Jack of all Trades? Introducing Law and Non-religion

In this post Helge Årsheim questions what could – and should – the study of law and non-religion be about?


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Who’s the Master of None?


The misfits ticking off ‘none’ when asked about religious affiliation. An unrecognised chunk of diverging identities: It’s time to ask how the non-religious are recognised in state, law and politics.IMG_8025

How does the state deal with the considerable portion of the population whose practises, beliefs, identities and belongings are other than religious? How is the phenomenon of non-religion (mis)recognised in different religious, social and cultural contexts on national level across the world today?

The emerging research field of non-religion seems to have become an established part of the sociology of religion and other disciplines addressing the varieties of identities associated with what has become to be known as ‘the nones’ within religious studies of various kinds.

In the Anglophone world ‘none’ denotes a survey option declaring ‘no affiliation’ with listed worldviews, e.g. Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist etc. For obvious reasons, the category of non-religion covers a vast variety of identities that one way or the other are hallmarked as ‘other than religious’ to quote Lois Lee’s minimum common denominator for recognizing the nonreligious.


Image: The Descrier / Flickr

The None Next Door

The lion’s share of available research on nones has been focused on the construction of non-religious identities from below: For instance how individuals come to identify as non-religious. American research in particular has predominantly conceptualised this through apostasy; how people break the chain of memory and join the socio-cultural deviance of having no religion.

As a culturally contingent phenomenon, non-religion is often understood in its dialogue and conflict with the dominant formats of religion in society, hence William Stahl argues that Catholic nones and Protestant nones are different. In addition, non-religious identities appear less defined in societies where religiosity is not socially expected or widespread according to Phil Zuckerman who argues that Scandinavian nones are less prone to identify as atheists when compared to the US, or Greece for that matter.

While apostasy indeed is interesting, it is not a key concept of non-religion in the Nordics where most nones in general are likely to have been brought up without religious guidance and live their everyday lives without expectations of belonging, believing or practicing religion. They are to a large extent what Zuckerman describes as indifferentIn Norway, a large share of the non-religious population is ‘unaffiliated’, i.e. they are not registered in an officially recognised worldview community (e.g. The Norwegian Humanist Association). The unaffiliated is the second largest group in Norway and counts 14% of the population (2012). The largest group are the members of the Church of Norway, which count about 70%. For quite obvious reasons it is difficult to tell what faiths, worldviews, beliefs and identities that are contained under the category of ‘no affiliation’.

Members Only

Interestingly – that can also be said about the members of the Church of Norway, which is largely based on a system that allows automatic enrolments and passive memberships, and more notably a number of involuntarily memberships. First, new-borns are registered as members of the church if at least one of the parents are registered and will remain so from cradle to grave unless opted out by parents as minors or on their own initiative after turning 15. A new online system for registering with and opting out of the church was implemented in 2016. Up until then opting out was a tedious affair involving written letters and the bureaucratic goodwill (sic!) of the local parish. However – for reasons unknown– such procedures have proven to be futile as there is way too many who regardless of their opt-out have remained registered members of the church. According to the Norwegian newspaper VG, as much as 75 000 were involuntarily members of the church in 2005. In the aftermath of the online registration and opt-out form in 2016 more than 41 000 cancelled their memberships, while 3147 persons registered as members of The Church of Norway. During my own interviews of Norwegian nones, conducted in 2017/2018, several of the interviewees (3/10) discovered that they were involuntarily members of the church. It is therefore reasonable to assume that a significant share of the Church of Norway’s members is so without consent.

Another reason for scholars to engage with the membership number in critical fashion is the fact that membership to the Church of Norway has no practical impact on the individual: Not financially; you cannot opt out of the church tax (which you can in Sweden) and there is no other implications of being a member – you are not reminded about such affiliations through newsletters etc. and church magazines, journals and pamphlets are distributed evenly and regardless of the house’s status as members or not. In other words, you can easily be a member throughout your life completely unaware of it.

The only practical difference is that members of the church are entitled to vote in the church elections, which are held simultaneously as general elections in Norway. One of my informants revealed that the ability to push the church in a more liberal direction through the elections was an incentive to remain member despite her general lack of belief and sense of belonging to the Church of Norway. Her passion for equality (sex, gender and ethnic) was instrumental for that choice. We cannot draw solid conclusions from such trajectories, but they nonetheless underscore the suspicion that official membership stats are not reliable sources when mapping religious de facto practice, belief and belonging. The reasons for why nones remain members are diverse, but the main point here is the observation that they sometimes do, whether it is out of indifference, ignorance, or potential of political impact or utter unawareness.

Turning the tables

While acknowledging the importance of the dominant socio-cultural and religious structures for nones ‘on the ground’ it is interesting to turn the tables and ask how they are perceived from above. Emphasising research of non-religion from above is not to say that the perspective from below is ruled out or wrong in any sense. Instead I argue that the numerous ethnographies of nones make a solid foundation for developing research on other societal spheres, such as within law, politics and institutions. This is the intention of the upcoming conference Formatting non-religion in late modern society – Institutional and legal perspectives, which takes place in Oslo September 26-27, hosted by the GOBA project (University of Oslo) and the international research network Eurel.

When establishing knowledge about sociocultural forms of non-religious identities (from below), it is politically and academically interesting to ask how such social formations are recognised, represented and perhaps negotiated from above. Now, this is however not quite straight forward as it sounds, because nones are to a certain extent an academic construct. That is, nones are not necessarily formally recognised as a worldview category, possibly due to the lack of formal organisation. Meanwhile, the lack of such is completely natural as the group consists of a variety of ways of being ‘other than religious’, the diversity amongst nones means that certain fractions may not want to be associated with each other. For example consider the significant difference between the ‘spiritual not religious’ group and New Atheism. The diversity of non-religious identities and group formations might be a challenge for non-religion to be substantially recognised in governmental bodies, law and politics. However, that does not make research on ‘non-religion from above’ less important if we think about the significant number of people who are not formally represented through officially recognised membership to faith and worldview communities.

This is both significant in societies where the minority of nones are persecuted such as Pakistan as well as in the UK where nones form a possible silent majority or even in Norway despite the impression of 70% church membership gives. Both contexts – where nones are numerous and not – make interesting research phenomena of the state’s handling with these identities in politics and law. We can for instance ask how different forms of secularism facilitates politics to serve nones, religious majorities and minorities alike? How non-religious worldviews are considered in public religious education and other institutions where the state is expected to facilitate for freedom of belief and thought? Or what happens with citizenship and sense of belonging when the state supports an established church in a country with an increasing non-religious population?

Non-religion is arguably an academic construct derived form English survey-lingo, which perhaps is difficult to recognise at first glance. Including ‘nones’ when mapping the religious landscape of late modern societies definitely broadens our horizon. As with the example from Norway, including the unaffiliated and critically examining the possibility of nones formally affiliated with the Church of Norway, changes our perception of the religious demography. It would be worthwhile to conceptualise this complexity further in research of politics, law and institutions. Regardless of the lack of fixed definitions, institutional representation and widespread acknowledgement in scholarly discourses and beyond, ‘non-religion’ is an analytical tool that cannot be overlooked by researchers, politicians, state officials and others who seek to understand, facilitate and marshal contemporary plurality of faiths and worldviews.


This blog has been co-published with Religion Going Public.


Erlend Hovdkinn From Doctoral Research Fellow, Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo.PhD Project: ‘From Protestant to Post-Religious? Researching nones in Oslo’.

My academic interests are within sociology of religion, and more specific – nonreligion and secularity. My PhD project addresses nonreligion in the Norwegian context. How does the religiously unaffiliated relate to Norway’s cultural heritage of protestant Christianity? Moreover, what constitutes Norwegian nonreligion, politically, socially, existentially and culturally?

My position as PhD candidate is part of the project Good Protestant, Bad Religion (GOBA, funded by the Research Council of Norway, 2014-2018).

I am one of the editors of the collaborative scholarly blog Religion: Going Public (2016->), and I am writing for the Norway section at EUREL, a database of socio-legal data on religion in Europe.

