Nonreligion—a common name for a diverse landscape

Behind the generic label of nonreligion, one finds a variety of views and “multiple secularities,” suggesting that the religious nones are not a coherent group, according to researchers speaking at the conference “Approaching Nonreligion” that took place at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, from July 7–9, which RW attended. Due to the rise of unaffiliated and non-religious people in several countries of the West, research on those topics is enjoying a growing interest and is on the way to becoming an established field. “Atheism” being a social construction, researchers need to parse and dissect the term in order to proceed adequately with scientific work said Jonathan A. Lanman (Queen’s University Belfast), which could mean studying absence of beliefs in non-physical agents, moral judgments against religion, social identities featuring atheism, etc.

What counts as nonreligion is context-dependent stressed Johannes Quack (University of Zurich). In Israel, notes Stacey Gutkowski (King’s College London), being secular does not necessarily mean rejecting all types of traditional Jewish practices. But people who leave a religion such as Islam undergo very specific experiences as “apostates,” unlike fellow atheists without a Muslim background, according to Halima Begum (Birkbeck, University of London). Being an “ex-Muslim” and not merely a non-believer is an essential part of their experience. Another aspect of diversity is the parallel existence of several non-religious organizations, as shown by research on

the paths to organized nonreligion conducted by Amanda Schutz (University of Arizona) based on field research and 125 in-depth interviews in the Houston area. Organized, active atheism is a dynamic process over time, with people leaving one group for another (or none) due to disagreements or disillusionment about aspects of group life.

In contrast with nonreligious groups that merely want to differentiate themselves from religion, there are other secular groups that are keen to differentiate themselves both from religion and from other forms of nonreligion in which ceremonies and rituals are made available. In such a way, this second type of secularists wants to distinguish themselves from all normative offers, according to Quack. In her research on Humanisterna, the Swedish Humanist Association, Suzanne Schenk has identified those humanists who want to provide a replacement for the functions of religion, while other ones are aiming at a complete abolition of religions, without a functional replacement. While admitting that some people may need such support, these secularists do not believe that such a replacement should be provided by humanist, secular organizations. Schenk added that these conflicts also occur among German or Norwegian humanists, for instance.

Among people who are joining an organized secularist group, some are looking indeed for a dependable community that can act as a replacement for church, Schutz found in her research in the Houston area. Spiritual fulfillment can even be on the agenda, since some non-religious groups organize meditations. Alternately, some people do not join such groups because they are afraid of groupthink and feel that non-religious organizations resemble churches too much. For “reimagining the secular,” the Sunday Assembly that started in the UK in 2013 has followed the “unimaginative way” of borrowing a number of practices from religious groups observed Josh Bullock (Kingston University London). An instance of “belonging without believing,” the Sunday Assembly claims to be a kind of secular church, intending to keep “the best aspects of Church” (i.e. music, singing, generating social capital). It is growing, but it only succeeds in attracting a small number of people without a religion, and some local branches have not survived.02Nonreligion