[Reflection] No religion really is the new religion

Linda Woodhead’s recent work has argued that ‘no religion is the new religiHughon’. In this blog, Hugh Rock asks whether is it now high time that the sociology of religion takes this suggestion much more seriously?


Linda Woodhead’s address to this year’s EASR conference in Helsinki titled ‘No Religion is the New Religion’ was, for me, distinctly thought provoking. As a rebellious theologian, I take that title to be literally true. But despite the implication, Woodhead was not theorising ‘no religion’ as religion. What struck me about the disjunction between my conclusion about no religion and Woodhead’s hiatus, was that the title presages a potential conceptual advance that remains something of an obstacle because we have not quite completed the conceptual armoury needed to get round it; but that such an advance would be fertile in connecting up the wave of empirical studies of the non-religious, such as Woodhead, Lois Lee and many others have been engaging, with new work theorising the nonreligious.

It is now nearly 10 years since the NSRN was established, and it is striking how growth in this field remains anchored to religion-centred concepts and methodologies. Recognising the nonreligious as an object of empirical study is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. Given this, I would argue that we need to understand the degree to which actors are invested in these approaches. As empirical evidence for it falls away, so it is harder to resist the argument that the demarcation between religious and secular lives is a clerical frauda theologically constructed, unsociological paradigm. Although this point has been made already by others such as Timothy Fitzgerald, (Fitzgerald 2000), and there are followers of the like-minded Jonathan Z Smith, (Smith 1982) much of sociology remains saturated with disguised, theological apologetics. Hence the need to return to critical arguments which argue that the key term in our discipline, ‘secular’, is an expression of a theologically imposed paradigm (Rock 2015). If that paradigm change was not on the horizon at the EASR conference, perhaps the change might come through the initiative of the NSRN? I make two suggestions of conceptual re-orientation that could be fruitful to progressing the subject of non-religion.

To begin with, the very vocabulary of NSRN, non-religion, secularity, unbelief and atheism, is a theological paradigm that needs to be repudiated. Sociology has already travelled most of the way toward this advance and needs only a few threads drawing together finally to achieve it. To recap the situation as I see it, the conceptual armoury that I refer to is held by the school of the worldview/meaning systems approach to religion. It’s non-theological interpretation already distinctively interfaces non-religion and religion. I have identified the Worldview Studies approach to religion as the front runner for an emerging consensus in the sociology of religion. (Rock 2015) Ann Taves recently endorsed the virtues of the MS approach (NSRN Blog Sept 2016). Andre Droogers and Anton von Harskamp have proposed Worldview Studies as a new methodology to supercede Religious Studies. (2014) The school has pedigree going back at least to Ninian Smart’s perception of ‘non-religious ideologies as an adjunct of religion’ (Smart 1973:16) Smart proposed ‘the analysis of worldviews providing an interpretation of individual and collective experience’. (1981:20) Within this school Lee offers the useful concept of ‘existential cultures’ (Lee 2015)

There is, however, a specific obstacle still presented to sociological theory in repudiating theological approaches to religion. The very terms of debate, ‘no religion’ and ‘nonreligious’ are dictated by a theological paradigm of what constitutes religion. For instance, the word atheism as Thomas Coleman rightly points out, (NSRN blog Nov 2012) has been dictated by ‘the tyrannical hegemonic discourse.’ It is a vocabulary that has resulted from ‘a power struggle which explicit religion always controls’. Worldview Studies, employing as it does, the theologically dictated vocabulary of nonreligion, unbelief, secular and atheist, is still being given the run about from theology. It is this run about that I see underlying Woodhead’s hiatus; religion in non-religion, is, theologically, made to seem contradictory.

This vocabulary fabricated by theology can only be dismantled by speaking to theology in its own terms. What I would like to see is sociology turn about face and confront theology with a sociological theology that explains, in theistic terms of reference, how nonreligion may indeed be stated to be religion. In other worlds Worldview Studies needs its own understanding of God. It needs a proposition that does theological work. Without that engagement all attempts at theorising nonreligion are destined to be stuck in the clerically constructed polarity of religion and mere humanism.

The vocabulary represents ecclesiastical colonialization. It is the creation of ‘the other’ that parallels the regimes relating to women and black people. We need to deconstruct this ecclesiastical bastion. We need, as sociologists, to take the analytic initiative and to field a conceptual term which will dissolve the enforced opposition between atheism and religion. This concept needs to capture, as Stephen LeDrew put it, that atheists are believers in something positive (NSRN blog March 2014).

