Call for Papers: NSRN 2016 Conference, “Approaching Nonreligion”

The NSRN are delighted to announce their 2016 conference, which will be co-hosted with the ‘Diversity of Nonreligion’ Research Project at the University of Zürich, Switzerland, 7-9 July 2016.

See below for the Call for Papers (deadline 15 January 2016) which can also be downloaded as a PDF. Please share widely.

There is also a dedicated conference webpage that will be updated with information about the conference as and when we have new information: nsrn-conference-2016


2016 Conference

Call for Papers

Approaching Nonreligion: Conceptual, methodical, and empirical approaches in a new research field

“The Diversity of Nonreligion” & NSRN Conference 2016

7-9 July 2016, University of Zürich, Switzerland

For some years now, nonreligious phenomena have not only sparked public, but also scholarly attention. A rising number of scholars have begun to engage with both organized and non-organized forms of nonreligion. We want to use this conference to go beyond the discussion of terms and individual findings to facilitate exchange over different approaches, and engage with the following broader questions:

  • What phenomena are approached in research projects on nonreligion and how is nonreligion construed in different studies?
  • What are central theoretical references for studies on nonreligion, and in what way do scholars engage with related broader debates on religion and secularity?
  • What are methodic and methodological challenges and approaches in concrete empirical research?
  • What scientific traditions and sources of inspiration motivate and guide researchers in the field of nonreligion?
  • In what ways is research on nonreligion entangled with religious-nonreligious contestations?

The conference brings together empirical research with conceptual and methodological reflection, as well as a self-reflexive perspective on the research field itself.

There will be room for both individual papers as well as prepared panels. We welcome scholarly contributions from different scientific fields. Please apply with either an abstract for an individual paper or a proposal for a thematic session (2-4 individual papers). Please name your institutional affiliation if possible. Please send your proposal (200-300 words) to:

Deadline for proposals: January 15th 2016, Notification of acceptance: January 30th 2016

Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies (ISEK), University of Zürich, Switzerland (

The Diversity of Nonreligion: Religious-Nonreligious Dynamics in the Contemporary World (

Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (nsrn online)


NSRN Annual Lecture 2015: Outline of a Theory of Religious-Secular Competition

We are delighted to announce our 2015 Annual Lecture, presented in cooperation with the Department of Social Anthropology & Cultural Studies (ISEK) at the University of Zurich, and the Emmy Noether-project “The Diversity of Nonreligion.”

Outline of a Theory of Religious-Secular Competition

Prof. Dr. Jörg Stolz (University of Lausanne)

Thursday, November 12, 2015, 6pm

Venue: University of Zurich (UZH) Oerlikon Campus Andreasstr. 15, 8050 Zurich Room: AND 3.02/06 (3rd floor)

A flyer can be downloaded here (pdf).

NSRN Annual Lecture

New Books in NSRN Book Series

The NSRN and De Gruyter are pleased to announce the first three publications in their book seriesReligion and its Others: Studies in Religion, Nonreligion, and Secularity:

For more on the series, see here:

Download Flyer

NSRN Series 2

289 new additions to our bibliography of relevant publications

After a long hiatus, 289 new items have been added to the NSRN bibliography. These new items can be viewed here:

The bibliography can also be viewed in a list organised by author surname or publication date.

As ever, the bibliography is a collaborative enterprise and we cannot claim that it is comprehensive of all relevant NSRN related publications. If you spot any gaps, at any point, you can let us know via this comment form on the website and we will add the publication at our next update.

Indigenous practice as culture in the Alberni case

Lauren Strumos

In Canadian legal cases, the framing of religious practices as ‘culture’ most often appears as a strategy to maintain Christian majoritarianism. In the Saguenay case, for example,a city in the province of Quebec argued that a prayer, which was recited at the start of municipal council meetings, was part of its ‘cultural and historical heritage.’ This argument was affirmed in 2013 by the Quebec Court of Appeal, but later rejected in 2015 by the Supreme Court of Canada.

In this article, I suggest that the more recent Alberni case brings to light an alternative approach: the construction of Indigenous practices as ‘culture’ as a way to foster inclusion and confront the hierarchy of settler colonialism. The Alberni case took place in the province of British Columbia. It was first heard in 2019 by the Supreme Court of British Columbia, with the decision being appealed in 2022 to the British Columbia Court of Appeal. Below I provide a summary of the case, followed by a discussion of how ‘culture’ appears in the Court of Appeal decision. I conclude by noting the potential relevance of Alberni to those interested in (non)religion in law and society.

Servatius v. Alberni School District No. 70

The Alberni School district is situated on the territories of Nuu-Chah-Nulth Nations of the West Coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. ‘Nuu-Chah-Nulth’ means ‘all along the mountains and sea.’ During the 2015-2016 school year, a public elementary school in this district invited two guests to demonstrate Indigenous practices. The first was a demonstration of smudging conducted in classrooms by an Elder. The second was a hoop dance at a school assembly during which a prayer was said by the dancer.

Candace Servatius, an evangelical Protestant and mother with two students at the school, claimed that these demonstrations infringed upon her freedom of religion as protected under Section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of the Constitution of Canada.  She argued that (1) her children were compelled to participate in Indigenous ‘religious ceremonies’ that conflicted with her own religious beliefs, and (2) that the school board promoted Indigenous beliefs over others, breaching the duty of state neutrality.

In its 2020 decision, the Supreme Court of British Columbia determined that the demonstrations did not amount to an infringement of religious freedom, nor did they interfere with the school’s duty of religious neutrality. In its reasoning the court drew a line between religious education and education about religion. The students were witnesses of the smudging and prayer; they were not compelled to participate in them. Servatius appealed this decision to the British Columbia Court of Appeal, the highest court in the province. This court dismissed her appeal in December 2022.

Religion or culture?

In its 2022 decision, the Court of Appeal concluded that the hoop dancer’s prayer did not violate the duty of state neutrality. It compared this prayer to that of the Saguenay case, stating: “Unlike the situation in Saguenay, in this case, the one-off prayer said by a school guest as part of his performance of a hoop dance did not amount to the school showing a preference for a faith or creating a preferential space for anyone, Indigenous or otherwise” (para. 233). The Supreme Court of Canada concluded in its Saguenay decision that the prayer used to open municipal council meetings violated state neutrality.

In regard to the smudging, the Court of Appeal focused on determining whether it was a cultural or religious practice. It relied upon the submissions of Indigenous witnesses who made a distinction between cultural events on the one hand, and spiritual beliefs and practices on the other. It stated:

There was a strong evidentiary basis supporting the conclusion that the event that took place was not, as Ms. Servatius asserts, a “religious ceremony” or something akin to it. [The evidence] suggested that some members of the Indigenous community make a distinction between cultural events that they will share publicly, as a matter of community building, and spiritual beliefs and practices that they consider to be inherently private. (para. 186)

The court concluded that smudging in this context was a demonstration of Indigenous cultural practice. This approach rests in part on a conceptual public/private divide with culture belonging to the former. The public/private divide is also evident in arguments that frame majoritarian Christian practices as culture. The Canadian public sphere is viewed in and beyond law as multicultural. Hence if prayer is made to be cultural and not religious, it becomes suitable for the neutral and multicultural public sphere.

As Lori G. Beaman indicates, the defense of Christian practices and symbols in Canadian law has deployed a narrative of ‘us Canadians’ that is ‘singularly Christian’. The Saguenay case demonstrated how this line of reasoning can support the exclusion of the nonreligious. Alain Simoneau, the complainant of the Saguenay case, is an atheist who experienced discomfort and isolation because of the municipal council’s prayer. In itsdecision the Supreme Court of Canada noted: “Although non-believers could also participate [in the prayer], the price for doing so was isolation, exclusion and stigmatization” (para. 120).  

The association between culture and public space in Alberni is operationalized to different ends. It does not work to erase difference in the construction of an exclusionary cultural narrative. Instead, the association between cultural practice (smudging) and public space (elementary school classrooms) is intended to build community and help Indigenous students feel more welcomed at school. Indeed, the demonstration arose from an initiative of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council to support Indigenous students in schools.

The smudging demonstration is also representative of actions being taken by educational institutions to redress the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples. For instance, in its decision, the court referenced Canada’s church-run residential schools:

As part of its assimilationist policy, Canada adopted a residential school program for Indigenous children, separating them from their parents, indoctrinating them in Christianity, and punishing the children harshly if they spoke their own languages and engaged in their own cultural practices. Housed institutionally, without the protection and nurturing of their parents and community, many Indigenous children in these schools were subjected to emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and neglect. Indigenous parents and communities were left grieving and bereft. (para. 102)

The court explicitly situates the Alberni case in this sociohistorical context. It also maintained that educational institutions have a responsibility to advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The ‘culturalization’ of smudging worked to make the practice appropriate for students at a secular school, and by extension, respond to the ongoing legacy of residential schools. (The court also notes that the Port Alberni residential school did not close until 1973.) In this sense, ‘culture’ was deployed in a way that works to advances the state’s interest in reconciliation. This raises the question of how ‘Indigenous culture’ might appear in cases that do not advance state interests but challenge them.


