Nonreligious Identity and Psychological Health in the United States


In this post Dr. Dena M. Abbott explores how nonreligious people’s health is comparable to those who identify as religious. Abbott notes that healthy and adaptive traits and behaviors are available to all people.


In psychology, there is a long history of touting the benefits of religiousness for psychological health. This overemphasis on the

connection between religiousness and health, which is a sentiment also found in society more broadly, often communicates that nonreligious people’s health is somehow compromised by the absence of belief in god(s) and participation in associated religious practices (e.g., prayer, religious service attendance). Contrary to these societal messages, nonreligious people’s overall health is comparable to that of religious people. One study found that atheists, in particular, had better physical and mental health than theists and agnostic people. Further, living congruently with one’s worldview and having certainty of one’s (non)belief are associated with health for the religious and nonreligious alike. Likewise, being in community with like-minded people is beneficial for one’s health, and some nonreligious people engage in organized or more informal social circles with other nonbelievers. These nonreligious communities are often comprised of people with higher acceptance of individual and cultural differences as compared to theists, another potential health benefit particularly for members from minoritized groups.

Anti-Atheist Bias in the U.S.

That said, unlike their religious counterparts, nonreligious people in the United States (U.S.) face widespread stigma and discrimination. The most common and persistent stereotype of atheists, in particular, is immorality, a perception that negatively influences atheists’ lives and relationships. As a result, given the opportunity to hide an invisible nonreligious identity, many nonreligious people make strategic choices about with whom and in what contexts they will disclose their nonreligious worldview. They may also choose terms other than atheist to describe themselves, even when they would otherwise self-identify as an atheist, to avoid possible negative consequences in the workplace, strain in relationships, or risks to their emotional and physical safety. With this in mind, I contend that there is a complex and unique interaction between the pervasiveness and experience of anti-atheist discrimination and the labor of managing disclosure of a nonreligious identity that, in turn, influences the psychological well-being of nonreligious people in the U.S. At the same time, there are many strengths that accompany a nonreligious worldview that facilitate psychological health and strive to identify these resources.

Diverse Experiences Among Nonreligious People

Though statistics related to nonreligious people in the U.S. may be inaccurate due to the aforementioned strategic concealment, the best available data suggests nonreligious people are predominantly White and cisgender men. White, cisgender men with high levels of educational attainment relative to the general population are also overrepresented among atheist-identified people, and in atheism-related scholarship. These and other privileges may offer some protection from discrimination, including freedom to freely disclose their nonreligious identity with reduced risk. Therefore, I, along with a team of doctoral-level graduate students in Counseling Psychology based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, am currently focused on adding to the diversity of the body of academic literature related to the health of nonreligious people. We hope that this will lend to the generation of culturally-responsive and culturally-informed recommendations for health service providers’ work with nonreligious people. 

Potential Challenges

Our research team, and others, have found the experience of living with a concealable, stigmatized nonreligious identity differs based on the other identities and experiences held by nonreligious people. Our interviews with low-income and working class atheists suggested they did not perceive their atheism as particularly central to their identity or salient in their daily lives. Similarly, they described very limited engagement with other atheists, in some cases due to time limitations presented by other responsibilities including working multiple jobs and long hours, or childcare. In turn, this particular group did not have strong nonreligious communities. Among atheists with minoritized racial/ethnic identities, we found nonreligious identification was considered a violation of cultural norms, to the participant and/or their racial/ethnic community. For women, this violation manifested as the abandonment of their responsibility to be the spiritual leaders of their families. As atheism was not seen as acceptable in their racial/ethnic communities, and atheist communities were predominantly White, atheists of color experienced a unique form of social isolation in which they felt they did not fit anywhere. Thus, the social class and race/ethnicity of nonreligious people may limit their ability to engage meaningfully in the organized nonbelief that is associated with healthy psychological well-being.

According to American Atheists’ U.S. Secular Survey, atheists encounter more discrimination in rural parts of the U.S. and in very religious communities. This aligns with our prior research and the preliminary findings of a current study from our lab of atheists living in rural parts of the U.S. Across studies, atheists tell us geography matters with regard to their experiences such that the religiousness of a location, particularly the Southern U.S., represents an increased risk and, in turn, influences how “out” they are as nonreligious. Generally, they also describe a higher frequency of unwelcome religious imagery, attempts at conversion, and assumptions of religiousness than nonreligious people living in other, less religious regions of the U.S. As concealment of stigmatized identities is a strong predictor of lower psychological well-being, nonreligious people living in religious communities and hiding their nonbelief in attempts to avoid discrimination may actually be at greater risk of psychological distress.

Psychological Strengths

Despite these dangers, our interviews with atheists have also revealed many elements of a nonreligious identity they find valuable and healthy. They tell us atheism increases their sense of belonging and personal authenticity. Especially among those who leave faith, many describe pride in the critical thinking and independent education in which they engaged in order to arrive at a nonreligious worldview and identity. They see these skills as personal strengths honed through the development of their atheism. The nonreligious also view creating meaning in their lives as a personal responsibility, rather than driven by an external force. Likewise, some atheists in our studies are quite engaged in broad social justice activism and advocacy specifically aimed at destigmatizing nonreligion and promoting separation of church and state, both of which are a part of their conceptualization of purpose in their lives.

