Has God Really Returned to Eastern Europe?

A recent Washington Times editorial proclaimed “God Returns to Eastern Europe”. In AR_2016this media response blog, Atko Remmel addresses the problems with survey questions, the conflation of terminology and how we measure religion to analyse if God really has returned to Eastern Europe.

Referring to a Pew Research Center study “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe”, a recent Washington Times editorial rejoices about the resurgence of religion in Eastern Europe, titling the text “God returns to Eastern Europe”. The message is simple: godless Commies failed and religion is back, prospering again much as it did a hundred years ago. At first glance, the data presented in the article seems to support this understanding: 86% of Russians ascribe to some variant of religious belief and 44% of Russians claim to be “quite religious”. Moreover, the percentage of atheists has dropped by half from 26 to 13% in last three years. While it is definitely true that religion in post-Soviet society is in a much better position than during the project of “forced secularization” (Froese 2004), the author(s) of the editorial may have got some things wrong and missed some important points. First of all, although the editorial claims to rely on Pew study, some of the data seem to originate from Levada Center’s (Russian counterpart of the Pew Research Center) recent survey on religiosity in Russia (report in Russian), mediated to Anglophone readers by Breitbart News – during which some things have been clearly lost in translation. For instance, looking at the original Levada report, 44% of “quite religious” Russians turn out to be “somewhat religious” and only 9% describe themselves as “very religious”. In sum, only about half of the population considers themselves more or less “religious”. Regarding the diminishing percentage of atheists, Levada data actually indicate a noticeable change (which instantly arises suspicion) among those, who said they are “totally irreligious”.

Recent studies have shown that atheism and other forms of nonreligion have very different meanings and forms, depending on time, place and cultural context. The fact that “totally irreligious” is interpreted as “atheists” already in Levada report (see this post for problems about measuring and differentiating nonreligion) tells us more about the local conception of atheism than philosophical positions of these respondents. Deriving from my studies among Estonian nonbelievers (Remmel 2017), it is quite possible that also for many Russian respondents “totally irreligious” demarcates their difference from institutional Christianity or lack of interest towards it. Thus, instead of diminishing number of atheists, this change may indicate something completely different. For instance – as a speculation – it may point to the change in the concept of “religiosity” towards more non-institutional forms, therefore more people may be willing to pronounce themselves as “somewhat religious”.

Second, religious identity (86%) taken in surveys is only one – and some scholars argue, the weakest – facet of the whole religious package and the other data should be considered as well. Although there are many conceptions of religion, a common practice among (quantitative) sociologists of religion today is to distinguish between three “big B-s”: belonging, belief and behavior; mainly because they are (at least to some extent) measurable. From the point of religious practices, Russians’ alleged religiosity looks quite different: according to Levada report, only 2% of respondents fully follow dietary restrictions during Great Lent while 73% make no changes at all into their diet and, according to Pew survey, median of just 10% of Orthodox Christians across Eastern Europe say they go to church on a weekly basis. On top of it, only 15% of Russians regard religion as very important in their lives. Levada survey points to social pressure to define oneself as an Orthodox. One could not help but notice a similarity with the situation in Soviet Union when there was a social pressure to identify with atheism, yet this identity often said next to nothing about person’s actual beliefs or attitudes – just like Orthodox identity, in many cases, does not today. For instance, according to Pew study, religious identity was seen as a matter of personal faith only by one-third of Russian Orthodox, most of the rest regarded that as a matter of national culture or family tradition. Thus, regardless of the dominant ideology or regime, the majority of respondents are just conformists – and we can talk about the shift in social acceptability of religion and religiosity rather than the “return of God”.

Yet I’m not arguing here that Russia or Eastern Europe, in general, is very secularized. Rather, I think that due to the history of large-scale “forced secularization,” the religious situation in Eastern Europe is something we have no prior experience with. Therefore our understanding of the whole situation is inevitably limited. Still, I’m quite convinced that interpreting the situation only in dichotomous terms of secularization vs resurgence of (institutional) religion or atheism vs institutional religiosity is too narrow and leaves out the most of the diversity that actually exists. One of the possible ways for better understanding is a focus on “non-religion”, i.e. on the phenomena that are defined by their difference from what is perceived as “religion”. As seen from the data presented above, not everything that seems religious actually is. It seems to be quite common that in quantitative surveys “religious” questions get “cultural” answers that are then interpreted “religiously” again. Therefore, I think, it’s yet too soon to tell in what terms the situation should be interpreted because we’re just learning to ask the right questions. In that regard, Pew study has done a good job.

IMG_0292 (okt 2014)

The image ‘God is dead’ was taken by Atko in Tartu Estonia.


References

Froese, Paul. “Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an Atheistic Monopoly Failed.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43, no. 1 (2004): 35–50. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2004.00216.x.

Remmel, Atko. “Religion, Interrupted? Observations on Religious Indifference in Estonia.” In Religious Indifference. New Perspectives From Studies on Secularization and Nonreligion, edited by Johannes Quack and Cora Schuh, 123–42. Springer, 2017.


