[Event Report] Nonreligion at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Atlanta: Addressing the Whale Shark in the Room

In this event report, Nick Stauner covers the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) annual conference 2016. Stauner summarises a number of Nick Staunercaptivating papers, as well as detailing difficulties in language and the Western understanding of nonreligion.




On one hand, we’re all just fish that crawled out of the sea (ancestrally speaking). Much of what social scientists of religion say about religion can be said of nonreligion; much of it is the science of humanity, perhaps of life itself.  Yet one of these fish is not like the others, and it’s getting a little big for the tank.  It’s been swimming along nicely with the others for some time now, mostly going with the flow of a mostly religious society.  It’s still a minority, but it’s not exactly a small fry among the masses anymore (Growth in the religiously unaffiliated subpopulation was a major topic of last year’s meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Newport Beach.)  This nonreligious subpopulation is making waves in the science of religion and catching sincere, undivided attention.

The fair and proportional influx of representation of nonreligious people in the psychology of religion is good for everyone. It’s been a peaceful process lately (especially compared to more acrimonious times in the field’s early history), even serene from my perspective.  The tide of mutual acknowledgment and respect has been rising, even as it carries news that prejudice against atheists may be uniquely universal and severe in many regions of the world, along with news that mainstream Christians suffer discrimination and microagressions too.  But this is old news.  What’s new as of October in Atlanta?

On the topic of discrimination, Jacqui Frost and Penny Edgell brought a real pearl: might women affiliate with religion more than men because atheist women suffer worse discrimination than men?  In fact, they counted insignificantly fewer women than men in nonreligious categories overall: definitely fewer atheists and “nothing in particulars”, but no fewer agnostics, and many more “spiritual-but-not-religious” women.  Dan Delaney reported common sentiments among secularists who do not wish to be seen as superficial: having to say “spiritual but not…” is a pain in the tail, but labels don’t do us justice, and the plain language of values is even more laborious.  How do you identify your ideology without an hour to talk?  Do you say anything if you’re in a country like Argentina, where Catholics predominate to the point of prejudice, or do you try to remain invisible?  Thankfully, Ryan Cragun speaks Spanish, so he understood when an interviewee told him that it’s easier to be a serial killer or pedophile in Argentina than to be an atheist!  (Being a vegetarian in Argentina might be harder still; I wonder about pescetarians…)

Other issues of language in general complicate the identification of nonreligious people across cultures. According to Mary Heimann, in the Czech Republic, “ateista” may reflect more about one’s opposition to organized religion than it does about one’s personal beliefs or spirituality.  Czech atheists’ behaviors at holidays and cemeteries imply spirituality.  Similarly, Steven Heine described the nonreligious majority of Japan’s population as atheistic and unaffiliated, yet behaviorally involved in spiritual traditions.  Rather than opposing religions, many Japanese people relate loosely and circumstantially to two religions, observing Shinto ceremonies to celebrate births or marriages, but holding Buddhist funerals.

In the world at large, Ariela Keysar highlighted divergences among disbelief in god and self-identifications as “nonreligious” or “atheist”. Using the World Values Survey, Keysar counted many more people without religious affiliations than people identifying as atheists, even majorities in Azerbaijan and Thailand. Perplexingly, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, more identify as atheist than disavow belief in god directly.  China also prompts concerns about interpreting global statistics: excluding China halves the world’s proportion of nonbelievers.  Keysar also echoed Frost’s implications about religious women, suggesting that socioeconomic disparities may suppress deviations from religious norms disproportionately among disadvantaged women in patriarchal societies.

Clearly the Western understanding of nonreligion doesn’t stay so clearly applicable to other cultures overseas. However, research across transatlantic Western societies has produced new insights on the deeper meanings of nonreligion, and they are quite deep indeed.  Nonreligion is not unfamiliarity with religion; if anything, the opposite is more plausible.  As Jeffrey Cox pointed out, religious education is often compulsory in Western Europe (e.g., the UK, Germany), yet religious belief is relatively low, probably for many reasons.  Previous researchers have estimated more negative relationships between religiousness and well-being in Europe, but new research indicates that “anxious atheists” may be mislabeled in America.  Joseph Baker found that atheists in the Baylor Religion Survey generally reported good psychological health, and agnostics fared only slightly worse, but other unaffiliated people expressed much more depression, paranoia, obsessiveness, anxiety, and other problems.

Nonreligious identities predict more than personal outcomes, and sociocultural factors may also be outcomes of nonreligious identity. Evan Stewart noted that atheists, agnostics, and “spiritual but not religious” people support Social Security and welfare programs more than “nothing in particulars”.  Those favoring public expressions of secularity also supported the social safety net more, whereas personal nonreligiousness predicted less support.  Richard Cimino also connected liberalism to public secularity via secularist organizations, of which Democrats often constitute majorities.  Political affiliation and activity may be outcomes of secularist affiliations, since many of Cimino’s participants reported changes in each after joining their groups.

Much of society may change as its religiousness changes. and it is changing. Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme described a shift in Canada’s political divide: away from Catholic versus Protestant ideological conflicts, toward religious versus nonreligious disagreements.  This realignment may reflect the decline of religious groups.  Buster Smith’s longitudinal analyses of recent General Social Survey panels revealed people abandoning Catholic and mainstream Protestant religions most often, while “nones” increased in number and reaffiliated less often. Intuitively enough, past religious changes predicted future changes, but so did changes in sexual orientation and so did divorce or separation.  Alex Uzdavines outlined a plan for further predictions of non/religious identity changes from stressful life events (SLE) using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

To this wealth of new insights distilled from the SSSR’s annual October meeting in Atlanta, I can add little more. While SLE may change religious identity, according to research I presented, religiousness may do little to change our spiritual or existential struggles with SLE. In our responses to SLE, these struggles unite people regardless of non/religiousness.  This may be a silver lining, especially in the wake of the USA’s exceptionally stressful, divisive election and pending power shift, which bears further implications for the intersections of religious and political cultures.

If anything is certain, one can forecast a different climate for next year’s conference scheduled to meet at the country’s political epicenter, Washington DC. In the midst of the ongoing upheaval, we need to preserve and promote respect for ourselves, others, and for the very idea of diversity itself.  The spirit of skeptical scientific inquiry is alive and well, and the science of nonreligion grows at least as fast as its section of the population.


Nick Stauner is a postdoctoral scholar at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. With Julie Exline, he co-leads a $2.5M research project funded by the John Templeton Foundation (grant #59916) entitled “Understanding supernatural attributions: Types, predictors, and consequences”.  His new work entails structural equation modeling of latent cognitive and spiritual personality factors, and maintains roots in existential psychology and research on religious and spiritual struggles.  Endeavors in progress include collaborative cross-cultural research and experimentation in virtual reality.


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