Professor Matt Sheedy on Theories of Secularism and Atheism

Image Credit: Matt Sheedy/Universität Bonn.

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As a lecturer at the University of Manitoba and a visiting assistant professor of Canadian Studies at the Universität Bonn, what tasks and responsibilities come along with the positions? What are your favorite courses to teach at the University of Manitoba?

Dr. Matt Sheedy: Having recently completed my PhD in the study of religion, I am currently on the market in search of the elusive tenure track job. I teach part time at the University of Manitoba in the Department of Religion, and have a one-year contract (likely to be renewed for a second year) in Bonn, Germany in the department of North American Studies. My favourite courses to teach at the UofM have been science and religion, and religion and media. Relatedly, I’ve taught and will be teaching classes on media representations of Islam, and Indigenous traditions in North America at the University of Bonn, which has been great since non-tenured scholars rarely get to craft their own courses from scratch.

Jacobsen: You have an expertise in theories of secularism and religion. What are the main bases of these fields? What are the main theories of secularism and religion?

Sheedy:  That’s a great question, though a very meaty one … let’s see if I can pull off an “elevator” version here. In the last couple of decades there has been a lot of scholarly work tracing histories and genealogies of the category religion (i.e., definitions and classifications) and how it has been applied in different times and places, especially in relation to non-Christian groups. Although critical analysis of gods, customs, and rituals date back as far as ancient Greece with thinkers like Lucretius, the scientific study of religion only became institutionalized in the late 19th century in places like Germany, the Netherlands, and especially at Oxford University under the leadership of F. Max Mueller. Crucially, these comparative studies were distinguished from theology (e.g., they did not privilege religious beliefs or supernatural claims) in their methods of analysis. This move toward the social sciences was an important step in the critical study of religions, though it wasn’t until after the Second World War that such departments began to emerge in North America. And so while there is a lot of influential work that we could point to that helped to promote thinking critically about religion—from pioneers like David Hume, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche in philosophy, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim in sociology, Sigmund Freud in psychology, and, of course, Charles Darwin in evolutionary biology—the academic study of religion is a relatively young field that is still confused with theology, much to the humour/chagrin of me and my colleagues.

Turning to the question of secularism: there is a growing awareness that much of the comparative work on religions that was done in the 19th and 20th centuries privileged a Protestant Christian perspective by which all societies and cultures were compared. This perspective often included the idea ‘religion’ contained some combination of the following criteria: that it ought to be believed-in on the basis of faith, privately held and not publically displayed, voluntarily chosen and not imposed by state authorities, and managed under (secular) law. In addition, this perspective privileged written scriptures, such as the Qur’an or Bhagavad Gita, over oral traditions. One of the main points of emphasis of more recent studies on religion and secularism has been to draw attention to the fact that many societies did not contain any (or most) of these criteria, and thus were often classified by European scholars as less advanced on a social evolutionary model of historical development (e.g., as primitive). In addition, the individual perspectives and forms of knowledge (i.e., epistemologies) of those being studied were not well understood and, as a consequence, were rarely taken into consideration. Scholars like David Chidester, Talal Asad, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, and Saba Mahood have all drawn connections in their work between European colonialism and the forceful imposition of a Protestant worldview, which is commonly understood to have been the primary basis for Western forms of secularism (esp. in the work of Max Weber). One take away from these studies is that religion should always be thought about in relation to other social forces such as secularism, nationalism, and the power dynamics between competing groups that influence and shape one another in endless combinations. Considering these relational dynamics is why I’ll sometimes put ‘religion’ in scare quotes, to indicate that we’re never just talking about gods, beliefs, rituals, and so on, in isolation from myriad other factors at play. Paying attention to how competing conceptions of religion, secularism, nationalism, culture, and so forth, relate to each other in different times and places is crucial if we’re going to historicize and contextualize these complex ideas rather than simply assume and assert what they mean, once and for all—which is what so many politicians, pundits, and religious leaders do, and is what, imho, good scholarship aims to interrogate and critique.