Although it is framed to not be religious, I hesitate to propose that smudging in this case can be thought of as a form of nonreligion. Viewing the smudging demonstration through a lens of nonreligion may overlook the social significance of the court’s reasoning. This reasoning rests upon the views of Indigenous witnesses, as opposed to a legal definition or conceptualization of religion on behalf of the court.

In Canada, affiliation to institutional Christianity is declining, the number of those who identify as having no religion is rising, and there is heightened awareness among the settler population of the ongoing legacy of colonialism. It is against the sociohistorical backdrop of settler colonialism that the court in Alberni determines what does not count as religion (i.e., smudging). If an understanding of nonreligion in law and society also entails an understanding of religion, then settler colonialism may constitute a relevant part of that picture.

Lauren is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. She is currently a visiting student researcher at the Centre for Multidisciplinary Research on Religion and Society at Uppsala University. Drawing on theories of environmental and ecological justice, her research explores how religious and nonreligious settler activists conceptualize their opposition to an oil pipeline project in British Columbia.

Taking Bugbears Seriously: Why Does the “Secular Religion” vs. “Religion” Distinction Matter?

Professor Beth Singler, Assistant Professor in Digital Religion(s), University of Zurich

Many academics have bugbears:



1. a cause of obsessive fear, anxiety, or irritation.

2. an imaginary being invoked to frighten children, typically a sort of hobgoblin supposed to devour them.

I am using the first definition, of course. Very few of us seek to scare children with pet monsters, though there may be metaphorical value in this definition as well!

We are, as academics, lovers of niche interests and that often means niche irritations as well. In the intersection of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and religion, where much of my research lies, one bugbear I have is the use of the term ‘secular religion’. Recently I was inspired to tweet about my irritation: a group I have done research on, the Longtermists, have garnered mainstream attention lately due to recent publications from experts on AI ethics. They have expressed concerns about the increasing social impact of Longtermist attitudes when so many high-profile and influential technologists and entrepreneurs seem to share them. And in these discussions the term ‘secular religion’ was being applied to this group.

In brief, Longtermism argues that an intervention that saves one human life is weighted as less important than an invention that could save billions of potential lives in the future. Sounds utilitarian, right? But traditional utilitarianism focusses on actual living beings in their calculations of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Longtermism makes space for the unborn. Even those of the distant future. As a prominent Longtermist, William MacAskill, author of What We Owe the Future (2022), put it in the New York Times in August of this year:

Future people, after all, are people. They will exist. They will have hopes and joys and pains and regrets, just like the rest of us. They just don’t exist yet.

This focus on the future might distract us from current dire impacts of the very same vaunted technologies – not only AI, but also gene and nano-technologies – they think will bring about such a better future. For instance, another issue with Longtermism is that those future lives are very speculative, with ‘future people’ for some Longtermists including even virtual humans and posthumans in an imagined technologically enhanced future. Moreover, Longtermism can also look like a project of eugenics, due to its transhumanist emphasis on maximizing the potential of these coming human generations through alteration and improvement. These issues have been pointed out by scholars and journalists such as Émile P Torres, Susan B. Levin, and Timnit Gebru. Like these scholars and journalists, I have also drawn out how these groups and their ideologies partake of religious shapes, narratives, and tropes. But where I differ, and where my bugbear lies, is in calling Longtermism – with its utopian eschatology, charismatic figures, and Pascal’s Wager-like existential bets – a ‘secular religion’ rather than just a religion.

Why does this distinction matter? First, let us return to definitions again and think about what we mean by a ‘secular religion’. Commonly, this is used to refer to a belief system that rejects or has no explanation of the world in terms of the transcendental; be it a god, gods, or other cosmological systems of explanation. Common examples of ‘secular religions’ include ideologies with distinct utopian aims such as Marxism, humanist groups that practice communal activities together, and media and sports that are the focus of intense interest and ‘fannish’ behaviour, such as football or fiction fandoms. The term originates in a view, originally from Durkheim and built upon by other scholars of religion since the 19th Century, that there is the sacred and there is the profane – the religious and the secular – and that these two things might be objectively viewed both separately, and in their mixing.

But, as I tweeted, “The oxymoron ‘secular religion’ bothers me. When its applied to groups that are antithetical to religion [which includes some Longtermist, Transhumanist, and Rationalist groups focused on emerging technologies], it buys into their own distancing narratives. Yes, there is ideological harm possible in both calling something a religion, or not. But ‘SR’ [secular religion] enables boundary work w/o [without] critique.” Furthermore, “established, self-proclaimed, religions, known for a very long time, can also operate without calls to spirits/gods”. And in calling something a religion, or not, or a secular religion, “The boundary work is done both internally and externally [to the group], but the boundaries are defined into being and every new encounter is placed into one box or another”.

This is a form of ‘Taking “Secular Religion” seriously’ to paraphrase an approach found among contemporary religious studies scholars who have recognized that, “What gets to count as religion is ultimately a question of power and the outcome of sometimes complex and contested negotiations” (Taira 2022: 2). Likewise, what is recognized as secular, or as a secular religion, is based upon how we organize ourselves “by using the category of ‘religion’” (Taira 2022: 2). Scholars, including myself in this very post I admit, draw these lines in our attempts at observing, categorizing, and writing down phenomena. As do the groups themselves; in this case, performing distancing from the category of religion wherein lies irrational supernaturality, et al. Is this a problem as well?

Moreover, as one Twitter respondent pointed out, if there is no boundary drawn between the religious and the secular, then either everything is a religion, or everything is secular. Doesn’t any discussion then become very difficult? We might think of this as The Incredibles Argument Against Contesting the Term Religion (or Secular Religion) – as Mr Incredible says in the first film of the same name, “If everyone is special then nobody is”.

My tweeted response, which I think addresses both these issues and complements Taira’s (2022) discussion of possible next steps, stated that: “The question should be, why this label at this time, not which label should I use? Why ‘Secular Religion’ and not just ‘Religion’? There is a motivation behind reinforcing distinctions between religious and secular, or even between religious and spiritual”. We both, I think, recognise the institutional drives that lead to the use of ‘religion’ (and ‘secular’, and ‘secular religion’). These might include the need to deliver teaching in a digestible form, or how the natural sciences are distinguished from the social sciences and the humanities by universities. Or people’s needs to locate an ideology or a phenomena within a recognisable and familiar category. But still, it is necessary to face up to our academic bugbears. We must bring the little ‘hobgoblins’ into the light of analysis and critique when we encounter them in the wild of public discourse.


Gebru, T (2022) Tweet about Longtermism as a Silicon Valley religion, 1.05.2022, available at [accessed 11.11.2022]

Samuel, S. (2022) “Effective altruism’s most controversial idea” in Vox, available at accessed 11.11.2022

Taira, T. (2022) Taking ‘Religion’ Seriously: Essays on the Discursive Study of Religion, from Supplements to Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, Volume: 18, Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, pp 1-19. Available at [accessed 11.11.2022]

Torres, E. (2021) “Why Longtermism is the World’s Most Dangerous Secular Credo”, in Aeon, available at [accessed 11.11.2022]

Torres, E. (2021) “The Dangerous Ideas of ‘Longtermism’ and ‘Existential Risk’” in Current Affairs, available at [accessed 11.11.2022]

Prof. Dr. Beth Singler is the Assistant Professor in Digital Religion(s) at the University of Zurich. Prior to this she was the Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence at Homerton College, University of Cambridge, after being the post-doctoral Research Associate on the “Human Identity in an age of Nearly-Human Machines” project at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. Beth explores the social, ethical, philosophical and religious implications of advances in Artificial Intelligence and robotics.

Fabricating the Secular: Towards a Materialist Approach to Non-religion

By Jacob Copeman and Mascha Schulz

On World Drama Day 2017, a theatre group in Sylhet, Bangladesh, staged a martial arts inspired dance known as Bratachari (bratacārī nr̥tya), which stood out in a programme otherwise made up of street theatre plays advancing clear didactic messages. The Bratachari performance was distinct not only for its aesthetics and impressive rhythmic choreography, but also for the absence of any narrative or explicit message of the kind promulgated in the other acts. And yet, according to the leader of the theatre group, which is known for its radical progressive agenda, the group had chosen to perform this particular dance because of its secular nature: to perform such cultural traditions is to help cultivate secularist sensibilities.

Many readers might find the performance of an apparently non-polemical dance as a means of fostering secularity puzzling. Yet many Bangladeshi secularists find the association between secularism and certain cultural genres obvious and self-evident. This is partially related to the history of secularism in Bangladesh and its particular connotations, which has resulted into a close association between Bengali performative arts and secularity. However, we suggest that a further key reason why dance as a form of secularist activism can occasion surprise is due to the ongoing salience of (unhelpfully) normative conceptions of non-religion and the secular as dematerialized and belief-centered, composed principally of debates, public discourses and personally held non-religious convictions. But sociologists and anthropologists of non-religion have recently begun to move beyond this to focus on lived non-religion rather than abstract formal doctrine – that is to say, the focus has shifted from atheism to atheists – with several scholars urging us to pay closer attention to practical, material, affective and sensory dimensions of non-religion.

