A blog about (ir)religion, ritual and so on …

Archive for the tag “irreligion”

Secularism and Secularity at the American Academy of Religion: A Proposal

Prior to this year’s AAR annual meeting in Chicago I wrote about an effort to carve out a space within the AAR that attends more fully to secularisms, secularities and non-religion. We held a exploratory session on “Irreligion, Secularism and Social Change” in furtherance of that cause, and it was a smashing success. Over 90 people were in attendance to see three interesting and provocative papers by Daniel Silliman, Petra Klug and Jordan Miller that covered a variety of approaches to the secular and social change. Jonathan van Antwerpen of the Social Sciences Research Council also did a marvelous job tying them together despite their divergence. Now we are onto next steps, which means a proposal for the actual group.  The full proposal text can be found at the Immanent Frame, and if you skip on over there you’ll see that we are also requesting letters of support. If you are a member of the AAR and you like what you see, please do send us a letter to All letters have to be received by the end of the day tomorrow.

Secularism and Secularity
Proposal for a new program unit of the American Academy of Religion

Per Smith (Boston University)
Jonathan VanAntwerpen (Social Science Research Council)

Steering Committee Members:
Joseph Blankholm (Columbia University)
Mayanthi Fernando (University of California, Santa Cruz)
Jonathon Kahn (Vassar College)
Kathryn Lofton (Yale University)
Robert Yelle (University of Memphis)

The shifting boundaries of religion in late modernity have increasingly pointed up the problematic relationship between “the religious” and “the secular.”  In the wake of a contested and frequently maligned “secularization thesis,” a new set of questions have appeared that draw our scholarly attention to secularism, secularity, and the secular—questions around the changing role of religion in law, politics, and public life, around the metamorphosis of personal identities, practices, and affiliations (figured as religious, spiritual, secular, or otherwise), and around a broader set of historical transformations that have conditioned and been imbricated in these and other changes.

In the course of pursuing answers to such questions contemporary scholars are confronted with, and challenged by, the ways in which diverse modes of secularism and multiple forms of secular practice are entangled with—and variously seek to disentangle themselves from—religion and the religious. These entanglements can take shape as contestations or conversions, appropriations or accommodations, while also pointing toward the different ways in which the religious and the secular depend upon and indeed constitute one another. Exploring the interplay of “religious” and “secular” identities, communities, and institutions, for example, is an important part of more fully understanding a widely noted rise in religious disaffiliation within the United States…

Do read the entire proposal and if you support it remember to send your letter to

Forthcoming research on non-religious funerals … stay tuned!

A few months ago, in an article for The New Humanism, “Spitting with the Wind: The Sociology of Irreligion and Ritual,” I opined that it was “time for scholars and community leaders alike to start paying attention to the emerging traditions of non-religious life-cycle ritual all around them.” My own dissertation focusses on just such a tradition, but at the time I knew of no other research like it. How things have changed. I am now familiar with several ongoing projects centered around non-religious life-cycle ritual. In fact the research phase of one of these projects, conducted by London School of Economics anthropologist Mathew Engelke, was recently completed.

With the assistance of funding from The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Engelke spent all of 2011 conducting “an ethnography of the British Humanist Association.” While his ethnography did not focus exclusively on humanist ceremonies he did train to become a humanist celebrant, and consequently spent a great deal of time as a participant-observer researching non-religious funerals. He has written modestly about his research experience in the Guardian:

The idea of a good death is not new. Anthropologists, historians, and other social scientists have long documented the variety of ways in which a good death is achieved. Crucial to this is not only how someone dies, but how that death is commemorated. In many cases, to include Britain today, a good death has to involve a good funeral. Ritual, even in this postmodern age, is flourishing. And whether or not we identify as religious such ritual, it seems, still counts.

I spent last year conducting an anthropological study of the British Humanist Association (BHA), an organisation which on first thought might not bring to mind a commitment to rites de passage. For the association, however, providing funerals to those who do without God is a major aspect of its work. There are close to 300 humanist celebrants, and they conduct more than 8,000 funerals a year. It’s a burgeoning service. As Linda Woodhead noted here last week, “the churches’ hold over birth, marriage, and death has weakened dramatically”. According to a major study by Co-operative Funeralcare, in 2011, 12% of funerals in Britain are now humanist or otherwise “non-religious”.

As an anthropologist, one of the reasons I wanted to study the BHA is because of this commitment to the experiential and embodied side of being non-religious. As an increasing number of philosophers within the atheist and humanist ambit have stressed, much of the god debate over the past six or seven years has been dominated by a hyper-intellectualised version of what it means to do without Him. But godless dons have funerals – most of them do, at any rate. And so do other non-religious people.

To be sure, a good BHA funeral is a carefully scripted event: words matter to the celebrants, and ought to “capture the person”, as some of the celebrants put it to me – and as I learned the hard way, training to become a celebrant myself. (As an anthropologist, I had to go native as much as I could.) The scripts I wrote during the training – a three-month process – were deconstructed by my teachers, word for word. I felt like a student all over again. Yet humanist funerals are also, like all rituals, carefully scripted performances: sensuous events in which the semantic content of what is said is often eclipsed by what exists beyond language.

My own research also suggests that attempting to “capture the person” in ritual performance is likely the hallmark of the modern life-cycle ceremony, and especially so in the non-religious realm. But what does that mean? The ESRC digs a bit deeper into the issue in a press release on Engelke’s funeral research:

One of the most striking aspects of BHA funeral ceremonies is that they strive to be true to the individual, to reflect as best as possible the character, world views and the sensibilities of the person who has died. “The focus is almost exclusively on the person, which is often not the case with the more traditional religious ceremonies” says Dr Engelke.