Sacred beyond religion: cultivation of individuality in post-Christendom

In this post, doctoral student Polina Batanova discusses the enduring relevance of the classic work of sociologist Emile Durkheim to the study of nonreligion. She argues his functionalist definition of religion, which emphasizes the fundamental importance of sacred forms, helps to illuminate the nature of “religion” in secular modern societies—that being, the cult of the individual. Tracing its genealogy through liberalism and back to the Reformation, and offering contemporary examples to demonstrate its IMG_0195prevalence in modern societies, Batanova makes a powerful case for thinking the sacralization of the “individual” may be the quintessential sacred form in modernity.

In his classic sociological work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) Emile Durkheim adopted a conception of religion that is based on a dichotomy of the sacred and profane (Durkheim 1995).

At its most general, the sacred refers to those values that in a given social context are considered to be of ‘absolute’, ‘special’, or of ‘vital’ importance for the upholding of a particular social order. The sacred thus concerns those key ideas which exert a profound moral claim over peoples’ lives; these sacred ideas lie at the core of social life and, collectively shared, they secure solidarity. At the same time, the sacred is not to be understood as an ontologically fixed category; the sacred is neither divine, nor transcendent in a Kantian sense. Rather, it becomes tangible only through conceptual and symbolical representations which may vary across historical epochs, cultures, and social contexts. In other words, it is purely social.

From this view, religion is an entirely social phenomenon and its main function is the transmission of knowledge by means of ritual practices, where collective representations are generated and revived. Collective representations define sacred things as well as their relations to the profane, and rituals, in their turn, demonstrate the rules of interaction with the sacred. Both the representations and rituals can be called ‘sacred forms’ (Lynch 2012).

But what happens to sacred forms in modern societies with their religious and cultural diversities, and increasing secularization?

According to Durkheim, although religious traditions are the main sources of general knowledge regarding the sacred (and profane), nevertheless they are not the source of sacred ideas. Religions do not generate the sacred and do not hold a monopoly on defining the sacred and profane. It is not religions that draw the line between the sacred and profane worlds ¾ the social life itself does this (Durkheim and Mauss 2009). As long as we are dealing with traditional society, religion appears to be the quintessence of social life. However, as a society gets more complex, different areas of social life become institutionalized and the emerging institutions maintain the social order just as religion once did. Virtually, each of them – like law, art, science, etc. – becomes a separate system of collective representations. This entails the diversification and multiplication of sacred forms. As part of this process, the vital ideas like that of love, justice, honesty, etc. are increasingly cultivated in non-religious frameworks and can be represented in different ways depending on the context. For example, the representations of love in artwork or scientific research (i.e. psychology) differ, although both refer to the same idea.

In line with Durkheim’s thesis that in traditional society all sacred ideas are represented by religion while in modern society sacred forms transcend religious contexts, I propose to talk about the traditional/modern distinction in the terms religious/post-religious. By ‘post-religious’ I mean newly established sacred ideas which have come to replace previous (religious) ones as they have weakened. In short, sacred forms still exist in our modern secularized world, but in order to spot them, we must refuse always identifying the sacred with religion.

To illustrate the rise of the sacred beyond religion, let us turn to the idea of individuality. With Europe in mind, Durkheim proposed the concept of the ‘cult of individual’ (culte de la personne)[1] which he expected to emerge in modern society. I will not conjecture whether his words came true or not. Instead, I propose to discuss two main issues in this regard: (1) the origin (genealogy) of the cult of individual and (2) the representations of the idea of individuality.

The cult of the individual begins with the idea of the individual being, which lies at its core; the process of turning the abstract individual into a sacred form is inseparable from the process of individuation. Both emerge from the springs of liberal thought and humanism (precisely, the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and, later, Alexis de Tocqueville) and develop into the Enlightenment project and the division of labor, which characterize modernity. Yet it is not a coincidence that humanistic virtues were shaped within a Christian context. Despite its secular tone and claims to universalism, liberal thought derived from Christian theology. For instance, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber demonstrated the elective affinity between the Protestant idea of salvation and the notion of ‘calling’ (der Beruf) which contributed to the development of capitalism. As Zygmunt Bauman puts it: “Reformation was from the beginning pregnant with humanist secularism – it set humans free to focus on things other than those kept in the secret compartments of divine offices” (Bauman 2008). In addition, Rodney Stark argues the Christian cherishing of human reason was what made the project of European Enlightenment possible (Stark 2006).

Thus the sacralization of individuality should be seen as the extension of the Christian belief-system which eventually gave birth to secular morality. This understanding aligns with Gianni Vattimo’s considerations about the continuity between Christianity and secularity.

Like any sacred idea, ‘individuality’ is not fixed, but constantly reconstructed via conceptual or symbolic representations, so we can speak of it in terms of a process, as the ‘cultivation of individuality’. Obviously, the twentieth century witnessed an intense period of this cultivation, and today we can point to numerous loosely related conceptualizations of individuality: ‘subject’, ‘person’, ‘self’, ‘agent’, etc. These conceptual representations have become entrenched in people’s minds. We are witnessing contemporary social life become increasingly oriented towards representations of individuality as sacred. Among others, the United Nations Declaration on human rights, the widespread acknowledgment of the importance of personal freedoms (civic liberties) in liberal democracies are all grounded in, and presuppose, the sanctity of human life and respect for human reason. All these representations – both conceptual and symbolic – relate to different domains of social life and obviously are not religious as such (although they also may hold on Christian meanings). Nevertheless, they are influential social facts: people do refer to and recognize them as moral forces guiding their lives (Bellah 1985; Levine 2006; Joas 2013).

The most striking thing about this is how pervasive it is; the cult of the individual is found across diverse cultural, linguistic and social contexts[2]. In my doctoral project, I am doing a comparative study of how students living in the U.S.A., Russia and Finland conceptualize individuality and what the primary meanings which inform this idea in their personal lives are. So far I’ve found that almost all of the interviewees (both religious, spiritual, and atheists) acknowledge the ultimate primacy of individual freedoms. Basically, this tells us that moral individualistic values have great potential for solidarity without restraint. Using the words of Bill McConochie, we might call moral individualism a meta-religion. Anyway, the idea of individuality seems particularly important for both understanding modern morality and finding a common ground for people with various religious and non-religious outlooks.

[1] Durkheim E. 1991. De la Division de Travail Social. Quadrige. P.396

[2] Drawing upon the empirical data of the international research project “Young Adults and Religion in a Global Perspective” (Abo Akademi University) (http://www.abo.fi/fakultet/yarg) that I am involved into.


Bauman Zygmunt. 2008. Individualized Society. Polity Press

Bellah N. R. et al. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. University of California Press

Durkheim Emile. 1991. De la Division de Travail Social. Quadrige.

Durkheim Emile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. The Free Press

Durkheim Emile and Marcel Mauss. 2009. Primitive Classification (Routledge Revivals). Routledge

Joas H. 2013. The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights. Georgetown University Press

Levine D.N. 2006. Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America. University Of Chicago Press

Lynch Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford University Press

Stark Rodney. 2006. The Victory of Reason: How Christianity led to freedom, capitalism, and Western success. Random House

Weber Max. 2016. Die protestantische Ethik und der „Geist“ des Kapitalismus (eds. Lichblau K., Moebius S.). Springer


Polina Batanova is a doctoral student of Comparative Religion at Abo Akademi University (Finland). She is also a researcher at the “Sociology of Religion” laboratory at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University (Russia). Her research interests include the sociology of morality, theories of the sacred, and individualism. She is currently working on a doctoral thesis tentatively titled, “Sacred individual: conceptual and narrative cultivation of individuality among young adults in Russia, Finland, and the USA.

How the nonreligious live Christmas


In this Christmas blog special, NSRN editors Timothy Stacey and Fernande Pool share and reflect upon the narratives of how six nonreligious people navigate through the festive period.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: ardent secularists voice their outrage at the continuing dominance of Christian celebrations in increasingly nonreligious societies. Their Christian counterparts paint themselves as a minority under attack: their symbols mocked, repressed or castigated in the name of nonchalance, diversity, commercialisation. This has reached the point that many of us get anxious even discussing the holiday with colleagues: “what are you doing for…Christmas? Winter break? Help!”

