[Research] The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age … Continuing the Conversation

In this blog post, sociologist Joel Thiessen follows up on his previous NSRN contribution “Religious Nones in Canada: A Qualitative Exploration” which previewed the findings of his newest book Thejoel Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. Since its release, Thiessen has continued to interpret these findings through “author-meets-critics” sessions at some major conferences. Below, he charts some of the most provocative questions coming out of those sessions, whose as-yet-unknown answers might steer where our knowledge of Canadian nones goes next.

Background

The Canadian Society for the Study of Religion (May 2016) and Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meetings (August 2016) provided me the occasion to receive feedback on my recent book, The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. The following individuals kindly participated in the author-meets-critics sessions (framed by Paul Bramadat as a hazing ritual!): Reginald Bibby, Paul Bramadat, Sam Reimer, Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, Ryan Cragun, David Eagle, Marcus Mann, and Josh Packard. All were generous in spirit and substantive content.

This monograph is based on face-to-face interviews with three groups of Canadians: 30 active religious affiliates (identify with a Christian group and attend religious services nearly every week), 30 marginal religious affiliates (identify with a Christian group and attend religious services mainly for religious holidays and rites of passage), and 30 religious nones (do not identify with any religion and never attend religious services). Contrary to rational choice theorists who contend that there is ongoing demand for the things that religious groups offer (e.g. meaning and purpose in life, life after death), I question the assumption that if we simply adjust religious supply (e.g. better music or preaching, more programming, or more liberal theology) we should expect increased involvement in institutionalized forms of religious life. Further, I develop how and why I think secularization theory remains useful for describing and explaining religious belief and practice in Canada.

Some Questions Raised

As the critics generally affirmed my central premises and conclusions, they raised a range of pertinent questions. Below are some of those questions and my brief responses in turn.

Are the three central affiliate categories fixed or do individuals navigate their way in and out of the different camps during their life course?

Both/and … and a longitudinal panel study (which I hope to do) will help to unpack the specific directions and contexts for such transitions. Still, my hunch – based on data elsewhere – is that most of the transitions, if/when they occur, move toward the secular end of the continuum. That is, active affiliates are more likely to become marginal affiliates or religious nones versus religious nones who become marginal affiliates or active affiliates; and marginal affiliates are more prone toward religious nones than active affiliates.

Does societal secularization cause individual secularization or do these processes occur simultaneously?

This is an insightful chicken versus egg problem. Building on Peter Berger and Steve Bruce, I suggest the former in the project. Yet upon further consideration I see the argument that society is ultimately made up of individuals and thus rather than evoking causational language, correlation is more apt. But I stand by the core assertion that if strong religiosity or secularity are encouraged in the social environment/discourse, individuals will more easily follow the societal norms – as reflected in politics, education, mass media, the law, or healthcare. I hope to nuance this relationship further in future writing on this topic.

Are religious nones as tolerant toward active affiliates as I suggest?

My reading of other data in Canada does not lead me to conclude otherwise. True, a recent study by Angus Reid reveals that those without religion have more negative feelings toward those in conservative religious groups (and vice versa) – but do these perceptions translate into intolerant behaviours toward active affiliates? I have my doubts. There are surely pockets of religious nones in Canada who would be an exception to this interpretation, but religious nones overall do not confront the marginalized or hostile setting in Canada that their counterparts do in the United States – and thus have less reason in Canada to be intolerant toward active affiliates. Only more data and time will help to probe this subject further.

What role does immigration play for the future of religion in Canada and does immigration pose problems for the secularization thesis?

Immigration is essential to this discussion. First, immigration keeps Catholics and evangelicals afloat. How these groups respond to and embrace immigrant communities will factor into whether these Christian communities thrive, survive, or dwindle in the years ahead. Second, immigration contributes to the growth of non-Christian religious traditions. However, I note that Canada is not as religiously diverse as many assume – only 7.2% of the entire Canadian population identifies with a non-Christian tradition. While this figure will continue to rise, it is not as expansive, proportionately, as suggested in popular rhetoric. In the end, immigration slows but does not reverse the secularization process in Canada.

