Research of the Month

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May 2022

‘But are you religious yourself?’ Being non-binary between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’

Denise Cush, Emeritus Professor of Religion and Education at Bath Spa University 

As you look at this here are some things to consider:

  1. Does the idea of being ‘non-binary’ help to make the subject of Religion and Worldviews/Religious Education more inclusive for all pupils, and not just something of interest and relevance to the decreasing number of people in many European countries – especially young people – who identify as ‘religious’?
  2. Do you think that RE teachers and/or students might find the non-binary option helpful when reflecting on their own developing worldview or when asked whether they are personally religious or not?
  3. How would you go about introducing discussion of what people mean by terms like religion, non-religious, secular, spiritual, worldview, in your particular classroom context?

‘But are you religious yourself?’ Being non-binary between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’

Being invited to be one of the fourteen Commissioners on the RE Council’s 2016-2018 Commission on RE was a great privilege, and it has been very interesting to be involved with the developments since 2018, such as the REC’s follow-up ‘Worldviews’ project resulting in the literature review (Benoit, Hutchings and Shillitoe 2020) and Discussion Papers (Tharani 2020). As pointed out by Trevor Cooling in this series of presentations, the move towards worldviews was not just to include the non-religious as well as the religious in a changing social context – and certainly not about adding a list of non-religious isms to an already expanding list of religious ones – but also about reflecting on the ways in which our own worldviews affect our interpretations of information, including about the worldviews of others.

Having retired in 2015, alongside working on the Commission and with Barbara Wintersgill on the Big Ideas project, I have had more time to read about, reflect on and write about a number of related issues including the concepts of religion and worldviews; the disciplines of Study of Religions, Theology and Religious Education; Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism as religions (or not); phenomenological approaches to studying religions and in RE; and the role of experience as a source of authority.

The Commission Report, as well as highlighting the term worldview and initiating a developing ‘worldviews approach’ to RE, distinguished between institutional or organised worldviews (in the sense of systematic ‘isms’ such as Christianity or institutional organisations such as the Catholic Church) and personal worldviews. In between are many other levels such as sub-groups and local communities. It also stressed the importance of diversity within as well as between organised worldviews, that these have changed and developed over time and in interactions with each other, and that individuals and communities may draw upon more than one tradition.

In the contemporary globally connected world, researchers have found that in various ways people are increasingly exhibiting forms of multi-religious belonging, whether brought up in mixed heritage families, identifying with one tradition while taking aspects from another, or drawing upon a variety of traditions to form their own ‘patchwork religiosity’ (Lähnemann, 2008). Others, such as Woodhead, Lee, and Cotter have highlighted the increasing number of people (the ‘nones’) who identify as non-religious, becoming a majority in some countries such as England. Yet what is meant by non-religious varies, including at times elements that other may label religious. In this complex context the distinction between religious and non-religious worldviews can start to break down.

The presentation focuses on the possibility of identifying not as belonging to one particular religious tradition, or as influenced by several, or as non-religious, but as being non-binary in relation to the religious/secular divide.

Paying attention to personal worldviews reveals a weakness in the binary division between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’, in that people may draw upon or be influenced by a variety of religious, spiritual or secular elements in their beliefs, values, practices and identities. Trying to label this complex and often fluid situation either ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious’ can be difficult. RE professionals are often asked whether they are actually religious themselves – for many decades I found this difficult to answer, once I stopped identifying with one particular tradition. Neither ‘religious’ nor ‘non-religious’ really seemed accurate.

We have recently become more familiar with the term ‘non-binary’ in relation to gender – as used by those who do not find either ‘male’ or ‘female’ appropriate, and have started to use the pronoun ‘they’. The first person I heard applying ‘non-binary’ to religious identity was Richard Holloway – and I found this idea personally very liberating, and also started employing it in RE contexts since about 2018. Norwegian Professor Oddrun Bråten also finds the concept of non-binary worldviews helpful and argues for a ‘superwide’ use of the term ‘worldview’ to include ‘more complex personal worldviews that might relate to several religious or spiritual or humanistic ideas’. This better reflects the diversity of pupils’ worldviews as revealed by research and experience. Another article I found useful was by Finnish Professor Peter Nynäs, who doesn’t actually use the term ‘non-binary’, but argues that individuals have a dialogical relationship with their context, and ‘combine spiritual and religious positions with secular values into authentic and unified outlooks on life’. Not being able to answer the question ‘are you religious?’ doesn’t mean that you are confused, it means that the categories do not fit your experience.

Of course, one response to the question ‘Are you religious or not?’ is ‘it depends what you mean by ‘religious’, and academics have been discussing this for many decades, some arguing that we should drop the term altogether. The Commission argues that discussing what we actually mean by terms like ‘religion’, and recognising that different people mean different things (as academics like to say it is a contested concept) is a vital part of RE. A narrow definition of religion, modelled on Western Christianity, is particularly unhelpful in understanding Dharmic traditions or new forms of religiosity such as contemporary Paganism. It is important to introduce students to traditions such as Buddhism that are not based on the concept of God, and non-Western philosophy that is less based on binary thinking.