Rethinking Mental Health and Nonreligion

Historically, many elements of mental health have been viewed through a religious, typically Christian, lens. Measures of coping, for example, often include religious and/or spiritual coping strategies, assuming the religiousness and spirituality of respondents. When we expand the ways in which we define healthy and adaptive traits and behaviors, however, we see they are generally universal and available to all people. In other words, across the (non)religious spectrum, people are capable of adaptively coping, creating meaning and purpose if desired, finding community, and making sense of the world and their experiences in ways that are informed by their personal (non)belief. Further, nonreligious mental health in the U.S. must be considered in the context of the potential for minority stress and the strategies nonreligious people use in response. 

Nonreligious people are no more likely to experience psychological distress than religious people. But, when they do seek support from a therapist, related to their nonreligiousness or otherwise, their therapist should be competent in providing them care. Generally, counselors receive little training in religious and spiritual diversity and, when training is provided, nonreligious people are often omitted. With 26% of people in the U.S. identifying as religiously unaffiliated as of 2019, mental health professionals must increase their skills, knowledge, and awareness with regard to clinical practice with nonreligious people. Further, they should consider how Christianity, as the hegemonic religion in the U.S., may be pervasive and implicit in the secular treatment they provide. Clinicians may familiarize themselves with atheist identity development, assess the relevance of nonreligiousness to clients’ clinical concerns, and utilize existing theoretical frameworks for therapy that are well-suited to practice with nonreligious clients, as examples. Researchers can help prepare practitioners and advocates to support the psychological health of the nonreligious by centering the stories of diverse nonreligious people, using strengths-based approaches in their investigations, and disseminating findings in ways that create structural change to reduce anti-atheist oppression.

Dena M. Abbott, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Licensed Psychologist
University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Dr. Abbott is a faculty member in the APA-Accredited Counseling Psychology program at University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her research focuses on the psychological health of nonreligious people in the United States using a concealable stigmatized identity framework. In particular, using primarily qualitative and mixed-methods approaches, she is interested in centering the stories of nonreligious people with other marginalized identities and experiences typically not well-represented in psychology of the nonreligious scholarship (e.g., atheism women, working class and low-income atheists). You can follow her research on Twitter: @DrDenaAbbott

Event Report: MEET THE AUTHOR – BRIAN CLARKE AND STUART MACDONALD


In this post, Hannah McKillop reports on the NCF’s “Meet the Author” session with Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald held on 23 February, 2021. Hannah draws attention to the main points Clarke and Macdonald raised when discussing their 2017 book “Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada Since 1945”. Hannah also discusses some of the points made by discussion panelists.


On 23 February 2021, the Nonreligion in a Complex Future (NCF) project hosted a “Meet the Author” session with Dr. Brian Clarke and Dr. Stuart Macdonald concerning their book Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada Since 1945 (2017). Featured panelists for the discussion included Dr. Callum Brown (University of Glasgow), Dr. Christine Mitchell (University of Saskatchewan), and Dr. Peter Beyer (University of Ottawa). The session explored the impact Leaving Christianity has had on the study of religion and nonreligion and highlighted avenues for future research into religious disaffiliation in Canada. This event report outlines some key points from the lecture and panel discussion. The session can be watched in full on the NCF YouTube channel

Macdonald opened the session with an exploration into why they began research into declining church attendance among Canadian congregations. He explored the ways in which the portrait that was being painted of religious affiliation in Canada was not representative of what Macdonald and Clarke were observing in the data. Despite 16% of the Canadian population checking the “no religion” box in the 2001 Canadian Census, newspapers and media outlets in Canada were suggesting that no changes to Canada’s religious affiliation rates were occurring.

In Leaving Christianity, Clarke and Macdonald argue that Christian congregations in Canada were thriving up until the 1950/60s. They argue that, starting in the 1960s, a sharp change in religious affiliation can be traced in the data highlighting patterns that challenge secularization theory and rational choice theory. Clarke and Macdonald sought to explore why these theories were inaccurate for describing what they were seeing in Canada. In the “Meet the Author” session, Clarke and Macdonald theorized that perhaps rhetoric surrounding communism had an impact on Canada’s affiliation rates – though Macdonald is clear to note that such discussions are lacking in the book itself.

Macdonald outlined how, prior to the congregation shifts seen after 1960, the Presbyterian Church of Canada was confident about their place in Canadian society. The Church was expanding by building new congregations and welcoming immigrants (particularly, Ukrainian and Hungarian immigrants). As Macdonald made clear, however, the 1960s marked the beginning of a decline in this religious vitality that is present in earlier decades.

The dominant conversation in Canada about religious disaffiliation was one that often emphasized Canadians eventually returning to religion. Scholarship at the time, such as the work of Reginald W. Bibby, assumed disaffiliation was a cyclical process. Those promoting this cyclical process of disaffiliation thought that as disaffiliates grew older and had their own children, they would return to church. As Clarke explained, however, this is not the trend that the data showed. Rather, the data highlights an increase in nonreligious affiliation, even as the population ages. Clarke also noted how, despite popular opinions, it was not just young people leaving the church. Baby Boomers also began disaffiliating from their congregations. In this way, two strong age groups were contributing to the growth of nonreligious affiliation in Canada.

Leaving Christianity aimed to: (1) provide an explanation for why individuals were leaving their congregations and to highlight who these people were (i.e., the demographics of the disaffiliated); (2) to help better understand the scale and scope of this move away from religious congregations in Canada; and (3) to posit how durable this trend was in order to perhaps predict the state of Canada’s future affiliation rates.  

Interesting comparisons were made between disaffiliation in Europe and Canada. Disaffiliation has taken place more gradually in Europe. Trends of disaffiliation in Europe, for example, suggest that prior to the 1960s many “adults” had generally stopped attending church. Many parents in Europe, however, may still send their children to church for Sunday school despite themselves not attending church. In Canada, however, disaffiliation took place much quicker and on a larger scale. Canadian church members began leaving the church suddenly during the 1960s and onwards. Clarke and Macdonald argue that disaffiliation represents a type of “cultural revolution” in Canada that has largely gone unnoticed.

