Forest Experiences as Nonreligious ‘Frame of Reference’

In this blog, Rebecca Banham explores how experiences in forests can help shape nonreligious understandings of a person’s place in the world.

Landscapes can help people understand and express who they are, and where they fit into the world. My research[1] explored this idea through qualitative interviews with 27 people who were ‘interested in forests and forest issues’ in Tasmania, Australia. Forests can be understood as a ‘frame of reference’ for nonreligious understandings of what it means to be human. Here I will focus on three (brief) examples of this process: feeling ‘small’ and connecting to ‘something bigger’; relationships of trust; and experiences of wonder.

My research used Giddens’ ‘ontological security’ – the trust most people have that the world, and their self-identity, is stable and predictable[2] – to ask: how do forests shape a person’s sense of being, of existence, of who they are? My research was not about non/religion, and it has only been ‘after the fact’ that I have come to see nonreligion in participants’ responses. It could be that some participants would describe themselves as religious, but this was not evident in the way they talked about their time in forests.

As such, I am not focusing on the experiences of nonreligious individuals per se. Instead, I am interested in thinking through what the concept of ‘nonreligion’ offers to research about human-nonhuman engagements. Quack et al.’s relational understanding of nonreligion describes nonreligion as “a position in a field rather than an essentialist characteristic of people … not defined a priori but analyzed instead as an object and outcome of social (including scholarly) constructions and contestations.”[3] I think of participants’ stories as examples of nonreligious experiences: meaningful and significant experiences that tell us about our place in the world outside of a religious context. Participants’ descriptions of their forest experiences echo aspects of ‘living as a human’ that might commonly be expressed in religious terms– ways of making meaning and sense of the world – without referencing religious beliefs, practices, organisations, or affiliations. The historical dominance of religious (in Australia, Christian[4]) constructions of ontology means that these experiences are necessarily related to religion and ‘religio-normativity’,[5] and yet are distinctly not religious. Put another way, experiences in forests can give us ‘another’ (nonreligious) way to make sense of our existence.

Something ‘bigger’

For many participants, forests represent the bigger ‘network’ that humans are part of. Participants described feeling they were ‘a part of something’ so big, it envelops any individual life:  

[Being in the forest] makes me feel like I’m part of … a really grounded part of what’s happening in the world … I’m in this place where all this is happening and I’m part of it, you know. (Henry)

These descriptions run parallel with a sense of humility. As Jane put it:

I just find that very humbling, to think, you know, there’s a whole lot of creatures extremely adept at living in that environment [but] if I got lost down there, I would die.

Some participants described a feeling of ‘smallness’ and vulnerability. This was not a negative or threatening experience. As Amelia described:

…you think about the bigger picture and put things into perspective. But it’s not like … a ‘oh my gosh I’m so small, this is pointless’ kind of feeling. Yeah. It’s a good feeling somehow.

This research took place in a society built upon Western colonialist models of expansion and extraction – a society deeply concerned with the denial of vulnerability.[6] Whether because of or despite this, participants seemed humbled and happy to feel small. Here, humility does not simply equate to feeling scared, but instead indicates that the individual is ‘part of something’. I suggest that to express feeling a ‘part of  something’ is a nonreligious way to articulate a sense of belonging within a wider network of existence. 


Walking in forests is dangerous; even the most experienced of Tasmanian walkers could face injuries, adverse conditions, becoming lost, or encounters with venomous snakes. When walking, participants engaged in preparatory routines and a healthy dose of caution:

Yeah, lots of planning … plan your route, look, pore over the maps. Get all your food organised, get all your clothes organised. Make certain everything is in waterproof bags. Pack your bag. And the last thing you do, the day before, is … sign in, and then sign out… my grandmother and grandfather always said you never go into the bush when it’s windy, so I don’t do that because it’s just too unsafe. (Diane)

These preparations are important – as Henry said, they are “all a bit boring really, but it is part of the ritual” – as they represent a (nonreligious) routinised way of forming a trusting relationship with the nonhuman. While participants were aware and cautious, and mindful of the ‘right’ things to do to alleviate danger, a few participants still told me about various ‘near misses’. They seemed to accept the dangers of walking, and that if something went wrong, it was not the forest ‘at fault’. Tim Harries argues a similar point about flooding being perceived as a more palatable incursion on home life than a burglary would be, as the “perceived moral neutrality of natural seems to render flooding more acceptable.”[7] For my participants, forests seemed to present a space in which the vulnerability and mortality of humans is ever-present, but where people can (barring a serious incident) partially and safely confront this vulnerability through nonreligious practices.