Deciding whether something is religious or not is not just a ‘merely academic’ issue however, as defining something as religious, especially in law, can have real life consequences. In practice as well as theory it is often difficult to separate out the religious and the secular, even when required to do so. There is an interesting difference between civil funerals and civil weddings in England. Civil funerals, which began in 2002, often contain a mix of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ elements. However civil wedding ceremonies are not allowed to have any religious content. Thus, when my partner and I wanted a pluralist, non-binary wedding ceremony in 2018 we ended up having the legal, non-religious part in a deconsecrated chapel licensed for civil weddings only (though handfastings were allowed) and our ‘religious’ (Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Pagan) blessings in a marquee outside.

So, I am suggesting that getting away from the binary division between religious and non-religious is not only helpful for those like me who have problems identifying with either label, but also is a really important part of keeping our subject relevant to everyone – religious, non-religious or non-binary – not just those who are either adherents of or academic specialists in particular organised traditions.

Bibliography
  • Barker, M-J & Iantaffi, A. (2019) Life Isn’t Binary: on being both, beyond, and in-between. London: Jessica Kingsley
  • Biesta, G. & Hannam, eds. (2021) Religion and Education: the Forgotten Dimensions of Religious Education? Leiden: Brill|Sense.
  • Benoit, C., Hutchings, T., and Shillitoe, R. (2020) Worldview: A Multi-disciplinary Report. https://www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/REC-Worldview-Report-A4-v2.pdf.
  • Bråten, Oddrun M.H. (2021) ‘Non-binary worldviews in education’ BJRE online DOI: 10.1080/01416200.2021.1901653
  • Cush, D. with Francis, D. (2001) ‘Positive Pluralism to Awareness, Mystery and Value: a Case Study in RE Curriculum Development’ in BJRE, 24 (1): 52-67
  • Cush, D. (2013) ‘Challenging the religious/secular divide.” Editorial, BJRE, 35 (2): 121–124
  • Cush, D. (2018) ‘Championing the underdog: a positive pluralist approach to equality and diversity in religious education’ keynote AREIAC Bristol 2018 and (with notes) REonline: The Primary ITT Tutor Toolkit https://www.reonline.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Championing-the-Underdog-Denise-Cush.pptx
  • Cush, D. 2020 ‘Religion and Worldviews in Education’. In C.A. Simon and S. Ward (ed.) Education Studies: a Student Guide (4th Edition) RoutledgeFalmer, pp. 107-117
  • Cush, D. (2021) ‘Changing the Game in English Religious Education:1971 and 2018’ In O.Frank and Thalen, P.(eds.) Religious Education in a Post-Secular Age: Case Studies from Europe. London: Palgrave, pp.139-156
  • Cush, D. & Robinson, C. (2021) ‘”Buddhism isn’t a religion but Paganism is.” The applicability of the concept of ‘religion’ to Dharmic and Nature-based traditions, and the implications for religious education’. In P. Hannam and G. Biesta, (eds.) Religion and Education: The Forgotten Dimensions of Religious Education? Leiden: Brill|Sense.
  • Davies, M. (2022) ‘False divide between religious and secular funerals to be studied’ Church Times. https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2022/4-february/news/uk/false-divide-between-religious-and-secular-funerals-to-be-studied
  • Holloway, R. (2016). ‘The Rainbow of Religious Belief: why extremist thinking doesn’t work’ The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/nov/13/the-rainbow-of-religious-belief-why-extremist-thinking-doesnt-work-richard-holloway [Accessed January 22nd, 2020].
  • Lähnemann, J. (2008). Introduction – Interreligious and Values Education: Challenges,  Developments and Projects in Europe. In J. Lähnemann & P. Schreiner (Eds.) Interreligious and values education in Europe. Münster: Comenius Institute.
  • Nesbitt, E. (2011). Sikh Diversity in the UK: Contexts and Evolution. In K.A. Jacobsen & K. Myrvold (Eds.) Sikhs in Europe: Migrations, Identity and Representations (pp.225-252). Farnham: Ashgate.
  • Nixon, G., Smith, D. & Fraser-Pearce, J. (2021) ‘Irreligious Educators? An Empirical Study of the Academic Qualifications, (A)theistic Positionality, and Religious Belief of Religious Education Teachers in England and Scotland’ Religions 12(3):184. DOI:3390/rel12030184
  • Nynäs, P.(2018). ‘Making Space for a Dialogical Notion of Religious Subjects: A Critical Discussion from the Perspective of Postsecularity and Religious Change in the West’ Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 31 (1), 54–71.
  • Oostveen, D.F. (2020) Hermeneutical explorations of multiple religious belonging https://www.academia.edu/44635576/Hermeneutical_explorations_of_multiple_religious_belonging
  • Plater, M. (2013) ‘Children, Schools and Hallowe’en’ BJRE 35 (2) pp.201-217
  • Rudge, L. (1998) ‘ “I am nothing – does it matter?” A critique of current educational policy and practice in England on behalf of the silent majority’ BJRE 20 (1) pp.155-165
  • Tharani, A. (2020 The Worldview Project: Discussion Papers. https://www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-Worldview-Project.pdf
  • Weller, P., Hooley T. and Moore, N. (2011) Religion and Belief in Higher Education: the Experiences of Staff and Students. London: Equality Challenge Unit.

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