This emphasis on the individual is an increasingly important phenomenon in modern Western life, suggests Dr Engelke. In many societies, and in ritual ceremonies down the ages, the place of the individual in the ritual is often the least important consideration.

In humanist ceremonies, being true to the individual is most central. Dr Engelke commonly came across family members and friends who said: “We told the funeral director John did not go to church so we did not want a vicar to take the funeral”.

“This gives an intriguing glimpse into the extent to which modern citizens feel it important to express their uniqueness and individuality”, says Dr Engelke.

As the ESRC points out, the individual has rarely played as central of a role in ritual as s/he does today, in the contemporary West. Yet, as I am finding in my own research there is a complex set of relationships at play in even the most personalized of ceremonies. I hope that Engelke’s more detailed analysis of humanist funerals goes beyond mere personalization and attempts to decipher to what end ritualized individualism plays out in contemporary non-religious ceremonies. Without giving too much away about my own research I can say that something quite connective if not collective seems to abide under the veneer of the rugged ritualizing American individual.  Is this also the case among British Humanists? We’ll have to wait and see, and of course no matter where Engelke’s analysis takes him this is exciting and timely research. Keep it coming, please!

Fight for your Right to Ritual

With Obama’s public declaration of support for gay marriage still reverberating throughout the nation this story is bound to get little attention. The ACLU of Indiana recently filed a lawsuit against the state of Indiana over wedding rights. Yes you read that correctly, wedding rights. Their complaint is not about the right to enter the institution of marriage, but the right to do so in a certain way. From the ACLU press release:

Indianapolis – Indiana allows religious groups to perform marriages in accordance with their beliefs. But marriages performed by a non-religious group that trains and certifies secular celebrants are not recognized by state law — a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

“From a First Amendment perspective, it is proper and necessary for the state to allow religions to marry people according to their beliefs,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk. “However, the state law becomes unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause when you say that religions are the only groups with rights to have their beliefs recognized in marriage ceremonies.”

Falk said the statute, Indiana Code § 31-11-6-1, also violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it denies the non-religious group its rights to spread its “essential beliefs” by performing marriage ceremonies, while allowing religious groups those same privileges.

Detractors of the complaint could easily argue that there is no law preventing nonreligious groups in Indiana, or in any other state, from spreading their “essential beliefs” through ritual practice. The right to ritual is already enshrined in rights to free expression and assembly. Couples are free to have a leader from the Center for Inquiry (on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed) or any other irreligious institution, officiate a ceremony for them. What these leaders cannot do in Indiana is to solemnize the marriage in the eyes of the law.  Yet what does making it legal have to do with spreading “essential beliefs?”  Nothing particularly, and that leads to a vital question.

Why should any religious official have the right to spread the essential beliefs of a religious community while acting as a representative of the state? In order to argue for the equal rights of their clients the ACLU has had to claim that from  “a First Amendment perspective, it is proper and necessary for the state to allow religions to marry people according to their beliefs.” But in the ACLU’s statement two forms of “marriage” become conflated; one is religious and the other is civil. As we know religious and nonreligious groups are already on equal footing when it comes to performing rites of the (ir)religious sort, but only one group is currently vested with the power of the state to actualize those of the civil sort. Does the First Amendment really profess that it is “proper and necessary” for any group (religious or otherwise) to be vested with that civil power?

A little historical context could be useful here. Colonial era marriages were almost exclusively civil. The Puritans of New England, who were fervent Reformation anti-ritualists didn’t believe that marriage was a sacrament. Civil magistrates performed wedding ceremonies in those days and continued to do so even after the British crown opened the field up to clergy (no doubt because of their very close relationship to the Anglican Church … aka themselves). After the Revolution, the drafting of the Constitution, and yes the addition of the First Amendment, weddings remained a mostly civil affair. Clergy could, of course, perform them in a civil capacity according to state laws, but even so most people didn’t have a church wedding until it became fashionable to do so in the Victorian era.

While I would never invoke originalism, it is interesting to wonder how the Framers would have considered this question, given the very different context in which most marriage rites were performed at the time. It is also important to remember that most marriage law is not regulated  by the federal government.  Why is that important? Because the enshrined practice of allowing clergy to represent the state in the matter of marriage has been the product of state law making. It may very well relate to the freedom of religion conceptually, but it would be difficult to claim that it relates specifically to the intent of the First Amendment. Of course the more important questions still remain. Far from being protected by the First Amendment, might this long established practice not in fact run contra to it? And if it does why has it never been challenged?

We have long been willing to grant religion an exceptional place in our society. For instance consider the recent unanimous decision in the Hosanna-Tabor case. There is apparently no debate among the Supreme Court’s justices about whether or not religion is sui generis in the eyes of the law; it just is. How far religious rights extend may be debated, but that religion is somehow a category unto itself is to be taken for granted. What has happened historically when nonreligious groups want to be vested with the power to wed their constituents is that they have been recognized as if they were religious. That is how the “leaders” of Ethical Culture are granted the power to legally perform marriages for instance. That is also what the ACLU seems to be asking for now; that the state of Indiana recognize the Center for Inquiry as if it were a religious institution.

Why exactly does the ACLU, or more importantly the Center for Inquiry want to challenge marriage law on that premise? It seems backwards to me. Why not argue that current practices vis-à-vis allowing clergy to act as representatives of the state while performing their religious duties are themselves unconstitutional? In other words, why not challenge religious exceptionalism head on? Either way one could only hope this case and others like it raise important questions in the halls of power about the tangled mess of marriage laws we have. If the federal courts and federal lawmakers were actually to untangle that mess we might end up with a simpler collection of laws that reflect the spirit of our Constitution a bit better all around. And yes I’m thinking here again of Obama’s announcement this week …

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