Around two-thirds of participants discussed their emotional responses to forests. These were both positive and negative (with the three most common descriptions being awe, joy, and despair about ecological destruction). While joy and excitement might be ‘lighter’ experiences, awe is a positive experience grounded in gravitas:

[The feeling is] one of absolute awe, really. It’s awe, it’s response to majesty, response to extraordinary light that penetrates down … it’s just awe and joy and delight. (Ken)

Joy, fascination, and awe – all common descriptions from participants – can be summarised as ‘wonder’. Wonder is a transformative and empowering experience, “about learning to see the world as something that does not have to be, and as something that came to be, over time, and with work.”[8] Sara Ahmed is writing about becoming a feminist, but I see parallels with coming to be a lover of (or advocate for) forests. These are stories of encountering the world – not just the forest, but the world of humans and nonhumans at large – in new, empowering, humbling, and joyous ways. Wonder in the forest is a nonreligious way of seeing the world anew.


It is by acknowledging the forest’s intricate and unpredictable details that participants were able to engage with concepts of ontology, and locate themselves in a world that precedes and outlasts them. The stories above are only some brief examples of nonreligious experiences with the nonhuman, where engaging with the materiality and vulnerability of others (including wildlife and landscapes) can tell religious and nonreligious individuals alike something about “their place in the world and in the environment in which they live.”[9] There are many more stories to tell. The language used by these participants is not innately nonreligious. However, in finding parallels between nonreligious and religious experiences and language, we can see how participants used their experiences with/in forests to comprehend and articulate complex, abstract, nonreligious ideas of what it means to ‘be’.

Sources Cited

[1] Rebecca Banham, “Seeing the forest for the trees: Ontological security and experiences of Tasmanian forests,” PhD thesis, University of Tasmania, 2019.

[2] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

[3] Johannes Quack, Cora Schuh, and Susanne Kind, The Diversity of Nonreligion: Normativities and Contested Relations (United Kingdom: Routledge, 2019), 9-13.

[4] Whether despite, or perhaps sometimes in reaction to, rising numbers of people identifying as nonreligious in Australia. See Douglas Ezzy, Gary Bouma, Greg Barton, Anna Halafoff, Rebecca Banham, Robert Jackson, and Lori Beaman, “Religious Diversity in Australia: Rethinking Social Cohesion,” Religions 11, no. 2. (2020): 92.

[5] Quack et al., The Diversity of Nonreligion.

[6] John Barry, The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability: Human Flourishing in a Climate-Changed, Carbon-Constrained World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[7] Tim Harries, “Feeling secure or being secure? Why it can seem better not to protect yourself against a natural hazard,” Health, Risk & Society 10, no. 5 (2008): 486.

[8] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2004), 180.

[9]  Lori G. Beaman, “Living well together in a (non)religious future: Contributions from the sociology of religion,” Sociology of Religion 78, no. 1 (2017): 10.

Dr. Rebecca Banham is a Research Fellow at the University of Tasmania, where she completed her PhD in environmental sociology in 2019. She is particularly interested in the intersections of emotion, relationship, (non)religion, and the nonhuman. Rebecca currently works as a Research Fellow on the Australian Research Council project, ‘Religious diversity in Australia: Maintaining social cohesion and preventing violence’. She is also associated with the international research project ‘Nonreligion in a Complex Future’, led by Professor Lori Beaman.

NSRN Annual Lecture (2020)

The NSRN is pleased to announce that the 2020 Annual Lecture, titled “Going Godless: Black Feminism, Humanism, and Anti-Racism”, will be given by Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson on 10 December, 2020 (13:00 – 14:00 EST) as a free online event open to all. Please see the attached poster here for more information.

To attend, please RSVP with Vanessa Turyatunga at

Going Godless: Black Feminism, Humanism, and Anti-Racism
According to a 2012 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation Survey, 87% of African American women are religious, making African American women among the most religious demographic groups in the U.S. Although Black women have long been stereotyped as the “backbone” of the Black Church, some Black women non-theists and humanists are bucking these traditions to challenge organized religion. Historically, Black women have relied on churches and faith-based institutions as vehicles for political organizing, cultural identity, and community solidarity. It is for this reason, as well as the slave-era stigma associated with Black female sexuality, that being a Black female humanist and atheist is even more taboo than being a Black male atheist. Dehumanized as either hyper-sexual Jezebels or asexual Aunt Jemimas, Black women have been constructed as less moral, less human, less chaste, and less civilized than respectable white Christian women. “Going Godless” will examine this history vis-à-vis the emergence of Black feminist humanist perspectives in the American secular humanist and atheist movements. For example, how have Black women humanists and atheists drawn on the feminist/womanist legacy of writers and thinkers like Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Walker, and Nella Larsen? How are they challenging the traditional church/state separation agenda of the mainstream atheist/humanist movements? And what intersectional issues inform a Black feminist humanist political agenda as racial, gender, and socioeconomic inequality intensifies in the U.S.?

