Interview with Professor Jesse M. Smith – Assistant Professor, Sociology, Western Michigan University & Co-Editor, Secularism and Nonreligion

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Professor Jesse M. Smith is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Western Michigan University, and a Co-Editor of Secularism and Nonreligion. Here we talk about religion, secularism, and academic research.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start from the top. What is family and personal background?

Professor Jesse M. Smith: I grew up in Utah. I grew up in the Mormon community. I grew up in the Mormon church. I did the Mormon mission. I got married in a Mormon temple. All of that, I went off to graduate school and took a different trajectory studying sociology and anthropology. I moved out of Mormonism and religion in general during grad. school. 

I got a job here after graduation in Michigan. I am an assistant professor of sociology. I wanted to understand a little bit of my own experience and the experience of others. My research is focused primarily on the secular community. I wrote sociological articles about atheists and agnostics and other secular people.

I am really focused on identity processes and the organizational dynamics of the community. One of the first pieces that I wrote and published looked at an atheist identity and the ways people acquire these identities. It has to do with people moving out of their religion of origin. That directed my own interest and disaffiliation with the Mormon church.

I served my mission in Alaska for two years.. I finished graduate school in 2013. I am up for tenure this year. I still am continuing my research in that area and into the foreseeable future on secularism, Mormonism, and those sorts of things.

Jacobsen: How does a sociological analysis of Mormonism provide some deeper insights than other fields when asking questions around this particular domain of discourse?

Smith: That’s a great question. There hadn’t been a lot of sociological research on the secular community. There were some initial starts in the 60s and 70s of people interested in apostasy and deconversion. There were some trying to make a durable research agenda.

Then it fell away. I started researching groups in Colorado, then sociological literature began to emerge. Its sociological content has to do with examining the relationship with the internal identities and the ways in which people transition away from religion, or come to adopt or acquire a secular identity. 

I view this as or sociologists view this as a sociological process. It is not simply an internal psychological thing happening. It is an active engagement with groups, communities, research, and the internet; all of that. We are looking at the social and cultural dynamics surrounding the individuals’ identity trajectories.

Why they find meaning and use in joining secular communities? It is bringing the sociological imagination of the individuals’ psychology, group dynamics, history, and all of that kind of thing.

Jacobsen: If you were looking at some of the demographics of those who would identify as secular or formally non-religious, any differences between those who grew up in a religion and left it & those who never had one?

Smith: It is a good question. Some of the new research examines this. I do not have this [data] on hand. One general finding in the secular community is that they tend to be more highly educated, male, and white. All those basic patterns. But the parsing along the lines on the question of those who left the faith and then became secular and those who simply always was secular. It is not very well understood.

The quantitative researchers could speak to this better. The qualitative work that I do; it tends to be those who come from religious conservative or strict backgrounds. When they join secular communities, they more wholeheartedly accept the secular identity more than those who deconverted or have apostasizing experience.

Based on ethnographies, there is a clear pattern. This makes some intuitive sense. Those that came from a religious background and, in particular, a conservative religious background. They tend to be more motivated in terms of embracing their secular identity and having a pro-secular position.

Jacobsen: What is Secularism and nonreligion? Why found it?

Smith: I am currently a co-editor of the journal along with Chris Cotter. We’re the second editors. It was founded by Lois Lee and Ryan Cragun. I think in 2008. They founded the journal precisely because of the emerging or the absence of the literature before that time, and their discovery of the fact that there are scholars in the US, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere, who are really interested in understanding the dynamics of the secular community.

So, they founded the journal, which is connected to – under the auspices of – The Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN). It acts as a storehouse and clearinghouse for all of the literature and empirical work, and polemical work, on all things secular. 

It is not strictly a sociology journal or a sociology affiliation/organization; it is just meant to bridge all of the work: historical, psychological, anthropological, political science, and so on. We are an interdisciplinary journal in the light of that. There was a discovery of a need for a space in which scholars can communicate with one another and produce work in this area. There just really wasn’t another outlet.

All of the research up until then was really in religion journals. Most of the research into non-religion has been produced as a sub-discipline thing within established religion journals, whether the sociology of religion, the interdisciplinary journals, or journals for the scientific study of religion.

