Stumbling Upon the Nones

While studying the impact of social media on social relations in a medium-sized Norwegian city, and the formation of local social media clusters, our team of researchers stumbled upon a group of ex- and non-religious persons, which made us re-examine issues of majority-minority relations.Profilbilde

The Cultural Conflict 2.0 project was run by a team of English, Dutch, Norwegian and Danish researchers investigating how social media is reshaping social relations in selected European cities. We were particularly interested inhow cultural conflict and social order are generated, reinforced and challenged both on social media platforms and at their intersection with life in the physical city. In short, we wanted to find out if social media changed the ways people interact in actual cities, or rather reinforced already existing behaviours.[1]

The project as such was not explicitly concerned with religion or non-religion, but while researching social media clusters in Kristiansand (a medium-sized South-Norwegian city), we could not avoid noticing its local cultural significance. Kristiansand is a sort of capital of the Norwegian ‘Bible belt’, where near all available statistics showunusually high levels of religious activity according to all common denominators compared to the rest of country.[2] The region’s ratio of religious active persons is 24% compared to a national 7%, and believers considered conservative are even more so than their peers elsewhere in the country.[3]

Unsurprisingly, then, much research has been done on how the beliefs of the religious in Kristiansand are changing. And indeed, over the past 50-60 years, much has changed in how local people view God (less solemn Judge, more best friend), sports (less a sinful abuse of the Sabbath, more a way to honour the Creator of one’s body and soul), and so on.[4] But very little has been said about the persistence of the established networks of economic and political influence which often include local free churches or prolific business families, and the symbols of prestige and affirmation that circulate in and between these networks.

We explored the various ways in which Kristiansand presents itself to the world, as well as to itself, for instance how the city seeks to present itself to national and international tourists or trading partners, how it promotes new neighbourhoods, or its public rituals such as local celebrations of Constitution Day. We found that typical elements included a strong focus on traditional nuclear families, a celebration of physical exercise in natural surroundings, and a particular Evangelical church culture.[5]

These themes turned out to be prominent in the local social media clusters we detected using computational methods.[6] Indeed, based on network analysis and interviews with central users, (identified via the frequency and number of signs of mutual affirmation, such aslikes, comments, tags, and so on) on geo-tagged posts, we found that the social order of Kristiansand was being reproduced and reinforced through social media. For instance, members of Christian business families prominent on the city’s commercial scene appeared equally prominent in its local online networks. Even if active religious families are a numerical minority, they seemed to enjoy high status in the local social order; economically, politically, as well as symbolically.

Conversely, while snowballing for informants, we came across semi-clandestine networks of ex- or non-religious persons who expressed feelings of being outsiders, even if they knew they belonged to a numerical majority. During interviews originally concentrating on other topics, several informants, independently of each other, described subtle mechanisms of social exclusion operating in the life of the city, and of how this seemed to be intertwined with specific churches.

Some of the non-religious persons we spoke to would make themselves visible through joining organisations such as the local branch of the Humanist Association. But many would try to stay ‘under the radar’. One group sparking our interest in particular were centred around a locally produced podcast hosted by two women in their 30s. The weekly podcast takes on themes such as being queer in the ‘Bible belt’, or the experiences of low-income single parents (in particular mothers) in an area where the nuclear family is the normative ideal, as well as the primary group of consumers.

Interviewing some of the podcast’s regular listeners about their experiences in Kristiansand – and in particular their use of social media platforms – we were struck by the parallels between the ‘survival tactics’ of our new ex- and non-religious contacts, compared to those we had earlier found among young Muslim immigrants. Both groups spoke of primarily operating in closed online groups where they can speak freely, of feeling mis- or underrepresented in local and regional news media, and of being ostracised in important public rituals and celebrations.

Independently of any research question dealing explicitly with modern religion or worldviews, we discovered groups of people asserting alternative identities centred on an opposition to religion, not taken as a system of doctrines or beliefs, but rather as one central feature of the local social order. This discovery of semi-clandestine non-religious networks and discourses in a ‘Bible belt’ does not allow us to generalise to all forms of non-religion, but perhaps it hints at the potential relevance of non-religion as a valid research topic, even outside of religious studies or the sociology of religion.

[1] See the project website at

[2] Pål Ketil Botvar og Olaf Aagedal, «Øst er øst og vest er vest…? En sammenligning av østnorsk folkekristendom og sørvestnorsk vekkelseskristendom», i Tallenes tale 2002 Kifo-rapport nr 23., red. Ole G. Winsnes (Trondheim: Tapir Akademisk, 2002); Pål Repstad, Religiøst liv i det moderne Norge. Et sosiologisk kart. (Kristiansand: Høyskoleforlaget, 2000); Pål Ketil Botvar, Pål Repstad, og Olaf Aagedal, «Regionaliseringen av norsk religiøsitet», i Religion i dagens Norge, red. Pål Ketil Botvar og Ulla Schmitt (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2010).

[3] Dag Ellingsen og Ulla-Britt Lilleaas, «Det gode liv på Sørlandet og tradisjonelle kjønnsroller», Skriftserien nr. 152e (Kristiansand: Senter for likestilling, 2010); May-Linda Magnussen, Trond Stalsberg Mydland, og Gro Kvåle, «Arbeid ute og hjemme: Sørlandske mødres valg og vurderinger», FoU-rapport (Kristiansand: Agderforskning, 2005); May-Linda Magnussen, Pål Repstad, og Sivert Urstad, «Skepsis til likestilling på Sørlandet – et resultat av religion?», Tidsskrift for kjønnsforskning 36, nr. 03–04 (3. januar 2013): 204–22.

[4] Pål Repstad og Jan Olav Henriksen, red., Mykere kristendom? Sørlandsreligion i endring (Kristiansand: Fagbokforlaget, 2005); Jan Olav Henriksen og Pål Repstad, Tro i sør: Sosiologiske og teologiske blikk på sørlandsk religion (Bergen: Fagbokforlaget, 2005).

[5] Stefan Fisher-Høyrem og David Herbert, «Social Media and Social Order in the Norwegian Bible Belt: Clusters of Prestige», in Social Media and Social Order, red. David Herbert og Stefan Fisher-Høyrem, Forthcoming.

[6] For more on how we suggest using computational data in combination with ethnographic observation and qualitative interviews, see John Boy and Justus Uitermark, «How to Study the City on Instagram», PLoSONE 11, nr. 6 (2016): e015816.

Stefan Fisher-Høyrem is a historian of modernity and secularity, currently working as subject librarian for the Department of Religion, Philosophy and History at the University of Agder, Norway. Until recently, he was a researcher on the project Cultural Conflict 2.0. His PhD thesis (Oxford Brookes University, 2012) was entitled ‘Time Machines’  and examined the technological mediation of temporality in Victorian England, focussing on technological systems of transport, news production, and paper money circulation. His research interests lie at the intersections of modern social and technological history, theory of history, and political theology.


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