I offer Social Theism as a supplementary dimension to the concepts already available in the Worldview Studies armoury. Social Theism is intended to engage that analytic initiative. The two components of the term are intended to express its bilingual fluency with both sociology and theology. The ‘Theism’ component, frames God as a symbol of meaning systems. The ‘Social’ component frames those meanings as socially constructed. The term is intended to repudiate the theologically erected boundary between the secular and religious enterprises of world-making: Atheism undertakes the same project as Theism. At the same time the term is intended to state both the continuity and the discontinuity of the theistic and Humanist endeavours. It frames the ‘secular’ life project as no less religious than the ‘religious’ life project. The ongoing result of my methodological steps is a second proposed conceptual re-orientation which I am finding useful in my own research. This is that the modern world has not experienced a split between the secular and the religious world. It is experiencing a clash between two types of religions which have different bases for their authority.  A new religion, or rather a complex of naturalistic religions, has grown up and displaced the old, which is engaged in an agonised fightback. People don’t go to church anymore because they have a different religion. This two religions framework works, for instance, in relation to Steven Kettell’s article on anti-secular and intolerant secular positions (NSRN blog Oct 2015) Kettell notes that the same sex marriage legislation may be perceived as ‘restricting faith-based rights’. Social Theism identifies that we witness here a clash of two religions faiths with incommensurable values.

To summarize the result of this theorising, the category ‘no religion’ for me comprises a raft of world-building, life-meaning-making endeavours, within the framework of a naturalistic worldview, that are sociologically indistinguishable from the world-building, life-orientating endeavours carried out within the framework of a theistic worldview.

Therefore, I see in ‘non-religion’ a spectrum of new naturalistic religions. As examples, I count the Humanist belief in reason, education and technological progress, as one naturalistic, life-meaning-making, religious enterprise. I count the ecological movement as another. I count, as most significant and under-theorised, what I identify as the unarticulated new religion of the liberal European democracies. This is the communal enterprise to encourage the self-chosen fulfilment of the potential in every life. These naturalistic commitments are as much passionate endeavours to live meaningful lives in community, as are the theistic religious endeavours.

There is a fertile road ahead for the study of non-religion. If this year’s EASR was a lost opportunity, perhaps the forthcoming Understanding Unbelief project may, in the event, take matters forward by departing from the tyrannical paradigm of ‘unbelief’?


Cotter, C., and Robertson, G., Editors, 2016 After World Religions, London: Routledge.

Coleman, T., Silver, C.F., and Holcombe, J., 2013, ‘Focusing on horizontal transcendence: Much more than a ‘non-belief’, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 21(2), 1-18.

Droogers, A and van Harskamp, A., 2014 Methods for the Study of Religious Change, Sheffield: Equinox.

Eliade, M., 1958, Patterns in Comparative Religion, London: Sheed and Ward.

Fitzgerald, T., 2000, The Ideology of Religious Studies, Oxford University Press.Lee, L., 2015, Recognizing the Non-Religious, Oxford University Press.

Der Leeuw, G.,1967, Religion in Essence and Manifestation, Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith.

McCutcheon, R., 1997, Manufacturing Religion, Oxford University Press.

McMullin,  N., 1989, The Encylopedia of Religion, MTSR 1.1:80-96.Rock, H., 2015, Secularisation is an ecclesiastical regime of truth, not a sociological event: a practical definition of religion re-visited. International Review of Sociology Vol.25/3 2015

Ninian Smart, 1973, The Phenomenon of Religion, Macmillan

Ninian Smart, 1981, Beyond Ideology, London: Collins.Smith, J. Z., 1982, Imagining Religion, University of Chicago Press.


Hugh Rock is an independent researcher into the meaning of religion.


2 thoughts on “[Reflection] No religion really is the new religion

  1. Schopenhauer said “To call the world God is not to explain it; it is only to enrich our language with a superfluous synonym for the word ‘world’.” One could well say something similar about the word ‘religion’. To call atheism, humanism and the like religions is to rob the language of a name for a useful category. Instead talk of lifestances or worldviews, some of which are religious and some not – and quite a few an unarticulated mixture.

  2. Setting aside the dismissive “….mere humanism” (para 5), and accepting that a simplistic religion versus atheism polarity is far too crude, and that there is a need for a different analysis, and maybe new terminology, it does no-one any good to confuse the picture by reaching for a widely used word – religion – and seeking to redefine it to encompass lack of non-religion.

    Those of use who see ourselves as humanists and atheists indeed have a worldview, and one which shares elements with many religious people. But there are also important differences, especially about belief – and particularly supernaturalism (a feature of virtually all religions, including most versions of Buddhism) but also, to differing degrees, about ritual/practice and identity.

    Words have meaning. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in God. Humanism is a naturalistic ethical worldview. Neither are religions.

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