But what are the thoughts of the silent majority? For the first time in history, religious “nones” are now the dominant group in the UK and Australia, and a close second in the US and Canada. How do they feel about Christmas? How do they navigate the complex mesh of Christian, secular and commercial symbols?

For the last six months, the Lived Religion Project has been tracing the complex and beautiful ways in which religious and nonreligious people alike carry their beliefs in everyday life. Its aim is to challenge religious illiteracy and prejudice in politics, the media and amongst the public. We do so by asking simple questions like: What do you believe? Can you tell us the story of how you came to believe that? Is there anything about the way you live your life that might surprise an outsider? The majority of the work thus far has been carried out in Vancouver, Canada, which has one of the highest proportions of religious nones in the Western world. This has given us unique insight into the diversity of nonreligious ways of engaging with the world in the everyday.

On the build-up to Christmas, we decided to give the project a fun twist: we hosted a roundtable Christmas(?!) dinner discussion with a range of nonreligious guests. Each person took a turn to explain what Christmas means to them.


For my family Christmas is about giving gifts to each other, thinking about what people care about: a gift that means something to them, even if only in the brief moment they open a present. It’s also about the politics of gift-giving: a marker of where you are as a person. So I have one brother who used to be the best at giving presents, and who now is the worst. And I feel that the process of thinking about the gift is a way of demonstrating love through demonstrating knowledge of someone.

Growing up in the UK, I don’t think we were raised Christian. We were probably raised to be aware of the absence of Christianity in our lives. I went to a Church of England school and then as now the message always seems to be: “okay you’re having fun, opening gifts, but really you’ve forgotten about Jesus”. And I’m like “oh yeah, I did forget that guy.” Because even in Christian circles there was this reluctant acceptance of our forgetfulness, I never really felt the need for a clean break from the Christian aspects.


Christmas has nothing to do with gifts. I am kind of proud of the fact that it wasn’t about gifts. Having grown up in the Netherlands, we used to exchange gifts on Sinterklaas, the 5th of December. Whereas it would feel corrupting to make Christmas about presents. Instead, we’d all get aluminum foil bags of chocolate, raisins, nuts, mandarin. And we’d snack on that the whole day. We grew up in a very Christian area where nobody really received presents. I was very happy with my mandarin and it breaks my heart to think that you could have a child who wouldn’t be happy unless they received some expensive gift.

My primary school was rather strictly Protestant, and although for most of the time that felt oppressive if anything, I did like the build up to Christmas: the lighting of the Advent candles, the singing of Christmas songs, reading the story of Jesus’ birth, all culminating in the annual Christmas performance, when all the school children would sing songs and family would come watch. We’d get an orange and a Bible afterwards. The performance was never quite as exciting as anticipated, but I do still attach a feeling of warmth and light to it.

Christmas is quiet time. I’m from a farm and my parents worked very hard. So, Christmas was a time to be together and rest. For the last ten years, Christmas has been an emotionally distressing time; I didn’t always feel comfortably to spend time around my family during those years and during Christmas I felt forced to. But having grown up, I have become softer, and now I see that no matter how estranged we have become as a family, I will make an effort to see them on that day. Because in the end, they’re your people.


When I was young it was all about presents. I think my parents also really enjoyed the idea of exchanging gifts. My sister would go around the house wrapping up stuff that we already had. So, for her it was just the process of unwrapping things. But now it’s evolved. We don’t really give gifts that much and it’s distilled down to: time with family. But for us it doesn’t have to be that day; the day itself doesn’t necessarily contain anything. It’s grown to be that time period where you get together and give each other cards. My Dad will always write beautiful cards that have everyone in the room crying and meanwhile he’ll walk away and get himself a drink. And you can’t do that through an email from overseas. So it’s just become a time to remind people you love them.

You have to remember too that our Christmas, in New Zealand, falls in the middle of the summer so a lot of people are taking time off work; everyone’s very relaxed; people are on the beach having beer, having barbecues. There’s a sense of freedom in the summer that Christmas has become bound up with. But that said, the northern hemisphere stuff still trickles down: There are songs about snow and pictures of snowmen. That could be made more relevant!


I was born in the northern hemisphere so Christmas is what I grew up with. In Korea it’s all about kids getting presents. There’s no sharing of presents as such. It’s just for children. And then it’s also a time for couples to go out. It’s not really a family occasion. You go to church and to mass I guess – I’d say 70-80% of people do. It’s other holidays that are about family: autumn harvest festival and New Year. So, for example on New Year we get together as a family with up to forty relatives and pay respect to the ancestors. You know how Muslims pray? It’s a bit like that: for each ancestor, you pour rice wine and you bow three times. As a kid, I found that really annoying: 3 hours bowing nonstop. But growing up I also felt kind of connected to it because I appreciate the idea that family is important.

From my family’s perspective, when we moved from Korea to New Zealand, we lost most of our traditions and holidays. So, we didn’t really celebrate the harvest or New Year. So now I primarily associate Christmas with my wife’s family and being at the beach.


It was an annual tradition for my family to go up and visit my grandmother on my Mum’s side. My Mum’s side’s the Christian side, and my Dad’s is the Jewish, European postwar exile side. My Mum’s side was Anglican but not devout by any means. For me it was about materialism, when I look back. But now it’s about the family memories. Especially after my grandmother and grandfather are gone and we don’t see each other much as a family. Christmas was always the main family event: we’d gather and sleep over at my grandmother’s, in a cabin that my grandfather built in the woods beside a lake. At that time of year, the lake would be frozen and my uncle would plough an ice rink on the lake. My seven cousins would be there and there’d be a turkey on the table and all the kids running around. So yeah: pretty idyllic Canadian.

Looking back on it I’m closer to my cousins on my mother’s side partially because of that annual event. When I look at my personal memories, a lot of it was selfish commercialism. But in a kind of magical way. Not being able to sleep. Wondering what kind of lavish gifts would be bestowed on me. I was pretty sneaky too. I used to secretly open my presents early.

But anyway, there was never much by way of religious or cultural rituals. It was just family-focused. We never went to church. The first time I went to church was my grandfather’s funeral.


That so-called Canadian ideal that never existed here, out West; it’s a very Ontario-centered idea of what Canada is. We don’t have frozen lakes. But Adam got to live it!

I grew up in a very Christian household. So, Jesus was the “reason for the season”. My family is super-evangelical, fundamentalist Christian. My parents aren’t, but they were raised that way and it comes out at Christmas because they want to lock down that tradition. So recently I had a chat with my Mum and suggested we might go to a church service that recognizes gay folks as legit. Because my brother is gay and so forcing him to go to a service where they don’t recognize his humanity might be really horrible for him. But my Mum was like: “don’t you respect your elders?” But I do and I think a lot about how to translate legacy to the future, and what it means to inherit certain ideas and to fully embody those ideas as a living creature now and what it means to pass them forward. We think we have to choose what we inherit and so I’ve started trying to influence the process.

Interestingly, two years ago my mum didn’t make us go to church. But this year our whole family is coming so she is accountable to a wider network. Christmas isn’t just about what we think personally, or what our immediate family thinks but also what our wider culture expects of us. So, her personal identity is wrapped up in how she performs Christmas.

As a child, I was fully wrapped up in it. Christmas and Easter felt very connected and imaging where Jesus would end up 30 years later was sort of magical. Knowing that this person was super radical for people. My parents are quite radical in their generosity. They recognize Jesus as a hero of how to live in a countercultural way.

Now I have no personal connection to Christmas at all. We partake in very pagan rituals now and my own personal belief is a much more earth-centered spirituality. And when I think of Christmas now I think it comes with the solstice. We physically witness the earth shutting down for the year. In the northern hemisphere, that is. I like to think about what it means to close the year. So, Christmas is about what you want to nurture for the year ahead. We place each ornament on the tree as the wish we plant for the new year, that we want to germinate when the light returns.


