Counting (multiple) nonreligious identities in surveys


In this post, Atko Remmel, drawing on (non)religious identification data from Estonia, explores the benefits of measuring, and accounting for, the multiple ways in which individuals might express their (non)religiosity through surveys.


In a recent Nonreligion in a Complex Future project expert panel discussion about the Canadian data on religion, titled “Religion in Decline?: Understanding New Data from Statistics Canada” (https://youtu.be/v4YuvaRUnYA?t=1900), Jack Jedwab, from the Association for Canadian Studies, called for the inclusion for multiple religious identities in surveys: “Answer more than one. I think it would change the dynamics. // It’s not gonna be comparable with longitudinal and census-to-census recording. But I do think at a certain point we need to make a jump. Take the leap. And see where we land.”

This idea is, of course, not something entirely new. There is a whole special issue on multiple religious belonging and other forms of “hybrid religiosity”. Pew Research Center conducted a study in 2016 asking about mixed religious belonging, and there was even a recent EASR conference in 2018 devoted to the topic, with a presentation by Conrad Hackett specifically on surveys and multiple identities. Still, I wanted to share some data which could shed some light on the possible landing places of such an endeavor. The data presented below is from Estonia, a tiny country (1.3M inhabitants) by the Baltic Sea, known for its far-reaching secularization – or, at least, the irrelevance of conventional religion.

Of the local longitudinal studies on religion, there are two sources. Census asks the two-part question: “Do you consider some religion your own“, and if yes, then “which one?” As the only scholar in the country interested in nonreligion, I’ve had hard time – despite the marginality of conventional religiosity and the blossoming market of alternative spirituality – pushing things towards studying the actual reality. In 2011, the census resulted in only 29% of population “considering some religion their own”, while 16% declined to answer and 54% reported “no religion”. The percentages are even lower among ethnic Estonians, of whom only 19% reported some religion – the main reason behind those relatively low numbers is a historical conflict narrative between nationalism and Christianity, and Soviet era “forced secularization” that reduced religious socialization rather effectively. Looking from another angle, the census gave “negative information” (i.e. denial of given statements instead of saying something substantial about oneself) on 70% of the population. This two-part question is designed for a context in which the majority of the population is religious, but in the case of Estonia, the “nones” already make up half of the population (like in Britain) or more. There is no point in applying studies concerning a small percentage of the population on the whole population. There are numerous possibilities of “no religion” out there, also worth counting.

Then there is a survey called “On life, faith and religious life” (LFLR, where I’ve been included as a member of an expert group helping to develop the questionnaire), conducted every five years since 1995 and financed by the Estonian Council of Churches, an umbrella organization for the local Christian denominations. For reasons unclear to me, the people responsible for finalizing the questionnaire feel that charting the theological ideal model is still relevant and beneficial both for social sciences and the churches. Here, of course, I disagree, but who pays the piper calls the tune. Yet, despite the general focus on congregation-centered form of Christianity, there have been some considerable changes in the LFLR questionnaire. Of my numerous suggestions, the topic of multiple (non)religious identities was actually included, although the list of options and specifics were developed by others. As of now, the multi-identity question has been asked twice, in LFLR 2015 and LFLR 2020.

In LFLR 2015, the questionnaire allowed participants to choose from a pre-defined list of identity labels. The question asked “Please tell us, whom would you consider yourself from the following list.” The response options to this question were: Christian; Earth Believer; Religious or spiritual seeker; Nonreligious person, who doesn’t care of those topics; Spiritual but not religious; Atheist or a denier of God; Someone else; Don’t know.[1] Then, the respondents were offered to choose an additional label if they wished to do so. As for the Jedwab’s concern about the comparability of results with the previous surveys, I think, presenting the questions in this way, without advertising the possibility of choosing the second label beforehand, means the data is still comparable with the previous waves, and the answers can be interpreted as primary and secondary identity.

The results (on only ethnic Estonians) are presented in the following cross-table. The first column indicates the distribution of primary identity labels while the rest of the columns indicate the distribution of secondary identities within the primary identity. Here the DK (the don’t know) column indicates the percentage of respondents, who did not wish to select a secondary identity.

