Atheism and Nonreligion

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By Spencer Bullivant (University of Ottawa)


“Atheism and Non-Religion” Panel Session at the annual conference of the British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion Study Group (BSA SocRel), “Religion and (In) Equalities” (March 28-30, 2012)

29 March 2012
University of Chester, Chester, England


Dr Titus Hjelm (Chair), University College London

Spencer Bullivant, University of Ottawa:
Atheist summer camps: Transitioning away from conceptions of disbelief to belief

Chris Cotter, Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN)
The inherent inequalities of the religion-nonreligion dichotomy: A narrative approach to individual (non-) religiosity

Dr Rebecca Catto & Dr. Janet Eccles, Lancaster University:
Countercultural or mainstream? Some reflections from the Young Atheist Project

Lydia Reid, University of Manchester
Religion and Modernity


Seeking to expose and explore how religious beliefs interact within systems of power and create or affect experiences of equality or inequality, the 2012 annual meeting of the British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion Study Group (BSA SocRel) dedicated a panel to the topic of Atheism and Non-Religion.


For those in an ostensibly secular western world, the place of self-identified atheists or other nonreligious individuals is not an obvious starting point when discussing issues of inequality. Nevertheless, research presented during the Atheism and Non-Religion panel of this year’s BSA SocRel annual conference described nonreligious individuals who experience feelings of inequality. At the same time, research also explored, and in some cases challenged, the simplistic idea that nonreligious individuals and groups are marginalized in Britain and in the United States, offering evidence both that religious students and other youths are not generally hostile to nonreligion, and that in most cases nonreligious and religious individuals alike are open to some form of dialogue, harbouring little hostility towards their religious or nonreligious counterparts. In light of this new data, one is presented with the task of looking at the relationship between the religious and nonreligious in a more nuanced way. Although issues of tension do arise between religious and nonreligious individuals, evidence suggests that these issues do not pertain to a clash of beliefs. Rather, any real or perceived tension that could lead to feelings of inequality between nonreligious and religious individuals appears to stem from expressions of belief. Publicly expressed beliefs, be they of the religious or nonreligious sort, appear to challenge an assumption of normativity maintained within each group, thereby causing individuals to react in a struggle through which they negotiate and renegotiate that normativity. For these individuals, an understanding of their own religious or non-religious identities becomes tied to how they make public expressions about identities, especially when these identities are challenged in a public setting. This points to a broader issue relating to how places for belief are utilized in private and public spheres, especially in the increasingly diverse societies of the United Kingdom and the United States. These findings furthermore contribute to discussion regarding the importance or centrality of religion and nonreligion to a person’s identity.

Presenting preliminary results from fieldwork of his ongoing Ph.D. research, Spencer Bullivant began the panel with a discussion of how nonreligious youths in the United States are participating in summer camp activities that are explicitly nonreligious. Performing participant observation at a summer camp called Camp Quest, a secular camp in the state of Montana, Bullivant looked at how this camp’s commitment to nonreligion and secularity is forming and informing identities of the camp’s young people and its adults. Bullivant found that while this camp presents itself as a site of community formation within the larger nonreligious communities of the United States, it also attempts to aid in the identity formation of the young people who attend. Camp organizers do this by presenting children and adults with new, positive ways of communicating their nonreligious beliefs, ways that exclude a critique of religious beliefs. Focusing on positive expression and conceptualization of belief, Bullivant argued that Camp Quest Montana tries to create or shape the personal narratives of Camp Quest attendees. By exposing these children to a potential peer group while simultaneously giving them various tools with which to communicate their identities in a way that is neither aggressive nor antagonistic, Camp Quest Montana offers these children access to an in-group identity. Hence, the nonreligion found at Camp Quest Montana does not reflect a negative relationship to religion. Quite to the contrary, the camp seeks to redefine the nonreligious expression of its attendees without referencing hostility to religious belief and believers.

Exploring nonreligion in its British context, Chris Cotter agreed with Bullivant that media representations of nonreligion have been “unhelpful” in that these representations frequently focus on negative aspects of unbelievers and characterize them as belonging to a homogenous group. Cotter also pointed out that the academic study of religion has neglected nonreligion as a subject worthy of study in its own right, often using biased or derogatory terminology when addressing areas of nonreligion. In an effort to remedy this inequality, Cotter has engaged nonreligious university students. His findings show that these students are engaged in, “the maintenance of multiple context-dependent ‘identities’; a complex process of boundary demarcation; feelings of belonging and marginalisation; and the subordination of (non)religious identification to other overarching ideals implicit throughout their narratives.” It is significant to note that Cotter’s research subjects were often aware that their identities, as well as the narratives used to describe their identities, could be contradictory or incompatible on a superficial level. Cotter argued that though there is some degree of incompatibility in these self-identifications, the narratives are still valid and worthy of study in their own right even when nonreligion is not necessarily the most important factor of them.