Atko Remmel is a researcher of cultural studies at the University of Tartu (Estonia), Institute of Cultural Studies. The topic of his PhD thesis (2011) was the development and activity of the institutions involved in antireligious policy and propaganda in Soviet Era Estonia. His research focuses on the history and sociology of nonreligion and atheism, especially in the association with ‘forced secularization’.

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[Research] Atheism on YouTube for the last ten years

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Publication of special journal issue on “Atheism, Secularity, and Science.”

Announcing the publication of “Atheism, Secularity, and Science,” a special issue of the journal Science, Religion & Culture, guest edited by John R. Shook, Ralph W. Hood Jr., and Thomas J. Coleman III. The journal issue contains theoretical and empirical articles covering a wide range of topics related to atheism and secularity. It begins with an introduction by the editors discussing key areas in the field, within which they situate this issue’s articles on topics such as definitions and discourse, measurement, mental wellbeing, organized nonbelief and humanism, growth of the “nones,” secularity of academics, hypothetical god image, and deconversion narratives in Rabbis. The issue concludes with three book reviews on The Problem of Animal Pain, The New Atheist Novel, and Living the Secular Life.

Science, Religion & Culture is an open access peer reviewed journal and the special issue, “Atheism, Secularity, and Science” can be viewed here: http://smithandfranklin.com/journal-details/Science-Religion-and-Culture/9/archive/2015/June

CFP: The European Conference on Ethics, Religion and Philosophy 2015

The European Conference on Ethics, Religion and Philosophy 2015

Thistle Brighton, Brighton, East Sussex, United Kingdom

Monday, July 6, 2015 – Wednesday, July 8, 2015 (All Day)

Abstract Submission Deadline: March 1, 2015 

Registration Deadline for Presenters: June 1, 2015

Abstract Submission Process: In order to present at the conference, your abstract must first pass a double blind peer review. Upon payment of registration fees, your presentation will be confirmed.

  • Results of abstract reviews returned to authors: Usually within two weeks of submission
  • Full paper submission: August 1, 2015

How to Submit


Ways to Present

Individual Presenter (30 minutes)The standard format for presentation — oral presentations are thirty minutes in length.Poster Presenter (90 minutes)Posters allow presenters to reach a large audience and engage interested participants directly. These sessions give participants a chance to network with other delegates who may be interested in similar research or other disciplines.Virtual Presenter. Some presenters will be unable to make the trip to the UK to present their paper, mainly due to financial and/or political restrictions on travel. Virtual presentations allow authors the same publication opportunities as regular presenters.

  • We do not allow presentations by video-conferencing but presenters have the opportunity to submit a video of their presentation, which will be placed on the official YouTube channel. Information on how to do this will be sent following registration.
  • Following the conference you will be mailed a conference pack, including a printed receipt of payment, certificate of participation, and a printed copy of the conference programme.

Workshop (60 to 90 minutes) A workshop is a brief intensive course lasting 60 to 90 minutes led by an experienced practitioner, usually someone with a PhD. It emphasises group interaction and the exchange of information usually amongst a smaller number of participants than at a plenary session.Often a workshop involves problem solving, skills training, or the dissemination of new content or disciplinary approaches. Conference workshops are typically more instructional and interactive in nature than oral presentations and involve participants working with the workshop leader on a particular topical issue.Panel (90 minutes) As the organiser of a proposed panel, submit a proposal for the panel through the online system.

  • Panels must have at least four participants (including the chair).
  • All the panel participants must be listed in the submission, with the chair leader as the primary author, and the other presenters as co-authors.
  • If your proposal is accepted you will be invited to register for the conference. Please ensure that you send the submission reference number to the other members of your panel and have them register in a timely fashion. Upon payment of the registration fee of all participants, your panel will be scheduled in the conference programme.
  • If you, as the panel chair, wish to publish a joint paper associated with the panel in the conference proceedings, please upload one through the online system.
  • If you and your panel members wish to publish separate papers, they may register individually and submit their proposals for review.

Conference Theme and Streams

Conference Theme: “Power

The conference theme is “Power” and the organizers encourage submissions that approach this theme from a variety of perspectives. However, the submission of other topics for consideration is welcome and we also encourage sessions within and across a variety of disciplines and fields related to Ethics, Religion and Philosophy, including the following streams:

Philosophy:

  • Philosophy and Religion
  • Philosophy and the Arts
  • Philosophy and Public Policy
  • Philosophy and Technology
  • Philosophy and Culture
  • Philosophy and Education
  • Philosophy and Peace Studies
  • Comparative Philosophy
  • Linguistics, Language and Philosophy

Ethics:

  • Medical Ethics
  • Business and Management Ethics
  • Ethics in Education
  • Ethics, Law, and Justice
  • Ethics and Globalization
  • Ethics and Science
  • Comparative Ethics
  • Linguistics, Language and Ethics

Religion:

  • Theism and Atheism
  • Feminism and Religious Traditions
  • Religion and Education
  • Religion and Peace Studies
  • Mysticism, Faith, and Scientific Culture
  • Interfaith Dialogue
  • Comparative Religion
  • Linguistics, Language and Religion

Interdisciplinary:

  • Conflict Resolution and Mediation Studies

For further information – please see the ECERP2015: Call For Papers website.