Lori Beaman offered some comments following Clarke and Macdonald’s discussion. She emphasized the importance of Leaving Christianity to the Sociology of Religion. She called the book a “game-changer” and highlighted the ways in which the book is an incredibly important retelling of the story that has been told in the media for decades. She noted that Macdonald and Clarke offer a realistic picture of the state of religious affiliation in Canada, which is paramount for future conversations about Canada’s disaffiliation rates.

The panel discussion began with comments from Callum Brown. Critiquing the life cycle theories cited above, Brown highlighted how Leaving Christianity places Canada within the international story of religion and disaffiliation around the globe. He affirmed that the book highlighted strong parallels between the Canadian and European experience. He cited Chapter Four of Leaving Christianity as offering a thorough statistical analysis of nonreligion in Canada. Brown affirmed Clarke and Macdonald’s assumptions around the impact of communism on church affiliation in the West.

Christine Mitchell offered an alternative perspective from the theological field. She outlined the impact that disaffiliation has had on future clergy members. She explored the impact that disaffiliation has had on the general lack of biblical illiteracy she sees among her students. She explained how, in the 1990s, she was able to assume a basic amount of biblical literacy from incoming students that is lacking today. She noted, however, that despite a general decline in religious literacy among her students, the Bible has continued to be relevant in Canadian culture in general (especially in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the role of churches in its calls to actions). She argues that Leaving Christianity is mandatory reading for graduate students. She concluded by highlighting changes in views towards the clergy collar among incoming clergy members. Whereas older members may see the collar as oppressive, younger members seem to be reclaiming the collar as an important symbol that is not oppressive.

Peter Beyer concluded the panel discussion. He reaffirmed the need for future research into disaffiliation in Canada. He highlighted the ways in which the book outlined a larger story of a gradual shift, and indeed a gradual loss of identity, among Canadian Christians. Beyer raised the notion of “fuzzy fidelity,” highlighting the uncertainty many scholars feel towards the future of religious affiliation in Canada. Beyer concluded by asking, “what’s next? What’s going to happen?”


Hannah McKillop is a PhD student in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on the intersections between nonreligion, ethics, and popular culture in North America. Her MA work explored the ritual use of the Harry Potter series on the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.” She is a member of the Student Caucus of the Nonreligion in a Complex Future project.

The “Take a Knee” NFL Movement and the Gesture of Kneeling: From Religious Reverence to Secular Protest


In this blog, Mathilde Vanasse-Pelletier looks at the issues raised by the secular appropriation of the religious gesture of kneeling by protesters in the National Football League (NFL).


Kneeling as a Religious Gesture

Throughout history, the gesture of kneeling – or genuflection – has been ascribed various meanings in different social and cultural contexts. Popularized in the Middle Ages, it was used religiously to represent a sense of remorse for one’s sins or feelings of confidence, loyalty, love, and worship.[1] While genuflection was never restricted to a religious context, often being used symbolically in political rituals, scholars agree that its universal connotation is one of respect, deference, humility, vulnerability,[2] and belittling of one’s self.[3] Members of different faiths today still kneel as part of several religious and spiritual rituals, such as collective and individual prayer in the Christian and Muslim traditions.

Genuflection also has a special place in sports, particularly in the sport of gridiron football (American football). Athletes will often kneel to listen to their coach talk or in a show of solidarity and respect when a teammate or adversary is injured. The gesture also has a religious use in this context, as players, coaches and staff will often take part in a collective prayer before and after games while kneeling. Some athletes also choose to kneel for individual prayers in the endzone or on the sideline before kickoff. National Football League (NFL) quarterback Tim Tebow popularized the act of kneeling in prayer during his time at the University of Florida, a gesture which turned into a viral sensation known as “Tebowing.”[4]

From Kneeling as a Sign of Respect to Kneeling as an Affront to American Civil Religion

More recently, genuflection has been used with a secular, or nonreligious, twist after the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to take a knee during the US national anthem to protest racism and police brutality.

When he first started protesting, Kaepernick decided to sit on a bench behind the line of players and staff standing for the anthem. After his protest was first noticed during a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26, 2016, Kaepernick met with ex-Green Beret Nate Boyer, who encouraged him to kneel rather than sit. Boyer found genuflection more appropriate, as it mimicked the gesture used by soldiers to pay respects to a fallen comrade, thus Kaepernick agreed to kneel.[5]

Despite the honorable intent behind kneeling, Kaepernick and the players who later joined him received harsh backlash from NFL fans and the media. While their intention was to draw attention to important social issues, many observers interpreted his actions as disrespectful to the country’s values, ideals, and institutions, and especially to the military men and women who sacrificed their lives to defend them.

Field Research

Since genuflection, normally considered a religious gesture of reverence, was used in the context of a secular protest and misinterpreted by critics as a way of disrespecting America and its most sacred rituals and institutions, I decided to ask Canadian Football League (CFL) athletes about their views concerning this controversy. This research was part of my larger research project. [6] I conducted 20 qualitative interviews with professional football players and coaches from the CFL during the spring and summer of 2020. Throughout the interviews, I paid particular attention to the use of the gesture of kneeling in the football world as described by the participants. Below, I draw on some of my results to briefly show how kneeling has been transformed from that primarily of a religious gesture to one more nonreligious in nature: a gesture used to draw attention to important social issues in a largely nonreligious context.

