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.

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‘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’. http://www.roymorgan.com/industries/media/readership/newspaper-readership

[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’. https://www.dailyadvertiser.com.au/story/7800629/wagga-trending-away-from-religion-new-abs-census-statistics-reveal/;  Madigan, D. (2022). ‘Like the rest of Australia, Blue Mountains residents are identifying as less religious: 2021 Census’. https://www.bluemountainsgazette.com.au/story/7798645/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


Introduction

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

Non-Religion

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.


References

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, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/11/the-gender-gap-actually-got-worse-in-2017/ 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,

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/11/australians-are-very-skeptical-michael-kirby-warns-against-excessive-protection-of-religious-freedoms

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.


References

[1] Kant, Immanuel. “What Is Enlightenment?” Smith, Mary C., trans. http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html

[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.


References

Haluza-DeLay, Randolph. 2014. “Religion and Climate Change: Varieties in Viewpoints and Practices.” WIREs Climate Change 5 (2): 261–79. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.268.

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. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.674.

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. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-72881-6_5.

Stacey, Timothy. 2022. Saving Liberalism from Itself: The Spirit of Political Participation. Bristol: Bristol University Press. https://doi.org/10.51952/9781529215502  

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. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-72881-6_1.

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” (https://youtu.be/v4YuvaRUnYA?t=1900), Jack Jedwab, from the Association for Canadian Studies, called for the inclusion for multiple religious identities in surveys: “Answer more than one. I think it would change the dynamics. // It’s not gonna be comparable with longitudinal and census-to-census recording. But I do think at a certain point we need to make a jump. Take the leap. And see where we land.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


References:

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

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

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


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

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


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

Keywords: Brazil, secularism, atheism, nonreligion


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Apostasy as political action

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

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

The visual dimension of apostasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Nonreligious Identity and Psychological Health in the United States


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


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

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

Anti-Atheist Bias in the U.S.

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

Diverse Experiences Among Nonreligious People

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

Potential Challenges

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

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

Psychological Strengths

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

Rethinking Mental Health and Nonreligion

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

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

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


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

Secularism and Islamophobia: On the strategic use of “neutrality” in the Canadian public sphere


In this blog, Hannah Mckillop explores how the Canadian state use of the term “neutrality” can negatively impact religious minorities in the public sphere.


Hannah McKillop

Neutrality rhetoric is used by Canadian courts and governments to further state-sanctioned ideologies around what it means to be a secular nation. Such ideologies, however, inhibit the freedoms of minority populations who are outwardly religious. Canadian courts cite gender equality, religious freedom, public safety, pluralism, and social connection as central justifications for their “neutral” secular policies. The consequences of such policies, however, are not neutral.

Zunera Ishaq v. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration exemplifies the ways in which conceptualizations of neutrality impact the freedoms of Muslim communities in Canada. After Zunera Ishaq’s citizenship application was approved in 2013, she raised concerns that during the citizenship ceremony she would be asked to remove her niqab to recite the citizenship oath. Her concerns were not unwarranted. At the time, an official government policy required all citizenship candidates to remove face coverings during the recitation of the oath. In the case, the gender equality arguments used by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration exemplify how rhetoric around state neutrality is used to justify policies that disproportionately affect minority populations in Canada.

Though the Court in Ishaq ruled in favor of allowing Muslim women to wear their religious dress during Canada’s citizenship ceremony, the arguments furthered by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration demonstrate how rhetoric around neutrality is wielded to justify discrimination. The Minister argued that because the ceremony is a “public act,” candidates should not cover their faces. All candidates must “recite the oath openly and equally.”[i] That is, without wearing a full-face veil. Here, the Minister is arguing for a very particular sort of openness and equality that, in effect, discriminates against citizens whose religious practices include face coverings. The Minister argued that the policy was “neutral,” even though it disproportionately affected Muslim women like Ishaq.[ii] As Ishaq shows, the Policy’s impact on Muslim women was anything but impartial.

Another example where rhetoric around neutrality is used to justify discriminatory secularist policies is Bill 21. Quebec’s Bill 21 is titled, “An Act respecting the laicity of the State.” In Quebec, laicity is based on four principles: “the separation of State and religions, the religious neutrality of the State, the equality of all citizens, and freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.” Bill 21 seeks to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols while engaging in the public sphere.

Bill 21 cites state neutrality, equality, and freedom to justify banning all religious symbols from the public sphere. Such rhetoric, however, limits the movement of Muslim women particularly in areas of public life that are disproportionately accessed by women, like childcare and educational centres.[i] In Bill 21, the Quebec government upholds a limited conception of equality that does not consider the needs, concerns, freedoms, or agency of Muslim citizens. Rhetoric around neutrality is used by the Quebec government in Bill 21 to justify limiting the freedoms of visible religious minorities in Quebec.

