[Blog Series] What’s in a name? …

In this blog post Lois Lee and Stephen Bullivant address the need for a common set of accessible and rigorous terms for the study and wider discussion of atheism, nonreligion, secularity et al.. They explain how their new project, The Oxford Dictionary of Atheism, will address this need and introduce a glossary of key terms excerpted from the Dictionary that are already available for use.


As aPROFILE NEW SMALLlois-small1n emerging field of enquiry, a fully developed and centralised body of conceptual and methodological work is not yet available to support new research. However, today, the issue is not the same as it was for researchers a decade ago – pioneering new empirical projects and trying to get to grips with long taken-for-granted concepts like ‘atheism’ and ‘irreligion’ in order to do so. For new scholars, the challenge is accessing all that these earlier scholars have learned – and ensuring that they don’t have to repeat the same conceptual explorations, or wander up the blind alleys that others have already realised are dead-ends.

Today, the issue is much more about having a centralised body of work to turn to, a point of access to a resource setting out, simply and clearly, what others have already learned. To date, there has been a lack of standardization, not only across disciplines but within them, leading either to uncertainty about a concept’s meaning or crossed-wires. What is more, lacking a centralised conceptual resource limits scholars opportunities to scrutinise and develop core concepts in light of new knowledge, to build more nuanced models, and to triangulate and accumulate knowledge.

Simply put, it would make a lot of people’s lives (not least our own!) a great deal easier if there are a more standardized set of rigorous, well-understood (and thus easily understandable), and useful core terms and concepts for our nascent field. That doesn’t, in itself, mean that all scholars must always use terms in precisely the same ways, especially given the diversity of disciplines which intersect in ‘nonreligious/secular studies’, and given the fact that certain terms fit less comfortably when applied in, say, non-western religious contexts. But even then, having a more standardized set of terminology against which to define a different sense of particular term for a particular purpose would itself be beneficial.

It is with this in mind that we offer the following three-point plan for researchers and students attempting to traverse this terrain:

  1. Firstly, a simple point but an important one: it is helpful just to be aware that single terms are used to mean a variety of different things. What is more, the differences are often very subtle, making them all the harder to detect and more pernicious as a consequence.

For example, for British sociologist, Linda Woodhead, ‘secular’ tends to mean something like a committed and confirmed Dawkinsian Atheist with anti-theist leanings; it means something similar for US sociologist Christel Manning. Yet for the British sociologists Steve Bruce and David Voas, these same phenomenon are precisely and significantly non-secular: instead, strong ‘atheist’ identities and movements is, for them, a sign that religion is thriving, whilst the ‘secular’ entails something much more like indifference to religion. As Bruce writes in 2002’s God is Dead:

In so far as I can imagine an endpoint [to European secularization], it would not be conscious irreligion; you have to care too much about religion to be irreligious. It would be widespread indifference… (p. 42)

  1. Secondly, and related to the first, there is significant international variation in how terms are understood. Inconsistent use of terms would be a lot more obvious if it was about individual variety, but actually there are local norms that mean that some understandings are taken-for-granted and assumed to be universal. For example, using ‘secular’ to mean impassioned and committed non-theists is more common in US (where authors talk about a ‘secular movement’ for example), whilst the ‘past caring’ sense of the ‘secular’ is more common in UK, though the term ‘secularist‘ is sometimes used in these settings to indicate those of strong non-theist conviction.

The effect is not a blanket one. Consider that Woodhead is from the UK and Manning from the US but use the term ‘secular’ in the same, US-favoured way. This means that we can’t say, ‘secular means x in place A and means y in place B’ – nothing so neat and tidy as that. Rather, writers need to be explicit about the senses that they use terms in, and not assume that others are using them in the same way.

  1. Finally, even if there is no consistent pattern between ‘signifieds’ and ‘signifiers’, the number of similar-sounding signifiers – ‘secular’, ‘atheist’, ‘nonreligious’ – does in fact represent a real variety of signifieds. We do not have a profusion of terms for the same things. Rather, there are subtly different phenomenon, the disentangling of which is in fact significant for understanding the field, and will help us navigate its heterogeneity. These distinctions matter, and are essential if we are to chart the complexities of the groups and phenomena that this multitude of similar-sounding terms are seeking to describe.

For all of these reasons, we were delighted to be invited by Oxford University Press to write The Oxford Dictionary of Atheism, to form part of their online Quick Reference suite, the ODA (as all the coolest cats will no doubt be calling it) is intended to,

  • document key understandings of terms;
  • point to multiple, often contradictory senses of terms (several of which are not yet documented in the OED itself); and,
  • to provide a centralized, standardized reference point to help researchers make decisions about terminology in their projects.

It also allows us to offer entries on new terms frequently encountered in this field (‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’, ‘Atheism +’, even ‘nonreligion’ itself) for which one would struggle to find clearly, concisely, and handily defined and explained anywhere else.

The ODA itself is due to go live later on in this year, but we’re able – and proud – to share a select set of terms on the Understanding Unbelief website, as part of a dedicated Glossary. We hope that these will be of wide interest and use, including but not limited.

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 (Routledge, in press).

Stephen Bullivant is a Senior Lecturer at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. Among other books, he co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (OUP, 2013; with M. Ruse) and Secularity and Non-Religion (Routledge, 2013; with L. Lee and E. Arweck), and is currently writing The Oxford Dictionary of Atheism (OUP) with Lois Lee.


One thought on “[Blog Series] What’s in a name? …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s