Unity and Solidarity

Out of the 20 players and coaches interviewed, 18 indicated that they support the protests, 1 stated that he found the protests were not an efficient tool to bring about social change, and 1 did not explicitly voice support or opposition. Moreover, many athletes mentioned that they would participate in kneeling if the protests reached the CFL.

Out of the 20 participants (13 Canadians and 7 Americans), none indicated that they felt the protests were an affront to the anthem, the flag, or institutions such as the military. On the contrary, most interviewees (13) believe that the protests are in no way disrespectful and addressed this issue, which relates to social change, directly. For example, Mark,[7] a CFL player turned coach, feels strongly that kneeling is a peaceful gesture of denunciation that is completely in line with fundamental American values:

“[…] it was an extremely peaceful gesture which demonstrated […] a denunciation. […]. It is part of the fundamental values of the constitution of the United States of America, freedom of expression. […] I don’t think he [Colin Kaepernick] ever wanted to disrespect the military, the flag, or even his own country.”

Fellow coach Dennis thinks along the same lines, as he sees the gesture of kneeling as a sign of unity:

“I don’t see it as a disrespect for their country, […] or a disrespect to the anthem. It’s a symbol of unity with a cause that they strongly believe in.”

The gesture of kneeling in this context is understood as a tool used to bring attention to important issues of social change. Eric Reid, who was the first player to accompany Colin Kaepernick in protest, stated that one reason they chose to kneel was to resemble “a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”[8] By taking a knee, players were lowering themselves in mourning. Accordingly, Grant, one of our participants, strongly believes that NFL players should continue to kneel until change comes and all citizens are allowed the freedom and justice that the flag is supposed to stand for.  

Conclusion

Genuflection has historically been understood as a gesture of respect and reverence in both religious and secular contexts and is still widely used as a contemporary mark of devotion. In the world of football, putting one knee on the ground is used to show respect and solidarity to injured athletes, but it has now been repurposed as a sign of unity in the context of protests against racism and police brutality. Such unity is important in professional football as a context which brings together athletes from diverse ethnic, religious, geographic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.

While kneeling is often constructed as a religious gesture – including in the world of football where it is frequently used by athletes partaking in individual and collective prayer rituals – the participants in this study never referred to genuflection in the context of the protests as a religious act, but rather as a nonreligious act of contestation. Overall, my results show that despite the backlash received by NFL protesters from critics who believe their kneeling is a sign of disrespect to the US national anthem, the flag, and the military, insiders from the world of professional football tend to see the kneeling as 1) a show of unity and solidarity; 2) as a way to mourn for the lives lost due to acts of police brutality against people of color; and 3) as a tool to bring awareness to the issue of racism in the United States.


Sources Cited

[1] Przemyslaw Mrozowski, “Genuflection in Medieval Western Culture: The Gesture of Expiation – The Praying Posture,’ Acta Poloniae Historica 68 (1993): 26.

[2] Ana-Maria Jerca, “Taking a Knee in American Football: A Semiotic Case Study,“Language and Semiotic Studies 4, no.1 (2018): 41-42.

[3] Mrozowski, “Genuflection in Medieval Western Culture,” 26.

[4] Jeremy Sabella, “Posture of Piety and Protest: American Civil Religion and the Politics of Kneeling in the NFL,” Religions 10, no.8(2019): 457.

[5] Sabella, “Posture of Piety and Protest,” 457.

[6] The project looks at the habits and routines of professional football players, in addition to exploring the controversies surrounding the NFL anthem protests. CFL rosters mostly consist of players from the United States and Canada, some of which have made previous stints in the NFL.

[7] Names have been changed to protect participant’s privacy.

[8] Reid, 2017 quoted in Ana-Maria Jerca, “Taking a Knee in American Football: A Semiotic Case Study,” Language and Semiotic Studies 4, no.1(2018): 43.


Mathilde Vanasse-Pelletier is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. She received a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Montreal in 2019. Her current research focuses on the routines and habits of professional athletes, as well as on the “Take a knee” protests in the NFL.   

Event Report: 2020 NSRN Annual Lecture


In this post, Lauren Strumos and Megan Hollinger report on the NSRN’s 2020 Annual Lecture that was held 10 December, 2020 and presented by Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson. Lauren and Megan summarize Dr. Hutchinson’s lecture, drawing attention to key points related to what it means to be a goddless black woman in the United States and in American atheist and secularist movements.


On 10 December 2020, the NSRN and the Nonreligion in a Complex Future (NCF) project welcomed Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson to deliver the NSRN Annual Lecture, entitled “Going Godless: Black Feminism, Humanism, and Anti-Racism.” The lecture explored what it means to be a godless black woman in the United States and in the American atheist and secular humanist movements. This event report outlines some key points from the lecture, which can be watched in full on the NCF YouTube channel.

Dr. Hutchinson made clear that secular black women in America defy mainstream representations of black female identity. She demonstrated this tension with Girls Trip (2017), a Hollywood comedy that follows four black women in leading roles. These protagonists are significant because they challenge the dominance of white male identity in comedy. What the film leaves unchallenged, however, is the normative representation of black women as religious or theistic in popular culture. One Girls Trip scene in particular portrays the women as Christian when they engage in a group prayer and thank Jesus. Dr. Hutchinson also noted that religious melodramas and urban Christian films have gained popularity among black audiences, leaving little space for black secular films with alternative narratives about black female identity.

