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Atheism and Nonreligion: Theory and Comparison beyond the North-Atlantic World

Date:16 November 2015

Last Friday, Teemu Taira compared and contrasted the rates of atheism of Finland and Sweden and tried to explain this in terms of differing national histories. In today’s contribution, Johannes Quack will draw on his fieldwork with rationalist organizations in India to consider which directions the study of atheism, and more broadly nonreligion, should take.

My research and writing [1] on atheism, nonreligion, and rationalism in India and Europe has involved several longstanding projects. These include my work in the Emmy Noether-Project “The Diversity of Nonreligion”,[2] my activities as a co-director of the “Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network”,[3] and my co-editorship of the book-series “Religion and Its Others: Studies in Religion, Nonreligion, and Secularity”.[4]

I would like to make four arguments here:
1)The notion ”nonreligion“ is better suited for cross-cultural comparison than “atheism”;
2) We need more in-depth studies of modes of nonreligion beyond the North-Atlantic World;
3) We need more discussions of theoretical approaches;
4) We need more cross-cultural comparison.

“Scientific Attitude Promotion Van” of the Indian Rationalist Organisation Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (Organization for the Eradication of Superstition). Photograph by J. Quack, 2007
“Scientific Attitude Promotion Van” of the Indian Rationalist Organisation Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (Organization for the Eradication of Superstition). Photograph by J. Quack, 2007

1) ”Nonreligion“ is better suited for cross-cultural comparison than “atheism”

My understanding of “nonreligion” is inspired by Colin Campbell’s early attempt to establish a “sociology of irreligion” (1971),[5] on which the work of other members of the NSRN is based, particularly Lois Lee’s recent and important contribution to the contemporary study of nonreligion.[6] In close conversation with these colleagues, I proposed elsewhere that “nonreligion” should be understood as a heuristic term that denotes phenomena that are generally not considered religious but whose significance is more or less dependent on their specific relational assemblages with the respective religious field.[7] The aim is not to define “religion” or “nonreligion” but to understand relationally why and how people (including researchers) declare themselves nonreligious or are described as such in specific research settings. In other words, the aim is to study religious-nonreligious entanglements. Obvious examples for such entanglements are atheist groups and their respective debates with representatives of religious traditions.

While different terms have been proposed for this kind of research I confine myself here to the argument that “nonreligion” rather than “atheism” should be taken as a heuristic term for cross-cultural research. “Nonreligion” is not an unproblematic term. Its advantages as a heuristic term are threefold: its honesty with respect to the fact that it inherits all the problems attributed to “religion” (in contrast to terms that aim at transcending “religion” while implicitly transporting the same problems); the fact that looking at religious-nonreligious entanglements does help us to gain new perspectives on these old problems; and the conceptual openness it offers to all aspects of life associated with religion. The “a-theistic” focus on a belief in God and gods is much narrower and can be (even) more misleading in all kinds of contexts. I illustrated this argument in detail in the context of Hindu religious traditions in circumstances where early Indian materialist traditions (referred to as Lokāyata or Cārvāka) are at times conflated with “modern atheism” (where the absence of a belief in god(s) is seen as the strongest mode of deviance away from religion).[8] The differentiation between God and gods, on the one hand, and other supernatural beings, forces, and phenomena, on the other hand, is particularly treacherous in the Hindu context.[9] Furthermore, in that context there are not only gods, but also half-gods and godlike ghosts and demons, some of whom are referred to as deva or devi. In classical Hindu traditions the term deva is also used for more or less “deified” natural forces (Agni, Indra, Sūriya, etc.) or moral principles (Āditya, Mitra, Varuna, etc.). In contemporary forms of Hinduism a baba, guru, or sādhu can be considered “divine human beings” or “godmen”. But one should wonder: Do all these examples fall under the definition of “atheism”?[10]

2) We need more in-depth studies of different local modes of nonreligion beyond the North-Atlantic World

Most of the research on atheism and nonreligion focused, for obvious pragmatic reasons, on organized nonreligion in the “North-Atlantic World” or “Global North”. We lack in-depth studies of organized and non-organized modes of nonreligion in other parts of the world. Even if we start with organized nonreligion in the “North-Atlantic World” we come across a large number of labels and (self-)descriptions of individuals, organizations and movements: Agnostics, atheists, brights, clandestine, freethinker, (secular) humanists, infidels, rationalists, and secularists, to mention only the most common. While some of these terms are used interchangeably, we should not simply assume an undifferentiated whole. My ethnography of one rationalist organization in India showed me that this situation becomes all the more complicated if the focus is enlarged to other parts of the world.[11]

