We are currently seeing an unprecedented growth in the number of nonreligious people in the United States. However, our sociological understandings of this growing demographic have been limited by dominant cultural and social science narratives that presume the loss of religion comes with a detrimental loss of certainty, meaning, and community. Much of the social scientific theorizing about the consequences of modernization and secularization is based in a “subtraction story” – a story of moving away from stable social identities, communities, and religious beliefs, and moving toward a hollow and meaningless secular modernity that leaves individuals feeling uncertain, anomic, and socially isolated. In this dissertation, I draw on three years of ethnographic research with a network of atheist churches called The Sunday Assembly to disrupt this narrative of loss, revealing the meaningful cultures and communities that nonreligious people are constructing without religion. Rather than simply the absence of religious beliefs and practices, atheist churches signal the presence of substantive nonreligious beliefs and practices. And I show how practice-oriented investigations of these nonreligious cultures and communities can shed new light on core sociological questions about social change and meaning-making in contemporary social life. Instead of a demographic burdened by a detrimental loss of certainty, community, and meaning, I found a rich nonreligious field full of politicized certainty and meaningful uncertainty, contested conceptions and practices of community, and a meaning-filled discourse of “scientific spirituality” that combines the language of spirituality and transcendence with commitments to secular worldviews and scientific rationalism. I use the case of the Sunday Assembly to show how these nonreligious meaning systems are constructed, contextual, and contested.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. June 2020. Major: Sociology. Advisor: Penny Edgell. 1 computer file (PDF); iv, 189 pages.
Modern But Not Meaningless: Nonreligious Cultures and Communities In the United States.
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