Event Report: Nonreligion & Secularity in Canada Workshop

In this post, Zach Munro and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme report on the Nonreligion & Secularity in Canada workshop that was held in October 2019. They detail innovative research findings and ongoing debates in the study of nonreligion discussed at the workshop, as well as share some conceptual maps developed by workshop participants that explore how we might diversify and expand the subfield of nonreligion and secularity studies.pic 2pic

On October 18-19, 2019, over two dozen scholars from across Canada, the U.S. and Europe gathered at the University of Waterloo for a two-day workshop titled “Nonreligion & Secularity in Canada.” The event featured a wide array of new research findings, discussions on continuing lines of inquiry, emerging visibilities of nonreligion and secularity, and issues of conceptualization and methodological challenges scholars face in moving the field forward. Far from a consensus, the diversity of opinion and approaches to nonreligion and secularity illustrated how the emerging subfield is expanding into new and exciting areas of research that can be both distinct and complimentary. Rather than being able to convey all that happened during the event in the short space allocated here, we instead focus on what we saw as some of the key highlights of the workshop.

Kicking off the first day of the event was a presentation from Lori Beaman and Cory Steele from the University of Ottawa in which they underscored the increasing visibilities of nonreligion, as well as areas that raise challenges to existing policy and law. They argue that, as Canada has moved from a Christian-dominant nation to one that requires new configurations of diversity, nonreligion’s increasing presence creates new challenges to existing pluralism frameworks. Steele’s own research on physician-assisted dying highlighted how religious discourse has restricted such laws, producing barriers to nonreligion’s inclusion in public health dialogue. Their suggestion for “queering” terminology, by which they mean recognizing the ownership religion has had on ideas such as the sanctity of life, has inhibited a nonreligious perspective from entering the debate. For example, raising the concern of protecting the religious rights of physicians in circumstances for which they should provide effective referrals, despite their position as gatekeepers of public health. Recognizing the normativity and privileging of religion in legal debate opens new understandings of the way’s in which religion and nonreligion operate in public debate.

The variety of conceptual and methodological approaches taken by the scholars at the workshop broadened its scope and enabled the imagining of new lines of inquiry into the nature of nonreligion and secularity. Sean Moore, a psychologist from the University of Alberta, introduced his work on psychometric scale development and construct validation in an effort to identify what value systems may underlie secularism and make them more transparent for further investigation. Moore outlined some substantive definitional qualities of nonreligious worldviews and their distinct multi-dimensional features.

Following individual talks, the day proceeded with brainstorming discussions on the areas of research that should be pursued on nonreligion and secularity. Figure 1 represents one of the conceptual maps created during the session that addresses different levels of inquiry – the individual, the institutional, and the society (click on the Figure 1 caption for a full display of the graphs that were produced during the workshop). Preliminary findings from Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme’s 2019 Millennial Trends Survey on nonreligion among young adults in Canada and the U.S. were also shared and discussed in small groups during the workshop. Many of these findings can be downloaded free of charge in Wilkins-Laflamme’s report Religion, Non-Belief, Spirituality and Social Behaviour among North American Millennials.

The first day came to an end with Joseph Baker from East Tennessee State University delivering the keynote address, titled “Conceptual, Methodological, and Substantive Challenges in the Study of Nonreligion.” Baker explored what we know about current categorizations of secular identities and ways of disaggregating these categories to uncover meaningful distinctions. One example is his “atheist in all but name” category, and how demographics for this group allow us to identify forms of intersectional secular stigma operating to discourage certain people’s own adoption of the atheist label. For anyone who would like to watch Baker’s full keynote address, it is available for free on Youtube here.

The second day focused on new empirical findings on nonreligion and secularity, with talks that continued to represent a diversity of approaches to the topic. Steven Tomlins kicked off the morning with his work on unearthing a history of atheism in Canada, focusing on the country’s now repealed Blasphemy Law to gauge how expressions of atheism were treated historically. He looked at the archival sources of pre-confederation discourse, the use of criminal law itself, and media reports leading up until the Constitution of 1982. From these, he deduced that while judges opinioned that Canada was a Christian country, atheistic expressions and opinions were not treated with severity, and judgements often pertained to public disturbance rather than personal disbelief.

Ryan Cragun from the University of Tampa and David Speed from the University of New Brunswick in turn took a second look at the existing research on religiosity, nonreligion and mental health. They showed with recent Statistics Canada survey data that the link between religiosity and positive mental health outcomes is especially one mediated through social support. When nonreligious individuals also have access to forms of social support outside of religion, their mental health outcomes are comparable to those of their more religious counterparts. And in recognizing how regionality plays an important role in configuring nonreligion, Paul Bramadat from the University of Victoria introduced the term “reverential naturalism.” This concept captures the ways in which individuals connect to the natural world, and how this becomes an important part of individual and public narratives in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. Bramadat argued that beyond eco-spirituality and naturalism, reverential naturalism “accepts scientific approaches to nature and nonetheless frames the natural world in ways that are ‘redolent’ of mysticism, panentheism, and inclusive forms of theism.”

Presentations by Geraldine Mossière from the Université de Montréal as well as of E.-Martin Meunier and Jacob Legault-Leclair from the University of Ottawa furthered this theme of regional configurations with their respective ethnographic and quantitative research in Quebec. Mossière discussed the appropriation of Islamic signifiers among some otherwise nonreligious individuals, and how these are markers of a youth subculture more than of conversion to Islam. Meunier and Legault-Leclair’s talk focused in turn on the nature of support among the less and nonreligious for Quebec’s new Bill 21 “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State.”

To conclude, the success of this workshop highlighted the diversification and expansion of the subfield of nonreligion and secularity studies in Canada, and the exciting routes of innovation taking place among multiple generations of researchers in the country.

Zach Munro is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology & Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo. His research primarily focuses on the non-religious in Alcoholics Anonymous, engaging with translation as modes of secularization, and secular affect.

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo. She completed her DPhil (PhD equivalent) in sociology at the University of Oxford. Her research interests include quantitative methods, sociology of religion, immigration and ethnicity and political sociology.


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