Recognizing the Non-Religious

Reimagining the Secular

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Lois Lee
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Lois Lee’s book, Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular, draws on research done at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) and with others in England. Lee’s book was prompted by the growth of secularity in England and the world, and the need to study secularity and non-religion. To accomplish this task, Lee’s study moves past the religious/non-religious and religious/secular terminological divide to examine the variety of beliefs held by those who are secular and non-religious, and to study the relationship between secularity and non-religion. Lee’s book is a primary contribution “to the new empirical study of ‘secular’ populations and culture” which is leading to new vocabularies, theories, and methodologies for study (3).

In the first chapter Lee states that she is operating with a mainstream understanding of religion that is found in both “academic and popular” discourse. Lee begins with a definition of religion because secularity cannot be correctly understood without an understanding of religion. Religion means “religious institutions, their traditions, beliefs . . . and practices, and the people who adhere to them” (27). Definitions of anti-religion, areligion, religious indifference, post-religion, irreligion, non-religion, secularity, secularism, and post-secular are given in an attempt to clarify the meaning of these terms.

Non-religion is stated by Lee to be any “position, perspective, or practice” which “is primarily understood in relation to religion but which is not itself considered to be religious.” This definition of non-religion focuses on the differences between religion and non-religion rather than being a “rejection” of religion. This broader definition of non-religion allows for “unforseen realities” that may be encountered in the continued study of secularity and non-religion, and can be used to describe the experiences of the non-religious who are “positively disposed towards the religion of others” even though they themselves are not religious (33). Further, Lee proposes that “non-religion” is “distinct from the secular” because of the disconnections and “contradictions between them” (13).

In the second chapter Lee posits what she calls the insubstantial and substantial understandings of secularity. This distinction is necessary because though the term secular is “a familiar analytic concept,” its exact “meaning remains unclear” (49). The insubstantial secular is understood as simply being without religion. The substantial secular is understood to include a different set of beliefs, actions, and traditions in relationship to the beliefs, actions, and traditions of those who are religious. Lee states five hypotheses for studying the phenomena of secularity which are examined in the remainder of the book.

The third chapter studies the everyday “banal” forms of non-religion, meaning forms that do not appear prominent, lie behind the scenes, and yet exert great, but seemingly unnoticed, influence (71). Lee’s study suggests that secular societies experience “non-religious” socialization through constant affirmation of “non-religious beliefs and cultures” in both public and private contexts (85). This leads to the possible conclusion that the secular might be “more substantively non-religious than supposed” (85).

The fourth chapter explores the embodiment of the secular, secularity, and non-religion in society. The banal forms of non-religion embodied in everyday life help secularity and non-religion to become familiar and normal as a result of repeated contact with people. An example of this is the repurposing of religious buildings into restaurants, apartment buildings, and art galleries. According to Lee, the “removal of religious objects” from the culture is a powerful visual indicator of the changed cultural situation (104).

The fifth chapter raises the question as to whether social gatherings of the non-religious are reactions to the influence of religion in society, or if they are “autonomous and self-sustaining forms of social life” (107).

Lee examined the terms of self-classification used in social surveys and academic reports on religion and non-religion and found that the use of these terms for self-classification was not always an accurate indication of the reality of the respondents because the people who responded were “not religious” or “not theistic” in particular ways that were not always indicated by the terminology they used (157). This lack of clarity is illustrated by the people who classified themselves as being atheists and affiliated with “the Church of England” (13).

In the final chapter, Lee discusses “existential cultures” (159). These cultures exhibit ideas about the “origins of life and human consciousness and about how both are transformed or expire after death.”  These ideas, Lee writes, also include notions about the “meaning and purpose” of life which are exhibited in specific “ethical practices.” Lee sees this as a “return to belief” which manifests itself in specific “existential rituals” outside of the sphere of traditional Western religion (160). These are substitutes for religion. Lee identifies existential cultures evident in “humanist, agnostic, theistic, subjectivist, and anti-existential” contexts. Lee’s study highlights “important similarities between religious, spiritual, and non-religious experiences” and rituals while noting their distinct differences (161).

This existential view affords new opportunities for studying religion and “secular modernity” in the coming years (184). Lee’s research has lead her to the hypothesis that the religious, spiritual, and non-religious “forms of existential culture” are all viable responses to life’s “ultimate questions” (186). Lee encourages further study to establish the validity of that hypothesis. Lee believes that the study of secularity and non-religion is a significant way “of learning more about the concept of ‘religion’” (200). This book is part of the growing field studying alternative and individualistic religion and spirituality, as well as religion and spirituality without God.

Lee concludes by recognizing that the variety found in non-religion has “opened up research methodologies” which are able to give a “more detailed” account of the various forms of non-religion and the similarities and differences between non-religion and secularity because in Lee’s view “the non-religious is always in some sense religious-like” whereas “secularity” is not (193-94).

Lee’s book should be studied by theologians, seminary professors, those engaged in the sociological study of religion, secularization, and by the secular and non-religious.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Armand J. Boehme is Associate Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Northfield, MN.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lois Lee is a research associate in the religion and Political Theory Centre at University College London. She is a sociologist whose work focuses on the empirical study of nonreligion and atheism and, more widely, on the theory and study of culturally diverse and differentiated societies. Lois is founding director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network and co-edits the journal Secularism and Nonreligion. As well as work in academic journals and the media, Lois' publication include the edited volumes Secularity and Non-religion and Negotiating Religion. She is co-editor of the book series, Religion and Its Others: Studies in Religion, Nonreligion and Secularity.



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