Also examining British university students and youths of university age, Rebecca Catto and Janet Eccles presented results from their investigation into how nonreligious students (in this case explicitly self-identified atheist individuals), came to identify as such. Their research included data on what these individuals believed, and what difference nonreligion made to their lives. Catto and Eccles found that their participants entered university with the view that their own atheist perspectives would be the norm within the university environment. This assumption came most often from students whose home life was such that they rarely conflicted with their parents about their personal nonreligious perspectives. Once at university, however, these students often discovered their nonreligion to be in contrast to a diversity of religious beliefs and practices; and this contrast caused them to negotiate when and how to express the nonreligious aspects of their identity. Research participants reported areas of particular tension around issues such as the prevalence of homophobia and sexual discrimination in religious institutions, the influence of the Christian Union on university campuses, an advocation for the teaching of Creationism in schools, and a perceived disproportionate influence of Anglican

Looking at atheism and nonreligion from a different angle, Lydia Reid’s presentation next put into doubt, or at least made more complex, the assertion that nonreligious communities and individuals are experiencing feelings of ostracization or marginalization,. Reid first found that the religious participants of her ongoing Ph.D. research did not feel themselves to be inherently hostile towards nonreligious individuals. Instead, participants reported that they only felt a sense of hostility in a specific context: when faced with what they perceived to be the hostile personal attacks or misguided criticism of New Atheists or others in the nonreligious community. Reid then presented her research participants with excerpts from the major works of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, seeking to understand better how New Atheist writings and statements might challenge the self-understanding of religious members. Interestingly, Reid found that participants did not perceive the often scathing descriptions of religious belief and believers found in New Atheist books to be the main source of challenge to their religious beliefs. Instead, the greater challenge stemmed from their perceptions of those religious individuals who belonged to different religious societies of the university. Specifically, participants described different religious groups as threats because these groups practiced religion either improperly or in a manner that might not do justice to faith. Importantly, Reid noted that participants did not perceive this tension between religious societies as carrying over between the religious and nonreligious communities of the university. When issues of contention did occur, they were most often conceived of as a political rather than a religious issue.

Although panel presenters considered the possibility that religious belief and nonreligion may not be inherently hostile towards one another, citing numerous examples of people claiming openness to discussion with their nonreligious or religious peers, their research results suggested the presence of an ongoing struggle within both religious and nonreligious individuals about when and where to emphasize the religious or nonreligious aspects of their identities. Research focusing on the nonreligious reported that, due to the absence of religion in their lives, nonreligious individuals perceived themselves as holding a minority or subordinate position within their respective societies; and this perception of their social positioning subsequently complicated how they chose to express their identities. Furthermore, research participants, both religious and nonreligious, continued to experience feelings of marginalization or inequality even while reporting no antagonism towards their religious or nonreligious counterparts; and nonreligious individuals recognized that these feelings could have consequences or influence how they interacted with those who hold religious beliefs. This finding suggests that feelings of marginalization or inequality could be inherent in most social realities.

Calling into question the assumption of an antagonistic relationship between religious and nonreligious individuals, Bullivant’s research showed that a group of nonreligious individuals in the United States is currently trying to distance itself from critiques of religion, critiques often understood within the media and in some academic circles to be the foundation of the nonreligious identity. Catto and Eccles, as well as Cotter, echoed these findings with their research on nonreligion in the British context. The crux of how nonreligious people appear to identify with their own system of unbelief rests in their claims that while nonreligion plays a role in their lives, this role is not of a central and formative nature. Instead, these individuals identify nonreligion as part of their malleable and context-dependent expressions of identity.

Shifting the discussion of nonreligious identity away from the critical and antagonistic portrayal of nonreligion as it is found in media and in scholarship, often as connected to New Atheist ideology, the research of this panel demonstrated the complex ways in which nonreligious identities are understood by the nonreligious themselves. Like their religious counterparts, nonreligious individuals feel threatened when challenged in public about the normativity of their nonreligion. They feel further threatened when confronted with expressions of religious belief that occur in an extremely public manner. Focusing on this area of religious expression in particular, Catto and Eccles found cases in which such public expressions had violated the “non-negotiable values of equality and liberty” that nonreligious individuals thought must be part of any religious expression.

The panel research suggests that individuals of both religious and nonreligious communities perceive that they are on unequal footing with those who hold contrasting beliefs. However, responses collected from members of both groups show that this inequality is one of context-specific interactions rather than of a systematic unequal relationship. All five panel presenters agreed that both the religious and nonreligious individuals of their studies shaped their identities and personal narratives to some degree in relation to their perception of how the ‘Other’ had expressed his or her beliefs publicly, especially when these expressions were of an extreme nature. The key issue found to inform changes to nonreligious identities related both to how nonreligious individuals perceived of the ‘Other’, in this case the religious individual, and to the expressions of religious belief that challenged the nonreligious individual’s own personal narratives, thus leading to feelings of inequality and an expression of nonreligious identity in response. Although the research of this panel suggested that nonreligious identifications are not the dominant or central part of a nonreligious person’s life, such findings should not signify that the study of nonreligion is not important to the study of religion or to the broader formation and expression of identity narratives. A potentially fruitful area of further research is the investigation into why religious expressions made in public, especially those of a forceful nature might present a challenge to the nonreligious identity.