A recording of the lecture is available here:

Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Conference Call for Papers (2021)

Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Conference – 16-18 June, 2021

The growing number of nonreligious individuals poses new challenges for societies experiencing simultaneous intensification of religious diversity and renewed presence of religion in the public sphere. The impact of this shift is profound, contributing to social anxiety and divisions as societies become both more and less religious. These tensions are likely to deepen as the nonreligious play a more significant political role. Consequently, we need a better understanding of the moral and social dimensions of nonreligion and secularity, the socio-cultural circumstances of their emergence, and how nonreligion, secularity, spirituality and religion are negotiated simultaneously in social institutions such as in health, the law, education, the economy, politics, the environment, culture, recreation and leisure, as well as migration. Given that the nonreligious populations of many countries are growing rapidly, understanding the implications of this shift is key to addressing the pressing issue of how complex diversities can coexist in positive ways.

The Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) invites both paper and session proposals for its 2021 conference titled Nonreligion in a Complex Future. The 2021 NSRN conference will be held in partnership with the Nonreligion in a Complex Future (NCF) project, based at the University of Ottawa (Canada) and led by Professor Lori Beaman.

Given the ongoing travel and gathering restrictions related to COVID-19, the 2021 NSRN conference will be delivered using a virtual format. This format has the benefits of potentially allowing for more international attendees, no monetary costs for attendees and participants (the virtual NSRN 2021 conference will be free to attend and participate in!), lower health risks, and a positive impact on the environment as no travel is required. Reasonable daily time slots will be found for conference presenters from all global time zones.

Please see the attached Call for Papers here for more information and instructions on how to submit paper and session proposals.

All paper and session proposals must be e-mailed to by the end of the day on Monday the 1st of February 2021. For any questions, please contact the programme chair Dr. Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme by e-mail at

Call for Papers:

Science and Enchantment in Ordinary Non-Religion

In this blog, Amy Unsworth explores and raises important questions concerning the relationships between “enchanted worldviews” and science in the lives of the nonreligious.

Surveys show that many British people believe in fate, ghosts, an afterlife or other kinds of spiritual or paranormal phenomena. The figures seem a bit surprising for a country that has seen a rise in the numbers of atheists and non-religious people in the past few decades. It’s commonly assumed that Britain has become “disenchanted”, in the sense that people no longer believe, as their forbears once did, in gods, ghosts and spirits that animate the world. Closely related is another assumption: that now we have more-or-less “subtracted” our shared public religious understandings of the world, we will be left with the “genuine deliverance of science, the truth about things, including ourselves, which was waiting all along to be discovered.”[1]

The ‘new atheist’ movement that rose to prominence in the mid-2000s contributed to this impression that if we could just throw off the remnants of religion then people would surely accept scientific evidence (usually measured simply by their acceptance of evolutionary theory) and presumably come to hold a thoroughly materialist understanding of life. Thanks to a flurry of popular books and considerable media coverage, the new atheists’ high-profile brand of scientific atheism is likely seen as representative of atheism in Britain, and quite probably of non-religion more broadly too. Unfortunately for Richard Dawkins, a key figure in new atheism, disenchanted materialism may not be as common as he would like. For example, in a YouGov poll I commissioned a few years ago, although a huge majority of non-religious people said they accepted human evolution, only half said that evolution happens solely through natural processes.[2]

I am interested in exploring orientations towards science among individuals living without religion, recognising that in this area we know little about the worldviews of non-religious people who do not appear to hold to the scientific materialism of the new atheists. It’s now becoming clear that a decline in traditional religiosity does not necessarily lead people to adopt a disenchanted worldview; indeed we may instead see the proliferation of various enchanted worldviews in societies where institutional religion is of limited influence.[3] And while there have been many studies of institutional religion and its relationship with science, far less attention has been paid to the relationship between what we might term non-religious enchantments and modern science.  In my current research, I am trying to excavate the interactions between science and various enchanted worldviews in the lives of ordinary non-religious people living in Britain by conducting interviews and surveys. I am particularly focusing on interviewing working-class people who have not been to university, as this large demographic has tended to be overlooked in the sociological study of non-religion. I offer here some ideas about the various ways that people may be negotiating science and enchantment in our times, as well as raising questions that I aim to answer in the course of my research. My aims are twofold: 1) to better characterise enchantment in our so-called scientific age and 2) to explore whether various enchanted worldviews have any consequences for how people receive and act upon scientific advice.

