[Book Review] Religion and Non-Religion Among Australian Aboriginal Peoples edited by James Cox and Adam Possamai

In this post, Liam Sutherland reviews Religion and Non-Religion Among Australian Aboriginal Peoples edited by James Cox and Adam Possamai (2016, Routledge). He praises that the book persuasivelyliam-sutherland demonstrates hybridity of Indigenous Australian identification and makes contributions to postcolonial studies of nonreligion. However, Sutherland argues that the questions of the necessity and appropriateness of defining nonreligion when one investigates how and why indigenous peoples have identified themselves remain.

James Cox and Adam Possamai introduce this collection of essays by noting that according to the 2011 Australian census, identification as ‘non-religious’ is higher among Indigenous Australians (24%) than the general Australian population (22%). This fact challenges the widespread notion that indigenous peoples are overwhelmingly or irrevocably ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ but leads to questions such as, why is identification higher among Indigenous people and what does it actually entail for them specifically? It is questions such as these which drive this volume and its integration of ‘non-religion’ theoretically and empirically into the study of ‘religion’ among Indigenous Australians.

The key theme of the volume is Indigenous Australian cultural hybridity in relation to questions of religious identification. Cox and Possamai make a persuasive case for the use of ‘hybridity’ as an analytical tool (drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin), rejecting ‘syncretism’ because of its pejorative connotations and disavowing any notion of hybridity as the fusion of homogenised entities. For them the key is to emphasise the agency of the actors involved in this hybridisation, reminiscent of Claude Levi-Strauss’ concept of ‘bricolage’, which should challenge the characterisation of indigenous peoples as ‘passive’ recipients of history. Indeed, it would seem impossible to account for the interaction of peoples as once geographically and culturally distant as Europeans and Australian Aborigines without some concept of hybridity.

The first section of the book is specifically concerned with ‘non-religion’ among Indigenous Australians. Cox in his own chapter, examines the prevailing debates about the definition of ‘non-religion’ to provide theoretical groundwork for the incorporation of ‘non-religion’ into wider discussions of Indigenous Australian ‘religion’ or research on contemporary Indigenous peoples generally. He defines religion as involving ‘identifiable communities’ with an authoritative tradition passed down the generations, with that which does not fit this classified as ‘non-religious.’ In their chapter, Awais Piracha, Helena Onnudottir and Kevin Dunn map Indigenous non-religious identification in the greater Sydney area and Australia as a whole. Although rather thin on available data, I would argue, Alan Nixon sets out to test the links between New Atheism and this rising Indigenous non-religion with online research.

The later chapters move on to discuss the continuing hybridisation of Indigenous traditions with Christianity, highlighting the lack of uniformity or finality of these processes. The linguist David Moore provides a vital deconstruction of the Aranda concept of ‘altjira’ (or ‘alcheringa’), the root of the term ‘Dreaming’, also translated as ‘God’ by missionaries. Moore demonstrates the variety of uses to which ‘altjira’ has been put by different actors. Hart Cohen in his chapter on the Lutheran Hermannsburg Mission in Aranda country locally known as Ntaria, discusses the particular relationship between Indigenous traditions and Christianity evident there. This case involves very particular combination of cultural influences from the Aranda traditional owners, the German Lutheran background of the missionaries and the wider Anglophone Australian culture by which Ntaria is surrounded.

Steve Bevis outlines the development of modern Indigenous Christianity and the changing influences it is subject to, particularly after the decline of the church-governed ‘missions’ to which many Indigenous communities were confined until the 1970s. Increasingly Indigenous self-determination has effected the ways in which hybrid practices or identifications have been negotiated but also other key factors such as generational differentiation are also shown to be significant. He also touches on the use of secular narratives such as ‘education’ and ‘the environment’ to legitimate Indigenous traditions. Theresa Petray reveals the centrality of churches to Indigenous political activists, including many non-religious people, in Townsville in Queensland which reveals how much the practices of those affiliating as non-religious must be thoroughly contextualised.

The final chapter written by both editors presents the results of interviews conducted among urban and rural Aborigines on their understanding of the categories of ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’, and the relationship between Christianity and Indigenous traditions. What they demonstrate is that these understandings are highly varied, though discernibly distinctive from those of other Australians. Their informants varied in the extent to which they regarded the commonly identified Aboriginal Australian ‘religions’ as religions, most preferring ‘culture’, while one born-again Christian woman did not identify herself as ‘religious’, associating the word with falsehood. It is notable that only 1.28% of the Indigenous population identified with an ‘Aboriginal Traditional Religion’ in the census while engagement with some of the practices associated with them is much wider than this would seem to indicate. To an extent then, the decline of Christian affiliation has led to a decline in affiliation as ‘religious’ akin to what has happened in the wider population but perhaps may not preclude the practice of these traditions.

