[Event Report] Philosophy and Faith in Europe Today: Vattimo’s ‘nonreligious’ Christianity

Davide Monaco reports on the event organized by the Normativity Research Group on May the 5th, 2016, titled: Philosophy and Faith in Europe Today; A day with Gianni Vattimo. A cycle of seminars on the work of Gianni Vattimo, addressing his theories and writings on politics, religion and secularity, and his dialogue with Heidegger and Girard on these topics. What is secularity in relation to religion, particularly, Christianity? Vattimo’s thought develops an attempt to Davideunderstand Christianity in a post-metaphysical way, a “secular” Christianity. 

The Normativity cycle of seminars “Philosophy and Faith in Europe Today”, which took place at the University of Aberdeen on May 5th, 2016, was a great occasion to address the relevant issues of the relation between religious and secular understandings of moral life through an analysis of the thought of Gianni Vattimo. Exploration of these issues has been the focus of the studies of the Normativity research group, under the supervision of Prof. Philip G. Ziegler. This project has focused on questions of morality, by evaluating normative claims from the point of view of law, philosophy and theology. Three main “sources” of normativity have been analysed: nature, narrative and nihilism. This last theme received special attention during our seminar, since it is a key-term in Heidegger’s and Vattimo’s philosophies. Alongside philosophical nihilism, the main topics and themes discussed during this event include the relationship between Christianity and secularity, and the reflection on the current political situation of Europe. The morning session was devoted to Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, as a fundamental inspiration for Vattimo’s own philosophical work, while in the afternoon, we moved closer to Vattimo’s thought, by comparing it with René Girard’s views on Christianity. As a Ph.D. student working on this project I chaired the morning seminar on Heidegger’s Introduction to the phenomenology of religious life.

I believe this cycle of seminars addressed the question of great relevance for the debate on nonreligion and secularity. In our first seminar, we have seen how Vattimo’s own project proposes a post-metaphysical age in which early aspects of Christianity are still at work, albeit in their non-metaphysical qualification. According to Vattimo, a secular society should possess a non-dogmatic, non-metaphysical, moral structure inspired by early Christianity, which keeps its fundamental moral claims at work without relying on an ultimate metaphysics.

In our seminar, we addressed more deeply the relevance of Vattimo’s thought for an interpretation of secularity and its post-metaphysical character through another text: Christianity, truth and weakening faith (2010). In this book, Vattimo faces the criticism of René Girard against his philosophy of “weak thought”. In Vattimo’s intentions, the age of secularization corresponds to a post-metaphysical philosophy: in this regard, secularization is viewed as a positive aspect and a necessary outcome of a new philosophical paradigm. A weak interpretation of Christianity, which is particularly visible in Vattimo’s own reading of Pauline kenosis, was contrasted to René Girard’s ‘dogmatic’ interpretation. In other terms, Vattimo’s concept of Christianity has been purified of all its dogmatic and metaphysical aspects (e.g., it has been “weakened” and freed from its Catholic framework), while Girard is more sympathetic with a structured conception of Christianity, and in this regard, his Catholicism is much more prominent.

This led us to discuss the problem of violence, which is crucial for Vattimo’s reflection, given that his concept of Caritas (charity) at the core of his ethical project involves the progressive reduction of violent mechanisms within a secular society. For Vattimo religious metaphysics must be regarded as violent in its own nature and its elimination would correspond to an equivalent decrease in violence. This happens because metaphysics is viewed as the expression of a dogmatic and “totalitarian” thought. In its search for a universal truth, Western philosophy seems to have forgotten that truth is just an army of metaphors (Nietzsche), or a disclosure (Heidegger) and therefore not something that could be grounded once and for all. Secular societies, in this sense, guarantee a reduction of violence through their total rejection of any given metaphysics. Girard, instead, believes that secular societies as well possess the tendency to resort to violence and “scapegoating” to escape their inner contradictions.

Both Vattimo and Girard agree on how Christianity has played a fundamental role in the historical development of Western secular societies. The main difference between their interpretations concerns the relationship between secularity and Christianity: for Girard there is a clear dialectic relationship between them, while Vattimo considers secularity as the fulfilment of Christianity. According to Vattimo, secularity is just the continuation of Christianity by other means. Secularity has appeared just as one mask (the latest) of a long-time historical and hermeneutical process.

These problems, then, call for a discussion about the status of the discipline of ‘philosophy of religion’, which was the common thread around which the seminars have been developed. For example, in Heidegger’s perspective, which was our starting point, one can notice the uttermost complexity of the link between philosophy and religion. While lecturing in Freiburg in the early Twenties, Heidegger did not mind calling himself a ‘Christian theologian’ (Letter to Löwith: 1921)[1] while at the same time remarking that philosophy must be a-theistic in principle (1922). In 1919 Heidegger formally abandoned Catholicism and, therefore, started to re-think his relationship with the Christian tradition. In his opinion, philosophy of religion as such is a problematic discipline. What kind of relation exists between the words ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ contained in this definition? What is the nature of their connection, expressed by the preposition ‘of’? For Heidegger, the religion with which the philosophy of religion deals is not an object. Namely, philosophy of religion does not aim toward «a scientifically valid, essential determination of religion». If this were the case, religion would be absorbed by philosophy and it would be not the primary element of the investigation. We would have, in this case, a Theologia ancilla philosophiae. Instead, truly reflected philosophy of religion arises «out of a certain religiosity», which in Heidegger’s case is early Christian religiosity. In this regard, both religion and philosophy are altogether overcome, while the main attention is drawn to religiosity. Religiosity is, for Heidegger, a historical life-experience, a primordial phenomenon that cannot be trapped neither in metaphysical nor in theological categories.