Religious expressions of black identity in popular culture resonate with empirical research. Dr. Hutchinson shared findings from the Pew Religion Research Forum and the Kaiser Foundation, which found that the majority of African Americans identify as religious (87%), and that African American women turn to their faith in difficult times more than any other group (87%).  She also highlighted the social and political importance of churches in African American communities—an importance largely derived from the support they offer in response to disparities stemming from institutional racism. African American youth, for example, benefit from educational, mentoring and recreational opportunities provided by churches in low-income, segregated communities. Oftentimes these opportunities are not otherwise provided.

Economic disparities were made especially clear when Dr. Hutchinson compared black women’s wealth accumulation and home equity to that of white women. Citing research by the Samuel DuBois Cook Centre, she pointed out that “single white women with bachelor degrees have seven times the wealth of single black women with bachelor degrees.” White women’s higher wealth level is a privilege emerging at the intersection of race and class. The resultant economic disadvantages that black women face contribute to their high levels of religious observance. High levels of religiosity are also found among LGBTQ African Americans, “who are more likely to identify as LGBTQ than any other ethnic group.” Straight, queer and transgender identities, in addition to socioeconomic and material conditions, should thus be accounted for when looking at religion in African American communities and among black women more specifically.

Throughout her presentation, Dr. Hutchinson referenced black women of the past and present who have challenged, and continue to challenge, mainstream representations of black women’s identities. She noted that The Humanist published its first cover story on black women atheists in 2018. The significance of this cover is twofold: it challenges dominant portrayals of women of colour as being religious, and it changes mainstream portrayals of atheists, humanists and secularists. Another example is that of Mandisa Thomas, who founded the national organization Black Nonbelievers. Through organizations like Black Nonbelievers and Dr. Hutchinson’s Black Skeptics Los Angeles, black atheists are able to find community as they transition away from religion. Among other historical figures, Dr. Hutchinson talked about Nella Larsen, who’s novel Quicksand (1928) had the first openly skeptic African American protagonist.

Dr. Hutchinson highlighted that black feminist activists are at the forefront of conversations surrounding feminism, secularism and anti-racism. These women are part of a broader African American secular humanist movement defined by its resistance to oppression, including racism, colonialism, heterosexism, white supremacy and patriarchal Christian morals. This last point stems in part from the Christian morals that shaped idealized notions of western femininity during the era of slavery and the suffrage movement. Black women in this context were seen as a hypersexual ‘other’ to white women, while at the same time being expected to conform to their ‘pure’ femininity. This inequality is still discernible today and relates to discrepancies between black and white girls. For instance, Dr. Hutchinson cited a Georgetown University study that found black girls are seen as being less innocent than white girls.  This inequality is further seen in heterosexist representations of black female identity which exclude black LGBTQ women in and beyond popular culture. Dr. Hutchinson challenged this norm by having a black atheist lesbian protagonist in her film White Nights, Black Paradise (2016).

Overall, black women atheists and secular humanists are making intersectional identities increasingly visible in the broader American atheist and secular humanist movements. Dr. Hutchinson emphasized, however, that this diversity is not yet present at secular conferences. These conferences are missing an intersectional focus that identifies the lived experiences of women of colour. Such experiences are particularly important in light of heightened inequalities and state violence in contemporary America. These include white supremacy of the Trump era, heavy policing of African American communities, increasing rates of black mass incarceration, and the relatively high number of black girls in sex trafficking. Such realities simultaneously shape and are challenged by the politics of black feminist secular activists.

The lecture was followed by a statement of thanks from Dr. Lori G. Beaman and a response from Dr. Paul Bramadat. Dr. Bramadat first asked Dr. Hutchinson about her own experience of not following dominant “scripts” as a black nonreligious woman. She answered by describing her upbringing in an African American household in South Los Angeles with activist parents and without religion. This context helped her to critically reflect on the hierarchies of Christian traditions as it manifested in her community. She described how she saw African American girls experiencing inequitable access to reproductive health and knowledge about bodily autonomy and empowerment. She also saw the Black Church failing to adequately address the HIV epidemic’s effect on black bodies and queer communities. Dr. Hutchinson underscored that inequities and inequalities persist in African American communities today. Examples include the gendered hierarchy of ethnic churches and lack of government support for programs, organizations and small businesses in African American communities. These issues perpetuate a history of oppression and flow from the intersection of white supremacy, hyper segregation and global capitalism.


Lauren Strumos is a PhD student in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on religious, nonreligious and Indigenous environmental activism in Canada. Lauren is the Student Caucus Leader for the Nonreligion in a Complex Future project and the Student Representative for the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion. 

Megan Hollinger is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research explores combating antisemitism through law and alternative, community-based strategies and initiatives. Her interests also include the intersection of religion and nonreligion in relation to antisemitism. She is the Membership Chair and incoming Treasurer for the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies. She is also a member of the Student Caucus of the Nonreligion in a Complex Future project.

Forest Experiences as Nonreligious ‘Frame of Reference’


In this blog, Rebecca Banham explores how experiences in forests can help shape nonreligious understandings of a person’s place in the world.


Landscapes can help people understand and express who they are, and where they fit into the world. My research[1] explored this idea through qualitative interviews with 27 people who were ‘interested in forests and forest issues’ in Tasmania, Australia. Forests can be understood as a ‘frame of reference’ for nonreligious understandings of what it means to be human. Here I will focus on three (brief) examples of this process: feeling ‘small’ and connecting to ‘something bigger’; relationships of trust; and experiences of wonder.

My research used Giddens’ ‘ontological security’ – the trust most people have that the world, and their self-identity, is stable and predictable[2] – to ask: how do forests shape a person’s sense of being, of existence, of who they are? My research was not about non/religion, and it has only been ‘after the fact’ that I have come to see nonreligion in participants’ responses. It could be that some participants would describe themselves as religious, but this was not evident in the way they talked about their time in forests.

