Researchers have asked people what they mean when they say they are ‘non-religious’. The answers are quite variable. Often, they are rejecting religious beliefs such as belief in God, reincarnation, or anything beyond the evidence of the senses and scientific demonstration. Sometimes they are rejecting organisations, especially where these have been associated with scandals such as sexual abuse, or have what seems like outdated rules, or they may just not like joining groups. These people may still have some beliefs that other people might think religious, such as in life after death, or prayer (‘believing without belonging’).
Some Jehovah’s Witnesses, who uphold religious beliefs, reject the idea of institutional religion, seeing it as human-made. By contrast, some may not share the beliefs but see having connection with a particular organised tradition as an important part of their identity. For example ‘I’m Jewish, but not religious’, or may like being involved with a religious community, its rituals, customs and festivals and/or the many ways in which they give practical help to people, without accepting all or even any of the beliefs (‘belonging without believing’).
Some people don’t like or see the point of religious customs and rituals. Some think that to be religious you have to be very strictly religious, so if you don’t get involved much or keep all the rules, you count as ‘non-religious’. While some are rejecting the teachings on various social/ethical issues of particular religious groups, especially where these seem outdated and cruel. Many have fallen out with religious organisations over the treatment of women, of those who identify as LGBT+, and issues related to sexuality such as contraception, abortion, marriage and divorce.
‘Non-religious’ means being defined negatively by what you reject, so some people prefer to be defined more positively by what they believe, feel and how they act. One example is calling oneself ‘humanist’ meaning in this sense (there are others) that you care about living a good and kind life, but think that there is only this life, and nothing beyond. It is up to humans to make the world a better place. Some humanists join organisations such as Humanists UK.
Of course, there are those (including many humanists) who reject all aspects of religion(s) and think that the world would be much better off if none of them existed. Some actively campaign against them or, especially when in power in government, even persecute those who hold religious beliefs or belong to religious organisations.
On the other hand, there are those, such as members of the Sea of Faith Network who accept that religion is a human creation, and, like secular humanists, reject many or all beliefs about anything beyond this life. Nevertheless, they consider that the teachings and practices of religious traditions provide a precious heritage of ideas, stories, practices, values, spirituality, and selfless service of others that can help us live our lives today – not to mention the amazing art, music, literature and other creative endeavours that religions have inspired, and still do.
The world would be much worse off without religion. The Sea of Faith network values ‘creative, human-centred religion’, keeping the things that help human flourishing, while not having to accept ideas like God as literally true or real. Some are definitely atheists, while others are more agnostic, open to a more mysterious dimension to life, which they may or may not call ‘God’.
The word ‘secular’ is often used to mean the same as ‘non-religious’, so that ‘a secular worldview’ and ‘a non-religious worldview’ mean pretty much the same thing. However, this word too can have different meanings.
A secular priest is one who works in the community, out in ‘the world’, rather than living in a monastery.
Some use it to mean anti-religious, not just not being religious, but campaigning against religious ideas, practices and organisations and their influence on society. On the other hand, it can be used to mean accepting all religions as valid and as positive influences in society, as in the version of secularism espoused in the 1950 constitution of India (as clarified in the 1976 42nd Amendment).
A secular state, country or society is one where religion is not officially involved in influencing public things like government, laws, or the education system. Some countries are more strongly secular and keep a strict separation between the state and religion, which is confined to people’s private lives.
Others allow religions to take part in public life, but in a way which respects the diversity of religious (and perhaps non-religious) worldviews, without any one religion dominating. This is a matter of degree.
England cannot technically be called a secular country because of the official ‘established’ position of the Church of England and its influence on the state and society. For example, Church of England bishops sit in the House of Lords. However, the government of the UK is not as dominated by religion as say the government of Iran. That the state is secular does not tell you about how religious people in the country are. For example the USA is officially secular, but people are more likely to believe in, belong to or practice a religion than in England, which is not officially secular.
Turkey is officially secular, though the vast majority of people are Muslim. India is officially secular, but the majority are Hindu, and there are followers of many other religions such as Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, and Jains.
How easy it is to say what (or who) is religious and what is non-religious?
Many scholars, such as Linda Woodhead, have pointed out that in practice it can be difficult to say what is religious and what is not. Others suggest that the religious / secular distinction is something invented by European philosophers in the last few centuries when they separated out the concept of religion. Here are some examples: Christmas, Halloween, being vegetarian, practising mindfulness meditation: religious or not? Scholars debate whether Confucianism is a religion or not – it is not considered a religion in contemporary China or Taiwan.
Mark Plater’s students, researching with primary school children, found that the question the children found hardest to answer was ‘Is your family religious or not religious?’. It is not just primary children who would find that question hard. Is it so easy to decide whether someone’s (or even your own) worldview is religious or non-religious?
What sort of evidence would lead you to say one way or the other? Of course, any such decisions depend on how you define religion. Some people’s personal worldviews are influenced in part by one or more organised religious worldviews, but also by other things. Can you be a bit of both, being influenced by both religious and non-religious ideas, values, ways of behaving, communities and identities? R. Holloway suggests it is possible to refuse to decide, and to identify as ‘non-binary’ when it comes to religion/non-religion as some now do with gender.
Photo: Dave Francis, 2013.