It’s clear that scientific ideas or language can act as an inspiration or departure point for a huge range of worldviews that are not strictly disenchanted. Some of these are clearly religious in nature, such as the notion of “creation science” that developed within conservative Protestantism. Others are broader in their appeal. For example, the idea that the universe has higher dimensions has been used to support belief in ghosts, miracles and other kinds of phenomena that might otherwise be labelled supernatural.[4] This has led to the suggestion that a more scientific supernatural now exists, a term describing concepts that are “suggested by scientific theory or… evidence while also at least partially eluding scientific tests, instruments or measurements.”[5] These kinds of ideas offer very rich resources for entertainment (think of the popularity of the Netflix series Stranger Things), but to what extent do people actually incorporate aspects of these scientific supernatural ideas into their own worldviews – and are there any real-world consequences of holding such beliefs?

In the past few years, sales of tarot cards have rocketed, which could be interpreted as growth in enchantment of a different kind. This may or may not be the case. Some who use or practice tarot may do so in a thoroughly disenchanted way, seeing it as a spectacle that “delights but does not delude”[6], much as people enjoy conjurors’ tricks without believing in magic. Or what about the person who explains that tarot is a helpful tool to help them better access their own intuition? The boundary between enchanted/disenchanted thinking is not entirely clear here, but the belief that life’s answers lie within ourselves and can be accessed through various practices or techniques has undoubtedly grown in recent years in the West, drawing on western magic, eastern spiritualities as well as concepts from modern psychology. While we used to look for answers and explanations in external spirits and gods, we now look deep within, to an inner spirit  – or what we might describe as an enchanted self.[7] Does trusting in one’s own intuition or inner knowledge come at the expense of trusting or acting upon scientific information, or do most people simply deploy these different kinds of knowing in different situations?

Conspiracy theories can also be thought of as bridging enchanted and disenchanted ways of thinking.  Within theistic worldviews, “global evils” – such as the global coronavirus pandemic for example – might be explained through supernatural forms of agency such as God’s judgement or the work of the Devil. Conspiracy theorists are similarly seeking explanation in the form of unseen powerful agents, but these agents are “disenchanted devils”: human rather than spiritual in nature. Are these secular and religious forms of explanation in direct competition with each other, as well as with the scientific consensus (where that exists)? If not, what kinds of hybrid forms do we see emerging in people’s understandings and how are these constructed?

Research that probes traditional religion and its relationship with science usually lacks the categories to answer the questions I’ve raised here. My hope is that the study of ‘science and enchantment’ will provide a way to better understand a range of non-religious worldviews that are not well represented by scientific atheism.

Sources Cited

[1] Taylor, C. (2009). A Secular Age. Harvard University Press. Chicago, p575

[2] Unsworth, A., & Voas, D. (2018). Attitudes to evolution among Christians, Muslims and the Non-Religious in Britain: Differential effects of religious and educational factors. Public Understanding of Science27(1), 76-93.

[3] Josephson-Storm, J. A. (2017). The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, modernity, and the birth of the human sciences. University of Chicago Press.

[4] White, C. G. (2018). Other worlds: spirituality and the search for invisible dimensions. Harvard University Press. Chicago 

[5] Ibid p.4

[6] Saler, M. (2006). Modernity and Enchantment: A Historiographic Review The American Historical Review111(3), 692-716.

[7] Froese, P. (2016). On purpose: How we create the meaning of life. Oxford University Press.

Amy Unsworth is a Research Fellow in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London (UCL). She studies science popularization and public understandings of science, particularly in relation to religion and non-religion.  

Eating Animals, Nonreligion and Reconciling Human-Nonhuman Relations

In this blog, Anna Sofia Salonen considers the need to incorporate nonreligious people when looking at the relationships between humans and nonhumans.

Eating in general, and eating animals in particular, is a key aspect when considering human relationships with nonhuman others. It is also a question at the heart of the study of religion. How people relate to the question of eating animals is pivotal in many religions and embedded in theological questions concerning human relationships with and responsibilities towards nonhuman creation. But how should we approach the question of eating animals in a world where nonreligion is thriving? Does the rapid rise of nonreligion change how people relate to the nonhuman world, or even who we eat?

Christianity has been accused of promoting a theology of dominion that sets humans above nature as masters and abusers. This position justifies humans’ overconsumption of the earth’s food sources. On the other hand, the Christian idea of stewardship coveys an idea that humans should take care of the world around us. However, with the implicit hierarchy between humans and the rest of creation, the idea of stewardship also implies that the nonhuman world is a resource to be utilized for human use.

Lately, Christian thinkers have explored insightful new ways of envisioning humanity’s place and responsibility within creation (e.g. Warners & Heun 2019). This relationship would be based on reconciled relations between humans and nonhuman others and lead to more sustainable eating practices. Reconciliation is a theological concept that addresses the renewal of relationships. It is said to remove distortion and create the conditions for harmonious relationships (Voster 2018).