As such, I am not focusing on the experiences of nonreligious individuals per se. Instead, I am interested in thinking through what the concept of ‘nonreligion’ offers to research about human-nonhuman engagements. Quack et al.’s relational understanding of nonreligion describes nonreligion as “a position in a field rather than an essentialist characteristic of people … not defined a priori but analyzed instead as an object and outcome of social (including scholarly) constructions and contestations.”[3] I think of participants’ stories as examples of nonreligious experiences: meaningful and significant experiences that tell us about our place in the world outside of a religious context. Participants’ descriptions of their forest experiences echo aspects of ‘living as a human’ that might commonly be expressed in religious terms– ways of making meaning and sense of the world – without referencing religious beliefs, practices, organisations, or affiliations. The historical dominance of religious (in Australia, Christian[4]) constructions of ontology means that these experiences are necessarily related to religion and ‘religio-normativity’,[5] and yet are distinctly not religious. Put another way, experiences in forests can give us ‘another’ (nonreligious) way to make sense of our existence.

Something ‘bigger’

For many participants, forests represent the bigger ‘network’ that humans are part of. Participants described feeling they were ‘a part of something’ so big, it envelops any individual life:  

[Being in the forest] makes me feel like I’m part of … a really grounded part of what’s happening in the world … I’m in this place where all this is happening and I’m part of it, you know. (Henry)

These descriptions run parallel with a sense of humility. As Jane put it:

I just find that very humbling, to think, you know, there’s a whole lot of creatures extremely adept at living in that environment [but] if I got lost down there, I would die.

Some participants described a feeling of ‘smallness’ and vulnerability. This was not a negative or threatening experience. As Amelia described:

…you think about the bigger picture and put things into perspective. But it’s not like … a ‘oh my gosh I’m so small, this is pointless’ kind of feeling. Yeah. It’s a good feeling somehow.

This research took place in a society built upon Western colonialist models of expansion and extraction – a society deeply concerned with the denial of vulnerability.[6] Whether because of or despite this, participants seemed humbled and happy to feel small. Here, humility does not simply equate to feeling scared, but instead indicates that the individual is ‘part of something’. I suggest that to express feeling a ‘part of  something’ is a nonreligious way to articulate a sense of belonging within a wider network of existence. 

Trust

Walking in forests is dangerous; even the most experienced of Tasmanian walkers could face injuries, adverse conditions, becoming lost, or encounters with venomous snakes. When walking, participants engaged in preparatory routines and a healthy dose of caution:

Yeah, lots of planning … plan your route, look, pore over the maps. Get all your food organised, get all your clothes organised. Make certain everything is in waterproof bags. Pack your bag. And the last thing you do, the day before, is … sign in, and then sign out… my grandmother and grandfather always said you never go into the bush when it’s windy, so I don’t do that because it’s just too unsafe. (Diane)

These preparations are important – as Henry said, they are “all a bit boring really, but it is part of the ritual” – as they represent a (nonreligious) routinised way of forming a trusting relationship with the nonhuman. While participants were aware and cautious, and mindful of the ‘right’ things to do to alleviate danger, a few participants still told me about various ‘near misses’. They seemed to accept the dangers of walking, and that if something went wrong, it was not the forest ‘at fault’. Tim Harries argues a similar point about flooding being perceived as a more palatable incursion on home life than a burglary would be, as the “perceived moral neutrality of natural seems to render flooding more acceptable.”[7] For my participants, forests seemed to present a space in which the vulnerability and mortality of humans is ever-present, but where people can (barring a serious incident) partially and safely confront this vulnerability through nonreligious practices.

Wonder

Around two-thirds of participants discussed their emotional responses to forests. These were both positive and negative (with the three most common descriptions being awe, joy, and despair about ecological destruction). While joy and excitement might be ‘lighter’ experiences, awe is a positive experience grounded in gravitas:

[The feeling is] one of absolute awe, really. It’s awe, it’s response to majesty, response to extraordinary light that penetrates down … it’s just awe and joy and delight. (Ken)

Joy, fascination, and awe – all common descriptions from participants – can be summarised as ‘wonder’. Wonder is a transformative and empowering experience, “about learning to see the world as something that does not have to be, and as something that came to be, over time, and with work.”[8] Sara Ahmed is writing about becoming a feminist, but I see parallels with coming to be a lover of (or advocate for) forests. These are stories of encountering the world – not just the forest, but the world of humans and nonhumans at large – in new, empowering, humbling, and joyous ways. Wonder in the forest is a nonreligious way of seeing the world anew.

Conclusion

It is by acknowledging the forest’s intricate and unpredictable details that participants were able to engage with concepts of ontology, and locate themselves in a world that precedes and outlasts them. The stories above are only some brief examples of nonreligious experiences with the nonhuman, where engaging with the materiality and vulnerability of others (including wildlife and landscapes) can tell religious and nonreligious individuals alike something about “their place in the world and in the environment in which they live.”[9] There are many more stories to tell. The language used by these participants is not innately nonreligious. However, in finding parallels between nonreligious and religious experiences and language, we can see how participants used their experiences with/in forests to comprehend and articulate complex, abstract, nonreligious ideas of what it means to ‘be’.


Sources Cited

[1] Rebecca Banham, “Seeing the forest for the trees: Ontological security and experiences of Tasmanian forests,” PhD thesis, University of Tasmania, 2019.

[2] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

[3] Johannes Quack, Cora Schuh, and Susanne Kind, The Diversity of Nonreligion: Normativities and Contested Relations (United Kingdom: Routledge, 2019), 9-13.