Cox and Possamai as well as many of the other contributors suggest that this low identification with ‘Aboriginal Traditional Religion’ may reflect the widespread Aboriginal Australian understanding of ‘religion’ as Christianity, with Indigenous traditions being understood as ‘culture’. This is reflected by the widespread Indigenous Australian adherence to a common ‘two ways’ paradigm – identifying with both the ancestors and the narratives and rituals associated with them and Christianity. This would also mean though that declining Christian affiliation would be understood as entailing ‘non-religion’ without necessarily indicating the absence of what some would label Indigenous Australian ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’. This demonstrates the legitimating function that categories such as ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ have. Though the necessity of providing an initial definition of ‘religion/non-religion’ considering that the research is so concerned with the emic perspectives of their Indigenous informants remains unclear to me.

However, this book should contribute to the necessary incorporation of indigenous peoples into the study of ‘non-religion’ and ‘non-religion’ into the study of indigenous peoples. It also provides fruitful theoretical reflection and original research. It is commendable that the study of ‘Traditional’ Indigenous religion, as well as Aboriginal Christianity and Non-Religion, are integrated together into a discussion of postcolonial social identity construction in Indigenous Australia (though other affiliations such as Islam and Buddhism are mentioned, they are not discussed). The book also shows that that hybridity is a vital tool for analysing these processes.

Liam T. Sutherland is a fourth-year PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His doctoral research concerns the representations of religious pluralism and national identity in the literature of Scotland’s national interfaith association (Interfaith Scotland). He is a native of the city and gained his MSc by research and MA also from the University of Edinburgh. His MSc by research examined the role and relevance of Sir E.B. Tylor for debates about the definition of religion and Neo-Tylorian theories of religion, while his MA dissertation looked at modern Indigenous Australian spirituality. His current research interests include: religious pluralism, the critical study of the interfaith movement, religion and nationalism as well as theory and method in the study of religion.

[Book Review] American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems

In this post, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi reviews Joseph Baker’s and Buster Smith’s latest book American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems (New York University Press 2015).


Americans have never ceased to amaze foreign observers with their high level of belief in souls,benny-bh spirits, and gods. Pew Research Centre (2014) found that nearly 9 in 10 (89%) Americans believe in ‘God or a universal spirit.’ Nevertheless, over the past few decades a significant rise in the proportion of Americans who were investing less and less in religious affiliation and beliefs has been noted. Kosmin and Keysar (2011) showed that the proportion of unaffiliated Americans has been growing since 1990. A few have even embraced the clearly unpopular labels of atheists or agnostics, despite Smith’s (2015:229) acknowledgment of the stigmatized and deviant status of atheism in America.

What the book is really about is secularity, the state of being secular, because ‘secularism’ usually refers to a vision of a world less affected by religion, and the authors indeed use the term secularity a few times. So the book is about secular Americans, from the unaffiliated to the atheists.

What is the theoretical framework? Baker and Smith state: “instead of a binary distinction, religiosity and secularity should be understood as poles of a continuum, ranging from thorough irreligion to zealotry” (p.  6). Moreover, “We consider theistic dis- or nonbelief to be the most salient marker of one’s secular identity. That is, self-identifying  as someone who does not believe in god is a more prominent marker of identity than saying one is not affiliated with an organized religion” (p. 16).

There is indeed a clear behavioral dividing line between spirit world adherents and non-adherents, and research indicates that the one question “Do you believe in God?” does a good job in separating two distinct populations.

I find myself really puzzled by another statement:  “Although criticism of religion is central to understanding secularism, restricting secularity today to opposition to religion denies secularists’ potential for edifying and positive values, furthering the polemical claim that to be secular is necessarily to be immoral” (p. 6). First, the rejection of belief in spirits is not criticism, but a total disengagement. Baker and Smith later report that 63% of atheists in one sample were uninterested in religion (p. 100). Second, the reference to “edifying and positive values” sounds like apologetics. The findings reported in the book demonstrate that the less religious and the irreligious are likely to be more politically progressive, but that will not persuade those who think they are immoral.