As fruitful as these explorations of restored relations might otherwise be, they often exclude many people from their scope by referring to their audiences as “we Christians”. This seemingly inclusive, yet ultimately exclusive language not only ignores other religions, but also nonreligious people. In the face of the environmental crisis, the challenge to reconcile broken relations between humans and nonhuman others, which includes changing harmful eating practices, confronts all people regardless of religious or nonreligious identity.

There is a need to explore humanity’s place and responsibilities within the world that expand and transcend religious boundaries and make room for nonreligious views and practices. A way forward is to seek points of converge between religious and nonreligious views. In my research on ordinary people’s accounts of eating animals, I found that concepts of dominion, stewardship and reconciliation all resonate in how both religious and nonreligious people talk about their food choices (Salonen 2019).

What I found was, first, that the idea of human dominion over the rest of creation does not only appear in explicitly religious accounts. Nonreligious people use this framing too. They do so by drawing from an idea that humans are naturally carnivores or animals who eat other animals. Further, human dominion is accounted when resorting to the idea that eating animals is a matter of unrestricted individual choice. This view echoes human dominion where people can choose freely what they consume.

Second, my research has found that both religious and nonreligious people draw from a cultural imaginary that emphasizes responsible stewardship. The language of stewardship has influenced the way people, whether religious or nonreligious, tend to comprehend the human-animal relations. In other words, identifying as nonreligious does not straightforwardly lead to the rejection of the idea of human dominion nor stewardship, views which have often been associated with religion, and in particular Christianity.

Further, both religious and nonreligious imaginaries can contain efforts to reconcile detrimental relations between the human and nonhuman world, which are epitomized in how humans mistreat food animals and the factory farm system. The possibility for reconciliation opens once people acknowledge that their eating patterns can cause suffering to animals and when they are no longer sure what the right way to approach the question of eating animals actually is. In other words, reconciliation requires uncertainty, willingness to question one’s actions and withdrawal from justifying one’s views.

Due to this uncertainty and ambivalence, pursuits towards reconciliation and respect do not automatically lead to rejecting eating animals completely, but they can herald a more conscious consumption of animal meat. However, in the context of contemporary consumer society, there is hardly a cultural repertoire that would foster nonreligious expressions of reconciliation. Without ways to express the need and will to reconcile and show respect to food animals, people are left with justifying their existing eating practices rather than seeking change. 

The case of eating animals shows that there is a need to incorporate nonreligious people into the scope of analyses that focus on relationships between humans and nonhumans. The concepts of dominion, stewardship and reconciliation help to make sense of how religious and nonreligious people navigate the consequences of their everyday actions. These ideas guide people in how they tend to see the world – and perhaps inhibit seeing the world in a different light.

Nonreligious people are not one and the same. They do not form a unified group in terms of how they see themselves and the world, and in many ways, they are indistinguishable from the rest of the population. Yet, despite this diversity, it is not enough to approach nonreligion as an absence of religion, or as an abandonment of religiously influenced cultural repertoires of thinking and acting.

Nonreligion and food can bring out points of convergence between religious and nonreligious views. Only a small fraction of people in my study framed their ideas and ideals about eating animals in explicitly religious terms, yet much of what they said resonates with theological accounts that discuss human-nonhuman relations and the humans’ roles and responsibilities in the world. Nonreligious people are both affected by and participate in constituting, reproducing and reimagining relations between humans and nonhuman world. Thus, their views should be counted when discussing these issues.

Keywords: dominion; stewardship; reconciliation; meat consumption; food consumption; nonreligion

Sources Cited

Salonen, A. S. 2019. Dominion, stewardship and reconciliation in the accounts of ordinary people eating animals. Religions 10(12), 669.

Vorster, J. M. 2018. The doctrine of reconciliation: Its meaning and implications for social life. In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi 52: 1–8.

Warners, D. P. & M. K. Heun, eds. 2019. Beyond Stewardship. New Approaches to Creation Care. Grand Rapids: Calvin College Press.

Anna Sofia Salonen is a theologian and sociologist of religion, with a broad interest in nonreligion, food consumption, morality, everyday life and social inequality. She works as an Academy of Finland postdoctoral researcher at Tampere University, Finland. Her current project (Im)moderation in everyday food consumption (2018-2021) explores the content and construction of ethical lives of ordinary people by asking what they consider to be moderate with regards to food consumption and by analyzing how they construct these views.

Atheists and Evangelicals in the United States and Canada: No Love Loss

In this blog Joel Thiessen and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme discuss recent findings from their research which explores Nonreligious identity in the US and Canada. In looking at how different (non)religious groups perceive each other, in particular, they discuss how religious nones tend to be more suspicious and critical of religious groups that they believe are “exclusive,” and more open to groups they perceive to be “inclusive”.