With this in mind, the project “The Diversity of Nonreligion” aims to distinguish between different “modes of nonreligion” on the basis of in-depth empirical studies of individuals, organizations and movements in four different countries, including an analysis of their history, socio-cultural context, and the respective understandings of “religion” at stake. Different modes of nonreligion result from the various configurations of the religious field they relate to as well as from different kinds of relationships at stake.[12] In order to illustrate and analyse this manifold variety, however, we also need more theoretical discussions that will help us to better capture specific modes of nonreligion, to grasp what distinguishes such individuals, organizations and movements, and to explain why they do what they do.[13]

  • We need more discussions of theoretical approaches

The theoretical approach to research the diversity of nonreligion that I propose conceptualizes “nonreligion” as part of a relational approach inspired by Pierre Bourdieu’s methodological relationalism and by his contributions to sociological field-theory.[14] The relationality of this approach has to be understood in two distinct but interrelated ways. On the very fundamental level of social theory I follow Bourdieu by conceptualizing “the real” as relationally constituted and therefore opposed to “substantialist” philosophies of the social world. Bourdieu’s conceptualization of “fields” can be seen as an operationalization of this relational mode of thought. On the empirical level this conceptual framework suggests that we should research how different positions that are considered to be (more or less) within and outside a religious field are related to each other. The focus is therefore on relationships and not on either ‘side’.
All more or less nonreligious positions taken together—including scientific approaches to understand and explain religion[15]—constitute a very heterogeneous religion-related field that surrounds any given religious field. The notion “field” is used here in rather lax way to draw attention to the co-constitutive outside of a given religious formation. By drawing attention to the co-constitutive aspects of a heterogeneous religion-related field I try to utilize the genealogical insights of Talal Asad, namely that religion has to be understood in the light of its other(s) in order to launch a conceptual approach for studying contemporary religious-nonreligious entanglements empirically.[16] This helps to illustrate how the elements that are considered inside a religious field as well as their relationships with their religion-related surroundings can change geographically as well as temporally. Indeed, to assume a single and clear-cut religious field across time and space would not only be a gross and distorting simplification of the complex realities of different religious manifestations in different cultures but would also contradict the underlying relational conceptualization of the social world.
No matter how monolithic or fuzzy a religious field appears in a specific research setting, it is always surrounded by a religion-related field featuring positions that are (according to the emic or etic constitution of the religious field) not religious, while at the same time standing in a determinable and relevant relationship with the religious field. This heuristic conceptualization, on the one hand, draws on a field-approach that presupposes differentiated social fields. It tries to show, on the other hand, that what appears from a certain perspective as a religious field is not fully constituted by its own internal factors and logics. This approach therefore merely starts with a presumably clear-cut or autonomous religious field and continues with a partial de-differentiation of it, because the approach urges us to take into consideration how agents and factors outside the presumed religious field are co-constitutive of it by producing and suffering field-effects. A religion-related field is necessarily heterogeneous because it contains all positions that stand in a more or less relevant relationship with the respective religious field. One way to deal with this heterogeneity is to distinguish different modes of nonreligion.[17]