[4] Whether despite, or perhaps sometimes in reaction to, rising numbers of people identifying as nonreligious in Australia. See Douglas Ezzy, Gary Bouma, Greg Barton, Anna Halafoff, Rebecca Banham, Robert Jackson, and Lori Beaman, “Religious Diversity in Australia: Rethinking Social Cohesion,” Religions 11, no. 2. (2020): 92.

[5] Quack et al., The Diversity of Nonreligion.

[6] John Barry, The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability: Human Flourishing in a Climate-Changed, Carbon-Constrained World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[7] Tim Harries, “Feeling secure or being secure? Why it can seem better not to protect yourself against a natural hazard,” Health, Risk & Society 10, no. 5 (2008): 486.

[8] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2004), 180.

[9]  Lori G. Beaman, “Living well together in a (non)religious future: Contributions from the sociology of religion,” Sociology of Religion 78, no. 1 (2017): 10.


Dr. Rebecca Banham is a Research Fellow at the University of Tasmania, where she completed her PhD in environmental sociology in 2019. She is particularly interested in the intersections of emotion, relationship, (non)religion, and the nonhuman. Rebecca currently works as a Research Fellow on the Australian Research Council project, ‘Religious diversity in Australia: Maintaining social cohesion and preventing violence’. She is also associated with the international research project ‘Nonreligion in a Complex Future’, led by Professor Lori Beaman.

NSRN Annual Lecture (2020)

The NSRN is pleased to announce that the 2020 Annual Lecture, titled “Going Godless: Black Feminism, Humanism, and Anti-Racism”, will be given by Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson on 10 December, 2020 (13:00 – 14:00 EST) as a free online event open to all. Please see the attached poster here for more information.

To attend, please RSVP with Vanessa Turyatunga at vturyatu@uottawa.ca

Going Godless: Black Feminism, Humanism, and Anti-Racism
According to a 2012 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation Survey, 87% of African American women are religious, making African American women among the most religious demographic groups in the U.S. Although Black women have long been stereotyped as the “backbone” of the Black Church, some Black women non-theists and humanists are bucking these traditions to challenge organized religion. Historically, Black women have relied on churches and faith-based institutions as vehicles for political organizing, cultural identity, and community solidarity. It is for this reason, as well as the slave-era stigma associated with Black female sexuality, that being a Black female humanist and atheist is even more taboo than being a Black male atheist. Dehumanized as either hyper-sexual Jezebels or asexual Aunt Jemimas, Black women have been constructed as less moral, less human, less chaste, and less civilized than respectable white Christian women. “Going Godless” will examine this history vis-à-vis the emergence of Black feminist humanist perspectives in the American secular humanist and atheist movements. For example, how have Black women humanists and atheists drawn on the feminist/womanist legacy of writers and thinkers like Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Walker, and Nella Larsen? How are they challenging the traditional church/state separation agenda of the mainstream atheist/humanist movements? And what intersectional issues inform a Black feminist humanist political agenda as racial, gender, and socioeconomic inequality intensifies in the U.S.?

A recording of the lecture is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYnmD4F-Nxo

Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Conference Call for Papers (2021)

Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Conference – 16-18 June, 2021

The growing number of nonreligious individuals poses new challenges for societies experiencing simultaneous intensification of religious diversity and renewed presence of religion in the public sphere. The impact of this shift is profound, contributing to social anxiety and divisions as societies become both more and less religious. These tensions are likely to deepen as the nonreligious play a more significant political role. Consequently, we need a better understanding of the moral and social dimensions of nonreligion and secularity, the socio-cultural circumstances of their emergence, and how nonreligion, secularity, spirituality and religion are negotiated simultaneously in social institutions such as in health, the law, education, the economy, politics, the environment, culture, recreation and leisure, as well as migration. Given that the nonreligious populations of many countries are growing rapidly, understanding the implications of this shift is key to addressing the pressing issue of how complex diversities can coexist in positive ways.

The Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) invites both paper and session proposals for its 2021 conference titled Nonreligion in a Complex Future. The 2021 NSRN conference will be held in partnership with the Nonreligion in a Complex Future (NCF) project, based at the University of Ottawa (Canada) and led by Professor Lori Beaman.

Given the ongoing travel and gathering restrictions related to COVID-19, the 2021 NSRN conference will be delivered using a virtual format. This format has the benefits of potentially allowing for more international attendees, no monetary costs for attendees and participants (the virtual NSRN 2021 conference will be free to attend and participate in!), lower health risks, and a positive impact on the environment as no travel is required. Reasonable daily time slots will be found for conference presenters from all global time zones.

Please see the attached Call for Papers here for more information and instructions on how to submit paper and session proposals.

All paper and session proposals must be e-mailed to nsrnconference2021@gmail.com by the end of the day on Monday the 1st of February 2021. For any questions, please contact the programme chair Dr. Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme by e-mail at sarah.wilkinslaflamme@uwaterloo.ca

Call for Papers: https://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2020/10/nsrn-2021-conference-call-for-papers.pdf

Science and Enchantment in Ordinary Non-Religion


In this blog, Amy Unsworth explores and raises important questions concerning the relationships between “enchanted worldviews” and science in the lives of the nonreligious.


