illustrate the rise of the sacred beyond religion, let us turn to the idea of individuality. With Europe in mind, Durkheim proposed the concept of the ‘cult of individual’ (culte de la personne) which he expected to emerge in modern society. I will not conjecture whether his words came true or not. Instead, I propose to discuss two main issues in this regard: (1) the origin (genealogy) of the cult of individual and (2) the representations of the idea of individuality.
The cult of the individual begins with the idea of the individual being, which lies at its core; the process of turning the abstract individual into a sacred form is inseparable from the process of individuation. Both emerge from the springs of liberal thought and humanism (precisely, the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and, later, Alexis de Tocqueville) and develop into the Enlightenment project and the division of labor, which characterize modernity. Yet it is not a coincidence that humanistic virtues were shaped within a Christian context. Despite its secular tone and claims to universalism, liberal thought derived from Christian theology. For instance, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber demonstrated the elective affinity between the Protestant idea of salvation and the notion of ‘calling’ (der Beruf) which contributed to the development of capitalism. As Zygmunt Bauman puts it: “Reformation was from the beginning pregnant with humanist secularism – it set humans free to focus on things other than those kept in the secret compartments of divine offices” (Bauman 2008). In addition, Rodney Stark argues the Christian cherishing of human reason was what made the project of European Enlightenment possible (Stark 2006).
Thus the sacralization of individuality should be seen as the extension of the Christian belief-system which eventually gave birth to secular morality. This understanding aligns with Gianni Vattimo’s considerations about the continuity between Christianity and secularity.
Like any sacred idea, ‘individuality’ is not fixed, but constantly reconstructed via conceptual or symbolic representations, so we can speak of it in terms of a process, as the ‘cultivation of individuality’. Obviously, the twentieth century witnessed an intense period of this cultivation, and today we can point to numerous loosely related conceptualizations of individuality: ‘subject’, ‘person’, ‘self’, ‘agent’, etc. These conceptual representations have become entrenched in people’s minds. We are witnessing contemporary social life become increasingly oriented towards representations of individuality as sacred. Among others, the United Nations Declaration on human rights, the widespread acknowledgment of the importance of personal freedoms (civic liberties) in liberal democracies are all grounded in, and presuppose, the sanctity of human life and respect for human reason. All these representations – both conceptual and symbolic – relate to different domains of social life and obviously are not religious as such (although they also may hold on Christian meanings). Nevertheless, they are influential social facts: people do refer to and recognize them as moral forces guiding their lives (Bellah 1985; Levine 2006; Joas 2013).
The most striking thing about this is how pervasive it is; the cult of the individual is found across diverse cultural, linguistic and social contexts. In my doctoral project, I am doing a comparative study of how students living in the U.S.A., Russia and Finland conceptualize individuality and what the primary meanings which inform this idea in their personal lives are. So far I’ve found that almost all of the interviewees (both religious, spiritual, and atheists) acknowledge the ultimate primacy of individual freedoms. Basically, this tells us that moral individualistic values have great potential for solidarity without restraint. Using the words of Bill McConochie, we might call moral individualism a meta-religion. Anyway, the idea of individuality seems particularly important for both understanding modern morality and finding a common ground for people with various religious and non-religious outlooks.
 Durkheim E. 1991. De la Division de Travail Social. Quadrige. P.396
 Drawing upon the empirical data of the international research project “Young Adults and Religion in a Global Perspective” (Abo Akademi University) (http://www.abo.fi/fakultet/yarg) that I am involved into.
Bauman Zygmunt. 2008. Individualized Society. Polity Press
Bellah N. R. et al. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. University of California Press
Durkheim Emile. 1991. De la Division de Travail Social. Quadrige.