Primary IDSecondary ID
%ChristianSeekerEarth believerSBNRNot religiousAtheistOtherDK
Christian26% 29%16%15%5%1%2%33%
Seeker7%9% 9%48%0%0%7%27%
Earth believer6%13%8% 34%13%16%0%16%
SBNR27%7%14%15% 21%9%2%31%
Not religious24%6%0%4%30% 29%1%29%
Atheist7%2%0%12%33%29%0%24%
Other2%9%9%0%18%9%9%45%
DK2%0%0%0%0%0%0%0%100%

As a result, 70% of respondents chose multiple identities and only 30% were content with only one label. Assuming that these labels indicate how people see themselves and their life orientations – even if they are not “active” identities and are just labels taken during the surveys as it usually is with the nonreligious identities – the outcome is rather interesting. The seekers emerge as the most religious (no overlap with secular identities like not religious and atheists), while there are even some atheist Christians, indicating some form of “cultural religion” (Kasselstrand 2015). The overlap of Earth Belief with nonreligious identities was somewhat expected, expressing the influence of national myth critical of Christianity. From the perspective of nonreligion, there is a very small overlap with primary secular and secondary “religious” identities, such as Christian or seeker. The 2% of atheists who also identify as Christians probably points to something that might be called “cultural atheism”.

In the next wave, LFLR 2020, the question about identity was posed slightly differently, presenting the possibility of choosing multiple identities already from the start: “In the following people with different religions and worldviews are listed. Please indicate which one of them would you consider yourself. You can choose multiple answers”. The list was: Believer, Spiritual but not religious, Religious or spiritual seeker, Nonreligious, Indifferent towards religion, Atheist or a denier of God, and None of the above – the last one here excludes even the nonreligious labels.

The results, again representing only ethnic Estonians, are as follows:

 TotalBelieverSeekerSBNRIndifferentNonreligiousAtheistNone
Believer13% 10%10%1%0%0%0%
Seeker11%11% 15%1%2%1%0%
SBNR29%4%6% 6%9%4%1%
Indifferent24%1%1%7% 26%13%2%
Nonreligious23%0%1%11%28% 18%1%
Atheist10%0%1%11%30%41% 0%
None9%0%0%2%5%1%0% 

The column “Total” represents the percentage of identities chosen, and since multiple answers were possible, its sum exceeds 100% level. The other columns indicate the percentages of overlapping identities with the identity in the first column. In this case, only 16.7% of the respondents selected more than one identity label – 13.1% chose two, 3.2% three and 0.4% four identities. Similar to the previous wave, nonreligious identities overlap with other nonreligious identities and “religious” identities (seekers and believers) keep mostly among themselves, which suggests that people are quite sure that their general life orientation falls into the religious or nonreligious category. Further, there seems to be a rather clear separation between religious and nonreligious orientations. The middle group of the SBNRs, however, is open to both religion and nonreligious orientations.

I think the most interesting result of this table is that it indicates the perception of these labels in association with the concepts of “religion” and “secularity”. I have arranged the labels according to their bigger overlaps (marked red) – and the result is an identity scale from believing (i.e. Christianity) to atheism, with the fuzzy group of SBNR in the middle. Despite the critical voices of academics (including mine) that curse the categories of religion and secularity as artificial, offering random identity labels inevitably regenerates the tripartite system of “religion”, “secularity” and their fuzzy middle due to the popular discourses on religion and secularity surrounding these labels. Truly annoying. This also gives a possible answer to the question, whether the “indifferent” should be considered a part of the religion-nonreligion continuum or separate from the whole system. According to this result, they are somewhere in the middle, but leaning towards secularity.

Conclusively, I think, the leap towards the multiple (non)religious identities is justified since there are many people who feel constrained by only one option, so it corresponds to the reality we are trying to study. The data presented above are very specific and far from perfect, but according to these examples I think the solution of primary and secondary identities works better as it offers a possibility for comparison with the earlier survey waves and, in a way, creates power relations between the labels which helps to interpret them.


