What is Nonreligion?

Outline of a Relational Approach

This text is based on a presentation by Johannes Quack at a conference conducted by the “Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network” at Goldsmith College London in July 2012 and two subsequent publications (Quack 2013, 2014). It is gratefully acknowledge that it builds on insights gathered by this network’s members over the years.

The title of our research project often provokes two questions: First, does the project aim to draw clear boundaries between religion and nonreligion? Second, does it attempt to study all phenomena that are not religious? In either case our answer is negative. Both questions do, however, point to important aspects of our relational conceptualization of “nonreligion” as outlined by Quack (2013, 2014) and as summarized here.

With respect to the first question, Quack proposes to use “nonreligion” as a heuristic term for a group of understudied phenomena: phenomena that are considered to be not religious, but are nevertheless related to “religion” in important ways. Obvious examples are atheists or agnostics. Yet, nonreligious people and phenomena not only relate to religion via questions concerning the existence of God, gods, or other supernatural entities but also on epistemological, aesthetic, experiential, moral, or juridical levels. Some avowed nonreligious people are curious and fascinated by certain religious beliefs, practices, and aesthetics, while others are interested in the sober scientific analysis of religion. In contrast, some people merely search for functional equivalents to religious life-cycle rituals, while others look for all encompassing secular moral and normative orders to guide their everyday life. Moreover, the trajectories that lead people to live nonreligious ways of life often vary greatly, and are influenced not the least by the religious, cultural, and socio-political backgrounds of different societies (we focus on India, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Philippines). Given the resulting diversity of nonreligion, we do not attempt to define “religion” and “nonreligion”; instead, we seek to understand why and how people declare themselves nonreligious or are described as such in specific research settings. What understanding of religious beliefs, behaviors, and belongings are implied? What consequences does the alleged nonreligiosity have for the people’s way of life? Which beliefs, behaviors, and belongings are constitutive or characteristic for nonreligious worldviews and ways of being in the world?

Quack’s answer to the second question — whether “nonreligion” encompasses everything not religious — was already indicated above. For the sake of conceptual clarity, he proposes to distinguish between “nonreligious” and “areligious” phenomena. The important (not clear-cut but gradual and context dependent) difference between nonreligious and areligious phenomena is that analyses of the former necessarily relate to “religion”, while this is not the case for areligious phenomena. Even if such neat distinctions can only be made in the abstract, it is worth reflecting further about the kinds and strengths of relationships that might exist between different ways of being religious and nonreligious and the respective understandings of “religion” and “nonreligion.” Such reflections lie at the heart of the relational perspective proposed by Quack (2013, 2014).

A Relational Approach

A position similar to ours was advanced in the pioneering work of Collin Campbell (1971) and Lois Lee. In the NSRN-Glossary, Lee defined “nonreligion” as: “Something which is defined primarily by the way it differs from religion” (Lee 2011: 2, emphasis in original). Quack proposes a slightly different conceptual approach to describe shared interests by emphasizing a relational approach inspired by Pierre Bourdieu’s methodological relationalism and his use of the metaphor of the field. Instead of starting with the evocation of something that has clear definitions with primary and secondary features, he begins with the acknowledgment that there are different ways of defining and interrelating religious and nonreligious phenomena and fields. In other words, he proposes that it is better not to start with definitions, but with empirical data and a heuristic approach of how to assess possible relationships and responses between phenomena considered religious and/or nonreligious. According to his understanding, studies of nonreligion indicate and reflect an enlargement of the established academic study of religion toward religion-related fields.

The Religion-Related Field

In the programmatic approach proposed by Quack for this project, a “religious field” comprises all phenomena commonly understood to be religious in the respective socio-historical context, for instance aspects of belief, behavior, and belonging attributed to religion or religions by the people being studied. Scholars who prefer certain definitions of “religion” may supplement this object-dependent constitution of a religious field with any given definition. While different approaches and definitions obviously demarcate different fields, the general argument proposed here works in any case. No matter whether a religious field is constituted by a distinct case study, by a larger discourse on “religion,” or a specific scholarly definition, it is always surrounded by a heterogeneous religion-related field. The borders between the religious and religion-related field are very likely to be a question of debate. The discussions surrounding concepts such as invisible religion, belief without belonging, belonging without believing, spirituality, fuzzy fidelity, and civil religion indicate some of the border skirmishes that can take place. While we engage with these debates, we would like to center the focus on positions within the religion-related field and their relationships towards a religious field.

The religion-related field comprises all phenomena that are considered to be not religious, while at the same time stand in a determinable and relevant relationship with a religious field (hence “nonreligious” rather than “areligious”). It can be constituted by a diverse set of religion-nonreligion relations and its structures are best described on the basis of detailed case studies. The respective borders of the religion-related field are even less clear than those of the religious field; therefore, we study the kinds and ranges of relationships between specific religious and nonreligious positions, what we call — following Bourdieu — the “field-effects.”

Finally, Quack’s relational approach towards nonreligion facilitates the reflexive insight, which purports that scientific studies of religion and nonreligion are themselves part of a religion-related field. These studies are related to religious fields not the least by their explicit self-understanding of not being religious and their common attempt to be recognized as “neutral experts” on matters relating to “religion.”

Summary: Researching the Diversity of Nonreligion Relationally

The academic study of religion generally researches different formations within, and the development of, religious fields. Secularization theory primarily focuses on the apparent shrinkage of the religious field and related transformations. Quack proposes to complement such research by looking at phenomena that are considered to be not religious, yet related to the religious field in important ways. His relational approach leads away from substantialist and static either/or questions such as: Are atheists themselves religious — or conversely — are we to exclude humanist or rationalist groups from the study of nonreligion? Instead, we research in what way an apparently nonreligious position is related to the respective religious field. How do representatives of the religious field and commentators on such debates position themselves and thereby mutually constitute and shape each other’s positions? How are the borders between the religious and religion-related field thereby constituted and negotiated as well as challenged and subverted?


Campbell, Colin (1971). Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. London: Macmillan Press.

Lee, Lois (2011). Glossary. Virtual Conference: Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network (May 27): 1-4.

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.