Durkheim Emile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. The Free Press
Durkheim Emile and Marcel Mauss. 2009. Primitive Classification (Routledge Revivals). Routledge
Joas H. 2013. The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights. Georgetown University Press
Levine D.N. 2006. Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America. University Of Chicago Press
Lynch Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford University Press
Stark Rodney. 2006. The Victory of Reason: How Christianity led to freedom, capitalism, and Western success. Random House
Weber Max. 2016. Die protestantische Ethik und der „Geist“ des Kapitalismus (eds. Lichblau K., Moebius S.). Springer
Polina Batanova is a doctoral student of Comparative Religion at Abo Akademi University (Finland). She is also a researcher at the “Sociology of Religion” laboratory at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University (Russia). Her research interests include the sociology of morality, theories of the sacred, and individualism. She is currently working on a doctoral thesis tentatively titled, “Sacred individual: conceptual and narrative cultivation of individuality among young adults in Russia, Finland, and the USA.
In this Christmas blog special, NSRN editors Timothy Stacey and Fernande Pool share and reflect upon the narratives of how six nonreligious people navigate through the festive period.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year: ardent secularists voice their outrage at the continuing dominance of Christian celebrations in increasingly nonreligious societies. Their Christian counterparts paint themselves as a minority under attack: their symbols mocked, repressed or castigated in the name of nonchalance, diversity, commercialisation. This has reached the point that many of us get anxious even discussing the holiday with colleagues: “what are you doing for…Christmas? Winter break? Help!”
But what are the thoughts of the silent majority? For the first time in history, religious “nones” are now the dominant group in the UK and Australia, and a close second in the US and Canada. How do they feel about Christmas? How do they navigate the complex mesh of Christian, secular and commercial symbols?
For the last six months, the Lived Religion Project has been tracing the complex and beautiful ways in which religious and nonreligious people alike carry their beliefs in everyday life. Its aim is to challenge religious illiteracy and prejudice in politics, the media and amongst the public. We do so by asking simple questions like: What do you believe? Can you tell us the story of how you came to believe that? Is there anything about the way you live your life that might surprise an outsider? The majority of the work thus far has been carried out in Vancouver, Canada, which has one of the highest proportions of religious nones in the Western world. This has given us unique insight into the diversity of nonreligious ways of engaging with the world in the everyday.
On the build-up to Christmas, we decided to give the project a fun twist: we hosted a roundtable Christmas(?!) dinner discussion with a range of nonreligious guests. Each person took a turn to explain what Christmas means to them.
For my family Christmas is about giving gifts to each other, thinking about what people care about: a gift that means something to them, even if only in the brief moment they open a present. It’s also about the politics of gift-giving: a marker of where you are as a person. So I have one brother who used to be the best at giving presents, and who now is the worst. And I feel that the process of thinking about the gift is a way of demonstrating love through demonstrating knowledge of someone.
Growing up in the UK, I don’t think we were raised Christian. We were probably raised to be aware of the absence of Christianity in our lives. I went to a Church of England school and then as now the message always seems to be: “okay you’re having fun, opening gifts, but really you’ve forgotten about Jesus”. And I’m like “oh yeah, I did forget that guy.” Because even in Christian circles there was this reluctant acceptance of our forgetfulness, I never really felt the need for a clean break from the Christian aspects.
Christmas has nothing to do with gifts. I am kind of proud of the fact that it wasn’t about gifts. Having grown up in the Netherlands, we used to exchange gifts on Sinterklaas, the 5th of December. Whereas it would feel corrupting to make Christmas about presents. Instead, we’d all get aluminum foil bags of chocolate, raisins, nuts, mandarin. And we’d snack on that the whole day. We grew up in a very Christian area where nobody really received presents. I was very happy with my mandarin and it breaks my heart to think that you could have a child who wouldn’t be happy unless they received some expensive gift.
My primary school was rather strictly Protestant, and although for most of the time that felt oppressive if anything, I did like the build up to Christmas: the lighting of the Advent candles, the singing of Christmas songs, reading the story of Jesus’ birth, all culminating in the annual Christmas performance, when all the school children would sing songs and family would come watch. We’d get an orange and a Bible afterwards. The performance was never quite as exciting as anticipated, but I do still attach a feeling of warmth and light to it.