What is instead religiosity for Vattimo? In fact, it must not be forgotten that Heidegger represents a direct model for his philosophy. If this is true, then also Heidegger’s “conversion” from Catholicism to his own personal form of Lutheranism can be considered as a model for Vattimo’s “conversion” to a form of religiosity which is nothing but «to believe in belief», i.e. «believing that one believes». In other words, his personal variant of Christianity includes both elements of certainty and uncertainty in a paradoxical mixture: «to believe means having faith, conviction or certainty in something, but also to opine – that is, to think with a certain degree of uncertainty». Therefore, secularity is the stage in which Christianity reaches its post-metaphysical form; only within it is possible to welcome Christian values such as ‘charity’, allowing us to escape religious violence.

[1] Papenfuss D. – Pöggler O. (edited by), Zur philosophischen Aktualität Heideggers, vol. II of Im Gespräch der Zeit (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1990), 27-32.


I graduated from the University of Naples Federico II in 2012 with a thesis on Ernst Mach’s philosophy of science.  I started my PhD at the University of Aberdeen in 2014 (Normativity Project Award Scheme) under Dr. Beth Lord’s supervision. I’m currently working on Spinoza’s theory of parallelism and monism and their relation. I’m also interested in other conceptions of monism (e.g. Haeckel, Mach) and parallelism (e.g. Fechner, Wundt, Mach). Besides early modern philosophy, my areas of interest include continental philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of science and German philosophy of the 19th century.


[Event Report] Secularization, Social Movements, and Sea Turtles: Reflections on the 2016 Association for the Sociology of Religion Conference

In this event report Jacqui Frost and Amanda Schutz cover the Association for the Sociology of amanda-picjackie-picReligion’s 2016 annual meeting. They detail the launch of new research projects into Understanding Unbelief as well as offering reflections from Woodhead’s lecture ‘Is No Religion the New Religion.’ Also, they share insights from a convened joint session on what social movement theories can tell us about nonreligion.

This year’s Association for the Sociology of Religion’s annual meeting was taken place on 19th – 21st August in Seattle. The theme was Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion. As a result, there were numerous panels and presentations on the importance of increased sociological investigation into nonreligious experience and community. While there were too many great panels to recount here, including Author Meets Critics sessions for Lois Lee’s Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular and Christel Manning’s Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children, the overall takeaway from the conference was that nonreligious experience is increasingly influential and sociologists will have no choice but to engage with it going forward.

Kicking things off early Saturday morning was Lois Lee’s convened panel titled “Who Cares About Unbelief? Social, Political, and Legal Questions for the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief.” This panel came directly out of Lee’s new research initiative (with Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias, and Jonathan Lanman), the Understanding Unbelief Programme, which is offering research grants, early career awards, and public engagement funds to further scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of unbelief around the world. The panel was asked a set of questions regarding who, apart from social scientists and unbelievers themselves, might be interested in unbelief and why; in what ways the growth of unbelief will affect local communities, journalists, and public institutions; and how this growth will curb or create new social tensions. Overall, the panelists asked more questions than they answered, but the questions generated are likely to be a primary focus for many nonreligious scholars in the near future. Jessica Martinez from Pew Research Center tackled these questions from a political engagement angle, asking how changes in the religious landscape might result in changes to the political landscape. She discussed how the unaffiliated are now the largest “religious” group in the Democratic Party, but that the unaffiliated have historically been less likely to show up at the polls on Election Day. She raised questions about how the rise in atheists and agnostics among Americans will influence the 2016 election (if at all), and if the unaffiliated will become more politically engaged than they have been previously. Sociologist Rhys Williams focused on social movements and immigration, asking how unbelief might mobilize activism and foster commitment in social movements. He also asked whether nonreligious organizations and communities will be able to cultivate resources and cultural reproduction for immigrants—something that religious organizations have been so good at for centuries. Journalist David Briggs implored nonreligious scholars to help journalists get the story right by providing them with responsible summaries and statistics, and religious studies scholar Joseph Blankholm focused on organized non-belief. Finally, education scholar Alyssa Rockenbach asked how higher education influences nonreligious beliefs and behaviors. While there has been a lot of research about the “secularizing effect” (or lack thereof) that higher education has on religious students, Rockenbach pointed to the need for similar studies on the nonreligious students.