In the introduction to the recently published edited book Global Sceptical Publics: From Non-religious Print Media to ‘Digital Atheism’, we engage the work of Birgit Meyer to show how study of non-religion might take inspiration from concepts developed by scholars of material religion. In so doing, we foreground the mediated, material and affective basis of non-religion. Such an approach enables us to grasp not only why Bengali cultural activists associate local cultural genres such as folk dances with secularity, but also to provide new perspectives on non-religion more generally. Rather than considering non-religion as negation, absence of religion or a neutral ground, we argue that a focus on non-religious fabrications enables us to ask pertinent questions about how non-religiosity is produced and made tangible and socially significant in different contexts. 

Non-religious is not non-material

We are not the first to note that typical considerations of non-religion as ‘all in the mind’ are a problem and barrier to understanding. Lack of research on non-religious sensoria and aesthetics is attributable to the conventional assessment of secular humanism that it is a hyper-intellectual exercise (Lee 2012; Engelke 2012) that is antithetical to aesthetics (Binder 2020) and so unconcerned with, indeed divorced from, matter, affect and the senses. This is ironic given the normative commitment of secular humanists to materialism. On the other hand, there does indeed exist ‘a kind of “Enlightenment story”, in which bodies, affects and emotions are supposed to play minor roles’ (Engelke 2019, 200). This is a story that should be taken seriously as informing some atheists’ self-understandings and that indeed is reflected in certain self-ascribed labels such as ‘freethought’, ‘scepticism’ and ‘rationalism’, but it is a story that should not be treated uncritically or taken for granted, and it is important to recognise its bias in terms of European intellectual history.

Non-religious Fabrication

In the study of religion, Birgit Meyer has been key to the endeavour to foreground the material and affective bases of religion and thereby to counter dematerialised belief-centred approaches that define religion in terms of internalised mental representations and propositional assents. We suggest that Meyer’s (2014, 209) emphasis on the significance of ‘form’ – ‘not as a vehicle but as a generator of meaning and experience’ – and interest in processes of fabrication (via texts, sounds, pictures, objects, etc.) as means of generating a sense of the sublime or transcendent are as apt for non-religion as they are for religion. We suggest that a sense of the immanent, of the non-religious, should not be considered the neutral ground from which such religious fabrications begin, but that it is a sense that itself must be fabricated. To paraphrase Meyer (2014), foregrounding fabrication in the study of non-religion prompts very concrete empirical questions about the specific practices, materials and forms employed in generating senses of the non-religious. Which materials are used and how are they authorised as suitable? What steps are involved in procedures of de-sacralisation? How does a non-religious fabrication inspire or help sustain non-belief?

Nonreligious Fabrication and the Bratachari Dance

Secular humanists have sought to fabricate selves, spaces and events free from, or beyond, religious iconography in various ways. Taking away or covering religious symbols at a chapel for a humanist funeral forms an obvious example for Christian contexts. In South Asia, non-religious fabrication can consist of attempts to overcome communal boundaries based on caste or religion. Transgression of food-based purity taboos at gatherings where different caste communities share meals is one such vital means. In these cases, activists attempt to materially engineer what we call ‘immanent, this-worldly other worlds’ that both represent and hope to eventuate a condition of moving beyond normative religious identities. In other cases, such as non-religious commitment to body donations as a means both of circumventing religious death rituals and contributing to medical science, it is precisely because non-religion is so often considered in terms of mental attitudes and interiority that many atheists find it important to give their irreligious convictions a material form.

Yet non-religious fabrication does not necessarily take the form of enactment or materialization of secularist convictions. This becomes clear in the example of the Bratachari dance. Through engagement with its physically demanding choreography, one can ‘become a whole human’, the group’s leader suggests, irrespective of religion, class and caste. Such a connection between aesthetics, a specific cultural genre that supposedly indexes ‘Bengaliness’, and the cultivation of universalist humanism indicates a prominent Bangladeshi notion of secularism that foregrounds non-communalism and equal respect to all religious groups. The close association between ‘Bengali culture’ and secularity is the outcome of a complicated history in which language-based and Islam-based nationalisms competed for dominance. Initiated amidst increasing communal tensions in the 1930s, the Bratachari movement sought a spiritual and social renewal of the Bengali ‘nation’ irrespective of sex, religion or caste through engagement with folk traditions and physical exercise. Its founder, Gurusaday Dutt (1882– 1941), like many cultural activists saw folk culture as contributing ‘significantly to the development of a national culture by providing indigenous models of secularism’ (Chatterji 2016, 101). So, while Bratachari dance certainly indexes particular ideals and ideological commitments, it serves more broadly to affectively reproduce and revitalize a regionally specific and historically salient notion of secularity that co-implicates Bengali culture and aesthetics and the secular. In consequence, reference to, and appreciation of, certain aesthetic traditions by itself is considered sufficient to demarcate oneself as secular.

To be able to grasp such affectively charged and engaged forms of secularist activism requires scholarly engagement with aesthetics and material practices, including consideration of the different media through which non-religion is made tangible, whether oral, material, visual or affective, which are not neutral: we must pay attention to ‘the consequences of the particular materiality within which [non-religious] objectification…takes place’ (Miller 2001, 152). Essays contained in Global Sceptical Publics do exactly that, highlighting the striking diversity of non-religious aesthetic and material encounters ranging from the aesthetics of sceptical propagation via speech, film and street theatre to the affective strategies employed by Lebanese atheists on social media, the role of humour and ridicule in the criticism of religion in a US TV series and the visually arresting ‘ungodly’ memes shared among young Indian atheist social media users. In such ways, Global Sceptical Publics reflects but also extends emerging approaches to non-religion that no longer treat it as a domain divorced from aesthetics and the sensory.

Bio notes of the authors:

Jacob Copeman is Research Professor, University of Santiago de Compostela, and Distinguished Researcher (Oportunius). His most recent monograph, co-authored with Dwaipayan Banerjee, is Hematologies: The political life of blood in India (Cornell University Press, 2019). His most recent edited collection, co-edited with Mascha Schulz, is Global Sceptical Publics: From Non-religious Print Media to ‘Digital Atheism’ (UCL Press, 2022). He is principal investigator of the ERC-funded project ‘Religion and its others in South Asia and the world: Communities, debates, freedoms’.

Mascha Schulz is a postdoctoral research fellow on the ERC project ‘Religion and its others in South Asia and the world (ROSA)’ and is based in the Department of Anthropology of Politics and Governance, at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle. She is a political anthropologist currently working at the intersection of politics, economics and non-religion. Drawing on long-term ethnographic research in urban Sylhet (Bangladesh), she is working on a book titled Cultivating Secularity: Politics, embodiment and criticism of religion in Bangladesh. She has also published on the state, political parties and student politics in South Asia.

Jacob Copeman is Research Professor, University of Santiago de Compostela, and Distinguished Researcher (Oportunius). His most recent monograph, co-authored with Dwaipayan Banerjee, is Hematologies: The political life of blood in India (Cornell University Press, 2019). His most recent edited collection, co-edited with Mascha Schulz, is Global Sceptical Publics: From Non-religious Print Media to ‘Digital Atheism’ (UCL Press, 2022). He is principal investigator of the ERC-funded project ‘Religion and its others in South Asia and the world: Communities, debates, freedoms’.

Mascha Schulz is a postdoctoral research fellow on the ERC project ‘Religion and its others in South Asia and the world (ROSA)’ and is based in the Department of Anthropology of Politics and Governance, at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle. She is a political anthropologist currently working at the intersection of politics, economics and non-religion. Drawing on long-term ethnographic research in urban Sylhet (Bangladesh), she is working on a book titled Cultivating Secularity: Politics, embodiment and criticism of religion in Bangladesh. She has also published on the state, political parties and student politics in South Asia.

Human Augmentation Research Network (HARN) and Transhumanism

Sharday Mosurinjohn, Jacob Boss, and Jeremy Cohen

In 2018 we – Jacob Boss, Jeremy Cohen, and Sharday Mosurinjohn – founded the Human Augmentation Research Network (HARN) to build community around a religious studies approach to researching transhumanism. Transhumanism is shorthand for a constellation of movements working to transcend human limitations through technology. Much of the work to date has come from theologians critical of transhumanism. HARN encourages expansion of the types and range of research in transhumanism. Our communities of study are the grinders, a grassroots group of cyborg punks (Jacob), immortalists and radical life extensionists (Jeremy), and psychedelic scientists and psychonauts (Sharday). We remain fascinated by the ways the people we study variously reject “religion” for self-description, endorse it, want to replace it with an imagined better alternative, incorporate it, or otherwise position themselves in relation to it.