Christmas is quiet time. I’m from a farm and my parents worked very hard. So, Christmas was a time to be together and rest. For the last ten years, Christmas has been an emotionally distressing time; I didn’t always feel comfortably to spend time around my family during those years and during Christmas I felt forced to. But having grown up, I have become softer, and now I see that no matter how estranged we have become as a family, I will make an effort to see them on that day. Because in the end, they’re your people.
When I was young it was all about presents. I think my parents also really enjoyed the idea of exchanging gifts. My sister would go around the house wrapping up stuff that we already had. So, for her it was just the process of unwrapping things. But now it’s evolved. We don’t really give gifts that much and it’s distilled down to: time with family. But for us it doesn’t have to be that day; the day itself doesn’t necessarily contain anything. It’s grown to be that time period where you get together and give each other cards. My Dad will always write beautiful cards that have everyone in the room crying and meanwhile he’ll walk away and get himself a drink. And you can’t do that through an email from overseas. So it’s just become a time to remind people you love them.
You have to remember too that our Christmas, in New Zealand, falls in the middle of the summer so a lot of people are taking time off work; everyone’s very relaxed; people are on the beach having beer, having barbecues. There’s a sense of freedom in the summer that Christmas has become bound up with. But that said, the northern hemisphere stuff still trickles down: There are songs about snow and pictures of snowmen. That could be made more relevant!
I was born in the northern hemisphere so Christmas is what I grew up with. In Korea it’s all about kids getting presents. There’s no sharing of presents as such. It’s just for children. And then it’s also a time for couples to go out. It’s not really a family occasion. You go to church and to mass I guess – I’d say 70-80% of people do. It’s other holidays that are about family: autumn harvest festival and New Year. So, for example on New Year we get together as a family with up to forty relatives and pay respect to the ancestors. You know how Muslims pray? It’s a bit like that: for each ancestor, you pour rice wine and you bow three times. As a kid, I found that really annoying: 3 hours bowing nonstop. But growing up I also felt kind of connected to it because I appreciate the idea that family is important.
From my family’s perspective, when we moved from Korea to New Zealand, we lost most of our traditions and holidays. So, we didn’t really celebrate the harvest or New Year. So now I primarily associate Christmas with my wife’s family and being at the beach.
It was an annual tradition for my family to go up and visit my grandmother on my Mum’s side. My Mum’s side’s the Christian side, and my Dad’s is the Jewish, European postwar exile side. My Mum’s side was Anglican but not devout by any means. For me it was about materialism, when I look back. But now it’s about the family memories. Especially after my grandmother and grandfather are gone and we don’t see each other much as a family. Christmas was always the main family event: we’d gather and sleep over at my grandmother’s, in a cabin that my grandfather built in the woods beside a lake. At that time of year, the lake would be frozen and my uncle would plough an ice rink on the lake. My seven cousins would be there and there’d be a turkey on the table and all the kids running around. So yeah: pretty idyllic Canadian.
Looking back on it I’m closer to my cousins on my mother’s side partially because of that annual event. When I look at my personal memories, a lot of it was selfish commercialism. But in a kind of magical way. Not being able to sleep. Wondering what kind of lavish gifts would be bestowed on me. I was pretty sneaky too. I used to secretly open my presents early.
But anyway, there was never much by way of religious or cultural rituals. It was just family-focused. We never went to church. The first time I went to church was my grandfather’s funeral.
That so-called Canadian ideal that never existed here, out West; it’s a very Ontario-centered idea of what Canada is. We don’t have frozen lakes. But Adam got to live it!
I grew up in a very Christian household. So, Jesus was the “reason for the season”. My family is super-evangelical, fundamentalist Christian. My parents aren’t, but they were raised that way and it comes out at Christmas because they want to lock down that tradition. So recently I had a chat with my Mum and suggested we might go to a church service that recognizes gay folks as legit. Because my brother is gay and so forcing him to go to a service where they don’t recognize his humanity might be really horrible for him. But my Mum was like: “don’t you respect your elders?” But I do and I think a lot about how to translate legacy to the future, and what it means to inherit certain ideas and to fully embody those ideas as a living creature now and what it means to pass them forward. We think we have to choose what we inherit and so I’ve started trying to influence the process.