On Saturday night, the presidential address was read by Mary Jo Neitz, as president Lori Beaman was unable to attend the conference. Beaman’s written address, titled “Living Well Together in a (non)Religious Future: Contributions from the Sociology of Religion,” centered largely around the experiences of… sea turtle rescuers. Beaman’s proclamation that she will henceforth be known as the “crazy sea turtle lady” did not deter her from spending most of the allotted hour discussing people’s motivations for rescuing stranded baby sea turtles and the ways this activity has affected their lives and relationships. But what do sea turtle rescuers have to do with the study of religion or nonreligion? Beaman stressed that the “threat” of nonreligion is an ongoing and important social force, creating opportunities for conflict with an established institution. However, this division also creates opportunities for cooperation. Sea turtle rescuers are an example of cooperation: they represent a case of people overcoming worldview differences to participate in shared action that emphasizes similarities across life forms, provides meaning, and “soothes the soul.” In this way, Beaman suggests, “examining sites of action and activism can help us to better understand the contours of both religion and nonreligion.”

The next day, Ryan Cragun convened a joint session with the American Sociological Association titled “What Social Movements Theories Can Tell Us About Nonreligion.” Rhys Williams kicked off the panel by emphasizing cultural context, boundedness, and resonance, and how nonreligious movements will have to overcome the legitimacy of religion in the American context by taking on similar forms but changing the content. Penny Edgell offered both “promises and pitfalls” of a social movement approach to nonreligion. Promises include a focus on identity and the cultural work that it takes to create nonreligious identities and movements. A social movements approach allows for a de-centering of belief and a shift towards lived, institutionalized nonreligion that moves past the dead ends of the secularization debate. However, Edgell argued that not everything should be seen through a social movements lens, and she argued that social movement theories often make the mistake of seeing identity as a “thing” as opposed to a set of belief and values that change over time. She argued for more work on “indifference” and stigma among the nonreligious, both of which require more than a social movements perspective. Joseph Blankholm focused on the “messy etymology of humanism” and the ways the secular humanist movement has co-opted the term to expand what the “secular” can mean. He described the boundary work being done by secular humanist groups as they navigate tax laws and church/state battles and attempt to set themselves apart from other humanist and secular groups, as well as religious organizations.

Linda Woodhead closed the conference Sunday night with the Paul Hanly Furfey lecture titled “Is No Religion the New Religion?” which focused on nonreligion in Britain. (Woodhead also gave this lecture at the British Academy earlier this year, covered in this event report by Lois Lee.) In 1983, 31% of the population identified as religious nones; in 2013, 51% claimed no religious affiliation (more than double what it is in the US). Nones in Britain tend to be liberal and tolerant of diversity. They are more likely than the general population to be white, but there is no significant difference along lines of gender or class (again, unlike the US). Nonreligion is the norm for younger Britons, and 95% of those raised by nonreligious parents will remain nonreligious (only 55% of those raised religious remain so). Only 13% of nones (5% of the total population) are explicitly anti-theist, what Woodhead calls “Dawkins atheists.” Most nones, however, fall somewhere in the middle: they are either nonbelievers or simply not strong believers who practice spirituality in private. Woodhead suggests a Durkheimian approach for studying the nonreligious, focusing on practices relative to the sacred. But what do nones consider sacred? Woodhead notices some trends, including a lack of deference to authority: everyone has the potential to be fulfilled and to make the most of their lives on their own terms. She also described new rituals gaining in popularity in Britain, including prom, preschool graduations, and house parties. These events can be interpreted as a source of collective ritual and intimate connectedness. (Sea turtle rescuers, for instance, may see the environment as providing ritual and connectedness!) These ideals and rituals that nonreligious Britons hold sacred constitutes what Woodhead calls the “new religion.”

The conference was—like Lee writes in her own report of Linda Woodhead’s lecture—a “celebration” of a young field of study that is “really coming into its own.” With too many relevant sessions to report, see this year’s conference program for more of the latest research focusing on nonreligion and secularism. The Association for the Sociology of Religion’s 2017 annual meeting will be held August 12-14 in Montreal, Quebec.

Jacqui Frost is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on non-religious identities and communities and her dissertation is an ethnographic study of the Sunday Assembly, a nascent network of non-religious congregations. As a research fellow with the American Mosaic Project, Jacqui is involved in numerous projects exploring religious and non-religious diversity in American life, including the influence of conservative religiosity on understandings of racial inequality, the rates and patterns of volunteering among the non-religious, and the influence of different non-religious identities on social and political attitudes.

Amanda Schutz is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Arizona. Her dissertation research takes a qualitative mixed methods approach to understanding diversity in nonreligious organizations and individual involvement in such groups. Other research looks at atheist identity disclosure and gender differences in nonreligious experiences.

[Event Report] SocRel 2016 – Construction and Disruption


The 2016 Sociology of Religion Study Group (SocRel) conference was hosted by Lancaster alisonUniversity, 12th-14th of July. The conference theme of ‘Construction and Disruption: The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere’ offered a wide range of entry points for considering the visibility and role of religion in contemporary society. Papers explored religion in relation to such public realms as education, culture, state and gender and conflict. Of particular interest to me is how different constructions of the concept of religion impact on the concomitant question of what then constitutes non-religion, and how the concepts interact. The papers outlined below offered opportunities to reflect on this.