Jacobsen: What explains the recent popularity and rise in atheism in Western culture? How is this represented in the discourse around it?

Sheedy:  Common wisdom surrounding the recent rise in atheism in (Euro-) Western culture is linked to popular responses to 9/11 as represented by so-called ‘new atheist’ authors like Sam Harris (The End of Faith 2004), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion 2006), and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great 2007), among others. A more comprehensive genealogy might also look at the impact of Sigmund Freud, the Frankfurt School, and Jean-Paul Sartre throughout the twentieth century, all of whom were influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, along with Bertrand Russell (among many others) in the tradition of Anglo-American philosophy. These scholars and schools of thought provide a theoretical backbone for much contemporary atheist thought. To this list I’d also add Emma Goldman and Ayn Rand as key figures linking atheism with anarchist and libertarian schools of thought respectively. Less commonly acknowledged, but no less influential, would be strands of feminist, queer, and post-colonial theory, including Indigenous and Black liberation movements, that have drawn connections between patriarchal, hetero-normative, and colonial domination with Christianity in particular. These theories and movements have been used to both reform Christianity via theologies of liberation, or have rejected it altogether, thus contributing practical and theoretical depth to critiques of ‘religion’ as a form of domination and control. Asking why these movements have not been strongly connected to popular atheism is an important question, and one that I’ll touch upon in due course.

One could also add to the list the schools of thought that were inspired by German sociologist Max Weber and his theory of secularization, which held that increasing secularization in Euro-Western societies, such as an observable decrease in church attendance and religious affiliation, were a model for how all societies would eventually develop as they underwent ‘modernization’—that is, as they followed a secular, liberal, capitalist trajectory. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, however, scholars have been seriously reconsidering these models and, beginning in the late 1990s, many have turned to theories of ‘post-secularism’ as a way to think about the perseverance of religious identities in nominally secular societies.

More significant then theories, perhaps, would be to look at flash point events such as the Scopes “Monkey” Trail of 1925, concerning the teaching of evolution, the Abington School District vs. Schempp US Supreme Court decision banning Bible reading in public schools in 1963, or the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996. Like 9/11, these events sparked intense public debate that drew-in the general public in ways that scholarship never could. Thomas Dixon’s A Very Short Introduction to Science and Religion (2008) provides a decent overview of some of these public debates, including the role that theories of evolution, legalized abortion, and LGBTQ struggles have played in causing some people to renounce religious affiliation in support of these ideas, issues, and identities. Likewise, the work of Peter Harrison, especially his recent book The Territories of Science and Religion (2015), is a great resource for those interested in these questions.

Returning to the post-9/11 era, I would suggest that the popularity of the ‘new atheists’ in combination with the rise of social media has helped to spur the growth of atheist ideas and, more importantly, atheist, secularist, and humanist organizations (including atheist churches and the academic study of secularity and non-religion, esp. in the UK) that have both popularized and legitimized these ideas and identities in ways that were unthinkable in earlier generations. The popularity of Bernie Sanders is emblematic of this shift in consciousness, where his secular (Jewish) identity and advocacy for democratic socialism did not prevent him from nearly beating Hilary Clinton as the Democratic nominee for president. The positive reception of someone like Sanders could not have happened in decades past, especially as the link between socialism and “godless communism” was so dominant throughout much of the twentieth century, which created strong associations between atheism and Soviet-style totalitarianism (esp. in the US), and thus contributed to caricatures of atheism (e.g., as immoral, as the enemy of freedom, etc.). Younger generations of today have grown up in a world where these connections no longer hold much sway, which is one of the reasons why atheism has lost some of its stigma, at least in most Euro-Western countries. There are many other variables to consider that I can’t go into here, especially when we look at the rise of the category ‘Nones’ in recent census data, along with various ‘new age’ movements and emerging forms of secular ‘spirituality’ (even Sam Harris is getting in on the action with his 2014 book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion).