[1] These long and clumsy labels were developed because of the widespread “religious illiteracy” and the lack of actual religion-related identities. Of the list, I think, only Earth Believer needs an explanation: this refers to a neo-pagan movement called Maausk (literally: Earth Belief), which is presented as a continuation of ancient Estonians’ animistic faith and contrasted to Christianity brought by “fire and sword”. Therefore, Earth Belief has connotations with “nonreligiosity”, but also with “environmentalism”.


References:

Kasselstrand, Isabella. 2015. ‘Nonbelievers in the Church: A Study of Cultural Religion in Sweden’. Sociology of Religion 76 (3): 275–94. https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srv026.

On Life, Faith and Religious Life. Survey data, http://www.ekn.ee/inc.uudis.php?id=523 (27.01.2022)

Religion in Decline?: Understanding New Data from Statistics Canada. Nonreligion in a Complex Future project expert panel discussion, https://youtu.be/v4YuvaRUnYA (27.01.2022)


Atko Remmel is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tartu and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Tallinn, Estonia. He has published on antireligious policy and atheist propaganda in the Soviet Union, (non)religion and nationalism, secularization and religious change, historical and contemporary forms of (non)religion and spirituality, including nature-focused existential cultures. He has carried out fieldwork among nonreligious population in Estonia and on Estonians’ relationship with nature.

Organized Atheism and Politics in Brazil: Controversies over the 2018 Presidential Election


In this post, Sabrina Testa explores organized atheism and politics in Brazil.

Keywords: Brazil, secularism, atheism, nonreligion


Following the turn of the millennium, a self-identified atheist movement emerged in Brazil, giving start to an unprecedented articulation of nonbelievers in a country known by its religious vitality. This movement not only announced disbelief as an explicit (and valid) identity but also made it the central reason for collective initiatives, in an attempt to turn atheism into something more than an individual, private conviction or a purely philosophical principle.

Often assimilated with its European and American counterparts, the Brazilian atheist movement remained, however, embryonic and scarcely institutionalized. In practice, it manifests itself in a diversity of virtual initiatives, such as websites, groups, blogs, forums, social media pages and WhatsApp groups; in the organization of some events dedicated to nonbelievers and in some attempts to create formal associations along with several less formal groups. In all cases, the explicit aim of these efforts is to advocate for the public acceptance of atheism as a valid and respectable position, to combat prejudice against unbelievers and, at the same time, to promote the secular State. Brazilian atheism has embraced the cause of church and state separation, making it the center of its most serious efforts.

This focus is visible in the activity of the Brazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics (ATEA), the most active and best-known atheist organization in the country. Founded in 2008, ATEA has the explicit purposes of combating prejudice against atheists and defending the secularity of the State. Therefore, it has an active presence in the virtual world through its website and its Facebook account, where it encourages the digital activism of its supporters. If the aggressive media policy ATEA shows in these vehicles is the responsible for its popularity, it is not, however, the battle its leaders consider most important or to which they dedicate most of their scarce resources. The main frontline is the legal activism the institution carries in defense of the principle of secularism.

Article five, item four, of the Federal Constitution, guarantees freedom of conscience and belief and article 19, item one forbids the State to “establish religious sects or churches, subsidize them, hinder their activities, or maintain relationships of dependence or alliance with them or their representatives, without prejudice to collaboration in the public interest in the manner set forth by law[i]. It is with this last rule that ATEA is mainly concerned. In this regard, the association fill in complaints against facts such as the presence of religious symbols in public offices; the celebration of cults in city councils, or legislative chambers; the construction of religious monuments in public lands, the public funding of religious shows or events, and even the official consecration of a city to God or Jesus Christ[ii].

Although the Catholic Church has enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Brazilian State since colonial times, concerns about undue religious interference in the public machine have become more conspicuous with the growing social and political influence of the evangelical Protestant movement. In this process, the rise of openly declared evangelicals at all levels of government and public administration is particularly significant, with the “Evangelical Caucus” in Congress as its most characteristic expression.  Through this activities, Pentecostal-evangelical churches work to establish a  legal normativity  through  which  values  of  their  religious  dogmatics  are  converted  into  public  policies, in a phenomenon known as confessionalization  of  politics and the public space[iii].