As the proportion of those who say they have no religion grows in both the United States and Canada, one question worth considering is ‘how “religious nones” perceive and are perceived by members of other religious traditions’. This question is especially significant as both countries experience increasing (non)religious diversity, particularly in regions once dominated by various Christian traditions that now find their proportionate representation of the population on the decline. This is one topic that we tackle near the end of our book with New York University Press, None of the Above: Nonreligious Identity in the US and Canada. For discussion of our other findings, see our two earlier NSRN blog posts: “The Religious Nones of North America, and the Beginnings of a Book Project” (July 2017) and “Subtypes of Religious Nones in the United States and Canada” (June 2018).

Drawing upon a range of survey and interview data, two key findings stand out in our research. First, atheists—as a subset of religious nones—and evangelicals reserve their strongest negative views for one another. This polarization is present in both the United States and Canada, but is especially pronounced in the United States. Second, religious nones generally hold more negative views toward perceived “exclusive” groups, and positive views toward perceived “inclusive” groups.

Beginning with atheists and evangelicals in the United States, we turn to our analysis of the raw data from the 2017 Pew American Trends Panel. This survey included a 0-100 feelings thermometer question based on different (non)religious groups. The higher the score, the more positive respondents felt toward the group in question. Overall, Jews (66), Catholics (65), mainline Protestants (63), and Evangelicals (61) scored the highest, while atheists (50) and Muslims (48) scored the lowest. When comparing members of different religious traditions’ perceptions toward atheists in particular, Jews scored the highest (66), followed by Catholics (48), liberal Protestants (46), and Evangelical Protestants (32). Conversely, when religious nones convey their perceptions toward other religious groups, Buddhists are viewed most positively (67), then Jews and Hindus (61), Catholics and mainline Protestants (55), Muslims (51), Mormons (50), and Evangelical Christians (45) (see Figure 5.1 from page 149 of our book, which includes details on how religious nones, marginal affiliates, and active affiliates view different groups). When we focus more directly on atheists in particular, they are most positive toward Buddhists (67) and negative toward Evangelical Christians (29).

In Canada, a 2015 Angus Reid Institute Survey asked Canadians to rate how positive (+1), neutral (0), or negative (-1) they perceived different (non)religious groups. The following scores capture the net differences across the sample. Mainline Protestants lead the way (+36), followed by Catholics (+35), atheists (+4), Evangelical Christians (+3), Sikhs (-9), Mormons (-17), and Muslims (-29). When we compare perceptions toward atheists in particular, Roman Catholics score just above neutral (+2), followed by mainline Protestants (-6), and Evangelicals in a distant last position (-50). (Limited sample size in traditions outside of Christianity preclude comment). Religious nones, in contrast, reveal more favourable views to Buddhists (+38), Hindus (+8), Jews (+6), and mainline Protestants (+5), and negative perceptions for Sikhs and Catholics (-9), Muslims (-28), Mormons (-35), and Evangelicals (-40).

Building on these survey data, in our interviews we discovered that religious nones tend to be more suspicious and critical of religious groups that they believe are “exclusive,” and more open to groups they perceive to be “inclusive.” Here we share two examples. Sandra and her husband did not expose their children to religion in the home. Sandra was offended when her daughter, a recent convert to Evangelical Christianity, returned home one day with this comment from another member in her newfound Evangelical group: “It’s too bad your parents aren’t Christian.” Sandra described this group as:

 “cultish . . . blind worshipping . . . you can believe whatever you want but always keep your mind open, asking questions. As soon as anybody says to you, ‘don’t ask, just obey,’ that to me is a huge warning sign just to back away from that. It seemed to me that it was a whole lot of just worship . . . There was no critical thinking in it.”

Another interviewee, Patrick, singled out Muslims in his critique of religion:

“the Muslim can’t marry outside your religion . . . It’s like, ‘oh if I like this girl I have to become Muslim’ . . . if you’re a Muslim you can’t marry . . . like what the hell not, like what makes me not good enough anymore?  Just because I’m not in the same religion . . . the Muslim is like not being able to marry outside your circle . . . and then . . . having your wife wear the shawl . . . you can see the control on the woman . . . like it’s you have to follow this, and it’s like, ‘oh, it’s . . . her choice’ . . . yeah it’s her choice because you brainwash her into thinking it was her choice.”

Patrick is not critical toward all religious groups, however:

 “I mean the Buddhist . . . is something that I would identify more towards . . . because they don’t have, per se, as much written . . . and then they’re not as destructive as Muslim and Catholic . . . Like that one is a lot more peaceful and it’s like inner peace.”