Surveys show that many British people believe in fate, ghosts, an afterlife or other kinds of spiritual or paranormal phenomena. The figures seem a bit surprising for a country that has seen a rise in the numbers of atheists and non-religious people in the past few decades. It’s commonly assumed that Britain has become “disenchanted”, in the sense that people no longer believe, as their forbears once did, in gods, ghosts and spirits that animate the world. Closely related is another assumption: that now we have more-or-less “subtracted” our shared public religious understandings of the world, we will be left with the “genuine deliverance of science, the truth about things, including ourselves, which was waiting all along to be discovered.”[1]

The ‘new atheist’ movement that rose to prominence in the mid-2000s contributed to this impression that if we could just throw off the remnants of religion then people would surely accept scientific evidence (usually measured simply by their acceptance of evolutionary theory) and presumably come to hold a thoroughly materialist understanding of life. Thanks to a flurry of popular books and considerable media coverage, the new atheists’ high-profile brand of scientific atheism is likely seen as representative of atheism in Britain, and quite probably of non-religion more broadly too. Unfortunately for Richard Dawkins, a key figure in new atheism, disenchanted materialism may not be as common as he would like. For example, in a YouGov poll I commissioned a few years ago, although a huge majority of non-religious people said they accepted human evolution, only half said that evolution happens solely through natural processes.[2]

I am interested in exploring orientations towards science among individuals living without religion, recognising that in this area we know little about the worldviews of non-religious people who do not appear to hold to the scientific materialism of the new atheists. It’s now becoming clear that a decline in traditional religiosity does not necessarily lead people to adopt a disenchanted worldview; indeed we may instead see the proliferation of various enchanted worldviews in societies where institutional religion is of limited influence.[3] And while there have been many studies of institutional religion and its relationship with science, far less attention has been paid to the relationship between what we might term non-religious enchantments and modern science.  In my current research, I am trying to excavate the interactions between science and various enchanted worldviews in the lives of ordinary non-religious people living in Britain by conducting interviews and surveys. I am particularly focusing on interviewing working-class people who have not been to university, as this large demographic has tended to be overlooked in the sociological study of non-religion. I offer here some ideas about the various ways that people may be negotiating science and enchantment in our times, as well as raising questions that I aim to answer in the course of my research. My aims are twofold: 1) to better characterise enchantment in our so-called scientific age and 2) to explore whether various enchanted worldviews have any consequences for how people receive and act upon scientific advice.

It’s clear that scientific ideas or language can act as an inspiration or departure point for a huge range of worldviews that are not strictly disenchanted. Some of these are clearly religious in nature, such as the notion of “creation science” that developed within conservative Protestantism. Others are broader in their appeal. For example, the idea that the universe has higher dimensions has been used to support belief in ghosts, miracles and other kinds of phenomena that might otherwise be labelled supernatural.[4] This has led to the suggestion that a more scientific supernatural now exists, a term describing concepts that are “suggested by scientific theory or… evidence while also at least partially eluding scientific tests, instruments or measurements.”[5] These kinds of ideas offer very rich resources for entertainment (think of the popularity of the Netflix series Stranger Things), but to what extent do people actually incorporate aspects of these scientific supernatural ideas into their own worldviews – and are there any real-world consequences of holding such beliefs?

In the past few years, sales of tarot cards have rocketed, which could be interpreted as growth in enchantment of a different kind. This may or may not be the case. Some who use or practice tarot may do so in a thoroughly disenchanted way, seeing it as a spectacle that “delights but does not delude”[6], much as people enjoy conjurors’ tricks without believing in magic. Or what about the person who explains that tarot is a helpful tool to help them better access their own intuition? The boundary between enchanted/disenchanted thinking is not entirely clear here, but the belief that life’s answers lie within ourselves and can be accessed through various practices or techniques has undoubtedly grown in recent years in the West, drawing on western magic, eastern spiritualities as well as concepts from modern psychology. While we used to look for answers and explanations in external spirits and gods, we now look deep within, to an inner spirit  – or what we might describe as an enchanted self.[7] Does trusting in one’s own intuition or inner knowledge come at the expense of trusting or acting upon scientific information, or do most people simply deploy these different kinds of knowing in different situations?

Conspiracy theories can also be thought of as bridging enchanted and disenchanted ways of thinking.  Within theistic worldviews, “global evils” – such as the global coronavirus pandemic for example – might be explained through supernatural forms of agency such as God’s judgement or the work of the Devil. Conspiracy theorists are similarly seeking explanation in the form of unseen powerful agents, but these agents are “disenchanted devils”: human rather than spiritual in nature. Are these secular and religious forms of explanation in direct competition with each other, as well as with the scientific consensus (where that exists)? If not, what kinds of hybrid forms do we see emerging in people’s understandings and how are these constructed?

Research that probes traditional religion and its relationship with science usually lacks the categories to answer the questions I’ve raised here. My hope is that the study of ‘science and enchantment’ will provide a way to better understand a range of non-religious worldviews that are not well represented by scientific atheism.


Sources Cited

[1] Taylor, C. (2009). A Secular Age. Harvard University Press. Chicago, p575

[2] Unsworth, A., & Voas, D. (2018). Attitudes to evolution among Christians, Muslims and the Non-Religious in Britain: Differential effects of religious and educational factors. Public Understanding of Science27(1), 76-93.

[3] Josephson-Storm, J. A. (2017). The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, modernity, and the birth of the human sciences. University of Chicago Press.

[4] White, C. G. (2018). Other worlds: spirituality and the search for invisible dimensions. Harvard University Press. Chicago 

[5] Ibid p.4

[6] Saler, M. (2006). Modernity and Enchantment: A Historiographic Review The American Historical Review111(3), 692-716.

[7] Froese, P. (2016). On purpose: How we create the meaning of life. Oxford University Press.


Amy Unsworth is a Research Fellow in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London (UCL). She studies science popularization and public understandings of science, particularly in relation to religion and non-religion.