In such a context, the 2018 presidential race sparked heated debates among activists, in particular in social networks. The second round of the contend pitted center-left candidate Fernando Haddad, from the Worker’s Party, against right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro, from the Social Liberal Party, who had the support of several of the country’s top evangelical leaders and clearly expressed his intention to form a “Christian government”[iv]. If a clear preference for the first candidate was to be expected among committed atheists, they were actually divided on their electoral choices, causing more than few disagreements between them and several desertions from the movement.

The heatedness of discussions not only showed a relativization of the principle of secularism in the face of the candidates’ economic and political convictions, but also contradicted the generalized stereotype of the atheist as a left-wing voter. Brazilian atheists show a large diversity in their political positions, although discussions roughly oppose left and right not without a certain Manichaeism. Here is a point worth stressing: regarding the atheist movement’s cause, the 2018 runoff did not oppose two equivalent options. If Brazilian politicians in general seek support from religious figures, Bolsonaro run in a coalition integrated by the evangelical leaders whose influence the atheist movement tries to neutralize and made clear his commitment with their agenda, as when he stated: “God above all. There is no such thing as a secular state. The State is Christian, the minority that is against it should move away. Minorities have to bow to majorities[v].

Although the debate has divided all atheist networks, it has had particular repercussions in the case of ATEA. Even if the organization presents itself as non-partisan, on his personal Facebook, its president publicly supported Bolsonaro’s candidacy, a fact that prompted various reactions from ATEA followers.  That one of the main atheist figures in the country and a staunch militant for the French model of laicity, supported a candidate who explicitly turned religion into a political weapon did not please many, even if it was an individual position. There were great discussions in ATEA’s virtual networks, between those who questioned the president’s actions and those who defended him, and much speculation about the extent to which the leader’s particular opinions influence the association as a whole.

The president was not the only one to take this position, many atheists expressed support for the right-wing candidate. Records of discussions on the association’s Facebook page made on October 12, 2018 show the diversity of positions and arguments. Some pointed out the contradiction of having atheists publicly supporting Evangelical candidates. Others went further in their reflections, accusing the non-believers who supported religious candidates of dogmatism. Others, on the contrary, noted that neither respect for atheists nor the secularity of the State were matters of priority beside all the problems faced by the country. Some even voiced the opinion that those are not important issues at all, while others stated that the main point was to avoid the danger of communism, represented by a new Workers Party’s mandate. There were also those who chose not to support either of these two candidates. Others, finally, expressed support for Haddad (indeed, against Bolsonaro) based on issues other than atheism or secularism.

These different opinions allow for some very interesting observations. First, it is clear how atheism itself loses importance in the political discourse of atheists. In fact, state secularism and even religious tolerance tend to be secondary issues for those who vote for the conservatives, while those who vote for the left complain of the incongruity of such a position. In comparison, motives for those who support the  Worker’s Party are not very clear, and it is possible that atheism was not the determining issue for these voters either. In short, for Brazilian atheists, secularism tends to constitute an ad hoc and always dispensable factor in the definition of political preferences, independent of the candidate’s religious alliance.


[i] Brazil, Constitution (1988). Available in: https://www2.senado.leg.br/bdsf/item/id/243334.

[ii] See: https://www.atea.org.br/associacao/realizacoes-da-atea-em-2017-ativismo-juridico/.

[iii] See: Camurça, Marcelo. Um poder evangélico no estado brasileiro? Mobilização eleitoral, atuação parlamentar e presença no governo Bolsonaro, Revista Nupem, 2020, vol. 12, n. 25.

[iv] Camurça, Marcelo. Religião, política e espaço público no Brasil: perspectiva histórico/sociológica e a conjuntura das eleições presidenciais de 2018, Estudos de Sociologia, Recife, 2019, Vol. 12 n. 25; Almeida, Ronaldo de. Bolsonaro Presidente. Conservadorismo, Evangelismo e a crise brasileira. Novos Estudos CEBRAP, 2019, Vol. 38, n. 01. Mariano, Ricardo and Gerardi, Dirceu André. Eleições presidenciais na América Latina em 2018 e ativismo político de evangélicos conservadores. Revista USP, 2019, n. 120.

