A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a small office, tucked away at the far end of a corridor on the campus of the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga. There’s some particularly interesting work being done in that small office; work of relevance to all non-religious Americans.
Sitting in that office, I had a long conversation with two university researchers: my old buddy Tommy Coleman and UTC professor Christopher F. Silver. The two are part of a team working on a study of identity and labeling among non-religious Americans. If you’ve ever participated in an online forum or in-person discussion on atheism / agnosticism; there’s a good chance that you’ve gotten into semantic arguments on what those terms mean. You could ask 15 different people what “atheism” means and get 15 different answers. Even internet demigod Neil Degrasse Tyson found himself under heavy criticism for his views on what “atheism” means.
If you follow the frequent Gallup and Pew polls on religiosity in America, you’ll notice that classifying the non-religious can get a bit tricky. The ever-growing “none” category is one that is often used as a catch-all, but if you ask Christopher Silver, that isn’t nearly precise enough. Even the somewhat more accurate “non-religious” label doesn’t meet the Silver standard for classification:
Researchers assume they are qualified to speak on behalf of a group of people that they are not a part of…too many times social scientists lump atheists and agnostics together — even just lumping atheists together, there are so many different “types” of atheism. There’s a large psychological spectrum in atheism. They lump them all together as ‘those damned heathens over there’. You wouldn’t lump all Christians together, so why lump all atheists together? We need a term (for academia) that is different from just non-religion. They are not all, for lack of a better term, “enlightened” to the complexities of the labels in this population that they are not a part of; we need to be more accurate to the group of people than that. It all goes into the politics of identity.
I was curious as to what the motivation for this study was, and asked Mr. Silver if his background with the Chattanooga Freethought Association provided the spark for the work. I was a little surprised to hear that it was his academic experiences that motivated him more than what he saw in the nonreligious community:
It disturbed me how blatantly perverse the labeling was, being on the other side as an academic (in regards to how seculars are labeled in studies). Human beings want a cookie cutter everything. Why not do what a good social psychology person does: let’s go and own it. Instead of letting them get stigmatized, let’s own the identities and prevent a blanket term that doesn’t represent our diversity of thought. For instance, back in the 40s and 50s, the term “cult” wasn’t stigmatized. It was a sociological term for a new religious movement. Then the media got a hold of it, and new religious movements lost ownership of the term. We don’t want someone who is not authorized to use a term owning it, and using it to stigmatize those labeled people.
Sounds reasonable enough, but what about when we don’t agree on the terms among ourselves? Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Big Think video pointed out some issues with how different people define “atheism” as I mentioned earlier, and you can get 10 different definitions for “agnosticism” from 10 different philosophers. How does Silver plan to deal with these issues in the study?
We are going to look for definitional continuity. How people describe themselves is agreed upon, even if they don’t agree on the terms. People don’t always agree with the labels themselves, but they agree on a definition that defines them. We are going to work with the definitions, and find the label that works best based on our interviews and surveys and how they correlate to the participants’ definitions.
If you are interested in participating in the study, the second phase is going to launch this month. They are looking for as wide a base as possible, so don’t hesitate to volunteer! They want to see full spectrum of non-belief in the US, and want the study to represent the population as accurately as possible.
Unlike the first phase, which consisted of detailed interviews; the second phase is in the form of a survey written up based on the phase 1 interview responses.
It may turn out that the definitions we used based on (the phase 1 interviews) are ultimately wrong, but even then we’ve learned something. Instead of sitting in a room and forming these labels and definitions like typical academics, we’re basing it on the interviews we’re doing with participants. We’re basing the labels and their definitions based on feedback from the actual population we’re working with as best we can.
I rather like that sentiment.