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ISEK - Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies The Diversity of Nonreligion


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(this text was written in 2012 - latest publication Quack, Schuh, Kind 2019)

The Diversity of Nonreligion

There is an apparent growth in the number of people who explicitly or implicitly distance themselves in diverse ways from religious traditions and ways of life in different parts of the world. However, indifference to religion on the one hand and the criticism of religion on the other exemplify completely different ways of being nonreligious. Moreover, the trajectories that lead people to live nonreligious ways of life often vary greatly, as they are not only influenced by individual biographical factors but also by the wider socio-cultural, religious, and political contexts in which they live. Although diverse forms of nonreligion and secularity are beginning to be explored more thoroughly in recent times (see, for example, the NSRN), the obvious fact that there are different ways, degrees, reasons, and contexts for nonreligious positions has yet to be described and theorized systematically in the cultural and social sciences.

Based on the programmatic approach to study nonreligion relationally and by drawing on sociological field theory (Quack 2013, 2014), our project aspires to address this oversight by conducting ethnographic and qualitative research. In our research projects, we focus on the history, worldview, aims, and activities of nonreligious individuals and groups in India, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Germany, and Sweden. Thereby we research societies that are recognized as either highly religious or highly secular. As such, this project does not seek to define “religion” and “nonreligion”; instead it offers an understanding of why and how people declare themselves nonreligious or are described as such. This includes the varying understandings of religious beliefs, behaviours, and belongings that are implied in such declarations and descriptions, and the consequences that apparent nonreligiosity has for their way of life, that is, their own beliefs, behaviors and belongings.

We differentiate specific kinds or modes of nonreligion on the basis of different ways these relate or are related to a distinct religious field (for a detailed case study of one mode of nonreligion see Quack 2012). While this relationship is primarily “negative” in some cases, most examples display “positive” characteristics, such as the reference to secular morality through Humanism and Human Rights or the stress of alternative worldviews based on science and naturalism.

Religious-Nonreligious Dynamics in the Contemporary World

We conceptualize our empirical approach to religious-nonreligious dynamics and entanglements and the heterogeneity of nonreligious ways of being in contemporary societies against the backdrop of genealogical understandings of “the secular” as an epistemic category as well as historical studies of the constitution of “immanent frames” and secular orders.

“Nonreligion” is understood as an encompassing term to cover all that is differentiated from — but related to — religion (see What is Nonreligion? and Quack 2013, 2014). This concept is used as a heuristic term for a certain group of understudied phenomena and relationships, not as an analytical term that seeks to draw clear boundaries between religion and nonreligion. Nonreligious phenomena are conceptualized in relation to specific religious fields and different secular orders, which are key for an understanding of how nonreligious worldviews are linked, for example, to social and political activism.

 “Secularity” is understood as a term of distinction, which is institutionalized while it is itself a concept of meaning-making in this world (see Multiple Secularities). Concepts of secularity can be studied, for instance, in different forms of cultural, legal, and political secular orders. As such, secularity comprises modes of differentiation that distinguishes one side as different from religion. In its latter sense, secularity is one form that the nonreligious can take, while, in its first meaning, it is a relevant context for (non)religious self-positioning.


Quack, J. (2012). Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Quack, J. (2013). Was ist ‚Nichtreligion‘? Feldtheoretische Argumente für ein relationales Verständnis eines eigenständigen Forschungsgebietes. In P. Antes and S. Führding (eds.): Säkularität in religionswissenschaftlicher Perspektive. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht unipress, 87-107.

Quack, J. (2014). Outline of a Relational Approach to ‘Nonreligion’. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 26(4-5), 439-469.

Project Publications:

Quack, Johannes. 2014. „India.“ In The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, edited by Steven Bullivant and Michael Ruse, 651- 664. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ZORA

Quack, Johannes. 2015. Identifying (with) the Secular: Description and Genealogy. In The Oxford Handbook of Secularism, edited by John Shook and Phil Zuckermann, 138-161. New York: Oxford University Press. ZORA

Copeman, Jacob and Johannes Quack. 2015. „’Godless people’ and dead bodies: materiality and the morality of atheist materialism.“ Social Analysis 59 (2):20-61. ZORA

Quack, Johannes and Cora Schuh 2017. Religious Indifference: New Perspectives from Studies on Secularization and Nonreligion. Wiesbaden: Springer. ZORA

Binder, Stefan and Johannes Quack. 2018. “Atheism and Rationalism in Hinduism”. In Oxford Bibliographies,

Quack, Johannes, Cora Schuh, and Susanne Kind (2019). The Diversity of Nonreligion: Contested Relations (Routledge Studies in Religion). London: Routledge. ZORA