[v] See: https://www.paulopes.com.br/2017/10/bolsonaro-faz-ameaca-de-instituir-um-estado-cristao.html#.YZa6j2DMLIU.


Sabrina Testa is a posdoctoral fellow at the Social Anthropology Program at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (Brazil). She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology by the same program, where she developed a thesis on the recent articulation of an atheist movement in Brazil. She has experience in sociology and anthropology of religion and nonreligion, atheism, secularism and laïcité.

The visual, material and embodied dimensions of feminist collective apostasies in Argentina and Spain


In this post Dr. Julia Martínez-Ariño explores the visual, material and embodied dimensions of Feminist protests in Latin America and Spain.

Keywords: collective apostasies, materiality, Catholic Church, feminism, Argentina, Spain,


A strong upsurge of feminist mobilizations has taken place in Latin America and Spain in the last five to ten years. Feminists protest against violence against women (#NiUnaMenos), for the legalization of abortion (#abortolegal, #seráley) and in general for women’s rights. In both contexts, and in Argentina and Spain in particular, these mobilizations have often referred to the role and responsibility of the Catholic Church in preventing the advancement of the recognition of women’s rights as well as the rights of LGBTQI+ people. To show their disagreement with the Church, some feminist groups have used collective apostasies as part of their mobilization repertoires, next to traditional demonstrations and marches. Collective apostasies are public performances that take place in streets and squares, usually in front of the bishopric of a city, where mostly (but not exclusively) women present their formal request to have their names removed from the Church’s register and stop being a member of the institution. They do so by handing in a form with the request to have their data removed, a photocopy of their baptism certificate and they often attach a feminist manifesto where they present their main points of disagreement with the Church. The collective dimension grants the action more visibility, higher media and public impact and a more confrontational character than apostasies requested individually. In what follows, I will explore the visual, material and embodied dimensions of these protests, that is, the images, objects and bodily aspects that are engaged in the performance of collective apostasies.

Apostasy as political action

In the study of non-religion, as well as in non-academic circles, apostasy is mostly understood as an act of rejecting one’s religious affiliation or faith. From the perspective of the religious group left behind, those who leave are often considered negatively as apostates. From a sociological perspective, “religious exiters” is often used to refer to those who end formally their affiliation to a religious organization[1]. However, to better grasp its complexity, apostasy must be understood in its specific socio-political and cultural context and not only as an individual act of defection. When we do so, we are able to grasp the many different meanings that apostasy may adopt and the variety of motivations from which it can emerge.

In contexts where the Catholic Church holds a very prominent position in society and in politics, as is the case of Argentina and Spain, apostasy from the Catholic Church is not only an individual act of leaving a religious institution behind. Rather, it is a political act, a political standpoint, with strong political connotations[2]. Apostasy is often understood as a form of rejecting the political power of the Church, its entanglements with the state and its influence over public policy decisions.

The visual dimension of apostasy

Feminist apostasies, like any other social or political mobilization, rely heavily on the visual performance of protest. Facebook and Twitter accounts, websites and blogs that call for collective apostasies use a wide range of visual elements to represent apostasy. This is also the case for feminist apostasies.

The example of this image, which draws on imagery from popular culture, represents evocative ideas about apostasy and the church. With an invitation to join “the witches club”, the organizers of this feminist apostasy in Spain draw on the collective imaginary of the Church as an institution that in the past burnt witches to proudly adopt that character of witches who rebel against the Church. The use of the purple color emphasizes the feminist nature of the event. The visual component of apostasy is particularly relevant in a mediatized world in which evocative images are central to attract the attention of potential publics.

Green, purple and orange scarfs: the materiality and embodiment of apostasy

Social movements are often identifiable by specific symbols, logos and colors that decorate material artifacts. Such is the case of protest movements in South American countries and Spain like the secularist movement for the separation of church and state, the social mobilization for the legalization of abortion and the feminist movement at large. These three mobilizations in particular are represented by three scarfs that serve as identity markers of the movements: the orange scarf is used by the movement which fights for the separation of church and state, the green scarf is the symbol of the movement for the legalization of abortion in countries like Argentina and Mexico, among others, and the purple scarf represents the whole feminist movement. In collective apostasies, these scarfs and these colors (often all being use simultaneously – see photo below), represent the three different fights and their specific demands.