In our book we unpack some of the social, cultural, and historical reasons for these perceptions of the “other,” which include considerations of how these perceptions are reinforced or challenged in various institutional settings (e.g., law, media, and education). As The Thomas Theorem in sociology reminds us, our perceptions shape our realities which then become real in their consequences. Therefore, we maintain that it is important to understand the ways that different groups perceive one another, where and why certain (non)polarizing perceptions are advanced or rejected, and ultimately how different (non)religious communities can coexist with one another in diverse and plural contexts in the future.

Keywords: atheists; evangelicals; polarization; diversity; pluralism

Joel Thiessen is professor of sociology and director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Canada. He is the author of The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age and co-author of The Millennial Mosaic: How Pluralism and Choice are Shaping Canadian Youth and the Future of Canada.

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Her research interests include sociology of religion, quantitative methods, social change, race, ethnicity and immigration and political sociology.

Is Mindfulness a Religion for Unbelievers?

In this blog, Sara Rahmani shares some qualitative findings from a longitudinal mixed-methods study exploring the diversity of unbelief in the mindfulness subcultures of the UK and the US.

Mindfulness meditation has entered the mainstream Western culture as a secular and scientific technique that supports physical and mental health. Given this representation, mindfulness meditation is particularly appealing to unbelievers (e.g., atheists, agnostics, and nones) who desire self-transformation yet wish to keep traditional religions at arm’s length.

Two years ago, my colleagues and I started a longitudinal, mixed-method project funded by the Understanding Unbelief program to explore the diversity of unbelief in the mindfulness subcultures of the UK and the US and answer a question unsettling to most practitioners and advocates of this practice: “is mindfulness a secular religion for unbelievers?” In this piece, I summarise the qualitative findings of this two-year study and argue that mindfulness meditation commonly functions as a gateway to secular Buddhism and that mindfulness is best seen as a “scientific spirituality.”

First, I should note that despite what is often claimed, even “secularised” forms of mindfulness are loaded with Buddhist metaphysical assumptions and aim to cultivate, within the practitioner, a particular view of reality [Brown 2016; 2017].  Indeed, most institutionalised mindfulness-based programs gesture towards a comprehensive worldview that have the Buddha’s Four Noble Truth and the Eightfold Path as their conceptual foundation [Husgafvel 2018], although they are often not explicitly addressed as such. Instead, Buddhist concepts are translated into a scientific language and a range of discursive strategies are used to support the claim that mindfulness is inherently secular. For instance, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, argues that mindfulness is not “Buddhist” but the “essence” of the Buddha’s teachings, which are “universal” and “compatible with science”; that instead of soteriological concerns, the practice is focused on eradicating “suffering” in the “here and now”; and that mindfulness is distinct from religion because it is an “evidence-based” “tool” that supports “mental health.”

These discourses were also found in the language of our study’s committed mindfulness meditators—most of whom were attracted to mindfulness precisely for its secular framing and validated health benefits. Take, for example, the following passage from my conversation with Juno, who despite identifying with Buddhist teachings, used science as a discursive strategy to argue why mindfulness is distinct from religious categories:

“I’m more keen on science. And with mindfulness the science is evolving. It may be that Jesus and the Buddha had insights into their beings and what made them happy and fulfilled and compassionate to others. And didn’t necessarily have the scientific underpinning of that” (Rahmani, forthcoming).

Besides adopting the same discursive strategies, the analysis of the language of thirty-two unbelievers revealed three common patterns of change, or movement away from a strictly atheist position: (1) atheist Buddhism, (2) agnostic Buddhism, and (3) spirituality. Indeed, there were a few exceptions to these trends. For instance, the case study of an individual who despite increased engagement with mindfulness, remained firmly grounded in her materialistic worldview.

Atheist Buddhism describes the position of those participants who adopted a naturalistic and pragmatic approach to the teachings of the Buddha (dharma). Specifically, they advocated a this-worldly interpretation of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path and rejected supernatural entities, transcendental realms, and the notion of karma linked to literal rebirth. They rendered any Buddhist concept that violates this secular vision as cultural baggage of ancient India. Beyond the view that Buddhism offers them a rational scheme for addressing human predicament, the atheist Buddhists stressed that their approach to Buddhist ethics are purely intellectual, empirically grounded, and autonomous. In fact, they were most likely to emphasise the individualistic benefits they gained from mindfulness: self-acceptance, self-knowledge, and self-development.

Agnostic Buddhism describes the position of those who also saw the world through the prism of dharma. However, they held an ambivalent position towards metaphysical concepts and transcendental realms or emphasised that it is impossible to assess the validity of these truth claims. These individuals commonly saw mindfulness as a useful tool for dealing with, and confronting, death.  Further, they were most likely to emphasise benefits of mindfulness such as compassion, acceptance, and the ability to regulate one’s emotions. Their narrative displayed a strong sense of ambivalence which sometimes manifested as nostalgia for transcendental experiences (“moments of enlightenment”). Linguistically, the agnostic Buddhists seemed determined to present a coherent worldview and used scientific discourses to resolve any perceived dissonance.  

