What does it mean to be nonreligious in the modern era?
A Q&A with academic Lois Lee, a sociologist whose work focuses on atheism.
What does it mean to be nonreligious in the modern era, and how does this differ from having a secular outlook? As growing numbers of people in Britain and across Europe self-identify as nonreligious, these questions are increasingly pressing, a crucial part of understanding the nature of modern life. In her book "Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular", UCL academic Lois Lee examines these questions, exploring the relationship between secularity and nonreligion. Here, she discusses her findings.
Your book’s subtitle is “reimagining the secular”. Why does it need reimagining?
Yes, on first appearances the full title of my book – Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular – looks somewhat tautological, maybe even self-contradictory. But what I’m trying to argue throughout my book is that we need to be a lot more precise about what we mean by these kinds of terms, and that there are important differences between what it means to be "nonreligious" and what it means to be "secular".
The "nonreligious" is any person or thing identified in contradistinction to the religious. The "secular" has come to mean anything and everything, but what it really has to do with is "this worldly" life as opposed to "other worldly" life – with the secular time that we experience in our physical existence compared to eternal time.
The problem is this: the classic idea of nonreligious people is that they are secular, that they are consumed by secular life – as Emerson puts it, "not men [sic], but hungers, thirsts, fevers and appetites, walking". What I argue in the book is that few nonreligious people are secular in this sense, since they have metaphysical beliefs about the nature of reality and existence, they have theories about the nature of eternal time, and they engage with those existential questions that lift us out of secular time, so to speak, and allow us to reflect upon it.
The "reimagining" of the secular that I have in mind is really just a return to the core meaning of the term, and a move away from using that term to describe any of a bewildering array of things. We use the "secular" to talk about institutions that distance themselves from religion and nonreligious cultures (including atheism, materialism and so on), as in the phrase "secular schools:. At other times we describe those nonreligious cultures like atheism, materialism and other such phenomena as secular. We sometimes use the term to describe any non-theist, be they materialist, humanist, agnostic; but at other times we use the term to describe anyone who believes that the material world and secular time is all that there is – a usage which means agnostics and sceptics aren’t secular at all, since they do not belief that the material world and secular time is all there is. Sometimes, secularity is thought to designate anyone or culture that prioritises immediate, "this-worldly" concerns over more metaphysical ones – but, then, many religious people and theologies would be secular, too.
The concept is, in short, a deeply confusing one – something that Stephen Bullivant and I have tried to help with by writing the Oxford Dictionary of Atheism. But, in my view there is a really important distinction to make between being immersed in this-worldly concerns (what I think the idea of secularity best describes) and having, sharing and ritualising philosophies that have to do with the nature and extent of this world – the difference between having a purely physical existence and having also a metaphysical and existential one.
Understood in this way, secularity doesn’t have much to do with being nonreligious, given that many nonreligious people have existential beliefs and cultures. And working to get to know what nonreligious people are like therefore entails that we reimagine – or at least remember – what secularity really entails.
The book looks at non-religious experience as more than the absence of religion. Could you elaborate?
For far too long, we have only been interested in how far nonreligious populations have moved from religion. I’m much more interested in what they have moved towards. What are the beliefs, values and attitudes of nonreligious people, towards both religion and towards what we have thought of as "religious questions" – about the nature of existence, and the meaning and value of life?
In what areas of life are nonreligious rituals particularly important?
Explicitly nonreligious rituals – through which people enact their otherness from religion – can be significant to people who are trying to forge a path away from a religious culture they used to participate in.
For example, in the US and UK, some people have undertaken "de-baptism" ceremonies and certifications in order to mark their move away from the Church – something that Churches do not themselves always allow.
For others, nonreligious rituals are about adapting religious ones to new ends. In Denmark, for example, where confirmation ceremonies are still a big deal – with teenagers being thrown big parties, given lavish gifts and time of school – the idea of "non-firmation" has emerged – demonstrating, perhaps, a savvy pragmatism on the part of teenagers. In this case, having an explicitly nonreligious ritual is a way of making space for the nonreligious in a culture shaped by religious traditions.
Sometimes rituals are more subtly nonreligious. I would assume that the majority of British nonreligious people celebrate Christmas in some way, and they may not be too worried about its Christian elements. On the other hand, there are lots of subtle ways in which they shape this festival around their nonreligion. If you think about who you are spending Christmas with, you might well have an idea of which of them will be observing Christmas from a nonreligious position. This is knowledge that we we pick up through those more informal, often tacit ways of expressing a nonreligious stance towards rituals like Christmas.
But, as well as rituals that have this directly nonreligious element, there is another type of ritual that I’m interested in my work: this is the existential rituals that nonreligious people participate in. Because we have been so focused on questions around the decline of religion, we have not always paid very close attention to the way in which the nonreligious narrativise and ritualise their existential philosophies.
Yet many people will have participated in nonreligious existential rituals which mark and make sense of life’s progress, whether formal ceremonies (registry office weddings, humanist funerals, and other nonreligious memorials, etc.) or a much less formal ones: birthday parties, processions of visitors to meet a newborn baby, collective experiences of death and grief shared through social media.
Because scholars (and others) have treated nonreligious people as secular – as immersed in this-worldly concerns – they have not always treated these existential rituals in the same terms as religious ones. But they are an important part of most people’s lives, and help shape our experience of the business of living in so many ways. Happily, interest in nonreligious existential life is sharply on the rise.
How much commonality is there in the lived experiences of nonreligious people in the UK?