  • We need more cross-cultural comparison

At the end of my book “Disenchanting India” I raise the empirical question as to what degree the particular Indian rationalist movement that I had studied in detail can be seen as part of a larger rationalist movement that spread around parts of the globe from the 19th century onwards.[18] A satisfactory answer to this question can only be given – as argued above – on the basis of more detailed studies of specific groups and theoretical approaches that allow for cross-cultural comparison. A field-theoretical approach, for example, raises the question whether an analysis of similarities and differences of field-constructions and field-positions helps to explain similarities and differences between these like-minded groups. In the epilogue to the book I indicated several issues that it might be fruitful to consider in relation to a cross-cultural comparison of nonreligious organizations.[19]
A first point of comparison could address the degree to which the worldview of such organisations is adequately described by using concepts such as naturalism, empiricism, exclusive humanism, scientism, and some sort of rationalism. How many of these organizations share the basic conviction that in principle all human problems and questions can be solved and answered through science, and the belief – described by Weber as central to processes of disenchantment – that the world is (in principle) explicable and therefore controllable, and that there are no incalculable, mysterious, supernatural forces?[20] How many of these organizations attempt to strengthen the conviction that the decisive problems in their respective societies have to do with an abundance of irrational beliefs, fraud and deceit, and credulity and gullibility on the part of the general public, as opposed to a scarcity of doubt and a concomittant spirit of inquiry? During my ethnographic fieldwork with Indian rationalists I observed two central characteristics of their specific mode of nonreligion, which I describe as “epistemic-moral entanglement” and the “ideology of doubt”.[21]
With “epistemic-moral entanglement” I highlight the point that the rationalists’ quest for disenchantment is as much moral as it is epistemological. “Superstitious beliefs” have to be eradicated because they are wrong as well as harmful. The “scientific temper” is to be spread, not only because it proves that religious and superstitious beliefs are wrong, but also because it can be a tool for common Indians to use in fighting exploitation and suppression. This stance is coupled to an “ideology of doubt”, according to which rationalists constantly stress the necessity to question and check the claims made by traditional or religious figures of authority, such as parents, teachers and of course representatives of religion(s). A high degree of “doubtfulness” or skepticism is considered important because of the knowledge as well as the power and autonomy that people are expected to gain from it.[22]
With respect to the organisational or formal structures there are obvious commonalities between like-minded organizations in Great Britain, India, and the rest of the world, including their many meetings, publications and magazines. A further vital aspect, that seemed to me, in India, as important there as to historians of rationalism in Great Britain, are the centrality of the charisma of their leaders, and the importance of the quality of their lectures.[23] Probably the most striking point with respect to their membership structure is that all such organizations consist of a very large male majority, no matter whether we look at the 19th or 20th centuries and no matter whether we look at India, Germany, Great Britain or the United States.[24] It would be interesting as well as challenging to discuss gender issues as part of modes of unbelief or religiosity.
The question of gender is probably also related to some characteristics of the modes of activism in many such organisations. In my ethnography I analysed the activism, rhetoric and self-perception of rationalists as fighters for the true and just cause coupled with ridicule of other positions as indicative of a general stance toward the world.[25] This stance is characterised by the mutual reinforcement of the activists’ discontent, conviction, dedication and confrontational approach. The feeling of discontent about widespread irrationality and injustice is all the stronger if paired with the drive not only to understand what is going wrong, but also to know what must be done in order to counter it. In turn, the strong conviction to know the solution for the injustices and irrationalities that have been detected can lead to an impressive dedication towards changing the respective societies.
At least in my case studies most activists were totally gripped by their movement and its aims. They did not shy away from confronting people with their alleged irrational beliefs and practices. They did not avoid confrontation with their critics, whether these critics were part of their families, communities, or the larger society.[26] This description is to some degree circular since oppositional or indifferent reactions from the respective society re-emphasize the feeling of standing alone in the fight against injustice and irrationality, i.e. the feeling of discontent with Indian society that motivated the rationalists to take action in the first place.
The central point is that, for the activists I met, this circle does not lead to frustration and passivity. There might be some frustrated and disaffected people who have left the movement. Yet those who are still active seem to draw strength from their discontent, frustration, and incomprehension with the passivity of others and gain even more dedication to changing the society they live in.[27] In any case, this circle seems to lead to a certain construction of the stereotypical “Other”. On the one hand, we have notions such as truth and rationality, and on the other hand, notions such as deception, fraud, exploitation, injustice, gullibility, pathology, and personal greed. This contrast was made particular strongly in a study by David J. Hess in which he concluded: “They frequently imply that the Other is not merely different, but morally wrong. The Self, in contrast, becomes a heroic crusader who can redeem the corrupt world of the Other and restore a sense of right community”.[28]
While these all are quite general points, I would like to end this section with an example of a possible, but more specific comparison. Interestingly, the way in which like-minded movements around the globe deal with issues of death seems to feature many similarities. Together with Jacob Copeman I tried to elucidate the practical, moral, and ideological dimensions of body donation as an instance of the material culture of the “nonreligious” in this regard.[29] Rationalists and atheists are by no means the only people who donate their bodies, yet the practice is strikingly prominent – widely promoted and enacted – in a variety of such groups and organisations across time and geographical region. We considered how and why this gift of bodily matter and of deathly memorial has become such an act of concentrated significance, suggesting that this is consequent on its simultaneous fulfilment of a number of different anti-religious objectives. We enumerated the varied nature of the recipients, while also seeking to show how body donation forms a metonym for a certain mode of nonreligion itself.[30]
To sum up, there are many indications that suggest we are dealing with a larger, transnational movement, comprising overlapping but also distinct modes of nonreligion. This is to some degree not surprising, given that a network of exchange has existed between such groups since the 19th century and has continued through the increased recent exchanges facilitated by the internet.[31] Further research in this direction would have to take into account, however, the problems that come along with this hypothesis.
Earlier I argued, firstly, that the positions of and debates around Indian rationalists are much more embedded in politics than are those of their Western counterparts.[32] This includes not only specific political debates between rationalists and representatives of the Hindu nationalist movement, but also more general questions of religious identity politics in South Asia. Secondly, I argued that for most Indian rationalists a whole way of life is at stake, and not just a cognitive decision over the existence of god(s) or not. A proactive ethic is expected to result from rationalism, atheism, and humanism, and therefore rationalism for many Indian rationalists is tantamount to social work.
The work and arguments of my colleagues at in the “Diversity of Nonreligion” project convinced me, however, that more careful comparison is needed. We need more theoretically informed in-depth studies on the basis of which we can continue to make detailed systematic comparisons of individual modes of nonreligion, developed within apparently like-minded organizations, in order to describe and understand commonalities and differences with respect to specific religious-nonreligious entanglements.