Religion, the Public Sphere and Law: Construction, Disruption and Reconstitution

Lori Beaman’s keynote set the tone by considering interactions between the law and the concept of religion. Her examination of legal cases explored how the concept of religion is constructed by different people in different contexts, and how distance between state and religion is legally constructed. Beaman’s interest is less in answering the vexed question of what is and what is not religious than in the complexities that are revealed when the question is debated within particular contexts.

She considered three cases in detail: The first, from the USA, involved a school district sued for allowing students to be taught yoga in what was argued to be a breach of the US Constitutional requirement forbidding the establishment of religion. The second, brought by a French citizen to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), involved a niqab-wearing woman challenging the 2010 ban on wearing, in public places, garments that cover the face. She argued that the ban breached several articles of the European Declaration on Human Rights including article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), and article 10 (protecting freedom of expression). The third case was Canadian, and centred on the question of whether opening municipal council meeting with public prayer is an inappropriate interference with the freedom of practice and conscience of attendees.

Each case demonstrates how a given phenomenon can be constructed as religious in nature by some, and as non-religious, cultural or secular by others without any material change in the circumstances under consideration. Although each occurred in different social, cultural and legal contexts, Beaman argued convincingly for a shared relevance located in an examination of the ways in which the different courts involved constructed and transformed the concepts of religion and culture. These processes resulted in yoga being legally determined as non-religious in nature, because its practice is mainstream in contemporary America. Quebec’s court of appeal accepted the same type of reasoning, judging that the use of public prayer reflected a shared cultural heritage rather than an explicitly religious practice (the Supreme Court later over-turned this ruling). While the ECHR concluded that the need to live together in a social/cultural context which understands facial visibility as an aid to social interaction outweighs the individual’s right to express themselves by covering their face. Each decision thus demonstrates the complexity and contested nature of concepts of religious and non-religious, and problematizes the idea of an absolute division between the two concepts.

Existential Cultures in Steiner Schools

Katie Aston and Dan Whisker reported on the initial stages of their research into interactions of non-religious parents and faith schools. The work to date had all taken place in Steiner schools, which base their ethos on Anthroposophy (a spiritual philosophy with roots in theosophy) . Steiner schools engage in ritual as a school community but actively avoid teaching doctrine. Education is individually focussed, with the intention of nurturing the spirit of the child. The schools are non-competitive and emphasise play as a means of learning.

The research involves surveys and interviews with parents, children and teachers. From this data Aston and Whisker identified that none of the parents with whom they spoke were either anthroposophists, or affiliated to any other religious tradition. All identified as either non-religious or spiritual. Most had also been dissatisfied with their own mainstream schooling, and this contributed to their approval of Steiner educational values and their choice of schools for their children.

Aston and Whisker have identified several preliminary avenues of analysis regarding the value of faith schools to non-religious parents. These include the development of existential cultures, processes of sacralising childhood, and distinctions between verbalised meaning and shared experience. For me this offer a chance to explore the practical distinctions between concepts of religion, non-religion and spirituality for self-described non-religious parents, actively seeking education with a spiritual component for their children and choosing a religious school to provide this. The conceptual constructions at play here suggest the complexity and ambiguity of these terms and the ways they interact in a real-world context.

Pluralist Publics and the Scientific Study of Non-Religion

This panel began with an outline of the multi-disciplinary ‘Understanding Unbelief’ project and the sociological shifts underlying academic interest in non-religion before considering some current approaches in the field.

One area being developed by Lois Lee is the emergence of ‘unbelief’ as an analytic term. She represented this as a deliberate shift away from a sole focus on the issue of deity. The term thus has several aspects – relative, indicating unbelief in specific theological claims; positive, relating to alternative existential/metaphysical beliefs; and negative, describing a general absence of metaphysical beliefs. Areas of interest include the distinct cognitive and social phenomena captured by the term, and ways in which ‘unbeliefs’ manifest in/from people’s lives. For me this shift challenges the idea of religion and non-religion as binary, suggesting perhaps either term can be applicable to a given example via the same constructive processes that Beaman’s legal cases employed.

These examples are drawn from rich and diverse range of papers, many of which touched upon non-religion and secularity in similar ways. There are many opportunities to develop the field further in relation to the academic, cultural and personal conceptual constructions of its critical terms , as well as the multivalent complexity of the religious/non-religious spectrum.

Alison Robertson is in the final stages of her PhD with the Open University. Her thesis is
on BDSM as a lived practice of religioning and her research interests include religion and spirituality in relation to self-inflicted pain, trauma and well-being, personalised religious practices, paganisms any other area where the boundaries between what is and is not deemed ‘religion’ become fuzzy. Alison has recently taken over as the Post-Graduate and Early-Careers Liaison Office for the Sociology of Religion (SocRel) research group.


Event Report: Alternative visions of the public sphere: reflections on the FaithXchange Annual Conference


Fernande Pool attended the FaithXchange Annual Conference held at Goldsmiths, University of London. In this report, she reflects on three papers, each engages with the public sphere and secularism from empirical, methodological and theoretical perspectives respectively.

