Andrew Brown at The Guardian has written an article about a seminar at which I spoke which was convened by academics (sociologists, political theorists, anthropologists, philosophers, and educationists) engaged in the emerging filed of studying the non-religious.
Andrew Copson, who runs the British Humanist Association, is a third generation post-Christian. “I grew up in a post-religious society in the Midlands. I went to an entirely secular primary school and secondary school; the popular culture I imbibed was things like Star Trek. I read fantasy and science fiction. I studied classics at university and some modern history.”
He was talking at a small conference on the study of non-religion and secularity last week. Sociologists and anthropologists have done a great deal of research on different forms of belief. But unbelief, or at least a life untouched in any serious sense by organised religion, is only just coming into scope for this kind of social scientific inquiry.
Copson had a varied intellectual and social experience when he was growing up, but he says: “What didn’t feature in any way in my account was religion. What’s not in any sense contributed to making me what I am is religion, and I think that story is increasingly typical of non-religious people.”
What I said in my opening remarks at the seminar was that I was the child of a humanist mother and non-religious grandparents, that the community institutions of the working class town where I grew up were municipal or secular cooperative ones, that the multi-ethnic primary school I went to was very secular, that the secondary school I went to on a scholarship aged 11 was the same, the the popular culture I imbibed was humanistic, that the academic subjects I studied by choice at school and at university were the culture of ancient Greece and Rome and Enlightenment Europe. As a result of these combined factors – the secular working class culture of my family and the liberal academic culture of my schooling – there was nothing at all of religion of any sort in the formative aspects of my upbringing.
(I think the whole conceit of ‘religion’ as a category is in any case tendentious. Whether it is being used to describe a worldview, a set of practices, or an identity, I think it is always a sub-category of some other larger category of thing.)
The point that I was trying to make was that this emerging discipline, as embodied in research networks like the NSRN or units like that just established at LSE field should not be too obsessed with defining humanist approaches to life by what they’re not. It is true that many non-religious people in the past were non-religious as a result of having rejected religion but today many are non-religious by default. I’m not non-religious in the sense that I was raised religious and turned against it. Religion has just been an unheard of irrelevance throughout my life. It is absent from my background, my worldview, my culture. I don’t want to tick ‘None’ to the ‘What is your religion?’ question on a form – I want to cross out the question.