Is there a unique American secularization? The authors describe American freethought, starting in the eighteenth century, and offer a chronology of the ups and downs of religiosity in the United States, leading to the Great Abdicating after 1990. They connect the Great Abdicating to the 1960s counterculture and changes in the US family, together with political polarization and the “Culture Wars”. They do report a correlation between growing political polarization and the percentage of the unaffiliated in the population, as well as the tendency for the unaffiliated to vote Democrat in presidential elections (p. 79).

In their historical survey, they neglect the struggles over the secularization of public space and public education. Until 1934, playing baseball on Sunday was a major issue, and the elimination of Sunday blue laws is still continuing. Another aspect of the Culture Wars was the secularization of education, starting  already in the nineteenth century with  elite academic institutions  (White, 1896), and  then affecting all universities, colleges, and public schools in a trickle down process  (Hofstadter, 1963). Does anybody remember that until 1960, the American Baptist Convention considered The University of Chicago an affiliated institution?

It should be emphasized, something that the authors do not do, that after 1960 public education was completely secularized through legal rulings. Engel v. Vitale (1962), which disallowed prayers, and  Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), which disallowed Bible reading, could be compared in their impact to the 1954 Brown decision, related to the same social and historical forces. Similarly, recent challenges to the teaching of evolution followed the great historical loss by the Religious Right over religious activities in the schools. McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982), Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), and Kitzmiller, et al.  v. Dover School District, et al. (2005) became milestones in public secularization. Legal rulings do not change public opinion in many cases, but these symbolic (and concrete) victories added to the growing confidence of secular Americans.

Despite American exceptionalism, Baker and Smith show that the United States fits the worldwide correlation (p.74) between secularity and the Human Development Index (p. 203). What happens in North America is part of a global trend. The political context of secularity, which is discussed at length in the book, is also not unique to the United States.

The authors doubt the universality of sex differences in secularity, and  state  that “among Western populations, women are disproportionately prone to religiosity, in spite of the patriarchal power structure of most organized religions” (p. 141). However, a recent Pew report compared men and women on religiosity around the world, with data collected in 192 countries. It included 631 comparisons. There were 393 with no significant differences, 238 significant differences with women scoring higher, and just 4 with men scoring higher (Pew, 2016). So women’s higher religiosity may not be just a Western phenomenon, and the same goes for women’s lower secularity.

The book offers a wealth of writing genres, unlike a typical sociology text. It presents survey data together with vignettes and case studies, such as that of  Lester Young Ward, one of the pioneers of US sociology (pp. 26-34), and quotations from W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. There are also interviews, one with David Tamayo, Leader of Hispanic American Freethinkers (pp. 126-131), and then two interviews with secularists who tried to get elected to political office, which is next to impossible in the United States. My only complaint is that the book has 47 pages of detailed footnotes. The academic convention which expects the reader to tolerate this division of attention is unrealistic. Most of the material in the footnotes is interesting and important, and should be included in the main text.


Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Knopf.

Kosmin, B.A.  & Keysar, A.  (2011).  AMERICAN NONES: THE PROFILE OF THE NO RELIGION POPULATION. (with Ryan Cragun and Juhem Navarro-Rivera). http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/NONES_08.pdf

Pew Research Center (2014). Importance of Religion and Religious Beliefs. Pew Research Centre, November 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/chapter-1-importance-of-religion-and-religious-beliefs/#belief-in-god

Pew Research  Center (2016). The Gender Gap in Religion Around  the World.  PEW RESEARCH CENTER, March 2016. http://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/22/the-gender-gap-in-religion-around-the-world/

Smith, J (2010). Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism. Sociology of Religion. 72 (2) 215-237.

White, A. D. (1896/1993). A history of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi earned a Ph.D.  (clinical psychology and personality)  from Michigan State University in 1970. Since then, he has been the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of  22 books and more than 300 reviews, articles, and book chapters, focusing on personality development, history of psychology, the psychology of religion, and politics. Among his best known works are Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity  (2015), Psychoanalysis and Theism (2010), The Psychology of Religious Belief, Experience, and Behaviour (with Michael Argyle, 1997), and Despair and Deliverance (1992).

Book Review: Childrearing among the “nones”

ManningProfessor Christel Manning shares some findings from her new book Losing Our Religion:  How Unaffiliated Parents are Raising their Children – the first empirically researched book to consider “religious nones” as families, not just individuals.

