Event Report: Why Nonreligion is the New Religion

LoisLaunching the new website, the first NSRN blog of the year is director Lois Lee’s report on Linda Woodhead’s recent British Academy lecture. This event provided an opportunity, she argues, to reflect on the development of the study of nonreligion to this point, including its relationship with the study of religion – and to celebrate its rosy prospects. 

Linda Woodhead’s lecture at the British Academy in London last week – on ‘Why Nonreligion is the New Religion’ – felt momentous. Quite appropriately, as this was Woodhead’s inaugural speech as a Fellow of the Academy. But I was also struck by the foregrounding not of religion but of nonreligion at this most auspicious of occasions.

Woodhead’s interest in nonreligion is not surprising in itself. She has been a long-term advocate of its study and her interest pre-dates the formation of the NSRN and has continued in conversation with it. Rather, I was struck by the context and the setting. To get to my seat, I forged a path from Trafalgar Square, passing Whitehall and the Mall – those seats of British power – and down Pall Mall, then passing the plush, dimly lit rooms of the Institute of Directors, lined with gilt-framed oil paintings, to the buildings of the British Academy. Inside the BA, we passed along marbled lobbies, carpeted corridors, a grand staircase up to the chamber (surely ‘room’ is too plain a word) where the lecture was to given, under the warm glow of chandeliers. If mine and others’ work has agitated for the academy (small ‘a’) to ‘recognise the nonreligious’, it was hard to escape the feeling that this welcome into the Academy (big ‘A’) was a noteworthy point on its journey. And that is something that many in the NSRN should and will celebrate.

Still, I was drawn out of these self-interested reveries by Diarmaid MacCulloch[i]’s  small but significant aside: to paraphrase, ‘some might think that faith was not worth the BA talking about’. To a sociologist of religion, like myself, the reminder that anyone might think this so often comes as a surprise. One does not need to hold MacCulloch’s view that religion is a growing force in society to have a strong sense that it is still a force to be reckoned with.

But this opening statement brings home an important point about the historic neglect of nonreligious populations in the academy, too – that its own marginalisation is also built upon the marginalisation of religion as an object of study. Nonreligious subjectivities may be under-studied because they have been naturalised – as Talal Asad, Timothy Fitzgerald, Colin Campbell and others have pointed to. But, since the secularisation paradigm understood religiosity itself to be a transient, increasingly outmoded phenomenon, sociologists can be primed to notice when religion expires, rather than the emergence of alternatives – the beliefs, identities and practices that it transforms into.

MacCulloch’s remark reminded me once more that sociologists of religion were not so much hogging the field, refusing to make room for the study of the nonreligious, as they were absorbed in their own battles to have religion recognised as an object of study – and that the study of religion remains precarious still.

Ultimately, both the study of religion and of nonreligion are vulnerable, though each for their own and culturally contingent reasons. If there is cause for optimism – and I think that there is – that is because recognising the nonreligious in scholarship is one important way of supporting, even guaranteeing the study of religion for the longer term. And vice versa. To recognise the nonreligious is to adopt an inclusive understanding of the field ‘religious’ studies. This should broaden its relevance and appeal – especially in contexts in which the nonreligious make up a sizable portion of the population, even a majority as it now does in the UK (a point that Woodhead discussed). An inclusive approach to thinking about religion – or beyond it – should not be the preoccupation of a few , but something which we recognise that we all have a stake in, whether traditionally religious, alternatively spiritual, nonreligious or areligious.

Woodhead’s talk demonstrated that knowledge about the religious and the nonreligious have the capacity to enrich one another. She pointed to several intriguing findings of her current, UK-focused research. She pointed, for example, to the remarkable stickiness of nonreligious identities compared to religious ones: nonreligious parents will almost always pass on this identity to their children, whilst religious parents will only be half as successful. She also made a powerful argument in support of the view that nonreligious affiliates – i.e. those who identify themselves as having ‘no religion’ on surveys – should be recognised as a significant and heterogeneous constituency in its own right and one demanding further study – something that NSRN researchers will no doubt salute.

Woodhead also made interesting observations about the way in which ‘no religion’ has replaced the Church of England as a national ‘religion’. It is not only that nonreligion is the new norm, but that it overlaps with other, authorised notions of Britishness: whiteness, being British-born and politically liberal. At the same time, she described a disjunction between the conservative messages of Anglican leaders in the UK and the liberalism of the majority of church-members. Thus, liberals are being drawn to nonreligion and pushed away from religion at the same time – a notion that nicely illustrates how the study of nonreligion and religion often need to be done together.

Woodhead raised points for debate, too. I would challenge, for example, her reliance on ‘positive atheist’ beliefs (i.e. ‘I believe that God does not exist’) to measure non-theistic believers. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins claims to be an agnostic with a leaning towards positive atheism – 6 out of 7 on a scale from certain theist to certain non-theist; hence the ‘probably’ in the Atheist Bus Campaign slogan, ‘There Probably Is No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’. It’s not clear, therefore, that even Dawkins would select the positive atheist category rather than the strong agnostic one also provided. In general, in fact, analysts do not give the strong agnostic category enough attention compared to the positive atheist one.

I wasn’t wholly convinced either by the suggestion that Denmark and the UK differ very greatly in terms of religion. Other data show a remarkably similar profile between the two countries overall, even when the high rate of Church membership that Woodhead pointed to is taken into consideration. [ii]

But such points of contention only prove the point of how fruitful the study of nonreligion is and could be, not only in its own right but also as an aspect of an integrated study of religion, spirituality, nonreligion and areligion – how many debates there are to have, how many questions to pursue, how much light to be shed on the one from accounting for the other. The event was a celebration – most importantly for Woodhead and her great achievements in the study of religion – but also, I think, for a dynamic, creative, outward-looking field of nonreligious studies that is really coming into its own.

Siegers, Pascale. 2010. A Multiple Group Latent Class Analysis of Religious Orientations in Europe. In Cross-Cultural Analysis: Methods and Applications, edited by E. Davidov, P. Schmidt and J. Billet. New York, NY: Routledge: 387-413.

Zuckerman, Phil. 2008. Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. New York: New York University Press.

[i] Historian of Christianity and our chair for the evening

[ii] Phil Zuckerman, for example, uses Denmark in his 2008 study of ‘godless societies’, whilst Pascal Siegers (2010) comparative work shows the UK and Denmark having extraordinarily similar profiles when it comes to the balance of traditional religion, alternative spirituality, active nonreligiosity and general indifference.

Lois Lee is research associate at the Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL, PI on the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief project (John Templeton Foundation) and Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network co-director. Recent publications include Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular (OUP, 2015) and Negotiating Religion: Cross-Disciplinary Approaches (Ashgate, in press).