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Beyond the ‘God Wars’

For many years – running into decades, even centuries – the idea of a fundamental opposition between believers and non-believers has anchored public discussion about religion. The metaphors are of battles: these are ‘God Wars’, with ‘zealous religionists’ mounting their defences against ‘militant atheists’. We are warned about ‘aggressive secularism’, and hear fighting talk in which rival camps make their claims over the nation: some say British publics ‘don’t do God’; others say after all, ‘Britain is a Christian country’. For all these disagreements, the one thing that this discourse does seem to tell us is, when it comes to religion, Britain is a nation at civil war.

But to what extent does this image of ‘old theists’ at battle with ‘new atheists’ really reflect the realities of religion and nonreligion in Britain today? In our view, although polarized narratives do to some extent reflect real oppositions, they also emphasize differences in belief and blind us to important affinities between religious and nonreligious people and cultures.

For one, religious and nonreligious actors have shared interests and concerns. In past years, clashes around religious and Atheist student activity have made the news; meanwhile, Anna was carrying out fieldwork with members of a conservative evangelical congregation, some of whom were involved in a student mission at Durham University, while at the same time, the Humanist and Secular Society was also organizing its own mission at Durham in the form of a ‘Reason Week’. But when Anna spoke to members of the church who were involved in the Christian mission, they said that they liked the fact that Reason Week was also happening, acknowledging the similarities between how they and the Humanist society invest in and advocate for engagement – and particular forms of engagement – with religion.

“Even when religious and nonreligious people and groups do pit themselves against each other, there is common ground.”

They contrasted these ways of engagement with what they saw as a more standard student response of indifference to religion – a group that many nonreligious actors also critique and see themselves as distinct from. To that extent, these groups are bound together by their relationship with the indifferent, seen sometimes as a common enemy, sometimes merely as a matter of common concern. By the same token, active members of both religious and nonreligious groups are maligned and stereotyped in a secularist popular culture that sometimes sees itself as distant from both religious and explicitly nonreligious perspectives.

For both groups, reason and rationality are important. For the conservative evangelicals Anna worked with, a rationalist approach to faith is pervasive. The rector of one congregation she conducted fieldwork with recommended on their first meeting that she read Rodney Stark and Roger Finke’s Acts of Faith, which, in his words, ‘argues that faith is entirely rational’. At the same time, Lois and other researchers have documented the extent to which the most prominent forms of nonreligious culture are also profoundly rationalist. The New Atheism is a case in point. Here, non-theism and irreligion are matters of reason, clear-thinking – matters of what the groups themselves refer to as ‘freethought’.

For all this concern with rationality, both groups likewise benefit from emotional and ritual connections to their beliefs. With religious practice, this is well known; for the nonreligious, less so. Many nonreligious people think of themselves as fundamentally different to believers – rational, liberated from the social and cultural comforts and distortions of religion – yet they too participate in a series of existential cultures and the rituals surrounding those, and they share these with friends and families. One of the clearest example surrounds illness and bereavement – acute experiences in which alternative beliefs and communities of belief play an important role. For the nonreligious, there are an array humanist, naturalist and civil symbolic cultures to turn to, each with their distinctive stories and rituals. At such moments of existential crisis, the fact that nonreligious people, like religious people, participate in and draw from existential cultures is clear to see.

Even when religious and nonreligious people and groups do pit themselves against each other, there is common ground. In fact, one of the more intriguing – and ultimately divisive – things that those active within such religious and nonreligious groups also sometimes share is a sense of their own victimhood. This is perhaps not surprising when we consider that religious and nonreligious identities are unusually balanced in the UK, with about half claiming a denominational, typically Christian identity, and the other half identifying themselves as nonreligious.

Arguably this balanced position is also a precarious one – made the more flammable as both groups, thought of as quite dissimilar entities in many quarters, enjoy different kinds of legitimacy and illegitimacy in public life. In addition, religious and nonreligious actors are sometimes segregated, kept apart as a result of social, cultural and media environments in which one or other culture is dominant. Secular norms can also limit the extent to which people get to know about the religious and nonreligious beliefs and cultures of those we engage with every day.

This is an area in which social science stands to make an important contribution. Research that helps us attend to the everyday lives, concerns and aspirations of those implicated in the ‘God Wars’ can reorient our understanding away from straightforwardly oppositional narratives. It highlights instead the need to find better metaphors for modes of religious/nonreligious engagement, ones which account for cultural similarities, exchanges and friendships, as well as the real differences that exist.

Although the discursive strategies of particular religious and nonreligious groups can be self-conscious acts of distancing, it is also the case that these acts of ‘othering’ are haunted by a sense of – and even a desire for – the possibility of connection. If we recognize this, we soon recognize also that particular orientations towards separation or connection are shaped by other things – unequal modes of power, the visibility and invisibility of different kinds of religious and nonreligious practice, and broader cultural networks – all of which shape and are shaped by the complex textures of contemporary moral and existential terrains.

Featured image credit: Bus photo, by Dan Etherington. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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  1. […] for example, the British conservative evangelicals that Anna studied placed a similar emphasis on reason, and the individuals she worked with articulated a sense that their faith was rational and […]

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