Among the grinders, Jacob has seen science experiments conducted in the same chair as people getting scarification with religious symbols. His interlocutors have made claims about religion ranging from “None of this is religious and I’m not religious in any way” to “We are Nazarenes,” “It’s totally a religion,” and “I am the Ultrapope of the Ultrachurch.” Jeremy has observed that the immortalist organization People Unlimited promotes life-extension technologies using a mix of biomedical and New Age reasoning. And though the community draws both on secular and religious reasoning to explain how human thought can cure illness and change our genetic structures, it claims to be largely suspicious of narratives it considers religious or spiritual. Sharday routinely hears psychedelic neuroscientists define their work as rigorously empirical and their motivations as spiritual. They talk about their experiences with DMT elves in the same breath as they talk about their search for the scientific basis of “mystical experience.”

Our research groups defy the religion and science dichotomy, provoking us to develop new theoretical tools for the study of non-religion and secularity. There has been extensive work done on how this dichotomy is terribly ahistorical to begin with (like Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion or Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment), but it seems that so far it has not been as effective and far reaching as it deserves to be in the academy and the public. In our experience as teachers, fieldworkers, and observers of culture, it looks to us that the lay position remains very much either that science and religion fit Stephen J. Gould’s model of “non-overlapping magisteria,” or that science and religion are mutually contaminating substances (cf. Sharday’s 2014 work on contagion) sometimes imagined as needing to be protected from each other. Beyond our own experience, it has been shown by Elaine Ecklund and David Johnson that “a significant part of the public wrongly sees scientists who are atheists as immoral elitists who don’t care about the common good.” And yet, in reality, many atheist scientists are culturally religious, spiritually atheist, partnered with religious people, or apply moral frameworks from religions to their lives and scientific work.

And so how should we think about the groups we study, and how should we talk about them, when they court such pollution? A few years ago, Sharday, along with her then-student Emma Funnell-Kononuk (2017) offered the conceptual framework of “new secular spiritual movement” (NSSM) for groups who do not easily fall into the category of religion, but for whom terms like spirituality, the sacred, and new religious movement are applicable. A new term was needed, they argued, as “a way of pointing out some of the strengths and limitations in the existing conceptual repertoire that defines things by relationships of similarity or difference to religion” (117). This repertoire includes academically orientated terms like ‘secular sacred,’ ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR), and ‘new religious movement’ (NRM). In the case of secular transhumanists who do not self-define as religious – like, for instance, People Unlimited – categorizing them as nonetheless religious “would be to smuggle in some unarticulated theory of religion as a sui generis thing” (121). But any analytical method risks creating prescriptive boundaries, and the use of the words religion, community, NRM, and NSSM are themselves laden with presuppositions and assumptions. 

Like our research groups, our students defy the religion and science dichotomy. As they negotiate university life, students navigate religion and non-religion. At Jacob’s university sidewalks blossom with chalk advertisements for campus religious groups at the start of every semester. Jeremy has observed the phenomenon of students code switching between believer and non-believer depending on their on-campus audience. In ten years of teaching, Sharday has noted students making connections between their secular studies and their confessional identities, claiming a unity between them, such as with statements like “the study of neuroscience and Torah are the same.” Clearly, students want to talk about their theological struggles, as well as their struggles organizing religious practices in their atheist lives. 

We are not defending theology; we are saying that these conversations should be perfectly comprehensible for the religious studies scholar. We are the best positioned discipline to engage with these struggles, but there are those in our field who want to insist on a religion and theology dichotomy, and they often want to maintain the purity of religious studies by not only critically deconstructing the “religion” category, but refusing to have conversations with the people who constitute our discipline about how they are navigating religion and non-religion in their lives. But no amount of critical deconstruction and silence adds up to a cure for the contamination of the religion that people track into religious studies.

The study of transhumanism drives our impatience with the insistent separation of religion and non-religion. If you’re questioning the nature of the human, you’re already in the territory of religion, and this has significance for the development of critical thinking. To deny students the opportunity to form and test their opinions, including opinions colored with theology, is to do damage to their intellectual growth and the potential of religious studies. To categorically deny the experience of our students is to impede their flourishing.

So as we navigate, as participant observers and as teachers, the ways science marks out secular, non-religious, and religious positions among transhumanists, we want to keep alive the question: does religion contaminate the conversation? Can we really avoid exposure? Are we taking ourselves seriously when we argue that religion is very many things? And that no part of culture can be totally unalloyed with at least some of them? Is it that religion is somehow embarrassing, or unseemly – can we talk about religion only so long as it doesn’t get us high on spirit? Does religious studies need a carbon monoxide monitor that looks for collective effervescence? Or might transhumanists show us some additional ways of dissolving the science-religion dichotomy to which religious studies largely remains bound?

Sharday Mosurinjohn is Associate Professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University (Kingston, ON). Her research explores ontological and aesthetic dimensions of mind-augmenting technologies ranging from AI to psychedelics. Her first book is The Spiritual Significance of Overload Boredom (2022; McGill-Queen’s University Press). Her new book project considers the “psychedelic Renaissance” as an entheogenic NRM in the long history of esotericism.

Jacob Boss is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. His research focuses on human augmentation and body modification. His ethnographic study of grassroots transhumanism entitled “Punks and Profiteers in the War on Death” was recently published by Body and Religion

Jeremy Cohen is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies. His ethnographic research focuses on communities and new religious movements seeking radical-longevity and immortality, including transhumanism, as well as the historical and cultural framework of changing North American relationships to technology and death. Jeremy Cohen has presented his research at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the American Academy of Religion (AAR), and the Society for the Anthropology of Religion (SAR), and has given numerous guest lectures on transhumanism, immortality, conspiracy theories, and the ethics of radical-longevity. His research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Religion at the Edge: Nature, Spirituality, and Secularity in the Pacific Northwest

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, University of Waterloo
New director of the NSRN, 2022-2024

“I’m Jeremy. I’m 30. I have a little business here. I do, like web development and stuff, and lots of different work. And I’d also be under the kind of irreligious banner.” Jeremy, born in 1988 and currently living in Vancouver B.C., does not typically mention his irreligious identity when introducing himself and interacting with others in everyday life. Yet, he does so when probed with survey, in-depth interview or focus group questions on the topic. Although for the most part an unseen phenomenon in day-to-day life, when we as researchers start asking, we quickly realize that Jeremy is not alone in his irreligion.

From 2017-2021, our research team undertook a social scientific, historical and philosophical study of religion, spirituality and secularity in British Columbia, Canada as well as in the states of Washington and Oregon in the U.S. The research project aimed to explore many themes in the region known as Cascadia, notably the influence of the Canada-U.S. border in understandings of the region as a whole; the current-day impact of a unique contested history between Indigenous, British, American, and other diverse peoples; and how the natural beauty of the landscapes infuses people’s understandings of their everyday lives.

Additionally, our study explores how one of the most secular regions in North America functions as a society of coexistence between large groups of religious and nonreligious individuals alike. British Columbia in Canada as well as the states of Washington and Oregon in the U.S. have some of the lowest measures of conventional religious behavior, believing and belonging on the continent; measures that have been on the decline for many generations now. For example, those who say they have no religion when asked about their religious affiliation make up an estimated 44% of Washington’s and Oregon’s general adult populations and 49% of British Columbia’s general adult population according to the Pacific Northwest Social Survey we ran in 2017 for the research project. Historically, a frontier mentality focused on mobility and resource extraction, political contestation between Indigenous, British, and American groups, a physical and psychological distance from the rest of the continent, and a desire to be free of the Establishment in all its forms ensured that organized Christianity did not get as strong a foothold in the region in the 19th century as elsewhere in the United States and Canada. In fact, Tina Block and Lynne Marks, authors in this edited volume, argue that what defined northwestern exceptionalism in matters of religion was most notably the irreligious experience of many of its European settler residents. The Pacific Northwest was to a certain extent born secular, characterized by lower rates of regular church attendance among its population that date back to the 19th century. Religion never became as socially entrenched during the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries among a majority of its population as it did in more eastern, central and southern parts of the continent. Additionally, the large waves of East Asian immigration to the region, among whom saying one had no religion was much more common, contributed to making non-religion even more socially acceptable on the whole.

Our study aimed to examine what religion, spirituality and secularity looks like in a context where being nonreligious is so common. The new edited volume, Religion at the Edge: Nature, Spirituality, and Secularity in the Pacific Northwest, published with British Columbia University Press in 2022, is the culmination of this research.

Reverential Naturalism, instead of Religion

Whereas love of religion was absent among many of our study’s participants in the Pacific Northwest, love of nature came up frequently in the interviews and focus groups we conducted. Stephanie from Seattle explains the reasons for her love of the outdoors:

Reduction in distraction is a huge part of being in nature for me. But I guess it also represents an opportunity to strip down to a more basic form of myself and let my mind wander, or focus on what is in front of me. Whereas in the average, everyday existence, you know, there’s advertisements here, and people talking here, and bus going down the street there, and it’s like all I can do to focus on what I’m trying to get done. But practicing more of just being is definitely a big value that I get out of being in nature.

