The Political Impact of 'Non-Religion'

Room: 
Room A, City Hall
Time Slot: 
Monday 26th March 16:15 - 17:45
Panel Chair: 
  • Dr Rose Gann (Nottingham Trent University)
Panel Members: 
  • Dr Steven Kettell (University of Warwick)
  • Dr Stuart McAnulla (University of Leeds)
  • Dr Kristi Winters (GESIS - Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences)

The panel consists of three papers, examining issues around the political influence of 'non-religion'. Paper #1 analyses the impact of non-religion on religious opposition to on-going campaigns for the legalisation of assisted dying in Britain. Based on a qualitative analysis of debates centring on the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments, it shows that religious actors have tended to present their opposition to assisted dying by using secular, as opposed to theological, modes of argumentation. The paper contends that this discursive approach denotes a strategic shift on the part of religious actors themselves towards the use of Rawlsian ‘public reason’, and suggests that this is a response to an increasingly diverse, and largely secularised, landscape of religion and belief.

Paper #2 examines the way in which secularisation in Britain has impacted upon debates around freedom of speech. This is a particularly topical issue in the Anglo-American public sphere, not least on many university campuses, where debates sometimes concern whether certain pro-life groups, secularists and even feminists should be refused the opportunity to address public audiences. The argument that certain viewpoints should be excluded has primarily been justified with reference to the potential impact on minority groups, and the fear that such speech could contribute to a climate of prejudice. This paper focuses on the way in which both theistic and atheistic perspectives contribute to free speech controversies. Theistic arguments are sometimes made which call for restrictions on free expression, particularly when secularist perspectives are understood to involve intolerance of religious perspectives. Yet on other occasions the right to free speech is invoked by religious groups seeking to affirm a perspective which challenges emerging secular norms e.g. on same-sex marriage. Many atheistic perspectives assert the right to criticise religious perspectives as rigorously as any other belief set (e.g. political or ideological), yet there is debate in secularist circles about how acceptable it is to platform viewpoints deemed to violate principles of equality.

Paper #3 explores the rise of ‘non-religion’ in the United States. While rates of religious self-identification have fallen steadily in Europe for decades, the United States, unique amongst its peers, retained high rates of religious self-identification through much of the 20th century.  However, something within the American social dynamics changed from the 1990s, when there was a shift in rates of religious non-identification – the ‘nones’. Popular media atheists such as Bill Maher tout these numbers as evidence of the rising power of atheists, however a deeper investigation into the data reveal the 'Nones' generally hold a far wider range of views and are more spiritual than their category would suggest.