Will secularization give rise to innovative and entrepreneurial activities in Canadian congregations?

Very likely, as my latest research on flourishing congregations in Canada reveals. But what is the source of growth in such congregations? It is primarily transfer growth or retaining children and youth within that tradition. In other words, innovation and entrepreneurial initiatives such as new church plants or “Christian” coffee shops, for example – while occurring – are not reversing the secularizing trends.

Unanswered Questions

Several other questions came my way too. For example:

  • Can individuals pinpoint, understand, or articulate motivations for their own behaviours? What are the limits of micro-level data collection and analysis?
  • Is it possible that belief in the afterlife is a more salient motivation for religious affiliation, belief, and/or behaviour at the point of conversion versus later in one’s life?
  • How do my findings compare with the “believing without belonging” and “spiritual but not religious” literature?
  • How transferrable are the findings in this book for those in religious traditions outside of Christianity? Moreover, how applicable are the findings in Quebec?
  • How do these findings intersect with larger political, economic, cultural, and global realities in late modern society? Related, how does disengagement from religious organizations compare to disengagement from other social institutions?

Space does not permit me to address each question here, though these are all helpful and logical questions to extend the methodological and theoretical underpinnings to my work. The final question is the most intriguing to me, and one that I hope to interact with more completely in my future thinking and writing related to religion and culture in Canada.

To conclude, Marcus Mann picked up on the theme in my book where Canadians share the ethos that religion is a private matter and thus individuals or groups should not and generally do not push their religion on others, so as to not offend or exclude them. In turn Marcus suggested an alternative title to the book: How Canadian Politeness Killed Religion. This is a provocative statement that I wish I thought of first – politeness is not the sole variable at work, but in Canada it is an important factor that should not be ignored.

Thanks to all who have generously interacted with The Meaning of Sunday, and to those who continue to use this book as part of an evolving conversation in the sociology of religion, in Canada and elsewhere.


Joel Thiessen is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). The focus of his research is religion and culture in Canada, including secularization, religious nones, nominal and regular church attenders, religious and secular socialization, and congregations. He is author of two books, The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Perspective (Oxford University Press) and The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (McGill-Queen’s University Press), along with a range of articles. He is an avid sports fan, and a drummer, and he enjoys reading biographies, traveling, and exercising. For more information see www.joelthiessen.ca.

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[Event Report] SocRel 2016 – Construction and Disruption

 


The 2016 Sociology of Religion Study Group (SocRel) conference was hosted by Lancaster alisonUniversity, 12th-14th of July. The conference theme of ‘Construction and Disruption: The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere’ offered a wide range of entry points for considering the visibility and role of religion in contemporary society. Papers explored religion in relation to such public realms as education, culture, state and gender and conflict. Of particular interest to me is how different constructions of the concept of religion impact on the concomitant question of what then constitutes non-religion, and how the concepts interact. The papers outlined below offered opportunities to reflect on this.

Religion, the Public Sphere and Law: Construction, Disruption and Reconstitution

Lori Beaman’s keynote set the tone by considering interactions between the law and the concept of religion. Her examination of legal cases explored how the concept of religion is constructed by different people in different contexts, and how distance between state and religion is legally constructed. Beaman’s interest is less in answering the vexed question of what is and what is not religious than in the complexities that are revealed when the question is debated within particular contexts.

She considered three cases in detail: The first, from the USA, involved a school district sued for allowing students to be taught yoga in what was argued to be a breach of the US Constitutional requirement forbidding the establishment of religion. The second, brought by a French citizen to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), involved a niqab-wearing woman challenging the 2010 ban on wearing, in public places, garments that cover the face. She argued that the ban breached several articles of the European Declaration on Human Rights including article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), and article 10 (protecting freedom of expression). The third case was Canadian, and centred on the question of whether opening municipal council meeting with public prayer is an inappropriate interference with the freedom of practice and conscience of attendees.

