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Is An Anthropological Study of Atheists Possible?

Over at Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, the editors have recently published an entire issue devoted to the ethnographic study of atheists.

This single issue is intended to “set the agenda for researching the aspirations and practices of godless people who seek to thin out religion in their daily lives. We reflect on why processes of disengagement from religion have not been adequately researched in anthropology.”

Anthropology Journal Social AnalysisActually, Social Analysis is not an open access journal. Its current issues haven’t even been available on JSTOR – a network through which people at libraries can gain electronic access for free – for the last two years. Online, the journal sells its articles one by one at a cost of $33 each, bringing the entire issue of articles about the anthropology of atheism to a total cost of $250. The checkout cart software to enable for a one-year individual subscription to the journal at a lower price isn’t functioning properly. This is not an arrangement likely to set an agenda for anything with much substance.

Nonetheless, I’m determined to read the issue, as I am interested in both cultural studies in general and cultural perceptions of atheists more specifically. So, I’m traveling to an Ivy League university library later today in order to read the darned thing. It looks like I’m allowing the Social Analysis journal to set my agenda, at least for today.

For now, as I have my morning cup of coffee, I want to consider a few of the broader issues that are introduced even by the issue’s abstract-level ideas.

First, the anthropologists writing for Social Analysis seem to have taken on a theism-centric perspective in their studies. In their introduction to the issue, Ruy Llera Blanes and Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic describe atheists as “people who seek to thin out religion in their daily lives”. In doing so, they confuse religion in general with theism in particular. Not all religion is theistic. More importantly, they presume that atheists start out as theists, with their lives thick with religion that needs thinning out in order to achieve atheism.

Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic further describe atheism as a “reluctance to pursue religion”, as if atheists’ relationship to worship of gods is one of mere hesitancy. This position doesn’t even do adequate justice to many agnostics, who, rather than being indecisive, have chosen a path of determined refusal to commit to any position on a question as inherently unanswerable as whether divine beings have any true existence. Atheists go even further, being divided philosophically into two camps: 1) Positive atheists, who have the belief that no gods exist, and 2) Negative atheists, who lack any belief in gods. Neither atheist position is characterized by reluctance.

For many atheists, their position is strikingly independent. Most atheists don’t belong to formal atheist organizations or even to loose atheist social networks. Even for those who do belong to groups such as American Atheists or the Freedom From Religion Foundation, there are few rules of membership, and no claim of speaking on behalf of all atheists. There is no course of indoctrination and initiation, and no creed to which members in these groups must adhere.

In short, atheists are a disparate group mostly defined by their lack of participation in theistic culture. There isn’t a single atheist culture, but many. Large numbers of atheists are so singular that they don’t belong to any atheist culture at all. They’re on their own.

Given this multiplicity, how is the anthropological study of atheist culture possible? It’s akin to doing an anthropological study of people who don’t have cars. There’s a great deal of difference between a person who doesn’t own a car because of poverty, a person who doesn’t own a car because of environmental idealism, a person who doesn’t own a car because of residence in a dense urban environment, and a person who doesn’t own a car due to physical disability. These people don’t belong to a coherent non-automotive culture, and in the same way, atheists don’t belong to a single non-theist culture.

The academics who contribute to the Being Godless: Ethnographies of Atheism and Non-Religion issue of Social Analysis seem to have have sensed the challenge of the cultural multiplicity of atheists, and some have responded by using the ethnographer’s traditional approach of choosing a small cultural area defined by a limited physical space.

For example, for her article, Ambivalent Atheist Identities: Power and Non-religious Culture in Contemporary Britain, Lois Lee attempted to study people in South East England (easily-accessible from her post at University College London). The people Lee focused on were those who do not identify themselves as “non-theists or atheists”, but who participate in “non-theistic cultural threads” nonetheless. She concludes that such “unmarked” atheist identities “may be simultaneously empowering and disempowering”… suggesting that, on the other hand, these identities may not be simultaneously empowering and disempowering at all. So, just what has Lee really discovered?

