Whenever I teach my Sociology of Secularity class, I always pose the following question to my students: “Which gathering is more secular: my Sunday morning pick-up soccer game, or the Sunday morning gathering of Inland Valley Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers?” Some students insist that it is the gathering of self-identified atheists, since they are flagrantly anti-religious and are meeting to discuss ways in which to enforce the separation of church and state, disabuse others of their religious delusions, and cope with life in a heavily religious society. Others insist that it is the pick-up soccer game since at that gathering, religion simply isn’t an issue. While the gathering of atheists are deeply concerned with religion and are intensely aware of its influence, the gathering of soccer players is completely oblivious to religion—not pro, not con, not anything. And it is perhaps the soccer gathering’s obliviousness to religion—and an abundance of other such social interactions devoid of religious concern, negative or positive—that lends credence to Scottish sociologist Steve Bruce’s well-known assertions that the final destination of secularization is not atheism, but rather, indifference.
Religious Indifference: New Perspectives from Studies on Secularization and Nonreligion, edited by Johannes Quack and Cora Schuh, takes the matter of religious indifference seriously, amassing a body of impressive articles that together provide the single most thoughtful and thorough examination of indifference to religion ever published. Rich with theoretical insight, typological innovation, quantitative and qualitative data, and with a European-heavy yet still international focus—Canada, Estonia, the US, Germany, India, the UK, etc.—this book provides rigorous, path-breaking analyses of secularity, non-religion, secularization, irreligion, and most importantly, social identities, positions, and postures that are neither anti-religious nor pro-religious, but hovering in a realm characterized by detachment, disengagement, irrelevance, inconsequence, unimportance, and insignificance.
Consider, for but one illustrative example, the case of a woman selling fruits and vegetables on a roadside in rural Texas. Petra Klug happened upon her in the course of her research on religion and non-religion in the US, which she recounts in her chapter “Varieties of Nonreligion: Why Some People Criticize Religion, While Others Just Don’t Care.” When Klug asks the woman if she believes in God, the woman replies, “Not really, um. I don’t know. I hadn’t really given it any thought. Um, my kids just, they go to church with their friends, but I hadn’t really given it much thought, really. I think you picked the wrong person” (225). More excerpts of the interview are presented, but the point is that this woman’s attitude, when it comes to various aspects of religion, is essentially non-judgmental and dispassionate. She isn’t anti-religion, but she isn’t all that interested in it or compelled by it either. She is essentially indifferent—an orientation that, Lois Lee reminds us, “has no institutional expression or overt symbolic representation” (103). And yet, when it comes to contemporary secularity and non-religion, a strong case can be made that there are far more people like the fruit-selling Texan out there than there are active atheists or self-identified humanists.
To understand secularity and non-religion today, the matter of indifference is truly where it is at—as this volume strongly illustrates. From definitional debates to discourse analysis, from the history of secularism in Britain to feminism in Quebec, from interviews with individuals in London and Tallinn to statistical data from international surveys, from determining whether or not certain people engage in religious rites of passage to the fascinating differences of being religiously indifferent in Germany versus India, this volume is theoretically savvy and empirically solid. And while I was somewhat put-off by the high-level, obscure pleonasms and complex, nuanced academic verbiage that cropped up at times, these moments were relatively infrequent. What typified most of the chapters in Religious Indiffernce were frank discussion, sociological insight, and heaps of data illustrating the amazing degree to which religion has become increasingly irrelevant in so many contemporary societies.
Religious Indifference is a path-breaking contribution to the study of secularism and nonreligion, no doubt.
Phil Zuckerman is professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College.
Date Of Review:
September 14, 2017
Johannes Quack is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Zurich. His (ethnographic) research interests include popular Hinduism, secularism and nonreligion, therapeutic pluralism, and knowledge (trans)formations in general. He is the author of Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India (OUP, 2012) and co-edits the book series Religion and Its Others: Studies in Religion, Nonreligion, and Secularity (De Gruyter).
Cora Schuh was a research associate in the Emmy Noether Project “The Diversity of Nonreligion”, headed by Johannes Quack. She graduated from Cultural Studies at the University of Leipzig, where she was also part of the project “Multiple Secularities”, headed by Monika Wohlrab-Sahr. She is currently working on her PhD thesis on “Nonreligion, Secularity and Politics: Social Liberalism in the Netherlands” (working title).
Reading Religion Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on new books, new reviews, and more.
You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never share or sell your e-mail address.