01: The June issue of the e-journal Approaching Religion looks at the “New Visibility of Atheism in Europe.”
The articles, stemming from a seminar in January 2012 at the Donner Institute, cover a range of topics related to contemporary atheism in diﬀerent countries. Teemu Taira looks at the position of atheism in Finland, showing how a greater public presence around “the new atheism” has not led to a greater popularity. This is the case even in a country with low levels of religiosity, due to non-belief being conﬂated with communism in Finnish public discourse.
American contributor Phil Zuckerman undertakes a useful comparative analysis between the United States and Scandinavia, showing how secularity and atheism take diﬀerent forms and are adapted to local cultures. As a case in point, Thomas Zenk explores how “The New Atheism”—initially understood as an American phenomenon in the German press—came to be considered German. This happened through German activists, authors and academics commenting on “the New Atheism” or self-identifying as such in public by way of books, TV shows and other media.Tiina Mahlamäki examines the understudied topic of gender and atheism, especially the pattern of women (including feminists) being statistically more religious than men, with the latter more likely to convert to atheism.
Mahlamäki surveys theo-ries on why this is the case and looks historically at how this strong preference towards religion occurred, beginning with the education women received as compared to men, as well as a general lack of socialization and their traditional roles as mothers and caregivers. An insightful article by Steven Bullivant emphasizes how being non-religious and religiously indiﬀerent are not synonymous. British society has a high percentage of non-religious individuals, but is still deeply interested in religion. Given this, it should be no surprise to ﬁnd a strong presence of atheism there insofar as interest in belief and non-belief go hand and hand.
The issue is available at: http://ojs.abo.ﬁ/index.php/ar/issue/view/20
— By Caitlin Maddox
02: Nancy J. Davis and Robert V. Robinson study how orthodox religious movements create dense networks of social service and educational organizations in their new book, Claiming Society for God (Indiana University Press, $25).
The authors examine the Salvation Army in the United States, the Italian Catholic group Communione e Liberazione, the Shas party in Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, ﬁnding as many diﬀerences as similarities between them. But they all show two sides: they seek to transform society (although this argument is easier to make in the case of Shas and the Muslim Brotherhood than for the Salvation Army) while having a strong “caring,” communitarian dimension, creating a durable counterculture of schools and social welfare organizations.
Of course, both dimensions tend to complement each other; as more organizations are created, the movement can have a greater transformative eﬀect on society.Davis and Robinson see these movements’ ideological strictness, disinclination to compromise and multi-pronged agendas as organizational obstacles. Yet their orthodox fervor and genius for bypassing the state make up for these deﬁciencies and the usual problems of social movements, such as the death of founders and the emergence of schisms. Their chapter on Communione e Liberazione—particularly noteworthy since little on this movement has been published in English—is a case in point, showing how it has eﬀectively bypassed the state, creating almost a “parallel Christian society,” with 32,000 business aﬃliates and 1,100 social service organizations.
03: Religion and Change in Modern Britain (Routledge, $49.95), edited by Linda Woodhead and Rebecca Catto, is a thorough account of religious trends that have reshaped the United Kingdom in the last 50 years.
The illustrated book serves as much as an encyclopedia of religions and religious topics in Britain as a historical and sociological account of religious transformation. There are lively accounts of the new diversity marking the country, ranging from old establishment churches to New Age and Neopagan alternatives, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and ethnic Pentecostal churches, as well as treatments of general topics, such as rituals, media and gender.Much of the research in the book is the result of the government-funded, six-year Religion and Society Program, which is directed by Woodhead.
Her introduction pays attention to the debates on secularization, de-secularization and the public role of religion that have been played out far beyond the UK, but they have a special resonance there, because there are signs of these tendencies co-existing and interacting. Most of the contributors argue that secularization has clearly occurred in Britain—church attendance and Christian belief has receded.
Yet there is also recognition that religion interpenetrates much of British life, a reality carefully spelled out in the last chapter by David Martin with Rebecca Cato. That secularization does not explain all of the British case is evident in the fact that a majority of British still consider themselves to be Christian in some way, and there are signs of renewal, especially in such a center as London, where there has been substantial minority Christian growth and even an uptick of Anglican and Catholic participation in the metropolis.
04: What Matters? Ethnographies of Value in a Not So Secular Age (Columbia University Press, $29.50), edited by Courtney Bender and Ann Taves, looks at the complex interaction among religion, spirituality and secularism and the diﬀerent ways they are understood, converge and take on value in speciﬁc contexts.
The contributions include a chapter on how the commercialization of media with the institutionalization of democracy led to the emergence of a new public sphere in Ghana, a sphere where spirits, a mass-mediated Pentecostalism, democratic intentions and commerce co-mingle in a secular-spiritual-religious mix. In another intriguing piece, Jeffrey Kripal, exploring the outer fringes of the academic establishment, looks at the Sursem esoteric group. Both studies point to the fact that modern religious-spiritual experience is not necessarily all that disenchanted for being modern; the modern analytical distinction between the secular and the religious may be sharp, but empirically and experientially things are less clear cut.
Some of the other contributions include an article looking at the ways in which religious liberals refashioned 19th-century psychological discourses designed to explain away religion; a chapter showing how our secular humanitarian ethic, which is focused on a population’s immediate needs (as understood medically), functions as a form of the sacred or a secular morality; a study of homeschooling in the Southwest region of the United States, which argues that homeschooling is a means for parents to re-enchant the family outside the purview of bu-reaucracies and the state; and a unique article focusing on the international psytrance community, in which transcendence and a secular spiritual experience are sought in a very self-conscious, technological and marketed manner.
The editors provide an insightful introduction that summarizes both the articles and the theoretical issues informing them. This is a unique, wide-ranging collection of ethnographies that should be of interest to anyone looking to move beyond any simplistic understanding of what it means to be religious, spiritual and secular today.
–By Christopher Smith, a free-lance writer and researcher
05: There have been several recent works on post-secularism, but the new book Postsecular Society (Transaction Publishers, $49.95), edited by Peter Nynas, Mika Lassander and Terhi Utrianen, may be of more interest for its research and analysis of the religious situation than for its elucidation of this vague and debatable concept.
As in other works on post-secularism, the book’s contributors—mainly Finnish scholars—stress how this process means that religion becomes more public in nature even as religious institutions show signs of decline. One chapter introduces the concept of “liquid religion,” meaning that religion or spirituality can both ﬂuctuate and cross borders into secular spheres and activities.
In Finland and other northern European countries, these “in-between spaces” include the health-care system, such as hospices, as well as alternative medicine, social work and even art museums. Other chapters cover environmentalism as an arena of post-secular spirituality (a trend that has been well established in Scandinavia); and how capitalism and technological innovation (in a study comparing Finland, Japan and the United States) function as secular and sometimes actual religions.