Being Godless

Ethnographies of Atheism and Non-Religion

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Editor(s): 
Ruy Llera Blanes, Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic
  • New York, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , May
     2017.
     154 pages.
     $27.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781785335730.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The amount of scholarly work being produced on non-religion/nones/atheism/irreligion and so on is rapidly accelerating. If we add to this academic ponderings on “the secular,” the quantity of literature is almost overwhelming. One of the things that distinguishes this exciting and vibrant field is that it is led primarily by scholars who are emerging rather than established. They are enthusiastically theorizing, measuring, and reconfiguring the field, critically engaging with method and theory to respond to this area of social change. This volume is part of that wave of scholarship, and it includes both some new perspectives as well as developments of previous thinking. Lois Lee’s chapter leads the way, as she does the field, with a chapter that considers “authentic” and “inauthentic” atheist identities, furthering her path of breaking framing of the field of non-religion. 

The volume excels at making clear the importance of geographic context in considering non-religion and society while simultaneously presenting research that raises big questions about contemporary non-religion. There are chapters that focus on non-religion in India, the former Soviet Union, Angola, and the Philippines. These are welcome additions to the literature. For example, Jacob Copeman and Johannes Quack’s chapter considers the resistance of atheists in India to traditional death rituals through the practice of donating their bodies to science. The arguments they make regarding materiality are pertinent beyond the Indian context: they raise questions about the impact of increasing non-religion on contributions to scientific knowledge through shifts in burial practices. More broadly, their chapter leaves the reader to ponder the myriad of yet to be identified and explained social consequences of increasing non-religion. 

Sonja Luehrmann’s chapter on Soviet atheist critiques of religion also underscores the importance of context, but as with the Copeman and Quack chapter, extends to broader debates about objectivity and neutrality in the study of religion and non-religion. Luehrmann’s chapter introduces another subtheme of the volume, that of non-religion and politics, which is picked up in Ruy Llera Blanes and Abel Paxe’s discussion of atheist political cultures in Angola and Matthew Engelke’s afterword. Though taking seriously the experiential, all of these authors raise the important issue of states and their impact on the configuration of both religion and non-religion. 

As the study of non-religion develops there is much about terminology and scope that remains to be sorted out. One of the most common tendencies is the blurring of atheism and non-religion. This volume focuses primarily on atheism and non-religion but occasionally wanders into the broader category of non-religion. There is nothing explicitly wrong with this except that it can be too easy to conflate the two, extending conclusions and observations about atheism to the non-religious. This in turn can take the form of a colonizing discourse that sees everything as non-religious (those who study religion have sometimes also engaged in this colonization, rendering everything spiritual if not religious). Rather than a particular flaw of this volume, this blurring is part of the growing pains of the emerging study of non-religion. 

The issue of researcher stance also recurs in the chapters, especially in relation to its impact on the study of religion in the former Soviet Union. Luehrmann makes a compelling argument that atheist researchers were able to produce credible research on religion if for no other reason than to help the state make people better atheists. Researcher stance is the core theme. From a more personal vantage point, Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic describes her interactions with a Sufi mystic and considers how belief might shift her perception, particularly of his invasive interventions on her body. Though the discussion on researcher standpoint is informative, I wondered about the absence of feminist discussions of neutrality, objectivity, and standpoint given that this issue has been a central contribution of feminist social theory, especially during its second wave. The discussion of tactical religiosity gestures to a tension that exists in the study of religion in a number of disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, and religious studies, about critical engagement with religion on the one hand and accusations of instrumentalization on the other. 

Paul-Francois Tremlett and Fang-Long Shih, in an interesting twist, pick up on the theme of doubt explored by the editors in their introduction and map doubt and belief as elements of social interactions among the Association of International Healers at Mount Banahaw in the Philippines and an anti-nuclear group in Ren-he Temple in Taiwan. They contend that New Atheist characterizations of both religion and atheism vis-à-vis doubt and belief are inaccurate, amounting to caricatures of each. They are correct, and in my view, it is in this gray space that the study of non-religion can offer compelling insight. The trick will be to avoid becoming mired in the body count game, the goal of which is to declare a winner between religion and non-religion.

I found myself growing a bit impatient with the anthropological disciplinary preoccupations in this volume, which at times distracted from powerful research findings and theoretical contributions to the study of non-religion that transcend disciplinary boundaries. The scope of social change we are experiencing in relation to religion and non-religion requires all hands on deck. To be sure, anthropology has some unique tools that help to make sense of this massive shift, in particular its deep commitment to ethnographic method. Yet, as the volume itself demonstrates, political science, sociology, demography, and philosophy are each vital partners in the explication of social change. The question of how anthropology has handled religion, and now non-religion, warrants a volume of its own. Despite this minor criticism, Being Godless: Ethnographies of Atheism and Non-Religion is a sound contribution to the study of non-religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lori G. Beaman is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Religious Diversity and Social Change in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ruy Llera Blanes is a Ramon y Cajal Fellow at the Spanish National Research Council.

Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

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