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Without God yet Not Without Nuance: A Qualitative Study of Atheism and Non-religion Among Scottish University Students

Part of the Boundaries of Religious Freedom: Regulating Religion in Diverse Societies book series (BOREFRRERE,volume 2)

Abstract

This chapter proposes an analytic typology for the study of atheism, based on questionnaire and interview data from Scottish subjects, which allows for more a more nuanced understanding of non-religion than the prevalent model of characterising atheists simply as those who are not theists. The chapter was motivated by a concern to show “variety in the category ‘non-religious’, whilst demonstrating the inadequacy of attempts to do this in terms of dimensions of ‘religiosity’.” In other words, the author explores the use of ideal types that are grounded in the narratives and self-descriptions of non-religious individuals, and which are not limited to a simple negation of religion. The significance of this is to avoid considering religiosity to be the normative base from which non-religiosity is always compared, and to further the in-depth and qualitative understanding of non-religious people in their own right.

Keywords

  • Church Attendance
  • Questionnaire Respondent
  • Religious Identification
  • Religious Term
  • Religious Category

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

The closer people’s worldviews are probed – even among self-described secular or nonreligious individuals – the more difficult it is to neatly place many into the major categories that frame Western discourse on “theism” and “atheism” or “religion” or “irreligion”.

(Pasquale 2010, 63)

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Fig. 11.1

Notes

  1. 1.

    This project could not have happened without the selfless support of dozens of colleagues, friends and informants. I am particularly grateful to my former supervisor, Dr Steven J. Sutcliffe, who went above-and-beyond the call of duty to provide support and sound academic critique at every stage.

  2. 2.

    As a subject in their own right. If one turns to debate on ‘secularization’, the ‘non-religious’ generally remains as an insubstantial category of individuals who ‘lack’ the variable that authors are interested in, or, in Rational Choice Theory approaches, as a temporary transitional stage ‘between’ religious positions (Lee 2012a, 31).

  3. 3.

    My recognition of this was coincidentally shared with many others around the same time. Two key research groups were established in the early 2000s – the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College, Massachusetts, and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) – and each maintains a vibrant online presence. That these groups joined together to launch the journal Secularism and Nonreligon in August 2011, combined with a special edition of the Journal of Contemporary Religion on ‘Non-religion and Secularity’ (Vol. 27 No. 1, 2012), testifies to the growing interest in this area.

  4. 4.

    The jury is still out on how useful this definition is to the academic study of religion. Lee has stated herself that one of the key conceptual issues we face is that ‘religion’ serves as both a first- and second-order definitional category, meaning that a much wider reformation in academic discourse may be necessary (Lee 2012a, 4–5). She has also acknowledged that ‘non-religion studies’ will have failed if the term is still being employed in 10 years (Lee 2012c). Ultimately, the study of the non-religious may contribute to the contemporary deconstruction of the category ‘religion’ (Fitzgerald 2000, 2007a, b; McCutcheon 1997, 2007). I believe the term to be rhetorically useful, in this context, for focusing attention on an otherwise neglected constituency. For further problematization of the term in Religious Studies see Connelly et~al. (2012).

  5. 5.

    Along with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, the forthcoming (at the time of writing) referendum on Scottish Independence (September 2014) may change this situation.

  6. 6.

    Although other ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ phenomena have ‘always’ existed in Scotland (see Brown 2010, 138–142), the dominant narrative of ‘Christianity’ suffices for illustrative purposes in this context.

  7. 7.

    For example, Bryant (2006, 2007), Dutton (2008), Gilliat-Ray (2000), Rees (1967).

  8. 8.

    See: http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/academic-services/committees/student-survey-ethics/applications

  9. 9.

    For example, the Young Greens, Scottish Nationalist Association, Humanist Society, Catholic Students Union, and Yoga Society.

  10. 10.

    Although this study did engage with practice, beliefs, values, and other dimensions of religiosity, the methods employed, and the space available, mean that the following account might appear somewhat intellectualized and identity-focused. See Cotter (2011c) for other notable trends and characteristics.

  11. 11.

    Where ‘non-religion’ should be understood as a contextually useful rhetorical device, and not as an umbrella term to subsume ‘atheism’ (cf. Quillen 2012).

  12. 12.

    Where questionnaire respondents are quoted, no pseudonyms shall be provided. Where an interviewee is quoted, their assigned pseudonym accompanies the quotation.

  13. 13.

    The Scottish 2011 census occurred contemporaneously with the interview phase of this project. Interviewees were shown the ‘religion question’—‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’—at the conclusion of the interview and asked about how they would/did complete it, and for their thought process.

  14. 14.

    It would have been interesting to know which term these individuals would have picked if only allowed one choice.

  15. 15.

    Not that consistency is to be expected in human beings.

  16. 16.

    Had this study focused more upon practice than narrative this typology might have been very different. Another approach was taken by Lee (2012a) who typologized according to three broad ‘epistemological cultures’.

  17. 17.

    Humanistic and naturalistic narratives can effectively be conceptualized as occupying idealized sides of the critique embodied by contemporary atheism – with the humanistic focusing upon ‘religious’ inspiration for violence and perceived moral culpability, and the naturalistic on ‘religion’ as an ‘authoritarian barrier to knowledge and progress’ (Cotter 2011a, 83–86).

  18. 18.

    The following aside is elaborated more fully in Cotter (2012).

  19. 19.

    See also Catto and Eccles (2013, 54–55).

  20. 20.

    Such as, apparently, the writer Ben Goldacre, who states: ‘I just don’t have any interest either way, but I wouldn’t want to understate how uninterested I am. There still hasn’t been a word invented for people like me, whose main experience when presented with this issue is an overwhelming, mind-blowing, intergalactic sense of having more interesting things to think about’ (in Williams 2011). See Beyer in this volume on ‘apatheists’.

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Cotter, C.R. (2015). Without God yet Not Without Nuance: A Qualitative Study of Atheism and Non-religion Among Scottish University Students. In: G. Beaman, L., Tomlins, S. (eds) Atheist Identities - Spaces and Social Contexts. Boundaries of Religious Freedom: Regulating Religion in Diverse Societies, vol 2. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-09602-5_11

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