Nonreligious people – that is, those who identify themselves as not having a religion – have been the largest single "religious" group in the UK since 1993, and have been an outright majority in most years since 2010. And the majority of that majority are either non-theist (they reject the idea that God exists) or agnostic (they reject the idea that humans can know anything about the existence or nature of God). In short, tens of millions of Britons are nonreligious by most conventional measures.
Given the sheer numbers involved, it should be obvious that the nonreligious population is a heterogeneous one, when it comes to the detail of their nonreligious and existential beliefs, cultures and lived experiences. But it hasn’t been. Because we have a religion-centred view of what it means to be human, we’ve treated being nonreligious as a wholly negative condition – a matter only of being without religion. This means that we would expect every nonreligious person to be the same, since they would all be equally without religion.
When we start to recognise nonreligious culture as something real and existing, we of course come to see the nonreligious population as a much more differentiated one. We can see those differences, say, between British nonreligious rituals and Danish nonreligious ones. If we go further and acknowledge that the nonreligious are not leading purely secular lives, but actually have existential beliefs and traditions, too, then that opens up the possibility that these beliefs and traditions are different – and we realise that we need to think about "denominations" of nonreligious existential culture.
My book points to some lines of variation between different nonreligious and nonreligious existential beliefs. We know, for example, that these things are shaped by an individual’s religious and nonreligious background, by an array of demographic factors (class, gender, ethnicity and so on) – and by locality.
But really we are only beginning to understand this diversity, and we need a much broader programme of research to make sense of it. My current work with the Understanding Unbelief programme is focused on this, looking at how the different beliefs that so-called "unbelievers: actually have, as well as how and why these beliefs vary across social groups (why are more women agnostic then men, for example, whilst more men are non-theistic?), and across cultures.
Understanding Unbelief is the largest programme of research to be dedicated to so-called unbelief, and we have £2.3m in generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation and other partners to enable the global reach of the programme. As well as the work that myself and programme colleagues will undertake, the programme will fund around 20 projects from international research teams, too. At the end of the programme, we should be much better able to describe the diversity of nonreligious experience, in the UK and around the world.
How significant are movements such as the Sunday Assembly? Are these non-religious cultural movements becoming more popular?
Certainly, nonreligious cultural movements (like the Sunday Assembly and the New Atheism) have been active and prominent in the twenty-first century. The reasons for this are complicated. It partly has to do with nonreligious people "coming out", which itself has some benign and more worrying drivers: on the one hand, millenials are the first generation for which being nonreligious can be truly said to be the new normal; this means that this is the first generation to really seek to articulate a language for its outlook that is more than just about the rejection of religion. On the other hand, the twenty-first century has also been shaped by high profile and highly dramatic events in which religion plays a central role – Islamist criminality (or "terrorism"), child abuse scandals associated with the Catholic Church, etc – and this has sharpened critique of religions, as well as more crude anti-religious stereotyping and "us" and "them" thinking.
So there are different things going on, but these movements and their presence in the media is a sign of how engaged people are with religion and nonreligion. They shine a light on problems with the old idea that religion would just give way to secularity and indifference in places like the UK. We are many things, but what we do not seem to be is indifferent. Most people have some views on religion and/or existential questions, which is why we’re interested in phenomena like the "Atheist Church" at all – maybe not to attend ourselves, but perhaps to read an article about it in the press, and to discuss it with friends – Is it appealing? Strange? Not the way of being nonreligious that you prefer? … We’re certainly interested to explore these kinds of questions at the moment.
How secular is Britain today?
So, in a way, I think that is the wrong question to ask. If secular means that we are more immersed in material concerns and ignore existential questions and cultures, then I’m not at all clear that Britain has got very much more or less secular over time. It’s an open question – and actually it’s not one that has been well researched, because we have conflated what I see as secularity proper with expressions of irreligion like the New Atheism and the existential cultures of the nonreligious. But my intuition is that secularity stays relatively high and relatively stable over time, given that most of us (religious or otherwise) are secular for most of the time – thinking about our jobs, concerned with what we’re going to have for our dinner, and so on.
But if the question is how nonreligious is Britain today, the clear answer is "very". And this really is a change. Today, around a fifth of the UK are non-theist, another fifth are strong agnostics – that postmodern disposition. Humanist, agnostic and other un-theistic cultures and norms penetrate many if not all of our major institutions. These nonreligious and post-religious cultures intermingle with religious ones in interesting ways, but they are a, if not the, central part of our "religious" landscape.
How does that compare with other western nations?
In terms of raw numbers, there are many Western nations that have similar numbers of "unbelievers", especially in northern Europe. The next question, though, is how Britain’s nonreligious population compare to that in other western nations when it comes to the existential beliefs that they do have, rather than the religious beliefs that they don’t. Does British humanism have an individualist slant compared to Scandinavian humanism, for example? How much do western regions vary when it comes to the different types of nonreligious existential belief? Are there more existential humanists in some regions, and more existential agnostics in others? These are the kinds of questions that we hope that the Understanding Unbelief programme will help us to answer.
Your book is an academic study of the non-religious. How developed are theoretical discussions around secularism and atheism?
Really penetrating theoretical discussions of nonreligion, atheism and secularism are really twenty-first century phenomena – largely because academics have taken for granted that they knew what these things were for so long. And they are still relatively thin on the ground. Happily though, this is changing, and fast – and it will only speed up as we amass more and more empirical studies of nonreligious people and "unbelievers". It is really an exciting time to be a scholar of nonreligion – and for anyone interested to understand what it means to be nonreligious more deeply.