Interestingly, two years ago my mum didn’t make us go to church. But this year our whole family is coming so she is accountable to a wider network. Christmas isn’t just about what we think personally, or what our immediate family thinks but also what our wider culture expects of us. So, her personal identity is wrapped up in how she performs Christmas.
As a child, I was fully wrapped up in it. Christmas and Easter felt very connected and imaging where Jesus would end up 30 years later was sort of magical. Knowing that this person was super radical for people. My parents are quite radical in their generosity. They recognize Jesus as a hero of how to live in a countercultural way.
Now I have no personal connection to Christmas at all. We partake in very pagan rituals now and my own personal belief is a much more earth-centered spirituality. And when I think of Christmas now I think it comes with the solstice. We physically witness the earth shutting down for the year. In the northern hemisphere, that is. I like to think about what it means to close the year. So, Christmas is about what you want to nurture for the year ahead. We place each ornament on the tree as the wish we plant for the new year, that we want to germinate when the light returns.
We are in a period of rapid transition. As Laura stressed, we have to be intentional about choosing the traditions we inherit and how to do so. While some advocate for the wholesale abandonment of a Christian past, and others from a Christian lens lament what Christmas has become, the majority quietly navigates between these two positions, holding onto the aspects they most cherish, and quietly but resolutely letting go of the aspects that do not resonate.
Of the most cherished aspects amongst our guests appeared to be spending intentional time with family and childhood memories of excitement and expectation. Although nonreligious, they choose not to radically reject Christmas because they are capable of putting to one side Christian symbols while welcoming a designated period of reflection and togetherness. But they also recognize that Christmas was an important aspect of their childhood. In this sense, perhaps it is worth keeping in mind that Christmas is not merely a reflection of our own beliefs but a deliberate performance of togetherness.
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Timothy Stacey is a Postdoctoral Fellow at both the Religion and Diversity Project, University of Ottawa, Canada and the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. Tim explores the role ‘myth’, or stories of great events and characters, in developing solidarity and combatting populism and extremism. Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division, has just been released by Routledge.
Fernande Pool is a Visiting Scholar at the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Canada. Her PhD thesis, titled The ethical life of Muslims in secular India: Islamic Reformism in West Bengal, (March 2016, London School of Economics, UK)critically explores the nature of ethics and alternative experiences and meanings of secularism and religion. Fernande has been named a Marie Skłodowska-Curie LEaDing Fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, starting April 2018.
How do we understand the multifaceted phenomenon of ‘hope’ and how can it be measured? In this blog, Cees Tulp details explorative research that offers an empirical instrument to measure hope – ‘the Hope Barometer’.
Hope is a central theme in human existence. It is the driving force to cross the Mediterranean Sea on a boat as a refugee; it is also the emotion that leaders appeal to – both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, in fact. Both leaders strive for a better future, of America in particular, and mention the hope for it frequently. Hope was expressed in the end-of-year message of 2016 in this blog. It is also an incentive behind all sorts of decisions in everyday life. Hope is so much connected with the human existence that it can be called a “dimension of the soul” (Havel 2004, p. 106). Hope is not only an aspect of being human, it also functions as a driving force and is often articulated as a desire for an uncertain future. It is, however, not to be confused with optimism. “It is not the conviction, that somethings will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is Hope, above all, which gives the strength to live and continually try new things” (Havel 2004, p. 106). Hope therefore is much broader than a certain theological feature or a conviction. It is a phenomenon that saturates the whole human existence.