Samuel from one of our study’s Victoria B.C. focus groups goes further and describes his experiences in the outdoors as spiritual:

[…] I’ve had spiritual feelings while out surfing, or just being on beaches. […] I feel like being kind of immersed in nature in that way, physically being in the ocean, being present there, like, witnessing all of these natural powers, whether or not it’s animals or waves coming at you or whatever, and just like seeing the landscape from out there has a very kind of awe-inspiring effect on you. To me, when I think about describing it, it feels profound, it feels spiritual, it feels significant.

Within the context of these interviews and focus groups in the Pacific Northwest, the natural world and spiritual experiences within it are often contrasted with experiences of conventional religious groups. Susanna Morrill puts it best on pp. 236-237 of the edited volume in her chapter titled ‘Everything Old Is New Again: Reverential Naturalism in Cascadian Poetry’:

For these interviewees who found some aspect of their spirituality in nature, nature created an experiential moment, one that is not defined by institutional structures, either architectural or theological. Interviewees identified their experiences in nature as being spiritual in a way that placed these experiences in opposition to more traditional expressions of religion. Indeed, […] they seemed to find spiritual truth in nature because it is not constrained by institutional experiences and expectations. These experiences in nature seem to be quite individual and, on the surface, unmarked by communal, social, or cultural dimensions and, again, this seems, for those interviewed, to undergird the authenticity of their encounters.

Paul Bramadat coins the new term reverential naturalism in his chapter in the context of the Pacific Northwest region of North America. Reverential naturalism for Bramadat:

[…] favours an orientation that is both accepting of scientific approaches to nature and inclined to perceive and imagine the natural world in ways that are redolent (from the Latin olere, “to smell”) of mysticism, panentheism, animism, pantheism, and inclusive forms of theism. Reverential naturalism may be considered a metanarrative – with concomitant attitudes, assumptions, habits, and practices with respect to a breathtaking natural world – that animated the individual stories and perspectives of almost all the people we met during our research (p. 24).

Part of this concept covers some individuals’ specific spiritual experiences with nature; or in other words the sublime or ecstatic dimension of nature for humans:

[…] experienced as beautiful (in the conventional sense of being harmonious, well-balanced, pleasing, picturesque, attractive) but also mystical and terrifying […] the land and sea are framed as extremely vulnerable and imbued with an indefatigable capacity to humble, nurture, and inspire humans (p. 30; p. 33).  

Bramadat sees spiritual experiences of interconnectedness with nature throughout mainstream culture and among a large proportion of the population – albeit at times in implicit ways. Yet, reverential naturalism as a concept also goes beyond this. It refers to a regional metanarrative that:

[…] permeates what we might call the dominant cultural rhetoric of the region […] an overarching meaning-conveying narrative according to which deference to and, for many, veneration of nature is framed as a distinctive, even definitive, feature of what it means to live well [in the Pacific Northwest] (pp. 24-25).

In a region characterized by the exceptional beauty of the Cascade mountains, Pacific Coast, and wild boreal and temperate rainforests, and by relatively easy access to many regional and national public parks as well as other natural spaces, a dominant cultural narrative and source of common identity has emerged in the Pacific Northwest in which nature and outdoor activities are seen as the primary source of human rejuvenation, balance, happiness, physical and mental wellbeing, as well as individual journeys.

This metanarrative of reverential naturalism is distinct from, although in some ways also inspired by, Indigenous spiritualities in the region. Indigenous spiritualities refer more specifically to the much longer history and contemporary realities of traditional ways of life among First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples traversed by spirit beings, personal and community healing, ceremony, the teaching of Elders, the Medicine Circle, intimate relationships with nature, and the journey of learning to live in the world put in place by the Creator. Reverential naturalism on the other hand is more of a sublime experience of nature found especially among White middle- to upper-class European-settler urban populations.

Although the social scientific concept of reverential naturalism is fairly new, the phenomena and discourses to which the term refers in the Pacific Northwest are not. Susanna Morrill also shows in her chapter that it has a history in the region, with many similar references to the sublime and awe-inspiring dimensions of nature found throughout European settler poetry and diaries from the 19th century as well as throughout family history interviews in the region. Morrill also points out that reverential naturalism was actually formed in the 19th century to the detriment of local Indigenous populations, with the White economic elite invested in keeping economic, social, and cultural power in the hands of Euro-Americans and Canadians who were arriving in the Pacific Northwest to enjoy and exploit its natural resources and land taken from Indigenous peoples. Some of these practices of cultural genocide and land theft continue to this day, with some of those seeking their own reverential naturalism dreams ignoring and invading remaining Indigenous lands and culture. This said, many within the reverential naturalism frame also take inspiration from Indigenous spiritualities. Sunny, a resident of Vancouver Island in her late 30s from a British family background, says: “I think teachings around the interconnected nature of everything as one, which are really core teachings in a lot of Indigenous contexts, is one that really just makes a whole lot of sense to me, it really does.”

Despite its history in the region that dates back to the 19th century, this metanarrative of reverential naturalism seems to be especially prevalent now in contemporary Pacific Northwest society. There is an economic dimension feeding the metanarrative of reverential naturalism in the region. Historically, railroad companies in the late 19th century promoted the exceptional natural resources of the region to potential Euro-American and Canadian settlers as key to profit-making and recreation. More recently, outdoor equipment, cottage development, eco-tourism and other such companies in the Pacific Northwest are some of the big promoters of the idealized images of happy, beautiful, physically fit (and usually White) people having their ‘authentic’ experiences within a stunning natural (and usually devoid of other human beings) landscape – with all the latest gear or course (for those who can afford it); images that can be found plastered on these companies’ store windows, websites, ad campaigns and social media. They act as an important source of socialization for individuals into the common identity of reverential naturalism in the region, along with other sources of socialization into this identity such as family traditions tied to nature experiences.

The current prevalence of the reverential naturalism metanarrative in the Pacific Northwest also seems to be tied to the relative weak presence of conventional religion in the area. Without one or a few dominant religious traditions to write the regional metanarrative, this has opened up the space for reverential naturalism tied to the incredible natural beauty of the regional landscapes to define personal and regional identities instead among religious, spiritual and nonreligious individuals alike.

Religion at the Edge: Nature, Spirituality, and Secularity in the Pacific Northwest explores this concept of reverential naturalism further as well as many more fascinating findings about North America’s most secular region and society.

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo (Canada). She completed her DPhil in sociology at the University of Oxford in 2015. Her research interests include quantitative methods, sociology of religion, immigration and ethnicity and political sociology.

Dr. Wilkins-Laflamme currently has 16 articles published in top Canadian and international peer-reviewed journals in the fields of sociology of religion, religious studies and political science, including the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Canadian Review of Political Science, Sociology of Religion, Canadian Review of Sociology, Studies in Religion, and the British Journal of Sociology. She is co-author of the 2020 book None of the Above: Nonreligious Identity in the U.S. and Canada, with New York University Press.

‘God is dead and we have killed him’: Media responses to increasing nonreligiosity in Australia

Dr. Rebecca Banham

2021 Census figures show that for the first time, almost 40% of Australians identify as having ‘no religion’, while fewer than half identify as Christian.[1] As an Australian researcher interested in nonreligion, mainstream media responses to these figures has been striking, often reflecting a sense of disquiet – if not outright fear – about the effect of this change on Australian society, and about who these ‘nonreligious people’ are.

Notably, the Census figures reflect the number of Australians who described themselves as having ‘no religion’, and not necessarily how (else) they identify, what they believe or practice, or the communities to which they belong. While the Census does allow respondents to select more specific options (for example, ‘agnosticism’ or ‘atheism’), only a very small number do; indeed, various nonreligious lobby groups advocated for nonreligious Australians to select ‘no religion’.[2] This homogenisation of what it means to have ‘no religion’ is also reflected in media responses to the figures, as identified below.

Here, my primary focus is on editorial or opinion-style pieces, rather than news-style reporting (although some examples of the latter are included below). This includes several particularly outspoken examples of conservative commentary decrying the rise in nonreligious affiliation. Other examples, while more restrained in tone, similarly reflect implicit understandings of religion/Christianity as a primary source of morality, cohesion, and/or Australian national identity. My concern is that such understandings carry the implication that – at best – these Census figures are indicative of a loss of morality and coherence which will need to be ‘replaced’ in some way (due to the loss of Christian influence). At worst, the implication of this commentary is that rising rates of nonreligious affiliation indicate a moral or cultural ‘failing’ that undermines the nation. As such, I argue it is important to understand how mainstream publications broadcast and perpetuate concerns and misconceptions about Australia’s changing religious landscape.

‘God is dead and we have killed him’

This was the hyperbolic quote that first piqued my interest in this topic. From the examples I have read most clearly expressing concern about the Census,[3] two themes emerge: a sense of shock, and consolatory assertions that despite the rise of nonreligiosity, “core Christianity” will retain its significance:

The 2021 census represents an explosive dam burst, with a flood of biblical proportions to follow … We live in an age of spectacular cultural and religious ignorance … But history shows Christianity’s ability, metaphorical and literal, to rise from the dead.