The scarfs are worn around the neck and around the wrist, which highlights the raised fist as a sign of strength; covering nose and mouth, as a warrior sign; hanging in one’s backpack; and also held between the two hands raised. In all its uses, the scarf is a sign of rebelliousness[3].

This colored materiality of apostasy may take other forms different from the scarfs, such as the example of an orange cake with the logo of the separation of church and state campaign stamped on it or green-colored smoke cans used to symbolize the burning of church buildings. Just like the images used in social media, the material artifacts used in collective apostasies grant visibility and attract media attention as well as the gaze of passers-by who may otherwise not understand what is happening. Moreover, the use of uniformizing colors or symbology helps create a sense of community, in this case often explicitly described as sorority, which “refers to the solidarity among women and the necessity to support any women even when our first intuition is to distrust her”[4].

The material dimension of these mobilizations is also embodied. Two examples of these embodiments are the purple eyelashes and nail lack used by two of the feminist apostates that I came across in a collective apostasy organized in front of the bishopric of Madrid in 2020. For these women, their feminist struggle, which is one of the main drives behind their decision to apostatize, is part of who they are and they ingrain it in their body. Their female body, strongly decorated with feminist motives, serves as an element of disruption when entering the bishopric building, mostly inhabited by males (Church leaders of different levels) and where colorful dress is rare. The bodily dimension of protest, thus, refers to a disruptive presence in the Church’s local headquarters clearly marked not only by the presence of the female body but also by its feminist connotation

In conclusion, just like with the study of religion, we need to take into account the visual, material and bodily dimensions of different expressions of non-religion. As I have shown, the visual, material and bodily aspects of feminist collective apostasies organized in Argentina and Spain in the last 5 years are crucial to the performative dimension of apostasy as a political action. Just like other forms of protest, apostasy, as a public form of political mobilization beyond the mere rejection of faith or religious institutional belonging, draws on performative elements such as images, logos, symbols, colors, objects and decorated bodies to stage the protest against the Catholic institution and the state policies that support its prevalent position in society.


[1] Ryan T. Cragun and Joseph H. Hammer, “‘One Person’s Apostate Is Another Person’s Convert’: What Terminology Tells Us about Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion,” Humanity & Society 35, no. 1–2 (2011): 149–75.

[2] “Apostasy: Between the Personal and Political,” University of Groningen, January 27, 2020, https://www.rug.nl/research/centre-for-religious-studies/religion-conflict-globalization/blog/apostasy-between-the-personal-and-political-27-01-2020; Hugo H. Rabbia and Juan Marco Vaggione, “The Mobilization of Religious and Nonreligious Imaginaries in Argentine Sexual Politics,” in Nonreligious Imaginaries of World Repairing (Springer, 2021), 59–74.

[3] Luciana María Bertolaccini, “Plazas Verdes. Estética y Política En Los Activismos Callejeros En Torno a Las Demandas Por Aborto Legal (Rosario, 2018),” 2020.

[4] Tamara Tenenbaum, El Fin Del Amor: Amar y Follar En El Siglo XXI (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 2021), 152.


Dr. Julia Martínez-Ariño is an Assistant Professor of Sociology of Religion at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands) and the director of the Center for Religion, Conflict and Globalization at the same university. She is also an associate researcher at the ISOR research center (Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain). Her research focuses on three main themes: 1) contemporary Jewish communities and their role in Jewish heritage making, 2) the governance of religious diversity in various institutional fields and national contexts, and 3) non-religion, in particular, the contemporary processes of apostasy from the Catholic Church in Argentina and Spain. She is the author of Urban Secularism: Negotiating Religious Diversity in Europe (Routledge, 2021) and the co-editor of Urban Religious Events: Public Spirituality in Contested Spaces (Bloomsbury, 2021). You can follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JMartinezArino

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