Congregation Among the Least Religious: The Process and Meaning of Organizing Around Nonbelief
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractEvery week in Houston, Texas, hundreds of atheists meet all over the city to socialize, attend educational talks, volunteer, protest injustice, or meditate in the company of other nonbelievers. That people congregate based on a lack of belief may seem counterintuitive, yet in Houston, a growing number of nonbelievers are participating in local groups that cater explicitly to those who do not believe in God. Researchers have produced recent work on atheist stigma, personal identity development, and collective identity, while work that addresses nonreligious organizations usually focuses on action within a single organization, or presents many organizations as a united collective without investigating the specific and diverse functions that different organizations may serve. To this point, little sociological research has investigated the variation that exists among nonreligious organizations at the local level. This dissertation addresses the question of why nonbelievers join these organizations when there are many alternatives that also have nothing to do with religion. Additionally, with numerous options available, how do nonreligious organizations distinguish themselves from one another? To answer these questions, this dissertation draws on data collected during eight months of participant observation in eight nonreligious organizations in Houston, as well as interviews with 70 nonbelievers who exhibited varying levels of commitment to the organizations—including some who were not involved at all. I employ theories of identity and boundary-work at both the individual and organization levels to further explore the process and meaning of organizing around nonbelief. I find that one significant way nonreligious organizations differ from other voluntary associations is that members share the experience of having a stigmatized identity. For some nonbelievers, joining a nonreligious organization is a form of stigma management, in that it provides a space where they can meet like-minded others and express themselves without reservation. Although this is one of the main reasons nonbelievers give for seeking out nonreligious organizations, I find that these organizations offer a variety of activities beyond social gatherings, and may include events that are educational, charitable, political, or spiritual in nature. Nonreligious organizations resemble religious congregations in many ways, but some capitalize on this familiar approach to community building more explicitly than others. Some nonbelievers are drawn to these “godless congregations” because they emulate churches, some participate despite this resemblance, and others avoid the congregation model while choosing to participate in other nonreligious organizations instead. I find that participation in these groups is not necessarily a clean, linear progression, and that nonbelievers display varying degrees of commitment to organizations. Finally, I find that nonbelievers differentiate themselves from conservative religious believers by constructing strong moral boundaries based on a set of common secular values. If nonbelievers wish to communicate their values to outsiders, they may do so in the context of organized nonreligion, thereby mitigating the popular assumption that atheists are amoral. My findings show that organized nonreligion is as diverse a phenomenon as organized religion, and that nonreligious organizations can vary considerably in their activities, goals, and appeal to potential members. Compelling evidence suggests that the American religious landscape is undergoing a significant transformation as numerous outlets report steady declines in affiliation, participation, and belief. An increasingly secular United States, evidenced in part by the organizations described in this dissertation, could have wide-ranging implications—including shifts in public policy and cultural values—since nonreligious worldviews are correlated with a multitude of social factors, from socioeconomic status to beliefs about social justice.
Degree ProgramGraduate College