[B]efore atheists and anti-God readers start seizing on this as a sign that Australians are finally rejecting God by rejecting organised religion, it has to be emphasised that the census does not capture belief.

The long historical view suggests the great religions possess immense recuperative power and Christianity has an underestimated institutional influence in Australia with the potential for revival.

Some commentators explicitly highlight the (perceived) significance of Christianity for social cohesion (itself a problematic concept[4]):

Core beliefs that once bound our nation tightly are loosening.

But this headline felt particularly bad for my tribe and for the cohesion of a nation that was built on the Judaeo-Christian foundation.[5]

The consequence is apparent: Australia is more divided on the pivotal moral issues, once seen as the bedrock for a stable cultural order.

Emotive language referring to the ‘abandonment’ of Christianity permeates multiple articles. One headline reads ‘Abandoning God: Christianity plummets as ‘non-religious’ surges in census’; another, ‘Not my tribe: Australians have turned their back on religion, but not on their faith’. The mainstay pun of reports about nonreligion – ‘losing my religion’ – also draws on this sense of rejection. While some articles discuss the Census figures in relatively ‘neutral’ tones, the impact upon Christianity remains the focus: how even conservative, rural areas are becoming increasingly nonreligious; discussion of ‘salvation’, Christian morality, and the importance of religious community; and the privileging of Christian clergy perspectives.[6]

Who are the nonreligious, anyway?

The specific language used throughout these articles also reflects a homogenising of what it means to be nonreligious. This is most obviously reflected in commentary equating ‘no religion’ as (sufficiently understood as) an atheistic lack of belief, and/or anti-religion:

We are on the way to becoming, for the first time, an avowedly anti-Christian nation. Not just non-Christian, but anti-Christian. The census tells us. The culture tells us. The law tells us.

Mr Hildebrand said when comparing Christianity to, for example, Stalinism and the “godless atheism of the Soviet Union”, it’s “actually a pretty good moral code”.

[The results] should be devastating for people of faith. But it’s not, despite the glee of some secularists and atheists.

The census shows Australians are becoming less religious but why have we chosen to live without God?

What I fear more is the secular disrespect that feels triumphalist at the loss of religion. Humanists Australia’s campaign smacked of that.

Those engaged in the study of nonreligion are familiar with debunking claims that all those who identify as nonreligious are atheist, do not believe in God, and/or are anti-religious. The following quote (written, notably, by an Anglican priest in response to the Census figures) counters such assumptions well:

Yes, the proportion of self-identified Christians has dropped … But such facts, although bewildering for current adherents to experience and observe, are not to be equated with a descent into national godlessness … A changing religious landscape is not cause to imply that moral decline is underway.

While this assertion is unremarkable to many, its inclusion in one of Australia’s leading publications suggests that fear of the ‘godless’ is common enough as to find a widespread audience – and that such arguments are palatable enough as to need public refutation.

Nationally, responses to the Census figures are not wholly (or perhaps even mostly) reflective of the themes identified above. However, they are illustrative of genuine and potentially influential fears and misconceptions about the nonreligious in Australia. This is problematic when these misconceptions are broadcast by prominent voices, particularly given the notoriously monopolised and conservative nature of Australia’s media landscape.[7] It is therefore crucial to advocate for the complex and profound contributions that nonreligious people can make to social inclusion and identity in Australia – parallel to the contributions of religion/Christianity and religious people – and insist that those with prominent voices do the same.

[1] The Australian Census question from which this data is drawn (‘What is the person’s religion?’) is an optional question. As such, it is possible that the percentage of Australians who identify as having no religion is higher than the recorded figure of 38.9%.

[2] See also Lee, L. (2014). ‘Secular or nonreligious? Investigating and interpreting generic ‘not religious’ categories and populations’. Religion, 44(3): 466-482. DOI: 10.1080/0048721X.2014.904035

[3] While such outspoken examples are not particularly common, it is notable that the examples I discuss feature in widely-read publications – particularly The Australian. For readership figures, see: Roy Morgan (2022). ‘Australian Newspaper Readership, 12 months to June 2022’.

[4] Ezzy et al. (2020). ‘Religious diversity in Australia: Rethinking social cohesion’. Religions 11(2). DOI: 10.3390/rel11020092

[5] While this comment is not published in a mainstream newspaper, the author – Tim Costello – is a prominent and widely-trusted figure in Australia.

[6]. Piccione, T. (2022). ‘ABS Census 2021 statistics reveal Wagga joining national trend away from religious affiliation’.;  Madigan, D. (2022). ‘Like the rest of Australia, Blue Mountains residents are identifying as less religious: 2021 Census’. See Lee (2014) for similar observations.

[7] See also Weng, E. and Halafoff, A. (2020). ‘Media Representations of Religion, Spirituality and Non-Religion in Australia’. Religions, 11(7). DOI: 10.3390/rel11070332

Dr. Rebecca Banham is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the international research project ‘Understanding Nonreligion in a Complex Future’, led by Professor Lori Beaman. She is based at the University of Tasmania, Australia, where she completed her PhD in 2019, exploring the emotional and ontological connections that people form with forests. Bec is particularly interested in the ways that emotion, ontology, and relationship shape how people relate to both other people and to the nonhuman world, particularly in the context of rising rates of nonreligiosity in across the world. 

Women and Gender Imbalance in Non-Religious Groups in Australia

This post was written by Katja Strehle


It is no secret that the non-religious community has a gender imbalance. Not only are there more men self-identifying as non-religious than women, there are fewer women actively involved in the non-religious community. The research I am conducting for my PhD thesis focuses on the lived experiences of non-religious groups in Australia. One of the main aims of this research is to identify factors that prevent women from actively participating in the non-religious community. Using a local lens, I explore the dynamics of the volunteer groups I studied, their approach to attracting new membership, their strategies (or lack thereof) of being inclusive and what this mean for women’s participation.

            Worldwide, there is a statistical gender imbalance when it comes to religiosity and therefore non-religion. Data published by the PEW Research Centre in 2016 suggests that in 61 of 192 countries, women are at least 2 percentage points more likely than men to have a religious affiliation. In the remaining countries, women and men display roughly equal levels of religious affiliation. There are no countries in which men are more religiously affiliated than women by two percentage points or more.

Gender Inequality in Non-religious communities

In non-believing spaces, arguments against religion are often linked to the idea that sexism is caused and perpetuated by religious beliefs. Humanists and atheists repeatedly use gender-based discrimination and inequality in religion  as an argument against religion.  This suggests gender equality dominates non-believing spheres. However, my research found this is not the case.

            One prominent example of a gender-focused discussion within atheist circles was the event that became known as ‘Elevatorgate’. Briefly summarised, this term describes the backlash YouTuber Rebecca Watson received when she described an encounter after she presented a speech at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin in 2011. She details how a man approached her in an elevator at 4a.m. and asked her to join him in his room for a coffee. In her video, Watson expressed how this made her feel sexually objectified, and stated that men should not act in this manner.

            The video received numerous responses, some of which informed her that this was not sexism and she was overreacting. Her most prominent critic was Richard Dawkins — a well-known figure in the New Atheist movement. In his comment, Dawkins diminished Watson’s experience through using the oppression of women in Islam as a blueprint for true sexism. This incident, and the discussion which unfolded subsequently, are widely seen as a turning point for the non-religious movement, which, until then, was riding on a wave of popularity and growth, spurred by several authors’ bestselling books, unifying their agreement on the dangers of religion.

The Case of Australia


In Australia, almost 30% of people self-identified as non-religious in the last census conducted in 2016.

            A newer report by the Rationalist Society, published in June 2021, found that a majority (62%) of Australians say they do not belong to a religious organisation. This report canvassed questions about religion in the Australian National University’s Australian election study, surveys of social studies, and values study. The Guardian reports on research by the Rationalist Society which finds that – despite 60% of Australians indicating an affiliation with a religion in the 2016 census – religiosity is much lower when Australians are asked if they “belong” to a religious organisation or religion is “personally important” to them. Moreover, only 15% of Australians say they are active members of a religious organisation.

            But what do these numbers mean? According to Andrew Singleton (2015)

For the overwhelming majority of Australians who do not affiliate with a religion, religious practice and belief has little to no place or salience in their personal lives. Simply, there is a deep congruence with this identification and other ways of being non-religious (p.242).

            There is a wide range of Non-religious groups and organisations in Australia, at least on paper. There are several established humanist groups, present in major cities throughout Australia. In 2020 a new national humanist organisation launched whose mission statement aims to not only bring humanism to the forefront of Australian society, but to also actively support people persecuted as a result of their humanist beliefs, both in Australia and overseas,  and to advocate for social justice matters.

            The Atheist Foundation of Australia is perhaps the most well-known atheist organisation, as they have organised and hosted two successful atheist conventions in 2010 and 2012. Several atheist meetup groups having regular meetings but are loosely organised and not officially affiliated with the Foundation.