Johannes Quack is professor at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the University of Zurich. He heads the “Diversity of Nonreligion” project ( and can be contacted at johannes.quack

[1] First of all I would like to thank Jeroen Weggen and Terrell Carver for the invitation to contribute to this blog-project. It gives me the opportunity to bring thoughts scattered over various publications (listed in the footnotes).




[5] Colin Campbell, Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (London 1971).

[6] Lois Lee, Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular(Oxford University Press 2015).

[7] Johannes Quack, “Was ist ‚Nichtreligion‘? Feldtheoretische Argumente für ein relationales Verständnis eines eigenständigen Forschungsgebietes.“, in: Peter Antes & Stefen Führding eds., Säkularität in religionswissenschaftlicher Perspektive (Göttingen 2013), 87-107; Johannes Quack, “Outline of a Relational Approach to ‘Nonreligion’”, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 26:4-5 (2014), 439-469.

[8] Johannes Quack, “Hinduism, Atheism, and Rationalism.“, in: Knut A Jacobsen et al. eds., Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Vol. IV) (Leiden 2012), 626-632; Johannes Quack, “India.“, in: Steven Bullivant and Michael Ruse eds., The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press 2014), 651-664.

[9] for a detailed genealogy of “atheism“ in India, see Quack, “India“.

[10] See for a detailed discussion Quack, “Hinduism, Atheism, and Rationalism“ and Quack, “India“.

[11] Johannes Quack, Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India (New York 2012).

[12] Quack, “Was ist ‚Nichtreligion‘?“; Quack, “Outline of a Relational Approach“.

[13] Quack, Disenchanting India, 271-283.

[14] Quack, “Was ist ‚Nichtreligion‘?“; Quack, “Outline of an approach“.

[15] Quack, “Outline of an approach“; Johannes Quack, “Identifying (with) the Secular: Description and Genealogy.”, in: John Shook & Phil Zuckerman eds., The Oxford Handbook of Secularism (New York 2016, in press).

[16] Quack, “Identifying (with) the Secular“.

[17] Quack, “Outline of an approach”.

[18] Quack, Disenchanting India, 286-293 and 69-100.

[19] Ibidem, 286-293.

[20] Ibidem, 273.

[21] Ibidem, 272-274; Johannes Quack, “Arten des Unglaubens als ‚Mentalität‘: Religionskritische Traditionen in Indien“, In: Ulrich Berner & Johannes Quack eds., Religion und Kritik in der Moderne (Berlin 2012), 115-140.

[22] Quack, Disenchanting India, 140-141 and 273-274.

[23] Ibidem, 287 & 290.

[24] Ibidem, 291-293.

[25] Ibidem, 109-143.

[26] Ibidem, 245-264.

[27] Ibidem, 275.

[28] David J. Hess, 1993. Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture (University of Wisconsin Press 1993), 70.

[29] Jacob Copeman and Johannes Quack, “’Godless people’ and dead bodies: materiality and the morality of atheist materialism.” Social Analysis 59:2 (2015), 20-61.

[30] Idem.

[31] Quack, Disenchanting India, 69-77.

[32] Johannes Quack, “Organized Atheism in India: An Overview”, Journal of Contemporary Religion 27:1 (2012), 67-85.


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