As with the term ‘religion’ or ‘religious,’ however, a lot depends here on how we define ‘atheist’ (i.e., what counts and what is disqualifying?) beyond the most obvious criteria. For example, do some practitioners of yoga or Buddhist style meditation count as atheist or agnostic if their point of reference is devoid of supernatural claims, but still centred around concepts like prana, chi, compassion, and the like? What are the differences between Albert Camus’s existentialist atheism and that of Richard Dawkins (to say nothing of feminist or Black atheisms), what types of politics do they align with, and what theories of the mind, body, society, and culture guide their thinking?

Lastly (and more on this in the next question), rising controversies surrounding freedom of speech and identity politics have also caused a rift in recent years, where popular atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have come under increasing criticism for their over-emphasis on rationalist thought and secular liberalism, along with their dismissal of so-called cultural or identity politics (e.g., feminism and critiques of colonialism and Islamophobia), causing some to shy away from this particular brand of atheism that has not, to date, been replaced by an equally visible movement that calls itself by the same name. For a brief period it appeared that the “Faitheist” idea that Chris Stedman helped to popularize back in 2012, which de-emphasized the link between religion, rationalism, and belief and put emphasis on “shared values” between humanism and religious ideas instead might create a significant sectarian split in atheist ranks, but this has not born out to date.

Jacobsen: What is the rhetoric of Islamophobia in North America? How does this play out in practical terms?

Sheedy:  I’ve become increasingly interested in analyzing the rhetoric of Islamophobia in recent years since it brings together so many of my research interests and is a key component, imo, for understanding certain formations of atheism in our current moment. It is fairly well known that the so-called ‘new atheists’ were spurred to write their best-selling books because of the 9/11 attacks. While ostensibly criticizing all ‘religion,’ Islam came in for special treatment by these authors, to say nothing of the scores of politicians and pundits (from Geert Wilders and Marine La Pen in The Netherlands and France, Peter King and Donald Trump in the US, to Fox News and what some have called the “Islamophobia Industry” [see Nathan Lean’s 2012 book of the same name], represented by Daniel Pipes and Pamela Geller) who’ve made a living out of promoting fear of Islam. While the term “Islamophobia’ came into common usage back in 1997 after the British government sponsored a commission on the topic, known as the Runneymede Trust Report, it is only in last decade or so that it has become part of mainstream political debate. Popular atheists like Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Bill Maher have all been called Islamophobic for things that they’ve written and said (e.g., in Harris’s The End of Faith, Hirsi Ali’s Nomad, and on Real Time with Bill Maher), and have responded to these charges in interviews and in print (e.g., Harris’s Islam and the Future of Religious Tolerance: A Dialogue with Maajid Nawaz [2015], and Hirsi Ali’s Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now [2015]).

What interests me most in these debates is how they are typically framed in relation to different theoretical camps or schools of thought. One side tends to measure various cultures/religions by their seeming ability/inability to embrace the values of reason, rationality, and Western-style secular liberalism, which tends to follow some variation of the Protestant model that I outlined above. On the other side are those that prioritize a cultural studies perspective—including studies of gender, sexuality, racism, and colonialism—and tend to foreground these particular issues when questions of Islam arise (e.g., it’s never just about doctrines and beliefs). While I don’t think for a moment that these are mutually exclusive camps, or that it’s even useful to frame these debates in this way, I do find it important to think about the ways in which complex, fluid ideas like Islamophobia become caricatured in relation to what we might call ‘culture wars’ rhetoric. In this sense, the meaning of ‘Islamophobia’ gets transformed once it is caught up in questions of ‘free speech’ (i.e., the blurry lines between critiquing religion vs. being racist and xenophobic), ‘shared values,’ the state of multiculturalism, and so forth. This type of analysis is what some scholars refer to as ‘discourse’ or the discursive study of language and meaning. As many popular atheists within the Euro-West are clearly in the first of these ‘camps,’ I am interested in analyzing the ways in which their responses to the charge of Islamophobia have re-shaped atheist/humanist/secularist identities and, more broadly, the general public’s perception/reception of these new variations (or memes, if you will) that continue to evolve before our eyes.

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?

Sheedy: Thanks very much for this opportunity to talk about my work on this fascinating topic!  

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Sheedy.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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