Furthermore, is there any particular reason to believe that atheists in South East England are culturally distinctive from atheists in North West England? Might it be that there is a greater diversity of atheist experience within any particular physical locations than there is between atheists in distinct physical locations within a country such as the United Kingdom?

In Atheist Political Cultures in Independent Angola, Ruy Llera Blanes and Abel Paxe limit their study of atheists to Angola, comparing public manifestations of atheist identity in present-day Angola and Angola in the 1970s and 1980s. They conclude, based on this limited study, that “atheism is inherently a politically biased concept, a product of the local histories and intellectual traditions that shape it.” Didn’t Blames and Paxe begin their study with this idea, though? Isn’t that why they restricted their scope of study in the first place? Their conclusion that atheist cultures are locally-determined looks like a tautology, rather than a discovery.

Even focusing their research on Angola, Blanes and Paxe are unable to build a model of a single, coherent Angolan atheist culture. Instead, they refer to plural “cultures” of atheists in Angola. I look forward to learning how these distinct atheist Angolan cultures are different from each other, presuming Blanes and Paxe achieved such depth of ethnographic inquiry.

In her article, Antagonistic Insights: Evolving Soviet Atheist Critiques of Religion and Why They Matter for Anthropology, Sonja Luehrmann doesn’t really conduct an ethnography at all. Instead, she reviews the academic work of Communist atheist sociologists, working in the last years of the Soviet Union to study religion. The subject of her study is thus a particular, extinct variety of atheist academic, culturally disembodied, represented only through their public writings. Her aim seems to be to use the Soviet academics to reflect upon the limits of the relationship between anthropologists and the people they study, rather than to pursue the study of an atheist culture for its own sake.

From what I’ve seen of this special journal issue on the anthropology of atheists, I’m not seeing the ground for building any single agenda for the ethnographic study of atheist cultures. If anything, the authors seem to be moving into a more atomized approach, seeking out coherent atheist cultures in particular times and places, and yet failing to define even those.

However, this is only so much as I have been able to determine through the thick screen created by the limited access to the Social Analysis journal. Later today, I hope I may have some deeper findings to report.

5 thoughts on “Is An Anthropological Study of Atheists Possible?”

  1. ella says:

    Thank you for sharing this and the associated links. I actually got down one of my old journals. Maybe it is possible to get interested again.

  2. Peregrin Wood says:

    Ella, I’m glad of that. I think there is a good deal to be interested in with the study of religion – and the study of non-religious people.

    That said, having read the issue of Social Analysis being discussed, I am not at all impressed with the work of its editors. They are thoroughly muddled in the terminology that they use, to the point of referring to atheists who believe in God and don’t want to leave theist religious life behind.

    If people are going to learn about each others’ perspectives, they have to get their terms straight. That’s supposed to be the first item of study for a cultural anthropologist, but it looks like the editors of Social Analysis neglected that step.

    1. ella says:

      This site is taking research, having been designed for the research of atheism. The researchers are from graduate students to post doctoral to professors. It has a list of publications that might be of interest, but which I am not going to investigate. There is a “Contact Us” button so that you might see if they have anything of interest to you.
      I am a little surprised to see that there are so many sites online concerning the subject. Possibly because the population as a whole is finaaly realizing that there is a major movement away from Christianity as it is provided in this country. It is a stretch, but considering the fact that many ancient gods were animated statues, it could be possible to link atheism to the operator/priests and or priestesses in those temples. Certainly they did not ‘believe’ in the ‘god(s)’ they manipulated. A study of people who simply do not consider the concept of ‘god’ and never have, by definition cannot be atheistic as they have never considered a deity’s existence. So those who have considered the existence of a deity or deities, and have rejected the idea or the deity or deities, are Atheistic. Then the study of Atheistic people would concern majorly, why do you reject the deity/deities or the possibility of deity/deities? And which view do “you” have? (referring to the individual) Then it would be possible to discern to source of the opinion. Thought of setting up an online study?

      1. Peregrin Wood says:

        Thanks, Ella, for sharing this resource. I look forward to exploring it.

  3. Jim Cook says:

    It almost sounds as if these anthropologists are interested in talking about themselves, not in studying others on those others’ terms.

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