On the 5th of February 2016, FaithXchange organised its Third Annual Conference, titled Alternative Visions in the Public Sphere at Goldsmiths, University of London. The papers presented at this conference offered a wide variety of alternative visions, from Native Faith in Catholic Poland and Pentecostalism in Post-Apartheid South Africa to witchcraft and political cartoons in the UK. Alongside these alternative visions, the conference included three papers with themes of particular pertinence to the readers of this blog, on which I reflect in this report.

Katie Aston, one of the keynotes, presented a paper titled Good without God: British Humanism in the public sphere, which draws on her ethnographic research with the humanist population in the UK. Aston first discusses the key characteristics of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and humanist life cycle rituals. She then moved on to an analytical discussion of the place of humanism in the public sphere. Aston argued that humanism is not only nonreligious but also nonsecular, ‘betwixt and between the religious and the secular’: humanists appeal to a sense of spirituality and sacred values normally associated with religion but reject religious belief, dogma, and institutions. Humanism is committed to liberal values but criticises hard secular categories and the depersonalised form that secular, bureaucratised rituals tend to take.

The humanist vision of the public sphere is an implicit critique of commonplace assumptions of the place of religion and secularity in the public sphere, and highlights some of the key problems associated with these assumptions. Humanists consider morality to be wrongly associated with religion, which I interpret to be a critique of what Keane (2007) has called the ‘moral narrative of modernity’. In this narrative religion is a separated, private sphere of life, but simultaneously morality is the special concern of religion. It follows that secular spheres of life either lack morality, or rely on a religious source of morality. Aston’s discussion of humanism raises a number of highly relevant questions that this narrative leaves open-ended: what could be a nonreligious and non-dogmatic source of morality? How can morality be disconnected from traditional religious institutions? Is secularity devoid of morality? How can one be nonreligious without being reduced to ‘just flesh and bones’ (in Aston’s words)?

In my understanding of Aston’s analysis, humanism attempts to embody a pragmatic answer to these questions, but remains in a somewhat awkward position in the UK public sphere as the hegemonic vision operates according to the ‘moral narrative of modernity’.

Another vision on how the boundaries between the secular and the religious are or could be blurred came from Tim Stacey who presented a paper titled Including alternative visions in the public sphere: from post-secular “atheism” to the methodological suspension of disbelief. Stacey’s key question is how to achieve inclusive, shared ideas of the common good in a religiously plural society and revive a sense of public duty and solidarity. He draws on ethnographic research among both religious and secular civil activist groups in London.

Firstly, Stacey argued that enthusiastic appropriators of Habermas’ understanding of the term post-secular as allowing for a radical re-imagination of the role of religion in the public sphere, overlook or fail to engage with the methodological atheism that carries over from his early work into his work on the post-secular. This methodological atheism, Stacey argued, views everything through a rationalist lens that hampers the acceptance and appreciation of religion in the public sphere.

Stacey then offered an alternative methodology that would be more inclusive of both nonreligious and religious visions of the public sphere, which he calls the ‘methodological suspension of disbelief’.  Stacey demonstrated how certain activist groups are capable of imaginatively reflecting on shared values and beliefs both between religions, and between the religious and nonreligious. The groups can be cohesive and powerful because they are able to suspend their disbelief in the validity of beliefs other than their own, and as such are able to overcome differences and conjure creative and alternative visions that challenge the state and the market.

The paper raised a number of interesting questions. First of all, what are the beliefs and faiths of nonreligious people? Are these fundamentally different from religious beliefs and faiths? Indeed, Stacey’s paper questions whether there is an ontological difference between the propositional belief in the absolute good as embodied in God, and the ways in which nonreligious people may hold faith with an ideal of the good, perhaps as embodied by historical figures.

Second, Stacey’s critique of the post-secular as still being based on hegemonic Enlightenment ideals of rationality is worth exploring, as is his suggestion that this hegemony may be challenged by a suspension of disbelief and as such revive a sense of solidarity among and between religious and nonreligious people. Reflecting back on Aston’s research, perhaps the suspension of disbelief could enhance the awareness of the content of a nonreligious or secular morality. The question remains: could we truly imagine secularity as an ideal that is able to include all these visions, and that can operate ‘as if’ the various visions are equally true?

The third paper I discuss is by Joshua Duclos. His paper, Let the right ones in: religious and the public sphere, questions whether religious reason should or should not be allowed in the public sphere of a liberal democratic society. This in turn warrants the question: is religious reason fundamentally different from public reason (reasons that we accept and that we can reasonably expect others to accept)?

Duclos first discusses various theoretical approaches to the ‘problem’ of religious reason. Most prominent is Rawls’ ‘standard approach’: religious reason is not publicly accessible and should therefore undergo a secular translation. In contrast its (mostly religious) opponents argue that such a demand goes against liberal democratic principles, and that the assertion of the public inaccessibility of religious reason is incorrect. Habermas offers a revised version of the standard approach, mediating between Rawls and its critics, which according to Duclos insufficiently addresses the key problem, namely the (in)accessibility of religious reason.

