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).



Britain’s New Religious Landscape

Speaker: Professor Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University)

Chair: Dr Matthew Engelke (LSE)

Date and Time: 7 November 2012, 16.30-18.00

Venue: Seligman Library, Old Building, LSE

Professor Woodhead argues that a profound shift has taken place in the religious landscape of Great Britain since the late 1980s, a shift whose significance has been highlighted by research on the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme. The dominant mode of religion in this country is now one which differs profoundly from the Reformation mode of religion, which was modernised and ‘purified’ in the course of the 20th century. Professor Woodhead identifies key features of the new post-Reformation form of religion – its organisational, magical, and moral aspects – and shows how its co-existence with older Reformation forms of religion explains a great deal about the landscape we now inhabit.

The seminar by Linda Woodhead on 7 November is an opportunity to interact with one of the leading sociologists of religion in the world, and someone who has a unique vantage point on religion and society, via her stewardship of the AHRC/ESRC programme. The seminar room holds about 40 people: don’t miss this chance to hear one of Britain’s foremost sociologists within the context of a seminar setting, and come early to avoid disappointment.


 Salafi Islam, Online Ethics and the Future of the Egyptian Revolution

Speaker: Professor Charles Hirschkind (University of California, Berkeley)

Chair: Dr Mathijs Pelkmans (LSE)

Date and Time: 8 November 2012, 18.30-20.00

Venue: Old Theatre, Old Building, LSE

This event is co-sponsored with the Department of Anthropology

In this public lecture, Professor Hirschkind, one of the most influential anthropologists of his generation, looks at the politics of the Salafi movement in Egypt in relation to changing practices of religious media use. The movement is the political face of a much broader and diverse current within Egyptian society, one grounded less in a specific tradition within Islam than in a grassroots movement centred on ethical reform. This is a rare visit for Charles to the UK, and his perspective on Salafi Islam is one you’ll not want to miss.

For more information see the website of the Programme for the Study of Religion and Non-Religion


With Good Reason? A Debate on the Foundations of Ethics

Speakers: Dr Julian Baggini, Canon Dr Angus Ritchie, and Dr Mark Vernon

Date and Time: 6 December 2012, 18.30-20.00

Venue: Hong Kong Theatre, Clement House, LSE

This event is co-sponsored with Theos.

Religious and secular philosophers have long debated whether ethics have an objective basis (moral realism) or a relative basis (moral relativism). But in terms of the first, does theism or atheism offer a better basis for ‘moral realism’In this debate, a theist, an atheist and an agnostic debate this question in what promises to be a lively and (perhaps) spirited exchange.


Publication: Religion and Change in Modern Britain

Religion and Change in Modern Britain
Edited by Linda Woodhead, Rebecca Catto

Published 14th February 2012 by Routledge

This book offers a fully up-to-date and comprehensive guide to religion in Britain since 1945. A team of leading scholars provide a fresh analysis and overview, with a particular focus on diversity and change. They examine:

  • relations between religious and secular beliefs and institutions
  • the evolving role and status of the churches
  • the growth and ‘settlement’ of non-Christian religious communities
  • the spread and diversification of alternative spiritualities
  • religion in welfare, education, media, politics and law
  • theoretical perspectives on religious change

The volume presents the latest research, including results from the largest-ever research initiative on religion in Britain, the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme. Survey chapters are combined with detailed case studies to give both breadth and depth of coverage. The text is accompanied by relevant photographs and a companion website.

Westminster Faith Debates

A series of debates on religion in public life, running from February to May 2012 at RUSI, 61 Whitehall, SW1A 2ET, Wednesdays fortnightly, 5.30-7pm.

Between 2007-2012 £12m was invested by two research councils, the AHRC and ESRC, in the largest-ever funded research programme on ‘Religion and Society’. In this series leading academics will present findings arising from that research, for response by public figures. Together they will open up debate about the place of religion in public life today.

The series is organised by the Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Professor Linda Woodhead and Dr Rebecca Catto, in co-operation with Theos.

1. Religious Identity in ‘Superdiverse’ Societies – 8th Feb

  • Trevor Phillips, Dominic Grieve, Kim Knott, Therese O’Toole

2. What’s the Place of Faith in Schools? – 22nd Feb

  • Richard Dawkins, John Pritchard, Jim Conroy, Robert Jackson

3. What have we Learned about Radicalisation? – 7th March

  • Mehdi Hasan, Ed Husain, Mark Sedgwick, Marat Shterin, Mat Francis

4. What role for Religious Organisations in an era of Shrinking Welfare? – 21st March

  •  David Blunkett, Peter Smith, Adam Dinham, Sarah Johnsen

5. What Limits to Religious Freedom? – 18th April

  • Lisa Appignanesi, Maleiha Malik, Peter Jones

6. What are the main Trends in Religion and Values in Britain? – 2nd May

  • Aaqil Ahmed, Cole Moreton, Linda Woodhead, Grace Davie

Please email p.ainsworth@lancaster.ac.uk to register for the debates you would like to attend, and visit http://www.religionandsociety.org.uk/faith_debates for further details.