Gender Inequality

‘The gender gap is the difference between women and men as reflected in social, political, intellectual, cultural, or economic attainments or attitudes.’ According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018), the national gender pay gap is 13.4%. Women receive 37% less superannuation and earn less wages overall than men, fewer women are in the labour force than men, it is more likely for women to work in part-time and casual employment, and to be underemployed than men. Australia is far off being a country where gender equality on a societal level has been achieved or is even close to be achieved.

            Unfortunately, as with the overall membership numbers, there is no official data regarding gender distribution within the groups I studied.

Preliminary Findings

My research focuses on the lived experience of women in the non-religious community in Australia.

            My thesis will fill a gap in contemporary literature on gender in the non-religious community. In my research, I conducted 31 interviews with women who are or have been involved with atheist or humanist groups in the country. Most of them are Caucasian and over 50 years of age, which supports studies focusing on the composition of non-religious groups.

            One focus of the conversations was on the lived experience of the participants within these groups. Some stories spoke of implicit misogyny, self-monitoring and structural challenges that enable misogynistic behaviour. These behaviours often contributed to the women not actively participate in the non-religious community

Sylvie recounted her experience as follows:

             I feel like it there is an onus on me … to prove f that I can engage on the same level […]. And definitely a lot of mansplaining type of thing, you know … people would. I feel like people over-explain things to me because they assume I wouldn’t know. … I am generally a reasonably confident person, so I do not feel put down by it, but I do feel like I have to proof myself to be taken seriously.

            Generally, the fact that the groups consist of mainly older white men from a middle- and upper-class background creates and exclusive environment which is unattractive to women and younger people. This is most visible when it comes to the choice of activities and presentation topics and main membership demographic heavily centred around traditional male interests.

As Mila put it:

            ‘I think they [older white men] are quite often the founders. So, there have been involved in that organisation for a long time. And they pick the speakers and stuff. So, they obviously are given a lot more airtime in terms of introducing people and making jokes … being the coordinator of the night. I think it is just the fact that they have been there a long time […] I think they also have friends and co-member who are, like from their same social background quite often. So, there is a camaraderie there which is difficult to penetrate sometimes.’

            These in-group dynamics often create an invisible barrier and make women and people with a different demographic background feel like outsiders and unable to fit in. It silences diverse perspectives and new ideas.

            In order to stay relevant within Australian society, non-religious groups need to be flexible, more open, adopt modern communication styles, and actively work towards being attractive to a greater diversity of people.


Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census Data on Religion in Australia, 2016, Link, viewed 5 June 2019.

Francis, F 2021, Religiosity in Australia, Rationalist Society of Australia, Melbourne.

Harris, B 2017, What is the gender gap (and why is it getting wider)? World Economic Forum, viewed 02.05.2020

Karp, P 2021, Australians are very sceptical’: Michael Kirby warns against ‘excessive protection’ of religious freedoms, The Guardian, 11. June, viewed 01. November 2021,

Singleton. A 2015 Are religious ‘nones’ secular? The case of the nones in Australia, Journal of Beliefs & Values, 2015, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 239–243.

Katja is a PhD candidate in Sociology within the Religion and Society Research Cluster, at Western Sydney University, Australia. She has done her Magister (Master equivalent) degree in Contemporary History, Political Science and Anthropology of the Americas at the Free University Berlin, Germany. Her current research focuses on gender relations in atheist and humanist groups in Australia. Using qualitative data collection, she investigates the lived experiences of women in atheist and humanist groups. Katja is interested in learning about how gender relations within the groups are perceived by atheist and/or humanist women and how they negotiate their role. Additionally, she looks into diversity in the non-religious community in Australia.

Her publication “From Buses to Billboards: The Atheist Bus Campaign in New Zealand” in The Atheist Bus Campaign (2016) is co-written with Dr. Will Hoverd, Massey University. Based on primary data drawn from face-to-face semi-structured interviews, this chapter chronicles the development and eventual cessation of the New Zealand atheist bus campaign and sets that atheist bus narrative into the broader New Zealand landscape of religion and no-religion.

Secular Rationality/Secular Affects

This post was written by Donovan Schaefer

Whatever the secular is, it’s wrapped up with questions about how we think, how we know, how we reason, how we classify, stratify, and differentiate. In that sense, the secular is connected to the history of European modernity and the European Enlightenment—the great movement, in Kant’s words, of Sapere aude: “Dare to know.”[1]

In the Enlightenment’s own grammar, the operation of reasoning is also the operation of detachment from feeling. As the inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition, scholars often take it for granted that thinking and feeling are separate, that rationality is the process of purifying thought of emotional residue. (Rival traditions like romanticism use the same coordinates—only they flip the valence, privileging feeling, which remains the antonym of thought.) But what if the binary split between thinking and feeling is itself a historical construct—and one desperately in need of reexamination? What if rethinking the secular means rethinking the form and syntax of “rationality” itself?

My book Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin explores this proposition from a range of perspectives: secularism studies, science and technology studies, affect theory, psychology, and philosophy. The bookthen applies this framework to a sequence of events in the history of “scientific secularism”—moments when the separation of religion and nonreligion (often with an eye to the supersession of the former by the latter) was driven by new developments in the natural sciences, especially evolutionary biology.

What does secularism studies have to say about the relationship between thinking and feeling? Charles Taylor’s work (taking cues from the phenomenological tradition) considers secular rationality not as the emergence of an unmarked universal truth rising above the convoluted babble of religion—what he calls the subtraction story[2]—but in actuality “a new shape to the experience which prompts and is defined by belief.”[3] Talal Asad, similarly, argues that we need to think of the secular as a set of “behaviors, knowledges, and sensibilities” that coalesce not as an inevitable or natural consequence of the application of reason to life, but as differentiated “formations of the secular” tinged by histories, dispositions, and embodied practices.[4] In the work of these thinkers, what we believe or disbelieve is not just a set of detached conceptual coordinates, but a way of orchestrating the experiential architecture of life. And just as importantly, for Asad, our practices of knowledge-making and interpretation emerge from the matrix of our bodily dispositions.[5] Rationality and affect form a single seamless garment.

Despite this, both Asad and Taylor sometimes lapse into the Enlightenment’s own conceptual framing, opening the door to a reaffirmation of the “disenchantment” of the world in modernity.[6] Following scholars like Jane Bennett, William Connolly, Jason Josephson-Storm, and George Levine, Wild Experiment argues that the disenchantment thesis is mistaken, but with a twist: my contention is that Max Weber, in correlating science and “disenchantment,” never intended for disenchantment to be understood as the obliteration of feeling.

Weber’s “disenchantment” (Entzauberung in German—literally “demagification”) was about the intellectual situation of modernity in which we feel like we can, in principle, answer any question about the world around us. Nothing is beyond the probing of the human intellect.[7] Although this seems to resonate with the notion that thinking is about the eradication of feeling, this misses the thrust of Weber’s use of the word. When Weber introduces disenchantment in “Science as a Vocation,” he doesn’t assert that academic inquiry is passionless[8]; quite the opposite, he’s expressly interested in how science serves as a calling—a Beruf—the same term he used to organize his earlier inquiries into the drivers of Protestantism. This is why “Science as a Vocation” starts with Weber’s story of his students relentlessly insisting—against his advice!—on pursuing the life of the mind. Even though science, he affirms, cannot answer big questions about the “meaning” of life, it is nonetheless driven by emotion—by scholars “brood[ing] at our desks and search[ing] for answers with passionate devotion.”[9]

Similar motifs crop up in contemporary studies of the secular. In works like Darwin Loves You and The Joy of Secularism, George Levinehighlights the role of feeling in the production of scientific knowledge.[10] In her essay “Religious Reason and Secular Affect,” Saba Mahmood brilliantly demonstrates that even though secular rationality presents itself as defined by detachment from emotion, its fascination with critical aloofness rises to the level of an affective fixation—a fixation that leads to the characteristic blind spots of “religious freedom” in secularist legal reasoning. Even Foucault, in his late work, retools his early formula power-knowledge as power-knowledge-pleasure: “The medical examination, the psychiatric investigation, the pedagogical report, and family controls may have the over-all and apparent objective of saying no to all wayward or unproductive sexualities,” he writes in History of Sexuality, Vol. I (in French La volonté de savoir, or “Will to Knowledge”), “but the fact is that they function as mechanisms with a double impetus: pleasure and power.”[11]

“Daring to know”—and “disenchantment” itself—are rationality elevated to heroic adventure, not dim button-pushing. “An inner devotion to the task,” Weber declares, “and that alone, should lift the scientist to the height and dignity of the subject he pretends to serve.”[12] And like all heroic mythologies, the exhilaration of secular rationality carries with it a tendency to self-delusion—especially when it denies its own affective determination.

Critical studies of the secular, then, have always been interested in disrupting the autonomy of secular rationality. Scholars like Lois Lee, William Mazzarella, John Modern, Ann Pellegrini, Marek Sullivan, Monique Scheer, Nadia Fadil, and Birgitte Schepelern Johansen all indicate that in answering the question of whether there is a “secular body”[13] we can’t rule out the domain of secular feelings. The secular body—like the religious body—is a thinking body. And the interrelationships of thinking and feeling mean that the way we think about the world shapes how we feel about it. The profile of the secular body lies not just in how it thinks, but how it feels.