We are in a period of rapid transition. As Laura stressed, we have to be intentional about choosing the traditions we inherit and how to do so. While some advocate for the wholesale abandonment of a Christian past, and others from a Christian lens lament what Christmas has become, the majority quietly navigates between these two positions, holding onto the aspects they most cherish, and quietly but resolutely letting go of the aspects that do not resonate.

Of the most cherished aspects amongst our guests appeared to be spending intentional time with family and childhood memories of excitement and expectation. Although nonreligious, they choose not to radically reject Christmas because they are capable of putting to one side Christian symbols while welcoming a designated period of reflection and togetherness. But they also recognize that Christmas was an important aspect of their childhood. In this sense, perhaps it is worth keeping in mind that Christmas is not merely a reflection of our own beliefs but a deliberate performance of togetherness.

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FACEBOOK: @livedreligionproject, facebook.com/livedreligionproject

INSTAGRAM: @livedreligionproject

Timothy Stacey is a Postdoctoral Fellow at both the Religion and Diversity Project, University of Ottawa, Canada and the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. Tim explores the role ‘myth’, or stories of great events and characters, in developing solidarity and combatting populism and extremism. Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division, has just been released by Routledge. 

Fernande Pool is a Visiting Scholar at the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Canada. Her PhD thesis, titled The ethical life of Muslims in secular India: Islamic Reformism in West Bengal, (March 2016, London School of Economics, UK)critically explores the nature of ethics and alternative experiences and meanings of secularism and religion. Fernande has been named a Marie Skłodowska-Curie LEaDing Fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, starting April 2018.

Driven by Hope: Economics and Theology in Dialogue

Cees PhotoHow do we understand the multifaceted phenomenon of ‘hope’ and how can it be measured? In this blog, Cees Tulp details explorative research that offers an empirical instrument to measure hope – ‘the Hope Barometer’.

Hope is a central theme in human existence. It is the driving force to cross the Mediterranean Sea on a boat as a refugee; it is also the emotion that leaders appeal to – both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, in fact. Both leaders strive for a better future, of America in particular, and mention the hope for it frequently. Hope was expressed in the end-of-year message of 2016 in this blog. It is also an incentive behind all sorts of decisions in everyday life. Hope is so much connected with the human existence that it can be called a “dimension of the soul” (Havel 2004, p. 106). Hope is not only an aspect of being human, it also functions as a driving force and is often articulated as a desire for an uncertain future. It is, however, not to be confused with optimism. “It is not the conviction, that somethings will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is Hope, above all, which gives the strength to live and continually try new things” (Havel 2004, p. 106). Hope therefore is much broader than a certain theological feature or a conviction. It is a phenomenon that saturates the whole human existence.

This multifaceted phenomenon has been around throughout all ages and has been reflected upon for centuries by theologians and philosophers. A person who cannot be left unmentioned in this respect is the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, because of his theology of hope. It is only recently that this theme has drawn the attention of economics and positive psychology. In the approaches that connect hope with economics, there has been relatively little attention for hope as an incentive. However, hope is an important incentive for economics to consider. From an economical perspective, two different types of hope can be distinguished, namely wishful hope and aspirational hope (Lybbert and Wydick 2015, p. 4). Wishful hope does not lead to action, but aspirational hope does. The latter form of hope applies reasoning: it assesses the difficulties of the situation at hand, and it suggests actions that can reasonably be expected to have positive effects. This form of hope has the potential to influence the actions and decisions of human beings, because these decisions and actions take place based on a conviction that it will work out positively. This view on hope is expressed in the definition of hope Martin gives: “To hope for an outcome is to desire (be attracted to) it, to assign a probability somewhere between 0 and 1 to it, and to judge that there are sufficient reasons to engage in certain feelings and activities directed toward it” (Martin 2013, p. 7). If there is certainty that something will or will not going to happen, there is no reason to try to influence the outcome. Only when the future is uncertain, it is sensible to act on it.

It is this connection between hope and economics that is the subject of a joint research project between the Institute of Leadership and Social Ethics, which is connected with the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven (Belgium), and the Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organization, which is connected to the Erasmus University in Rotterdam (Netherlands). The project is generously funded by the Goldschmeding Foundation for People, Work and Economy.

This project entails explorative research to hope from different disciplines to gain conceptual clarity. Because hope is as complex and ambiguous as the human person himself or herself, it requires interdisciplinary investigation. The aim of the project is first to gain a better understanding of the concept of hope, but furthermore to stimulate a cross-disciplinary dialogue about hope. One of the stimuli has been an academic conference entitled “Driven by Hope: Economics and Theology in Dialogue,” which took place in February 2017 at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven.[i] The second phase of the project seeks to give more insight into the empirical relation between hope and happiness. Besides literature study, an empirical instrument to measure hope has been developed called the Hope Barometer. It is the most complete instrument developed until now to measure hope. In contrast to other instruments to measure hope, the Hope Barometer distinguishes seven different dimensions of hope (thought, emotion, virtue, social hope, economic expectation, institutional trust and spiritual hope). The conceptually seven dimensions of hope are empirically related, but capture at the same time different aspects of hope. Measuring in so many dimensions yields a detailed insight into the quantity and quality of hope. The aim is to provide guidelines to measure hope in countries, organizations and other groups. The results gained will be used to test existing theories about hope and to refine the conceptual framework. A fuller understanding of the phenomenon hope and a fuller developed measurement of it will contribute to the capability of fostering the hope. The project seeks to make aware that hope is a very important phenomenon because of its far-reaching influence on the thought, behavior and emotion of human beings. The phenomenon exceeds the domain of religion, for which it is a good development that it gets broader attention now.

We hope that the research can be continued by a project in which the conceptual framework can be further refined, more empirical research can be done and the dialogue with the capabilities approach can be deepened. Furthermore, we want to explore the practical application of hope for leadership in organizations, by contributing to best practices.

[i] The conference proceedings will be published in our book series Christian Perspectives on Leadership and Social Ethics, which is published by Peeters Publications (Leuven, Belgium).


Havel, V 2004, ‘An orientation of the heart,’ in P Loeb, (ed.), The impossible will take a little while: A citizen’s guide to hope in a time of fear, pp. 106–12. Basic Books, New York.

Lybbert, TJ, & Wydick, B 2015, ‘Poverty, Aspirations, and the Economics of Hope,’ presented at the Conference for Human Dignity, University of Notre Dame, 25 October 2015.

Martin, A 2013, How We Hope: A Moral Psychology, Princeton University Press, Princeton.


Cees Tulp completed his BA Theology and Religious Studies at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, Belgium. He worked as an intern at the Institute of Leadership and Social Ethics. From his career in software development, he has experience with leadership and the role that hope plays in the general well-being of employees.

Religion after atheism

Cecilie Endresen

Fifty years ago, multi-religious Albania was declared the first atheist state in the world. Today the number of “nones” is almost negligible. Albania is a veritable laboratory for the study of forced secularization and religious diversity. To make this point, Cecilie Endresen introduces recent statistical data about who Albanian “nones” might be.


From Islamic to atheist

Europe’s first state with a Muslim majority, Albania, proclaimed independence in 1912. Until then, Albania’s Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians were part of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Hardly one generation later, they had all become atheists, at least officially.

Secularization from above had started decades before the communist take-over. Albania was funded as a multi-religious country. The political elites considered religion, particularly Islam, an impediment to national unity and progress. The inhabitants were urged to ignore religious differences, and the first Constitution (1922) established that ‘the state does not have any official religion’.

During communism, the top-down secularisation programme was intensified and radicalised. Under Enver Hoxha’s iron fist, the religious institutions were utterly curtailed, and in 1967 shut down. All forms of religious worship were banned, also in the private sphere. The cultural heritage was destroyed, traditions broken, and clerics and worshippers persecuted.