A linguistic examination of their narrative showed that the atheist and agnostic Buddhists were somewhat self-conscious about their close engagement with Buddhism and this affected their discourse on religion, religious identity, and their attitudes towards religious people. For instance, by associating “atheism” with negative words such as “divisive” and “cynicism,” they implicitly distanced themselves from the label. In addition, unlike other participants, they were eager to demonstrate an understanding of the role religion plays in the lives of believers; they emphasised how their engagement with mindfulness has enabled them to “[stop] seeing religion quite as much as a threat and more as a place you can go to for resources.” In fact, most atheist and agnostic Buddhists were happy to frame their private practice of mindfulness as a “spiritual” exercise, inasmuch as the term spirituality was associated with self-development and not with some higher power.

Those who took a spiritual turn, in contrast, commonly conceptualised “religion” in a negative light and reported damaging childhood experiences with religious institutions and people. A central facet of their narratives involved a “spiritual experience,” which often occurred in the context of a meditation retreat. According to their stories, these experiences marked a significant transformation in their views: a conversion from unbelief to belief in a higher realm. I would loosely describe the language of these participants as a peculiar amalgamation of spirituality and Buddhist modernist discourse. They had a selective approach to Buddha’s teachings and believed in the existence of an impersonal higher power, life after death, and the human soul. Yet their negative perception of religion, coupled with a commitment to present the practice in secular light, enticed them to conceal from others (their peers, students, and sometimes their spouses) the fact that their personal mindfulness practice had changed gears towards a spiritual end (e.g., “connecting with the source”). 

Regardless of whether these participants developed an affinity towards Buddhism or whether mindfulness fulfilled a spiritual role in their personal lives, the vast majority of the participants were happy to compartmentalise their personal beliefs from their professional approach to teaching mindfulness. Moreover, most did not consider the strategic rebranding of the practice as ethically problematic. As one participant argued, “you say potato, I say potāto. You say dukkha and I say discrepancy-based processing.”

In sum, the longitudinal data demonstrated that for many practitioners, mindfulness functioned as a gateway to secular Buddhism. For other (also former) unbelievers, it changed their relationship to the transcendence on both “vertical and horizontal” axes (Streib and Klein 2013)—vertical refers to the world beyond, whereas horizontal transcendence captures this-worldly experiences that go beyond the mundane. These apparent shifts in the participants’ worldviews, coupled with the fact that scientific representations of mindfulness were an integral pull factor for unbelievers in the first place, warrants the label “scientific spirituality” for mindfulness meditation.

Sources Cited

Brown, Candy Gunther, 2016. “Can ‘Secular’ Mindfulness Be Separated from Religion?” In Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement, edited by Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes, and Adam Burke, 75–94. Mindfulness in Behavioral Health. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

———. 2017. “Ethics, Transparency, and Diversity in Mindfulness Programs.” In Practitioner’s Guide to Ethics and Mindfulness-Based Interventions, edited by Lynette M. Monteiro, Jane F. Compson, and Frank Musten, 45–85. Mindfulness in Behavioral Health. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Husgafvel, V., 2018. “The ‘Universal Dharma Foundation’ of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: Non-Duality and Mahayana Buddhist Influences in the Work of on Kabat-Zinn.” Contemporary Buddhism 19(2): 275-326.

Rahmani, M. (forthcoming) “Secular Rhetoric as a Legitimating Strategy for Mindfulness Meditation.” In Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies, edited by  Newcombe, S., and O’Brien-Kop, K.. Routledge.

Streib, H., and Klein, C., 2013. “Atheists, Agnostics, and Apostates.” In APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, Volume 1, edited by K.I. Pargament, J. Exline, and J.W. Jones, 713–728. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Dr Masoumeh Sara Rahmani is a researcher and lecturer in Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She has held a Research Associate position in the Brain, Belief, and Behaviour Lab at Coventry University. She received her PhD in this field from University of Otago in 2017. Her research interests include Meditation movements, New Religious Movements, Religious discourse, and Asian religions in non-Asian contexts.  

Event Report: Nonreligion & Secularity in Canada Workshop

In this post, Zach Munro and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme report on the Nonreligion & Secularity in Canada workshop that was held in October 2019. They detail innovative research findings and ongoing debates in the study of nonreligion discussed at the workshop, as well as share some conceptual maps developed by workshop participants that explore how we might diversify and expand the subfield of nonreligion and secularity studies.pic 2pic

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