[1] Kant, Immanuel. “What Is Enlightenment?” Smith, Mary C., trans.

[2] Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, 22.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003, 25.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Robbins, Bruce. “Enchantment? No, thank you!” In: Levine, George, ed. The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011, 89. Asad, Talal. Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self, and Calculative Reason. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2018, 150.

[7] Weber, Max. “Science as a Vocation.” In: From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Gerth, H.H. and C. Wright Mills, ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1946, 139.

[8] Weber includes all forms of scholarship, including his own, under the umbrella term “science.”

[9] Ibid., 136. This sets up an interesting conversation with Taylor’s essay “Reason, Faith, and Meaning” (in: Coakley, Sarah, ed., Faith, Rationality, and the Passions, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012: 13–28) in which Taylor does seem to recognize that there are affective dimensions to philosophical reasoning, though only in its mode of existential reflection.

[10] Levine, George. Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006; Levine, George. “Introduction.” In: Levine, George, ed. The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011: 1-23.

[11] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume One. Hurley, Robert, trans. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1990, 45.

[12] Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” 137.

[13] See: Hirschkind, Charles. “Is There a Secular Body?” Cultural Anthropology 26.4 (2011): 633-647.

Donovan Schaefer is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book, Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin (Duke University Press, 2022), argues for a reconsideration of the relationship between feeling and rationality and explores the implications of this shift for topics like science, racism, conspiracy theory, and secularism. He has taught at Oxford University, Haverford College, Le Moyne College, and Syracuse University.

Reconstructive religious studies: A manifesto for the study of (non)religion in dark times

This post was written by Timothy Stacey

In this time of cascading crises, from climate change to the cost of living, from war to populism, many of us feel called to do research that can be put to use by people seeking to build a better world. With the important connection between the way that people imagine the world and their ability to act being increasingly recognised, the study of religion is well placed to do this world-building work. But how to go about it?

With the release of two books, Nonreligious Imaginaries of World Repairing (eds. Lori Beaman and Timothy Stacey) and Saving Liberalism from Itself: The Spirit of Political Participation (Timothy Stacey) I want to offer the makings of my manifesto. This is not a “with me or against me” manifesto. I consider most fields in the study of religion valuable and especially those in light of which I distinguish my approach. Nor is it intended as either a how-to guide or a complete list. My aim is to inspire rather than dictate and I invite those interested to extend, edit and retract where they see fit.

From studying (non)religion to using tools from the study of religion

The starting point for building a reconstructive religious studies is that religion must be in the driving seat. Three strands of research are already doing this. The first explores how people’s religious identity drives behaviours we abhor and admire: from the relationship between certain strands of evangelicalism and climate change denial (Haluza-DeLay 2014), to Pope Francis’ role in conjuring concern for the animals, plants and waterways with which we share the world (Landrum and Vasquez 2020).  Others choose to study the connection between explicitly nonreligious identities and various forms of political action, from gay rights to better wages for workers (Rabbia and Vaggione 2021). My interest, instead, is in using tools from the study of religion to understand and transform the behaviour of people for whom whether they are religious is not particularly pertinent (see also Nita 2020 and Taylor 2009).

From worldviews to imaginaries

Let’s begin with how to frame the focus of our research. In our introduction to Nonreligious Imaginaries, Lori Beaman and I (2021: 3) argue that terms like belief-system and worldviews conjure ‘a robust, systemic or dogmatic way of thinking that neglects the complexity of the ways that many nonreligious people engage with the world’. Instead, we find that ‘imaginaries’ better captures the often cobbled together nature of the myths, rituals, images, senses, feelings and practices that shape people’s engagement with the world.

Imaginaries is an oft-used but rarely defined term. I use it to mean what people imagine to be real and unreal, true and false, possible and impossible, desirable and undesirable, connected and disconnected, alike and alien. I think of imaginaries as captured in myths, rituals, magic, and traditions, and as performed in the way that we carry ourselves, the events we attend, the people we hang out with, the causes we commit ourselves to and the rules we make, break and follow.

From rituals of birth and death to what people live and die for

As scholars turn to study nonreligion, there is a tendency to seek out ways of engaging the world that “look like” what has traditionally been called religion, such as myths of demigods, rituals of birth, marriage and death, and encounters with unexplained phenomena. In moments of crisis, this strategy can be of use, such as when climate activists grieve over their children’s future. But tools from the study of religion are more incisive and arguably more useful outside of our discipline when they can tell us something about behaviours that people might not ordinarily recognise as religion-like.

My focus then, is on using tools from the study of religion to understand the thoughts that keep people up at night, the stories they share on social media and the causes they give up their limited free time and money for. How, for example, might ritual theory be applied to understand protest marches? And how might theories of tradition help us to see what is missing from mainstream political messaging?

From deconstruction to reconstruction

As I explained in Saving Liberalism (2022: 24; 38; 144), there is a long and strong history of using research into religion to shed light on the myths that shape social reality. Primarily, however, this work is deconstructive. As scholars grew in confidence that religion would fade into the background, they turned their attention to alternative opiates, from race to the nation. The scale of this intellectual armoury has proved useful in deconstructing a range of political upheavals, from populism to nativism.

But the question is, why stop at combating what we perceive as negative developments? Why not draw on the many tools we have for understanding how people make meaning to highlight hopeful examples and aid in the process of world building? This was the ultimate aim of both Nonreligious Imaginaries and Saving Liberalism. In the former, Beaman and I drew together a range of innovative researchers who used their expertise in the study of religion to understand how people make meaning and commune with other human and other-than-human beings in a broken world.

In Saving Liberalism, I explore how to build political movements with the sense of meaning and belonging that populism provides without simply revalourising understandings of faith, flag and family that so many have fought to consign to history. Rather than simply extolling from upon high about what a liberal civil religion might look like, I draw on ethnographic research with liberally oriented people as they navigate between their universal ethical ideals and their desire to belong in a community of place with people who don’t share their ideals. I explain how political liberalism, which emphasizes rationality and individualism, makes their path harder to navigate. And I explore the myths they draw on, the rituals they engage in, the magical feelings they experience and the traditions they build in overcoming obstacles.

A call to action

The answers I provide are by no means the making of a civil religion. So long and hard have been the battles to dismantle the oppressive religious and cultural structures of the past that people have barely had time to begin building a new world. What I hope I am beginning to provide instead is a toolkit for better understanding the vital world-repairing and -building work people are doing, and for inspiring similar such work in other settings. I, myself, am now turning to explore how liberal imaginaries limit the range of actions that we realise are available to us in addressing climate change, and the myths, rituals, magic and traditions that can liberate us from our collective writer’s block. I am eager to hear from others doing similar such work.


Haluza-DeLay, Randolph. 2014. “Religion and Climate Change: Varieties in Viewpoints and Practices.” WIREs Climate Change 5 (2): 261–79.

Landrum, Asheley R., and Rosalynn Vasquez. 2020. “Polarized U.S. Publics, Pope Francis, and Climate Change: Reviewing the Studies and Data Collected around the 2015 Papal Encyclical.” WIREs Climate Change 11 (6): e674.

Nita, Maria. 2020. “‘Inside Story’ Participatory Storytelling and Imagination in Eco-Pedagogical Contexts.” In Storytelling for Sustainability in Higher Education: An Educator’s Handbook, edited by Petra Molthan-Hill, Denise Baden, Tony Wall, Helen Puntha, and Heather Luna. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Rabbia, Hugo H., and Juan Marco Vaggione. 2021. “The Mobilization of Religious and Nonreligious Imaginaries in Argentine Sexual Politics.” In Nonreligious Imaginaries of World Repairing, edited by Lori G. Beaman and Timothy Stacey, 59–74. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Stacey, Timothy. 2022. Saving Liberalism from Itself: The Spirit of Political Participation. Bristol: Bristol University Press.  

Stacey, Timothy, and Lori G. Beaman. 2021. “Introduction.” In Nonreligious Imaginaries of World Repairing, edited by Lori G. Beaman and Timothy Stacey, 1–15. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Taylor, Bron. 2009. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. First edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Timothy Stacey (@godsandsods) is Researcher at the Urban Futures Studio, Utrecht University. With a BA in Philosophy & Theology, a PhD in Sociology, and an interest in anthropology, art, and activism, Tim explores how imaginaries influence political action. He divides his time equally between building theory and planning interventions.

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” (, 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%

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:

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%

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”.


Kasselstrand, Isabella. 2015. ‘Nonbelievers in the Church: A Study of Cultural Religion in Sweden’. Sociology of Religion 76 (3): 275–94.

On Life, Faith and Religious Life. Survey data, (27.01.2022)

Religion in Decline?: Understanding New Data from Statistics Canada. Nonreligion in a Complex Future project expert panel discussion, (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.