Revival and pluralism

In 1990, the last year of communist rule, religion was legalised. A myriad of Muslim and Christian traditions resurfaced, and Albanians of different religious persuasions celebrated their newborn freedom.[1] Surveys indicate that secularism, religious freedom and equality have strong popular support. An IPSOS poll from 2011 shows that 95.3% of 1500 respondents think religious equality should be the political norm.[2] In a worldwide survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2013, 98% of Albania’s Muslims – a higher percentage than in any other country  – say it is ‘good that others are very free to practice their faith’.

Do we have any facts?

Before communism, Albania had 68.9 % Muslims, 20.7% Orthodox Christians, and 10.3% Catho­lics.[3] Many later percentages are disputed and can often be considered wishful thinking, especially pro-Christian or anti-Islamic “statistics” that reduce Muslims to a minority. The official census from 2011, conducted by the State Institute of statistics (INSTAT), stirred controversy and was partly boycotted due to its inclusion of ‘sensitive’ questions about religious and ethnic affiliation.[4] A variety of religious and ethnic interest groups contested the results, and 13.79% preferred not to answer.[5] In an IPSOS poll from the same year, less than half of the 1500 respondents believed the census would correctly reflect the country’s religious make-up.[6] Asked an open question about their religious affiliation, people defined themselves as follows:

“Islam”/ “Muslim” 59.2
“Albanian Orthodox” (Christian) 14.1
“Bektashi” (Muslim) 7.7
“Roman Catholic”, “Catholic” (Christian) 5.7
“Sunni” (Muslim) 2.5
“Atheist” 2.2
“Greek Orthodox” (Christian) 2.1
“Non-religious” 1.6
“Eastern Orthodox”, “Orthodox Christian” 1.1
“Shiite” (Muslim) 0.7
“Mixed” 0.6
“Jehovah’s Witnesses” 0.5
“Protestant Christian” 0.2
“I don’t know” 1.9

In short, seven out of ten Albanians are Muslims, and almost a quarter of them Christians[7] – almost the same as before communism.

Believing and belonging

Generally speaking, most Albanians can be defined as non-practitioners. Only 1.8% visit churches or mosques on a daily basis, and more than a quarter of the Muslims “never” attend religious service.[8] 85% of those who do, do it only in connection with major holidays, weddings and funerals. So while the ritual side of religion may be less important to people, it does not make religion socially irrelevant. In fact, it might be social obligations that make most Albanians visit mosques or churches in the first place.

According to the Gallup Balkan Monitor, almost half of the respondents identify ‘very strongly or ‘extremely strongly’ with their religion,[9] and in the IPSOS poll, 87.5% say they ‘believe in God’.[10] Only 5.3% label themselves “atheists”, “non-religious”, “mixed”, or reply “I don’t know”.[11] The formerly atheist nation is thus among the more religious nations in Europe, both in terms of believing and belonging.

Religion: It’s complicated

The statistics give us an idea about sociological aspects, but say less about “lived religion” and individualised systems of meaning. Available survey data do not, for example, tell us how many who, for example, “believe in God, but not in religion”, see religious differences as “manmade”, or insist that Islam and Christianity are “the same” religion. Years in the country makes me believe that such views are widespread. And how many Muslims can be considered Sufis, Salafis,[12] Islamophobes, pro-Catholic,[13] or New Agers?[14] The formerly isolated country still receives scant scholarly attention, but one thing is sure: Secularization, religious revival and globalization have made Albania’s intricate religious landscape more complex than ever.


Clayer, Nathalie. 2007. Aux origines du nationalisme albanais: la naissance d’une nation majoritairement musulmane en Europe. Paris: Karthala.

Clayer, Nathalie. 2008. “Behind the veil: the reform of Islam in inter-war Albania or the search for a ‘mod­ern’ and ‘European’ Islam. In Islam in inter-war Europe, p. 128–155. Nathalie Clayer and Eric Hermain (eds.). New York: Colombia University Press.

Endresen, Cecilie. 2016. «Allah og aliens: Albanske mellomvesener og albanere som mellomvesener». Aura. Tidsskrift för akademiska studier av nyreligiositet 8: 28- 56.

Endresen, Cecilie. 2015. “The nation and the nun“. Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations 1: 53-74.

Endresen, Cecilie. 2015. “Faith, Fatherland, or both? Accommodationist and neo-fundamentalist Islamic discourses in Albania”. In The revival of Islam in the Balkans. A. Elbasani and O. Roy (eds.). New York: Palgrave, 222-243.

Endresen, Cecilie. 2014. “Status report Albania 100 years: symbolic nation-building completed?”. Strategies of Symbolic Nation-building in South Eastern Europe. P. Kolstø (ed.). Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 201-226.

Endresen, Cecilie. 2012. Is the Albanian’s religion really «Albanianism»? Religion and nation according to Muslim and Christian leaders in Albania. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

INSTAT. 2012. Population and housing census. http://www.instat.gov.al/media/178070/rezultatet_kryesore_t__censusit_t__popullsis__dhe_banesave_2011_n__shqip_ri.pdf

Popovic, Alexandre. 1986. L’islam balkanique. Berlin: Osteuropa-Institut an der Freien Universität Berlin, Otto Harrassowitz-Wiesbaden.

[1] Endresen, Cecilie. (2012). Is the Albanian’s religion really «Albanianism»? Religion and nation according to Muslim and Christian leaders in Albania. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag; Endresen (2015). Faith, Fatherland, or both? Accommodationist and neo-fundamentalist Islamic discourses in Albania. In A. Elbasani and O. Roy (eds.). The revival of Islam in the Balkans. Basingstoke: Palgrave, Macmillan.

[2] Question number 46, “Albania” in a survey conducted by IPSOS Strategic Marketing on behalf of the research project Symbolic nation building in West Balkans. Survey results for Albania and other Balkan countries are available.

[3] Popovic, Alexandre. 1986. L’islam balkanique. Berlin: Osteuropa-Institut an der Freien Universität Berlin, Otto Harrassowitz-Wiesbaden, p. 38.

[4] p. 33.

[5] INSTAT (ibid.), 1.1.14.

[6] Question 71, “Albania”, IPSOS 2011.

[7] IPSOS 2011, question 39, “Albania”.

[8] IPSOS 2011, question 41, “Albania”.

[9] “Identification with own religion”, Balkan Monitor 2010.

[10] IPSOS 2011, question 40, “Albania”.

[11] IPSOS 2011, question 39, “Albania”.

[12] Endresen, Cecilie. 2016. «Allah og aliens: Albanske mellomvesener og albanere som mellomvesener». Aura. Tidsskrift för akademiska studier av nyreligiositet 8: 28- 56.

[13] Endresen, Cecilie. 2015. “Faith, Fatherland, or both? Accommodationist and neo-fundamentalist Islamic discourses in Albania”. In The revival of Islam in the Balkans. A. Elbasani and O. Roy (eds.). New York: Palgrave, 222-243.

[14] Endresen, Cecilie. 2016. «Allah og aliens: Albanske mellomvesener og albanere som mellomvesener». Aura. Tidsskrift för akademiska studier av nyreligiositet 8: 28- 56.

Cecilie Endresen (PhD) is Associate Professor in History of Religion at the University of Oslo, Norway. She is the author of the book Is the Albanian’s religion really «Albanianism»? Religion and nation according to Muslim and Christian leaders in Albania (Harrassowitz, 2012). Her research focuses on religious pluralism in Southeast Europe.

Reframing Assisted Dying: Nonreligion and the Law


lori.beamanLaw and religion frequently interact, sometimes as a matter of challenging religion’s reach into public spaces, sometimes as a matter of reentrenching majority religion. But what about nonreligion and the law? In this piece, Lori G. Beaman argues that subtle shifts in legal approaches can be revealing of the often mysterious contents of nonreligion. Specifically, she asks: what could a nonreligious approach to assisted dying law look like?