It may have, not required but, worked out that scholars tended to use and embrace the language of, for instance, the sociology of religion when talking about religion. We didn’t have our own space to start from square one and to develop new methods and theories on non-religion and secularity in its own right.

 We were the first to get there. The founders Lois and Ryan needed to move on after having edited it for the better part of 9 years now, or so. I published in the journal; I worked with both of them a little bit in other capacities.

As I mentioned, Chris Cotter and I took it on, and are trying to carry the torch to see what we can do to drum up interest and to produce meaningful scholarship in the area. There is a need. We were trying to fill that need.

Jacobsen: What has been the most read or cited article (off the top)?

Smith: That’s a good question. There’s a couple. One has to do with the New Atheists. It has been one of the most read. One of the most read, and one of the most cited, was on the familial relationship outcomes of coming out as an atheist. 

Those have had the most interest and downloads and such. The relationships one has been cited a fair number of times, too. I do not know the citation record for some of the more popular articles. We are still growing and establishing ourselves. We will see where that goes.

Jacobsen: If we’re looking at the next year and a bit, so into 2020, what are the hopes and fears for the journal?

Smith: Let’s start with fears.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Smith: There has been a transitional period here in terms of trying to get the submissions that we do have moving through the system and moving through the process. It is difficult to find reviewers at any journal. But we are not indexed yet with any of the main indexing groups at this point. We are hoping to be able to do that.

To some degree, for established or senior scholars, one fear is that they are often in the business of sending their research elsewhere to journals that are established and have high impact factors. I can speak directly to this myself in looking to get tenure. 

Most of my work has been submitted to other journals. Even though, it is focused on religion and secularity. The fear is that we just don’t have the submissions that we would like in any given quarter. The hope, there is some justification for it, is that we’re continuing to grow and garner more and more interest.

So, we have started producing special issues in the journal. As you may know, we publish on a rolling basis. We don’t put out a quarterly journal or anything like that. It is just on a rolling basis. We started putting together these special issues. 

We had some prominent scholars contribute to those special issues. We had one on secularity and intersectionality. There’s Phil Zuckerman. He has contributed. We have established and well-known scholars connecting with the journal getting their work there. 

I would say primarily, and this is my hope for the journal, is that young and junior scholars will find this a useful publication outlet. As they get started in their careers, that is what happened with me in publishing a couple of articles there.

Along with it being a journal publishing original research, it is a way to build the community of scholars too. The NSRN is one way. They have this research; they know to connect with, who to look for professionally, and so on. It has been a networking thing as much as a journal. I had actually written on the website. I have a blurb there.

It is to your question. The hope for the future of the journal. Most of it is what you would expect. We would like to increase the number of submissions, increase the output of the journal on an annual basis, and would like to continually uptick the quality of the review process in getting reviewers interested. 

We have a large bank of reviewers. But getting people committed to the process can be a little bit of a challenge, we are going to try to do some outreach over social media, which is Chris’s job. It is getting people to submit their work to Secularism and Nonreligion, so we have a steady stream of material to work with.

We had, as we took over as editors. We published the most in the journal’s history so far. It is still not a ton of work. We are going to try and slowly but surely increase the output of the journal and continue to raise its quality with the hope that at some point; we will become indexed and that scholars will be very familiar with the journal, whether they are specifically in the area or not.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Smith.

Smith: Thank you!

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

One thought on “Interview with Professor Jesse M. Smith – Assistant Professor, Sociology, Western Michigan University & Co-Editor, Secularism and Nonreligion

  1. The sociology of nonreligion.

    What I’ve noticed is that people raised within a secular environment usually have very little interest in religious studies. They may enjoy lampoons and satires about religious people but they have no interest in researching or even discussing a religions’ genesis.

    A very reductionist explanation of the existence of religious practice such as, ” religion originated in agricultural societies.” is more than enough to satisfy most of their innate inquisitiveness.

    Those of us who have lost relationships or friendships because of a lack of any religious commitment are probably the only people who think that the exposure of the religious fraud is in anyway worthwhile.

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