Duclos argued that the accessibility of reason does not depend on its religious or secular nature, but on the acceptability of the basic premises. Religious reasons are often thought to be based on basic premises that need to be accepted first, but that are not acceptable for a large number of people. However, Duclos’ demonstrates that secular reasons may at times be very inaccessible, for example when environmentalists arguments are based on premises that are either complex or unverifiable.

Duclos’ paper again raised a number of questions that beg our attention. If Duclos is correct and religious and secular reasons may be equally accessible and equally inaccessible, why do we tend to assume that secular reasons are more accessible and more acceptable than religious reasons? If we link this to Stacey’s research, do we tend to suspend our disbelief more readily when confronted with inaccessible secular reasons than with inaccessible religious reasons? And finally, does the contemporary, post-secular plural society require us to go beyond Habermas, in order to imagine a deliberative democracy in which citizens engage in public reason that may equally be of a religious and of a secular nature?

I end this report with a lot of open question that deserve our attention. In my view, the most pressing point that Alternative Visions foregrounds is the necessity to reconsider the hegemonic position of the secular as opposed to the religious, and the boundaries between the religious and the secular.


Keane, Webb. 2007. Christian moderns: Freedom and fetish in the mission encounter. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fernande Pool aims to destabilise hegemonic conceptualisations of ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’ through ethnographic research. She has recently obtained her PhD degree at the Anthropology Department at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE). The PhD thesis explores the ethical life of Muslims in West Bengal, India. In particular, it explores the everyday experiences and vernacular meanings of secularism in relation to contemporary transformations in Islamic belief and practice. In subsequent research, Fernande aims to further explore the nature of ethical and religious life, and alternative experiences and meanings of secularism, both in South Asia and beyond.

She has recently joined the FaithXchange Research Network as a coordinator. For more information, visit her Academia.edu page.



Event Report: Sun, Surf, and Symposia: Attending the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion’s 2015 Annual Meeting

Alex Uzdavines reflects on the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) 2015 annual meeting.  He reflects on what the field of nonreligious studies has achieved so far, and where it may go in the future.


Having attended the University of California, Irvine for both an undergraduate and a master’s program, I learned how to enjoy Orange County. This was one of the reasons I was looking forward to this year’s Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) Annual Meeting in Newport Beach, California, which was held October 23-25, 2015. Before the opportunity to take in some excellent research presentations, meet up with conference buddies, and make new ones, I got to show these buddies quite a few of the things that make Orange County a damned nice place to be. (The fact that the ocean was unseasonably warm was icing.) To put it academically: body surfing was accomplished, great Mexican food occurred, and a great deal of fun was partaken in.

By Friday morning we were plenty relaxed and ready to soak in some scholarship in addition to the rays. For me, the conference was bookended by book sessions. The first was an Author(s) Meet Critics session featuring Joseph Baker and Buster Smith’s book, American Secularism: The Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems (2015), organized by Andrew Whitehead. The session began with an overview of the book, which outlines what it means to be secular in America through both quantitative and qualitative work. The authors break secularity into groups and show why this is important given the heterogeneous nature of their population; they make a case for both expanding the “Sociology of Religion” to include secularity, and arguing that it should encompass diverse “secularities” in much the way it encompasses sub-groups of religious categories. The biggest take-away from the panel was simple: it’s a very good book and is probably the new default citation when discussing the basics of American secularity.

Penny Edgell began the critical part of the session by providing a good grounding for the rest of the panel. She suggested that privilege and power (i.e. whiteness and maleness) matter when looking at “stronger” secularities like those found among the New Atheist movement, and discussed how research into secular people’s meaning-making processes is likely to be the next step for the field. David Voas framed the book in terms of secularization theory and how it calls the idea of American Exceptionalism to Secularization into doubt. He also commented on the co-option of the term “secularism” away from its original usage, which has been restricted to the “separation of church and state”. The latter half of the panel was held down by Phil Zuckerman and Ryan Cragun. Phil further shifted the framing of the book as a bridge between secularization theory and secular studies, which focuses more on the interdisciplinary investigation of “lived experience”. He also argued that the book undervalues the roles of the Internet and individualism as possible reasons for increasing secularity in America. Ryan brought up a number of critiques, while also keeping the “love fest” going. He mentioned that the authors should have included more theory; specifically, the book would have been even stronger had it included testable predictions rather than just descriptive theory.

The most personally striking moment of the session came when Phil made a call for more interdisciplinary work by outright saying, “We need more Psychology of Secularity.” As a psychology trainee, my reaction was to both agree wholeheartedly and think back to what Penny had mentioned about looking into the meaning-making processes of secular Americans. While I also agree with Phil’s general commentary that Psychology is still catching up to Sociology in terms of working with secularity, when it comes to meaning-making my field has quite a bit to contribute. While my own interest in meaning-making is strongly pulled toward clinical and health psychology and is grounded in work by Crystal Park (e.g. Park, 2010, 2005), meaning-making is researched in many areas of psychology (e.g. Heine et al., 2006; Singer, 2004). Hopefully, those of us interested in studying secularism can continue to work interdisciplinarily, allowing for a cross-pollination of ideas.