There are two challenges that are preoccupying me in my research on nonreligion: first, how to think about nonreligion without being pulled into the “like religion but…” vortex and second, how to study this emerging reality.[i]

The challenge of thinking about nonreligion without the “like religion” simile is a function of being immersed in a society that has been shaped by majoritarian religion. In many ways we do not know what a world looks like in which nonreligion is a significant worldview, or in which nonreligion is practiced. To find out, Peter Beyer and I have been working on a conceptual framework that draws on the notion of dark matter in physics as an analogy.[ii] My own approach has been to think about sites of cooperation and conflict as prisms through which to see how people live the “dark matter” of nonreligion.[iii]

One such site is in law. There have been legal challenges to such things as prayer in municipal council meetings and crucifixes on the walls of public institutions such as classrooms, houses of parliament and hospitals. But while these are interesting case studies, it is the more subtle shifts in legal approaches that are more revealing of the contents of nonreligion, which, as Linda Woodhead notes, is placeholder language for that which we cannot yet name.[iv] This is especially so on the issue of assisted death. [v]

The most recent Supreme Court of Canada decision makes a significant shift from a religious approach to a predominantly nonreligious one. The Carter case, involving two people who wished to receive assisted dying services in Canada, challenged the Criminal Code provision which made it an offence to aid and abet a person in committing suicide and which prohibited a person from consenting to death. The Court found those provisions unconstitutional and its discussion represents a major shift in tone from its last major decision (Rodriguez) in 1993. There, the Court had “emphasized that human life should not be depreciated by allowing life to be taken, a collectivist claim based on the construct ‘sanctity of life.’”[vi] The judgement was riddled with religious, specifically Christian, conceptualizations of life and death including the value of suffering and the badness of choosing to die.[vii] In Carter, the Court emphasizes respect and autonomy, stating that “an individual’s choice about the end of her life is entitled to respect.”[viii] The Carter judgement, in my view, makes a significant move toward capturing what a nonreligious approach might look like: “We do not agree that the existential formulation of the right to life requires an absolute prohibition on assistance in dying, or that individuals cannot ‘waive’ their right to life. This would create a ‘duty to live’, rather than a ‘right to life’.”[ix] The Court draws on science, particularly medical science, to understand the process of dying and the possibilities for assistance and intervention.  It maintains the “sanctity of life” and the “right to life”, but reshapes those in ways that support assisted dying.

The Supreme Court of Canada permits interveners to make submissions when it is hearing a case of public importance. In Carter there were 26 interveners, 12 of them religious. One of those was in favour of the idea of establishing an assisted dying regime. The rest were opposed. They used language like “suicide” and used the word “death” rather than “dying”, while nonreligious interveners used terms such as “end-of-life decisions”; “assisted dying”; “medically assisted dying”; “self-chosen death”. Nonreligious interveners framed their understanding of dying as including the possibility of a “good death”, which respected the wishes of the individual and preserved dignity. The point here is that the facta reveal distinctly different approaches that illuminate what we might describe as a nonreligious approach to this issue, or, the dark matter of nonreligion, to return to that metaphor.


[i] Day, Abby.  2011. Believing in belonging: Belief and social identity in the modern world. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the non-religious: Reimagining the secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press; and Wallis, Simeon. 2014. “Ticking ‘no religion’: A case study amongst ‘young nones’.” DISKUS 16(2): 70–87.

[ii] Beaman, Lori G. 2017. “Living Well Together in a (non)Religious Future: Contributions from the Sociology of Religion.” Sociology of Religion 78(1): 9-32.

[iii] Beaman, Living Well Together, 9-32.

[iv] Woodhead, Linda. 2016. “The rise of ‘no religion’ in Britain: The emergence of a new cultural majority.” Journal of the British Academy 4: 245-261

[v] See Chambers, Stuart. 2011. “Of Stewardship, Suffering and the ‘Slippery Slope’: A Vattimian Analysis of the Sanctity of Life Ethos in Canada (1972–2005)” PhD diss. University of Ottawa, 2011, http://dx.doi.org/10.20381/ruor-4817.

[vi] Ibid., 233.

[vii] Ibid., 233.

[viii] Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331 (hereinafter Carter) at para. 63.

[ix] Ibid., at para. 63.

[x] Reference re Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331 (Factum of the Intervener, Canadian Unitarian Council, at para. 4)


Lori G. Beaman, Ph.D. is Canada Research Chair in Religious Diversity and Social Change and Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. She is Principal Investigator of the Religion and Diversity Project, a 37-member international research team whose focus is religion and diversity (religionanddiversity.ca). Publications include: Deep Equality in an Era of Religious Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2017) ; “Living Together v. Living Well Together: A Normative Examination of the SAS Case,” Social Inclusion, 4(2) 2016: 3-13; “Reframing Understandings of Religion: Lessons from India,” in S. Sikka, B. Puri, and L.G. Beaman (eds.) Living with Religious Diversity, 37-48 (Routledge India, 2015); “The Will to Religion: Obligatory Religious Citizenship,” Critical Research on Religion, 1(2) 2013: 141-157; “Battles over Symbols: The ‘Religion’ of the Minority Versus the ‘Culture’ of the Majority,” Journal of Law and Religion, 28(1) 2012/3: 101-138; Defining Harm: Religious Freedom and the Limits of the Law (UBC Press, 2008).

Lori G. Beaman, PhD. est la Chaire de recherche du Canada en diversité religieuse et changement social et Professeure titulaire au Département d’études anciennes et de sciences des religions. Elle est la chercheure principale du Projet religion et diversité, une équipe de recherche internationale rassemblant 37 membres, dont la recherche porte sur la religion et la diversité (religionanddiversity.ca). Ses publications incluent : Deep Equality in an Era of Religious Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2017); “Living Together v. Living Well Together: A Normative Examination of the SAS Case,” Social Inclusion, 4(2) 2016: 3-13; “Reframing Understandings of Religion: Lessons from India,” dans S. Sikka, B. Puri, et L.G. Beaman (eds.) Living with Religious Diversity, 37-48 (Routledge Inde, 2015); “The Will to Religion: Obligatory Religious Citizenship,” Critical Research on Religion, 1(2) 2013: 141-157; “Battles over Symbols: The ‘Religion’ of the Minority Versus the ‘Culture’ of the Majority,” Journal of Law and Religion, 28(1) 2012/3: 101-138; Defining Harm: Religious Freedom and the Limits of the Law (UBC Press, 2008).

Has God Really Returned to Eastern Europe?

A recent Washington Times editorial proclaimed “God Returns to Eastern Europe”. In AR_2016this media response blog, Atko Remmel addresses the problems with survey questions, the conflation of terminology and how we measure religion to analyse if God really has returned to Eastern Europe.

Referring to a Pew Research Center study “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe”, a recent Washington Times editorial rejoices about the resurgence of religion in Eastern Europe, titling the text “God returns to Eastern Europe”. The message is simple: godless Commies failed and religion is back, prospering again much as it did a hundred years ago. At first glance, the data presented in the article seems to support this understanding: 86% of Russians ascribe to some variant of religious belief and 44% of Russians claim to be “quite religious”. Moreover, the percentage of atheists has dropped by half from 26 to 13% in last three years. While it is definitely true that religion in post-Soviet society is in a much better position than during the project of “forced secularization” (Froese 2004), the author(s) of the editorial may have got some things wrong and missed some important points. First of all, although the editorial claims to rely on Pew study, some of the data seem to originate from Levada Center’s (Russian counterpart of the Pew Research Center) recent survey on religiosity in Russia (report in Russian), mediated to Anglophone readers by Breitbart News – during which some things have been clearly lost in translation. For instance, looking at the original Levada report, 44% of “quite religious” Russians turn out to be “somewhat religious” and only 9% describe themselves as “very religious”. In sum, only about half of the population considers themselves more or less “religious”. Regarding the diminishing percentage of atheists, Levada data actually indicate a noticeable change (which instantly arises suspicion) among those, who said they are “totally irreligious”.