This multifaceted phenomenon has been around throughout all ages and has been reflected upon for centuries by theologians and philosophers. A person who cannot be left unmentioned in this respect is the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, because of his theology of hope. It is only recently that this theme has drawn the attention of economics and positive psychology. In the approaches that connect hope with economics, there has been relatively little attention for hope as an incentive. However, hope is an important incentive for economics to consider. From an economical perspective, two different types of hope can be distinguished, namely wishful hope and aspirational hope (Lybbert and Wydick 2015, p. 4). Wishful hope does not lead to action, but aspirational hope does. The latter form of hope applies reasoning: it assesses the difficulties of the situation at hand, and it suggests actions that can reasonably be expected to have positive effects. This form of hope has the potential to influence the actions and decisions of human beings, because these decisions and actions take place based on a conviction that it will work out positively. This view on hope is expressed in the definition of hope Martin gives: “To hope for an outcome is to desire (be attracted to) it, to assign a probability somewhere between 0 and 1 to it, and to judge that there are sufficient reasons to engage in certain feelings and activities directed toward it” (Martin 2013, p. 7). If there is certainty that something will or will not going to happen, there is no reason to try to influence the outcome. Only when the future is uncertain, it is sensible to act on it.
It is this connection between hope and economics that is the subject of a joint research project between the Institute of Leadership and Social Ethics, which is connected with the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven (Belgium), and the Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organization, which is connected to the Erasmus University in Rotterdam (Netherlands). The project is generously funded by the Goldschmeding Foundation for People, Work and Economy.
This project entails explorative research to hope from different disciplines to gain conceptual clarity. Because hope is as complex and ambiguous as the human person himself or herself, it requires interdisciplinary investigation. The aim of the project is first to gain a better understanding of the concept of hope, but furthermore to stimulate a cross-disciplinary dialogue about hope. One of the stimuli has been an academic conference entitled “Driven by Hope: Economics and Theology in Dialogue,” which took place in February 2017 at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven.[i] The second phase of the project seeks to give more insight into the empirical relation between hope and happiness. Besides literature study, an empirical instrument to measure hope has been developed called the Hope Barometer. It is the most complete instrument developed until now to measure hope. In contrast to other instruments to measure hope, the Hope Barometer distinguishes seven different dimensions of hope (thought, emotion, virtue, social hope, economic expectation, institutional trust and spiritual hope). The conceptually seven dimensions of hope are empirically related, but capture at the same time different aspects of hope. Measuring in so many dimensions yields a detailed insight into the quantity and quality of hope. The aim is to provide guidelines to measure hope in countries, organizations and other groups. The results gained will be used to test existing theories about hope and to refine the conceptual framework. A fuller understanding of the phenomenon hope and a fuller developed measurement of it will contribute to the capability of fostering the hope. The project seeks to make aware that hope is a very important phenomenon because of its far-reaching influence on the thought, behavior and emotion of human beings. The phenomenon exceeds the domain of religion, for which it is a good development that it gets broader attention now.
We hope that the research can be continued by a project in which the conceptual framework can be further refined, more empirical research can be done and the dialogue with the capabilities approach can be deepened. Furthermore, we want to explore the practical application of hope for leadership in organizations, by contributing to best practices.
[i] The conference proceedings will be published in our book series Christian Perspectives on Leadership and Social Ethics, which is published by Peeters Publications (Leuven, Belgium).
Havel, V 2004, ‘An orientation of the heart,’ in P Loeb, (ed.), The impossible will take a little while: A citizen’s guide to hope in a time of fear, pp. 106–12. Basic Books, New York.
Lybbert, TJ, & Wydick, B 2015, ‘Poverty, Aspirations, and the Economics of Hope,’ presented at the Conference for Human Dignity, University of Notre Dame, 25 October 2015.
Martin, A 2013, How We Hope: A Moral Psychology, Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Cees Tulp completed his BA Theology and Religious Studies at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, Belgium. He worked as an intern at the Institute of Leadership and Social Ethics. From his career in software development, he has experience with leadership and the role that hope plays in the general well-being of employees.
Joseph O. Baker encourages the study of nonreligion to look beyond the study of atheists and skeptics, and explore what he calls the doubly castoff, the supernatural.