At the end of the conference, the book session for Heinz Streib and Ralph Hood’s Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality: A Cross-Cultural Analysis (2016) was prefaced by a session in which several members of the book’s research team spoke about its different aspects. Of particular interest to NRSN readers was Thomas Coleman’s talk (2015). Thomas highlighted the narrative of a man who described himself as religious, spiritual, and atheist. While my initial reaction was to be somewhat perplexed, as the talk went on this man’s worldview began to make more sense, especially in light of the idea of “secularities” discussed a few days before. He religiously oriented himself around the meditative practice of Zen Buhddism and spoke of spiritually extending to something beyond his physical self through meditation, yet also strongly rejected both the idea of a god and even the existence of the supernatural, placing him squarely in the realm of atheism. Hearkening back to Phil’s discussion of “lived experience,” it will be important to allow the data we collect from the secular people we study to define our terms. Fortunately, that’s precisely what both American Secularism and Semantics did (Baker and Smith, 2015; Streib and Hood, 2016). In the case of Semantics, their focus on “spirituality” went beyond secular populations; to define the term, they collected data using a combination of survey scales and qualitative interviews with both believers and nonbelievers. The authors used these data to generate a conceptual space that attempts to cover the broad meanings of “spirituality” in a way that is validly inclusive of believers and nonbelievers. While their conceptual map of “spirituality” is still a work in progress, by allowing nonbelievers to describe their own meaning of the term, Streib and Hood’s work is an excellent step beyond simply applying a construct of “spirituality” to nonbelievers that was generated solely through believers’ definitions.

Obviously, there were many excellent talks of interest to secularity researchers at this year’s SSSR annual meeting. Almost every timeslot in the program had a session with at least one talk directly related to secularity. Two sessions which stood out in particular were Atheism: Varieties, Well-Being, Moral Decision Making, and Distress and Non-Religious, Nones, and “Dones”: Origins, Identity,

Community, and Participation. I’ve learned to anticipate a high level of scholarship within our field at religion conferences, and this one set the bar even higher.


Baker, J.O., Smith, B.G., 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. NYU Press.

Coleman, T.J.I., 2015. Identity is Complex: On Becoming a “Spiritual” and “Religious” “Atheist,” in: Changes in Religion and Worldview: Longitudinal Perspectives. Presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Annual Meeting.

Heine, S.J., Proulx, T., Vohs, K.D., 2006. The Meaning Maintenance Model – On the coherence of social motivations. Personality and Social Psychological Review. 10(2), 88–110.

Park, C.L., 2010. Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events. Psychological. Bulletin. 136(2), 257–301.

Park, C.L., 2005. Religion as a Meaning-Making Framework in Coping with Life Stress. Journal of Social Issues. 61(4), 707–729.

Singer, J.A., 2004. Narrative Identity and Meaning Making Across the Adult Lifespan: An Introduction. Journal of Personality. 72(3), 437–460.

Streib, H., Hood, R.W.J. (Eds.), 2016. Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality. New York: Springer International Publishing.

Alex Uzdavines was born in San Diego, CA and existed for a number of years before deciding to pursue Psychology after taking most of the coursework in it offered by the San Diego Community College District. He transferred to and earned his BA in Psychology and Social Behavior and MA in Demographic and Social Analysis from the University of California, Irvine. He is a Clinical Psychology graduate student in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, working under Professor Julie Exline. His primary research interests are in the psychology of (non)religion and (non)spirituality, with an emphasis on studying how (non)beliefs contribute to spiritual struggles and well-being.

Event Report: Why Nonreligion is the New Religion

LoisLaunching the new website, the first NSRN blog of the year is director Lois Lee’s report on Linda Woodhead’s recent British Academy lecture. This event provided an opportunity, she argues, to reflect on the development of the study of nonreligion to this point, including its relationship with the study of religion – and to celebrate its rosy prospects. 

Linda Woodhead’s lecture at the British Academy in London last week – on ‘Why Nonreligion is the New Religion’ – felt momentous. Quite appropriately, as this was Woodhead’s inaugural speech as a Fellow of the Academy. But I was also struck by the foregrounding not of religion but of nonreligion at this most auspicious of occasions.

Woodhead’s interest in nonreligion is not surprising in itself. She has been a long-term advocate of its study and her interest pre-dates the formation of the NSRN and has continued in conversation with it. Rather, I was struck by the context and the setting. To get to my seat, I forged a path from Trafalgar Square, passing Whitehall and the Mall – those seats of British power – and down Pall Mall, then passing the plush, dimly lit rooms of the Institute of Directors, lined with gilt-framed oil paintings, to the buildings of the British Academy. Inside the BA, we passed along marbled lobbies, carpeted corridors, a grand staircase up to the chamber (surely ‘room’ is too plain a word) where the lecture was to given, under the warm glow of chandeliers. If mine and others’ work has agitated for the academy (small ‘a’) to ‘recognise the nonreligious’, it was hard to escape the feeling that this welcome into the Academy (big ‘A’) was a noteworthy point on its journey. And that is something that many in the NSRN should and will celebrate.