Recent studies have shown that atheism and other forms of nonreligion have very different meanings and forms, depending on time, place and cultural context. The fact that “totally irreligious” is interpreted as “atheists” already in Levada report (see this post for problems about measuring and differentiating nonreligion) tells us more about the local conception of atheism than philosophical positions of these respondents. Deriving from my studies among Estonian nonbelievers (Remmel 2017), it is quite possible that also for many Russian respondents “totally irreligious” demarcates their difference from institutional Christianity or lack of interest towards it. Thus, instead of diminishing number of atheists, this change may indicate something completely different. For instance – as a speculation – it may point to the change in the concept of “religiosity” towards more non-institutional forms, therefore more people may be willing to pronounce themselves as “somewhat religious”.

Second, religious identity (86%) taken in surveys is only one – and some scholars argue, the weakest – facet of the whole religious package and the other data should be considered as well. Although there are many conceptions of religion, a common practice among (quantitative) sociologists of religion today is to distinguish between three “big B-s”: belonging, belief and behavior; mainly because they are (at least to some extent) measurable. From the point of religious practices, Russians’ alleged religiosity looks quite different: according to Levada report, only 2% of respondents fully follow dietary restrictions during Great Lent while 73% make no changes at all into their diet and, according to Pew survey, median of just 10% of Orthodox Christians across Eastern Europe say they go to church on a weekly basis. On top of it, only 15% of Russians regard religion as very important in their lives. Levada survey points to social pressure to define oneself as an Orthodox. One could not help but notice a similarity with the situation in Soviet Union when there was a social pressure to identify with atheism, yet this identity often said next to nothing about person’s actual beliefs or attitudes – just like Orthodox identity, in many cases, does not today. For instance, according to Pew study, religious identity was seen as a matter of personal faith only by one-third of Russian Orthodox, most of the rest regarded that as a matter of national culture or family tradition. Thus, regardless of the dominant ideology or regime, the majority of respondents are just conformists – and we can talk about the shift in social acceptability of religion and religiosity rather than the “return of God”.

Yet I’m not arguing here that Russia or Eastern Europe, in general, is very secularized. Rather, I think that due to the history of large-scale “forced secularization,” the religious situation in Eastern Europe is something we have no prior experience with. Therefore our understanding of the whole situation is inevitably limited. Still, I’m quite convinced that interpreting the situation only in dichotomous terms of secularization vs resurgence of (institutional) religion or atheism vs institutional religiosity is too narrow and leaves out the most of the diversity that actually exists. One of the possible ways for better understanding is a focus on “non-religion”, i.e. on the phenomena that are defined by their difference from what is perceived as “religion”. As seen from the data presented above, not everything that seems religious actually is. It seems to be quite common that in quantitative surveys “religious” questions get “cultural” answers that are then interpreted “religiously” again. Therefore, I think, it’s yet too soon to tell in what terms the situation should be interpreted because we’re just learning to ask the right questions. In that regard, Pew study has done a good job.

IMG_0292 (okt 2014)

The image ‘God is dead’ was taken by Atko in Tartu Estonia.


Froese, Paul. “Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an Atheistic Monopoly Failed.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43, no. 1 (2004): 35–50. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2004.00216.x.

Remmel, Atko. “Religion, Interrupted? Observations on Religious Indifference in Estonia.” In Religious Indifference. New Perspectives From Studies on Secularization and Nonreligion, edited by Johannes Quack and Cora Schuh, 123–42. Springer, 2017.

Atko Remmel is a researcher of cultural studies at the University of Tartu (Estonia), Institute of Cultural Studies. The topic of his PhD thesis (2011) was the development and activity of the institutions involved in antireligious policy and propaganda in Soviet Era Estonia. His research focuses on the history and sociology of nonreligion and atheism, especially in the association with ‘forced secularization’.

The Religious Nones of North America, and the Beginnings of a Book Project

How are ‘nones’ different in the US and Canada? Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme and Joel Thiessen introduce their new 2- year project for answering this question. 

Nearly one-quarter of Canadian and one-fifth of American adults say they have no religion in recent US and Canadian General Social Surveys, with even larger figures present among North American teens and young adults. As scholars explore this growing phenomenon on either side of the 49th parallel,[i] little has been done to compare religious nones in Canada and the United States. Joel Thiessen from Ambrose University and I are teaming up to tackle this topic over the next couple of years in the form of a book project. Specifically, we want to use our existing quantitative and qualitative data to address how religious nones in Canadian and US regions compare in terms of their population size and demographics, in how they became religious nones, in their spiritual and secular practices, in their socio-political attitudes and behavior, as well as how they feel and act towards more religious individuals. As we complete our data analyses and our book chapters begin to take shape, we plan to share some of our key findings, along with the trials and tribulations of the book writing process, with you the readers of this NSRN blog.

Today’s entry is the first in what we hope will be four such contributions to this blog. As a first phase in the project, Joel and I are currently preparing a book proposal over the course of this spring and summer 2017. Joel is currently in the process of brushing up on the existing literature in the field, with many new works on non-religion and secularity having been released over the last couple of years,[ii] and many more on the way from a new generation of scholars in the fields of sociology of religion and religious studies. Meanwhile, at my end I have begun putting some numbers together on non-religion in North America, based on secondary analyses I am conducting with the Canadian and American General Social Surveys from 1971 (US)/1985 (CND) to 2014, as well as some other existing survey datasets. With statistical data, the goal is not only to conduct analyses in order to obtain findings on population trends and relationships between key variables, but also to present these findings in a way non-expert readers can understand (and will find somewhat interesting).

Data visuals are an important tool to help us with this presentation, and of the data visuals I have been working on so far for Chapter 1 (one of our sample chapters), the following map (Figure 1) of the percentages of religious nones in North American regions is my favorite. I am not a specialist in map creation, so I called on some of my colleagues in demography to help me out. Here at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, we have a Geospatial Centre where researchers can bring their findings (in this case, the percentage of religious nones by North American region) and get help in using software to build a map for their results.

Figure 1: Percentage of Religious Nones in North America, by Region, 2010-2014 averages


Sources: 2010-2014 CND GSSs; 2010-2014 USA GSSs; 2011 CND NHS (for Northern Canada). 2010-2014 averages, weighted to be representative of general populations.

Figure 1 is still a work in progress, but the map does help us visualize the higher percentages of religious nones in certain key North American regions (darker shades of blue), notably Northern Canada and the Pacific Northwest. This regionalism in the prevalence of non-religion has been shown and commented on in previous studies for the US and Canada separately.[iii] Figure 1 indicates that this regionalism is still present today when we look at averages across the 5-year 2010-2014 period, and that it crosses national borders: for the most part, higher rates of non-religion are found in more western regions in both the USA and Canada. The pioneering history of the West where specific churches never gained as strong a foothold and dominance compared with the East as well as a cultural context influenced notably by large waves of Chinese and Japanese immigration are considered contributing factors to this western irreligious experience in North America.[iv]

These findings are the first among many more that Joel and I hope to share with the readers of the NSRN blog over the next couple of years as our book develops. Until next time!

Map making at the University of Waterloo’s Geospatial Centre. 14th of March 2017.


[i] See notably Baker and Smith 2015; Drescher 2016; Hout and Fischer 2002; Lim, MacGregor and Putnam 2010; Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme 2017; Wilkins-Laflamme 2015

[ii] See notably Beaman and Tomlins 2015; Garcia and Blankholm 2016; LeDrew 2015; Lee 2015; Manning 2015; Zuckerman, Galen and Pasquale 2016

[iii] See notably Baker and Smith 2009; Block 2017; Marks 2017; Veevers 1990

[iv] Block 2017; Marks 2017


Baker, Joseph O’Brian and Buster G. Smith. 2009. “The Nones: Social Characteristics of the Religiously Unaffiliated.” Social Forces 87(3): 1251-1263.

Baker, Joseph O’Brian and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: New York University Press.

Beaman, Lori and Steven Tomlins, eds. 2015. Atheist Identities – Spaces and Social Contexts. New York: Springer.

Block, Tina. 2017. The Secular Northwest: Religion and Irreligion in Everyday Postwar Life. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Drescher, Elizabeth. 2016. Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. Oxford University Press.