The growth of the “nones” has been called “the decade’s biggest story about religion in America”[i]. Americans, especially young people, are leaving organized religion in record numbers. There are now more “nones” than there are Catholics in the US population, and one third of those under 30 say they have no religion. Ten years ago, most people writing about the “nones” seemed to assume the story was temporary: that today’s “nones” would be like the baby boomers a generation ago, many of whom dropped out of church in their youth but eventually returned to church or synagogue when they married and raised their own families.  But nobody was doing the research to find out if that was actually the case. So I decided I would take that project on. Losing Our Religion tells the story of what I found.

Losing our religion

Figure 1: Cover of Losing Our Religion: how Unaffiliated Parents are Raising their Children, by Christel Manning

The book combines existing survey data with qualitative research conducted across different regions of the United States. My central argument is that the surge in “nones” is not merely a temporary rejection of organized religion, but neither is it necessarily about secularization. Being a “none” is really about choice. Americans, especially the younger generation, are asserting their right to choose their own worldview rather than having somebody else (their family, an organization, a tradition) define it for them.  And they seek to pass on this choice to their children.

The term “none” comes from survey research, when they ask people “what is your religious preference?”, and the respondent says “none”, or “nothing in particular.” But when you actually talk to the unaffiliated, you find they span a wide spectrum of people ranging from deeply religious to very secular. Many “nones” adhere to a secular philosophy of life. There are also unchurched believers, like Jefferson Bethke of You-tube fame, who “love Jesus but hate religion.” There are spiritual seekers who embrace bits and pieces of various traditions and don’t want to commit to just one.  And there are “nones” who are just plain indifferent to religion. What ties these diverse worldviews together is a deep commitment to what I call “worldview choice”—a belief that religious and secular worldviews are expressions of deeply personal experiences, and therefore the individual has a right to choose one, or a combination, that best suits him or her.

So will “nones” raise their children to be nonreligious? Not necessarily.  In contrast to churched parents who usually try to transmit their own religion to their children, “none” parents insist they want their children to choose for themselves. That means providing options, and parents go about this in many different ways. I describe the five most common strategies in the book.  But what I found most striking was how deeply committed “nones” were to the narrative of choice. Some even went so far as to follow their children’s lead, providing religious education to a child who seems spiritually inclined while allowing a disinterested sibling to grow up secular!

The book examines various contexts and processes that influence how “nones” negotiate these choices. One is, of course, the parent’s own religious or secular orientation. Another is their relationship with spouses and extended family in the raising of children (e.g., a secular Jew whose in-laws want her child to be baptized). A third is the pubic culture of the local community they live in (e.g., an atheist in a Bible belt suburb whose teenagers are being evangelized at school). No matter where “nones” live, they must contend with a media environment that tends to emphasize the positive impact religion has on children. Many parents I interviewed raised questions about this, and for this reason I included a chapter examining the relevant research literature on this topic, and how it should be interpreted.

I am myself a “none” parent who also happens to be a sociologist of religion. This project started because I had questions about how I should raise my own child and because I was wondering how other nonreligious people are raising their children. As I talked with more and more “none” parents, I realized that many had similar questions. So it seemed appropriate to write a book that would be of value not just to academics but to “none” parents as well.

At one level this means answering basic questions that people have about “none” parents. Who are they? Why did they leave religion? What do they believe and practice instead? What do they want to pass on to their children, and what options are available to them? What are the challenges of letting your children choose? What is the impact of raising children with or without religion?  But the book also reflects on this information, raising bigger questions that may challenge the reader. Americans tend to assume that choice is good. Does this mean that more choice is better, especially in religion? What are the benefits and risks of our culture’s ever intensifying orientation towards personal choice? Is this good for individuals or for society? Is it really possible for children to choose their own worldview? There is considerable debate on these questions, and I have tried to give voice to a variety of perspectives. This is the first empirical research based book about “nones” as families (rather than individuals) and much remains to be learned. My hope is to begin a conversation and encourage future research on families who have no religion.

[i] By Professor Mark Silk, founder and director of the Centre for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College

Christel Manning is a Professor at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut.  Her past research has examined the intersection of religion, gender, and sexuality; and new religious movements.  For the last decade, she has researched the rise of the “nones” in America.  Her recent book, Losing Our Religion:  How Unaffiliated Parents are Raising their Children, has been rated one of the top ten religion books in 2015.