Still, I was drawn out of these self-interested reveries by Diarmaid MacCulloch[i]’s  small but significant aside: to paraphrase, ‘some might think that faith was not worth the BA talking about’. To a sociologist of religion, like myself, the reminder that anyone might think this so often comes as a surprise. One does not need to hold MacCulloch’s view that religion is a growing force in society to have a strong sense that it is still a force to be reckoned with.

But this opening statement brings home an important point about the historic neglect of nonreligious populations in the academy, too – that its own marginalisation is also built upon the marginalisation of religion as an object of study. Nonreligious subjectivities may be under-studied because they have been naturalised – as Talal Asad, Timothy Fitzgerald, Colin Campbell and others have pointed to. But, since the secularisation paradigm understood religiosity itself to be a transient, increasingly outmoded phenomenon, sociologists can be primed to notice when religion expires, rather than the emergence of alternatives – the beliefs, identities and practices that it transforms into.

MacCulloch’s remark reminded me once more that sociologists of religion were not so much hogging the field, refusing to make room for the study of the nonreligious, as they were absorbed in their own battles to have religion recognised as an object of study – and that the study of religion remains precarious still.

Ultimately, both the study of religion and of nonreligion are vulnerable, though each for their own and culturally contingent reasons. If there is cause for optimism – and I think that there is – that is because recognising the nonreligious in scholarship is one important way of supporting, even guaranteeing the study of religion for the longer term. And vice versa. To recognise the nonreligious is to adopt an inclusive understanding of the field ‘religious’ studies. This should broaden its relevance and appeal – especially in contexts in which the nonreligious make up a sizable portion of the population, even a majority as it now does in the UK (a point that Woodhead discussed). An inclusive approach to thinking about religion – or beyond it – should not be the preoccupation of a few , but something which we recognise that we all have a stake in, whether traditionally religious, alternatively spiritual, nonreligious or areligious.

Woodhead’s talk demonstrated that knowledge about the religious and the nonreligious have the capacity to enrich one another. She pointed to several intriguing findings of her current, UK-focused research. She pointed, for example, to the remarkable stickiness of nonreligious identities compared to religious ones: nonreligious parents will almost always pass on this identity to their children, whilst religious parents will only be half as successful. She also made a powerful argument in support of the view that nonreligious affiliates – i.e. those who identify themselves as having ‘no religion’ on surveys – should be recognised as a significant and heterogeneous constituency in its own right and one demanding further study – something that NSRN researchers will no doubt salute.

Woodhead also made interesting observations about the way in which ‘no religion’ has replaced the Church of England as a national ‘religion’. It is not only that nonreligion is the new norm, but that it overlaps with other, authorised notions of Britishness: whiteness, being British-born and politically liberal. At the same time, she described a disjunction between the conservative messages of Anglican leaders in the UK and the liberalism of the majority of church-members. Thus, liberals are being drawn to nonreligion and pushed away from religion at the same time – a notion that nicely illustrates how the study of nonreligion and religion often need to be done together.

Woodhead raised points for debate, too. I would challenge, for example, her reliance on ‘positive atheist’ beliefs (i.e. ‘I believe that God does not exist’) to measure non-theistic believers. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins claims to be an agnostic with a leaning towards positive atheism – 6 out of 7 on a scale from certain theist to certain non-theist; hence the ‘probably’ in the Atheist Bus Campaign slogan, ‘There Probably Is No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’. It’s not clear, therefore, that even Dawkins would select the positive atheist category rather than the strong agnostic one also provided. In general, in fact, analysts do not give the strong agnostic category enough attention compared to the positive atheist one.

I wasn’t wholly convinced either by the suggestion that Denmark and the UK differ very greatly in terms of religion. Other data show a remarkably similar profile between the two countries overall, even when the high rate of Church membership that Woodhead pointed to is taken into consideration. [ii]

But such points of contention only prove the point of how fruitful the study of nonreligion is and could be, not only in its own right but also as an aspect of an integrated study of religion, spirituality, nonreligion and areligion – how many debates there are to have, how many questions to pursue, how much light to be shed on the one from accounting for the other. The event was a celebration – most importantly for Woodhead and her great achievements in the study of religion – but also, I think, for a dynamic, creative, outward-looking field of nonreligious studies that is really coming into its own.

Siegers, Pascale. 2010. A Multiple Group Latent Class Analysis of Religious Orientations in Europe. In Cross-Cultural Analysis: Methods and Applications, edited by E. Davidov, P. Schmidt and J. Billet. New York, NY: Routledge: 387-413.

Zuckerman, Phil. 2008. Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. New York: New York University Press.

[i] Historian of Christianity and our chair for the evening

[ii] Phil Zuckerman, for example, uses Denmark in his 2008 study of ‘godless societies’, whilst Pascal Siegers (2010) comparative work shows the UK and Denmark having extraordinarily similar profiles when it comes to the balance of traditional religion, alternative spirituality, active nonreligiosity and general indifference.

Lois Lee is research associate at the Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL, PI on the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief project (John Templeton Foundation) and Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network co-director. Recent publications include Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular (OUP, 2015) and Negotiating Religion: Cross-Disciplinary Approaches (Ashgate, in press).