Garcia, Alfredo and Joseph Blankholm. 2016. “The Social Context of Organized Nonbelief: County-Level Predictors of Nonbeliever Organizations in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 55 (1): 70-90.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67: 165-90.

LeDrew, Stephen. 2015. The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann MacGregor and Robert Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49 (4): 596-618.

Manning, Christel. 2015. Losing our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents are Raising their Children. New York: New York University Press.

Marks, Lynne. 2017. Infidels and the Damn Churches: Irreligion and Religion in Settler British Columbia. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Thiessen, Joel and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme. 2017. “Becoming a Religious None: Irreligious Socialization and Disaffiliation.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Online advanced access available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jssr.12319/full

Veevers, Jean E. 1990. “Canadian Regional Differences in Religious Unaffiliation: The Catholic-Protestant Factor.” The Canadian Journal of Sociology 15 (1): 77-83.

Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2015. “How Unreligious are the Religious ‘Nones’? Religious Dynamics of the Unaffiliated in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Sociology 40 (4): 477-500.

Zuckerman, Phil, Luke W. Galen and Frank L. Pasquale. 2016. The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada. She completed her DPhil in sociology at Nuffield College, University of Oxford (2010-2015). Her research interests include sociology of religion, quantitative methods, social change, race, ethnicity and immigration and political sociology.

Joel Thiessen is professor of sociology and director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Canada. He specializes notably in the sociology of religion and non-religion. Dr. Thiessen obtained his MA and PhD at the University of Waterloo in Canada.


For Atheists in the United States, the Personal is Political

Evan Stewart uses survey data in his research to investigate the differences between non-belief and atheist identification. Evan finds that belief in evolution and education are not significant predictors of atheist identification when we control for political views.Version 2


To borrow a phrase from the feminist movement, the personal is political when it comes to identifying as an atheist in the United States. Classic work on nonreligious Americans in social science shows that political views are a key predictor of religious disaffiliation, but how do these ideas shape the way people express nonreligion after they disaffiliate?

Last year I published a review article laying out some of the challenges for studying atheism, particularly in the United States. We know that anti-atheist sentiment in the U.S. is persistent and durable, and that atheists do a lot of collective work to build a common sense of identity. As a result, my work argues that we have to carefully distinguish non-belief in god from atheist self-identification, since self-identification signals far more than non-belief alone. Choosing to call oneself an atheist in the United States means navigating stigma, community affinities, and relationships to authority, and it can therefore become a shortcut for a range of assumptions about matters of public concern. For example, women who are already non-believers are less likely to call themselves atheists than men, and my work with Penny Edgell and Jacqui Frost argues that this has more to do with how society polices women’s religiosity than the choice of whether or not to believe in god alone.

I used survey data to investigate the differences between non-belief and atheist self-identification, but the original analysis from the review article was not conclusive. Most surveys, even those that can measure (non)religion in detail, cannot get a large enough subsample of atheists to make strong claims. The study of nonreligion is developing into a robust field, drawing interest from across the social sciences and humanities. As it continues to grow, researchers who work in this area will continue to face questions about whether their findings are generalizable across different groups and whether they replicate in different social contexts. Luckily, new data have become publicly available that allow for a conceptual replication (more on that here). The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study has over 35,000 respondents, and so while only 3-4% of the U.S. population self-identifies as an atheist, that shakes out to over 1,000 respondents in this survey. Many more people say they don’t believe in god, about 10% of the sample.

For this analysis, I start with the group of respondents who say they do not believe in god. We are interested in the probability that a given respondent from this group will also call themselves an atheist, and, most importantly, we are interested in what other traits associate with a higher or lower probability of that atheist identification. Logistic regression can help us answer these questions, and results from two logistic regression models are presented in the table. One model looks at some basic sociodemographic factors like age, gender, race, and education. The other adds two common beliefs among American atheists: one regarding social issues (support for same-sex marriage) and one regarding scientific authority (belief in human evolution). I chose these variables to get as close as possible to the original models, to see if they produce similar results.

So, what separates the self-identified atheists from “atheistic” respondents? Not much, it turns out. Older non-believers are slightly, but significantly, less likely to call themselves atheists. Non-believing women are less likely to call themselves atheists as well, but it is important to note that this effect does not emerge until we control for substantive beliefs in the second model. As we have argued elsewhere, there is evidence that women are not generally “more religious” across the board, but rather express nonreligion differently in line with gendered social risk. Also, notice which measures are not statistically significant in the table of results. Belief in evolution and education are not significant predictors of atheist identification when we control for political views. In these models, the difference comes down to social and political views more than scientific literacy or support.

Non-believers who are more liberal and express stronger support for same-sex marriage are significantly more likely to call themselves atheists. Each of these measures used a scale to indicate strength of support. The liberalism measure ran from 1 (very conservative) to 5 (very liberal), and the same-sex marriage measure ran from 1 (strongly oppose) to 4 (strongly favor). To get a sense of how strong these relationships are, the graphs below show the changes in predicted probabilities of atheist self-identification at each step on these scales, while holding all other variables constant. Non-believing respondents who strongly oppose same-sex marriage have about a 15% chance of identifying as atheists, while those who strongly favor the policy have about a 35% of identifying. Similarly, each step from very conservative to very liberal on the political ideology scale associates with about a five-percentage-point increase in the probability of atheist self-identification.

There are some necessary limitations to these conclusions. The models are not perfect by any means, and their low fit statistics (the small Pseudo R-squared) suggest that other factors which weren’t measured on the Pew survey could explain more of the choice to identify as an atheist. They probably also indicate that the true effect of liberal political views is somewhat smaller than the predicted probabilities shown here. However, this conceptual replication does provide additional evidence that self-identified atheism is as much a political phenomenon as a personal belief system.

In my dissertation research, I tease out what findings like these mean for understanding the political impact of nonreligious Americans more broadly. The cultural work that goes into understanding atheism and other kinds of nonreligion has implications for everything from voting trends to public opinion on the social safety net, racial issues, and environmental policy.

Together, this work suggests that nonreligion in general, and atheism in particular, is an important case for understanding the changing role of religion in American public life.

Probability of Atheist Identification Among Non-Believing Americans
Model 1


Model 2


coef. se coef. se
Age -0.05** (0.02) -0.04 (0.02)
Gender (Female) -0.21 (0.11) -0.28* (0.11)
Married 0.03 (0.14) 0.04 (0.13)
Parent 0.06 (0.14) 0.06 (0.14)
Income 0.02 (0.03) 0.01 (0.03)
Lives in the South -0.08 (0.11) -0.06 (0.12)
Education (Baseline-High school)
Some College 0.42 (0.38) 0.22 (0.39)
Associate Degree 0.47 (0.41) 0.21 (0.42)
Bachelor’s 0.43 (0.38) 0.17 (0.40)
Master’s/PhD 0.44 (0.39) 0.20 (0.41)
Race (Baseline-White)
Black, non-Hispanic -0.15 (0.34) -0.06 (0.34)
Hispanic -0.13 (0.19) -0.05 (0.19)
Other/Mixed Race -0.39 (0.22) -0.30 (0.22)
Liberal 0.28*** (0.06) 0.21*** (0.06)
Supports Same Sex Marriage 0.38*** (0.09)
Believes in Evolution 0.38 (0.33)
Constant -2.02*** (0.44) -3.26*** (0.54)
N 2888 2888
Pseudo R2 0.02 0.03
BIC 3417 3401
*  p<0.05, ** p<0.01, *** p<0.001

Source: 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey

Notes: Models incorporate the RLS survey weights for known population benchmarks



Evan Stewart is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Minnesota, where he has worked as an Edelstein Fellow with the American Mosaic Project and an Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow with the Center for the Study of Political Psychology. His research focuses on political culture, public opinion, and religion and secularism across a range of institutional and community contexts. His dissertation work focuses on the political impact of the growing nonreligious population in the United States, while other solo and collaborative research projects examine prejudice and tolerance, atheist identity formation, attitudes about contentious political issues, and visual sociology. Evan also serves as a graduate editor at The Society Pages.