Each case demonstrates how a given phenomenon can be constructed as religious in nature by some, and as non-religious, cultural or secular by others without any material change in the circumstances under consideration. Although each occurred in different social, cultural and legal contexts, Beaman argued convincingly for a shared relevance located in an examination of the ways in which the different courts involved constructed and transformed the concepts of religion and culture. These processes resulted in yoga being legally determined as non-religious in nature, because its practice is mainstream in contemporary America. Quebec’s court of appeal accepted the same type of reasoning, judging that the use of public prayer reflected a shared cultural heritage rather than an explicitly religious practice (the Supreme Court later over-turned this ruling). While the ECHR concluded that the need to live together in a social/cultural context which understands facial visibility as an aid to social interaction outweighs the individual’s right to express themselves by covering their face. Each decision thus demonstrates the complexity and contested nature of concepts of religious and non-religious, and problematizes the idea of an absolute division between the two concepts.

Existential Cultures in Steiner Schools

Katie Aston and Dan Whisker reported on the initial stages of their research into interactions of non-religious parents and faith schools. The work to date had all taken place in Steiner schools, which base their ethos on Anthroposophy (a spiritual philosophy with roots in theosophy) . Steiner schools engage in ritual as a school community but actively avoid teaching doctrine. Education is individually focussed, with the intention of nurturing the spirit of the child. The schools are non-competitive and emphasise play as a means of learning.

The research involves surveys and interviews with parents, children and teachers. From this data Aston and Whisker identified that none of the parents with whom they spoke were either anthroposophists, or affiliated to any other religious tradition. All identified as either non-religious or spiritual. Most had also been dissatisfied with their own mainstream schooling, and this contributed to their approval of Steiner educational values and their choice of schools for their children.

Aston and Whisker have identified several preliminary avenues of analysis regarding the value of faith schools to non-religious parents. These include the development of existential cultures, processes of sacralising childhood, and distinctions between verbalised meaning and shared experience. For me this offer a chance to explore the practical distinctions between concepts of religion, non-religion and spirituality for self-described non-religious parents, actively seeking education with a spiritual component for their children and choosing a religious school to provide this. The conceptual constructions at play here suggest the complexity and ambiguity of these terms and the ways they interact in a real-world context.

Pluralist Publics and the Scientific Study of Non-Religion

This panel began with an outline of the multi-disciplinary ‘Understanding Unbelief’ project and the sociological shifts underlying academic interest in non-religion before considering some current approaches in the field.

One area being developed by Lois Lee is the emergence of ‘unbelief’ as an analytic term. She represented this as a deliberate shift away from a sole focus on the issue of deity. The term thus has several aspects – relative, indicating unbelief in specific theological claims; positive, relating to alternative existential/metaphysical beliefs; and negative, describing a general absence of metaphysical beliefs. Areas of interest include the distinct cognitive and social phenomena captured by the term, and ways in which ‘unbeliefs’ manifest in/from people’s lives. For me this shift challenges the idea of religion and non-religion as binary, suggesting perhaps either term can be applicable to a given example via the same constructive processes that Beaman’s legal cases employed.

These examples are drawn from rich and diverse range of papers, many of which touched upon non-religion and secularity in similar ways. There are many opportunities to develop the field further in relation to the academic, cultural and personal conceptual constructions of its critical terms , as well as the multivalent complexity of the religious/non-religious spectrum.


Alison Robertson is in the final stages of her PhD with the Open University. Her thesis is
on BDSM as a lived practice of religioning and her research interests include religion and spirituality in relation to self-inflicted pain, trauma and well-being, personalised religious practices, paganisms any other area where the boundaries between what is and is not deemed ‘religion’ become fuzzy. Alison has recently taken over as the Post-Graduate and Early-Careers Liaison Office for the Sociology of Religion (SocRel) research group.

 

Event: World Religions Conference

34th World Religions Conference

28 September 2014

River Run Centre, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

The World Religions Conference (WRC) is a multi-faith event which brings together well-known scholars from the world’s major religions and philosophical traditions (including Aboriginal Spirituality, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and Humanism/Atheism) to speak on a common topic from the point of view of their respective religious traditions. While this is not an academic conference or a call for academic papers, this event may be of interest to those working in nonreligion and secularityContinue reading