Secular Rationality/Secular Affects


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


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.


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


Kneeling as a Religious Gesture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Field Research

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

Unity and Solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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


Sources Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Event Report: 2020 NSRN Annual Lecture


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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