From “neutrality” to dialogue: Constructing the religious other in British non-religious discourses

JVF Conference Papers

Traditionally, the “secular mindset” has been thought of as a nonentity, the absence of a substance (religion) rather than a substance itself.

If it has been seen to exist at all, this existence has involved the sole characteristic of being “neutral” towards all religion. In recent years, however, many have argued that the secular perspective is normative rather than neutral – and the idea of secularism as a substantial social phenomenon is becoming increasingly popular. With little empirical research to refer to, however, this work has so far delivered only a simplistic, sometimes caricatured picture of the so-called “secular consciousness,” and one which emphasizes how the religious “other” is perceived. As well as a central role for the characteristic of rationalism, the secular consciousness is seen to be anti-religious, an advocate of the privatization of religion and a supporter also of the continued, arrogant dominance of secular views. This paper uses findings from the first ethnographic investigation of everyday European nonreligion, which, I argue, is a closely related concept to secularism – at least as it has been conceptualized in the literature in question. These data – from a study of individuals and communities from London and Cambridge in the UK – enrich and complicate existing understandings of the “secular consciousness” in a number of ways, suggesting that these conceptions are over-simplifications and cannot be assumed.

These findings further the critique of “neutrality” as a description of what it means to be other than religious or spiritual, but suggests, more constructively, the possibility of treating both nonreligion and secularity as more positive and variegated social phenomena – and ones that might have roles to play as invested partners in the inter- and multicultural dialogue that many European Modernity are looking towards and relying upon.

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