CFP: Atheism: Psychological Perspectives – Secularism & Nonreligion Journal Symposia

The journal Secularism & Nonreligion is planning to propose a symposium of 3-4 individual papers for the upcoming 2015 International Association for the Psychology of Religion (IAPR) World Congress. We invite you to submit proposals falling under the broad theme of psychological perspectives on atheism for consideration as part of the proposed symposia. Some topics and perspectives include, but are not limited to: cognitive science, qualitative/quantitative methods, psychological-anthropology, phenomenology, ethnography, cultural psychology, and philosophy of science. We are particularly interested in papers covering atheism outside of the Western context. Continue reading

Call for Papers: Atheism, Secularism, and Science

Announcing CFP: Atheism, Secularity, and Science, a special journal issue in Science, Religion & Culture
.
Guest edited by: John R. Shook Ph.D., Ralph W. Hocfpod Jr.
Ph.D., and Thomas J. Coleman III.
Over the past 10 years research and scholarship on secularity in general, and atheism in particular, has increased significantly. Moreover, these phenomena have been researched, studied and documented by multiple
disciplines ranging from cognitive science to religious studies, and from anthropology to sociology. The study of atheism and secularity is of high interest to not only scholars, but also the public in general.
Atheism and secularity are often seen as two constructs that are intimately related with a third, that of ‘science’. Where one finds the scientific method, positivist epistemology and naturalism in general, one typically finds atheism and secularism. Continue reading

Call for Papers: Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion – “Atheism”

Proposal for a special issue of the Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion, edited by Franco Garelli and Roberto Cipriani, on atheism (cut-off date for delivery of papers, 30th June 2015; forthcoming 2016)

arsrIn the spring of 1969 an International Symposium on the Culture of Unbelief was held in Rome, organized by the Vatican Secretariat for Unbelievers, with the participation of illustrious sociologists like Parsons, Berger and Luckmann: see R. Caporale, A. Grumelli (eds.), The Culture of Unbelief, University of California Press, 1971 (published in Italian as Religione e ateismo nelle società secolarizzate, Mulino, 1972). This pioneering experience sought to understand the evolution of the secularization then taking place. Later, the topics of religious non-belonging, indifference, agnosticism, ceased to attract the specific attention of sociologists, who began taking a greater interest in pluralism, globalization, multiple modernity and intercultural phenomena. But for some years now the issue of non-religious attitudes and behaviour has come to the fore again. The Sociology of Religion review devoted most of one of its recent issues (Winter 2013, with two essays by Stephen LeDrew and one by Jesse M. Smith) to the phenomenon of atheism. The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (March 2013) also showed an interest in unbelief by publishing essays by Jesse M. Smith (Godless Community), Eran Shor and David J. Roelfs (Nonreligious Participation). Previously the Journal of Contemporary Religion had devoted a special issue (January 2012) to the topic of “Non Religion and Secularity”.

The time seems to have come for sociology to take stock of the situation, not merely in partial or territorial terms, but in a much broader sense, in order to obtain a better understanding of the dynamics presently at play in this area. Among other things, it is significant that, in the meantime, a neologism, previously unknown to the literature of sociology has been coined: Nones, those who deny, do not believe, do not belong, do not participate, do not pray, do not refer at all to values of a religious nature.

However, adequate statistical references and specific research devoted entirely to the issue of unbelief are lacking. Without claiming to present a comprehensive picture of the situation at world level, nevertheless, the intention underscoring this proposal is that of trying to provide as varied an analytical perspective as possible, one capable of acting, maybe, as a new starting point for a future sociology of non-religion.

Possible topics include:

  • Irreligion
  • Religious nones
  • Agnosticism
  • Non religious education
  • Non religious participation
  • Non religion
  • Non religion in Britain
  • Atheism in India
  • Non religion in USA
  • Religious indifference
  • Atheism and religion in Eastern and Western Countries
  • World statistics of religion and irreligion
  • Atheism and islam in Eastern and Western Countries
  • Atheism and Orthodox Churches
  • American atheists
  • Teaching atheism
  • Paganism
  • Religion and Non Religion
  • Religion and Secularism
  • New Atheism and Non Religion
  • Atheism in International Social Survey Program

Please send all proposals (300 words) to Roberto Cipriani: rciprian@uniroma3.it

Deadlines:

  • Submission of proposals: June 30, 2014
  • Notification of acceptance: September 30, 2014
  • Completed manuscripts (7000 words): June 30, 2015