Other arguments used in Bill 21 to justify secular policies are religious equality and religious freedom. As Effie Fokas states, it is counter-intuitive for Western courts to cite pluralism and tolerance to justify restricting public expressions of religious identity.[i] Bans on religious dress force visible religious minorities out of the public sphere, increase prejudice, and perpetuate violence against minority populations.[ii] Legislation governing religious dress, while citing neutrality as justification, targets a very specific demographic – visible religious minorities.

This dynamic is present in Bill 21 when the Quebec government cites “the religious neutrality of the State” as an appropriate reason to justify the ban on religious dress in the public sphere. What does “neutral” really mean in this context? Asking a veil-wearing woman to unveil is not a neutral act. Such an ask is in direct violation of her rights as a Canadian citizen. Does the “neutrality of the State” mean the State should only serve citizens who are not visibly religious? If so, what impact will Quebec’s approach to secularism have on Muslim women?

Jennifer Selby et al. explore how rhetoric around neutrality that is utilized by secular governments is not gender neutral. Discourse around the neutral treatment of citizens assumes that being a woman in public means expressing or enhancing feminine features like the hair and face.[i] Western discourses about Muslim women assume that they need to be freed from oppressive religion. Secularism is correlated with neutrality and freedom, while religion is correlated with oppression.[ii] Consequently, the personal agency of a veil-wearing woman is difficult to understand.[iii]

Muslim women are expected to adopt a secular framework that suggests they need to be taught the values of Western society. Those who do otherwise are cast as “foreigners” who follow “cultural” practices that are considered undesirable and incompatible with Canadian society.[i] This is evident when the niqab is seen as a personal cultural practice.[ii] Federally, Canada promotes a diverse, multicultural society. Multiculturalism is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms under section 27. Section 10 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms affirms the rights and freedoms of everyone no matter their sex, gender, or religious identity.

When Muslim practices are characterized as cultural, religious freedom protections are not guaranteed. As a result, accommodation requests are sometimes viewed as unreasonable and incompatible with Canadian culture.[i] This counters Canada’s approach towards multiculturalism and diversity. Courts deem that their conception of secularism and state neutrality upholds universal freedoms, despite the negative impacts Muslims (and other minorities) experience from these discriminatory policies. What the majority considers neutral treatment is considered oppressive treatment by Canadian minorities. Canada’s approach to secularism should not include rhetoric that justifies discriminating against visible religious minorities.

In July 2021, the European Court of Justice ruled that private employers can ban workers who wear religious symbols like headscarves. The court argued the ruling aligned with “political, philosophical, and religious neutrality.”[i] As The Guardian notes, the ruling contradicts a 2013 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that allowed crosses to be worn in the workplace. Secularism (and nonreligion by extension) are not necessarily “neutral” ideologies that always promote an equal and open public sphere. Policies that support state neutrality can often inhibit the full participation of certain social groups in society – particularly groups that already face discrimination and marginalization. Studies on nonreligion and secularism must consider how rhetoric around neutrality is used to justify discriminatory policies in the name of secularism.

Hijab-wearing women holding a neon yellow sign with red text that states: “Touches pas à ma Liberté” that translates in English to: “Don’t touch my Freedom”

Photo Source: https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/muslim-women-in-quebec-facing-more-attacks-since-charter-proposal-group-1.1481641


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


[i] Jennifer Rankin, “EU Companies Can Ban Employees Wearing Headscarves, Court Rules,” The Guardian, July 15, 2021, sec. Europe, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/15/eu-companies-can-ban-employees-wearing-headscarves-religious-symbols.

[i] Selby, Barras, and Beaman, “Figures That Haunt the Everyday,” 52.

[i] Selby, Barras, and Beaman, 52.

[ii] Ishaq at para. 16.

[i] Jennifer A. Selby, Amélie Barras, and Lori G. Beaman, “Figures That Haunt the Everyday,” in Beyond Accommodation: Everyday Narratives of Muslim Canadians (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018), 44.[ii] Selby, Barras, and Beaman, 44.

[iii] Selby, Barras, and Beaman, 45.

[i] Effie Fokas, “The Legal Status of Religious Minorities: Exploring the Impact of the European Court of Human Rights,” Social Compass 65, no. 1 (2018): 29.

[ii] Jonathan Montpetit, “Muslim Women Report Spike in Harassment, Discrimination since Bill 21 Tabled,” CBC, May 14, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/muslim-women-report-spike-in-harassment-discrimination-since-bill-21-tabled-1.5134539.

[i] “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,” Pub. L. No. Bill 21, CQLR c R-26.2.01 (2019), 12.

[i]  Ishaq v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2015 FC 156 (CanLII), [2015] 4 FCR 297, <https://canlii.ca/t/ggc86&gt;, at para. 37. Hereinafter “Ishaq”.[ii] Ishaq at para. 11.