‘Non-Religion Studies’, as a distinct field in its own right, as apart from studies in secularism and the new atheism, has been developing among scholars of religion over the last ten years, as evidenced by the establishment of the Non-Religion and Secularity Network. Leaders in this field, such as Lois Lee of University College London, insist that non-religion as a category conveys a positive meaning and, although seen in relation to religion, should not simply be understood as opposing religion. This paper supports this view, but does so by arguing that it is impossible to speak about the impact of non-religion on society without first defining what it negates. In order to make a space for non-religion studies, therefore, it is first necessary to agree on what is meant by religion. After proposing that religion consists primarily of identifiable communities that transmit their traditions with an overwhelming authority, non-religion is then presented as the study of forces in society that are marked by lack of community, the pursuit of individual interests and assertions of relativity towards epistemological or ethical authority.
James L Cox is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh. In 1999, he was appointed Reader in Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and was awarded a Personal Chair in 2006. From 1993 to 1998, he directed the University of Edinburgh’s African Christianity Project which included eight African universities in southern and western Africa. He has held prior academic posts at the University of Zimbabwe, Westminster College, Oxford and Alaska Pacific University. In 2009, he was Visiting Professor of Religion in the University of Sydney and most recently was appointed the de Carle Distinguished Lecturer for 2012 in the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. His latest monographs include: The Invention of God in Indigenous Societies (Acumen, 2014), An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (Continuum, 2010), From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions (Ashgate, 2007) and A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion (Continuum, 2006).