Theses Doctoral

Making the American Secular: An Ethnographic Study of Organized Nonbelievers and Secular Activists in the United States

Blankholm, Joseph

In recent years, the number, size, and budgets of America's nonbeliever organizations have all grown. Though these groups participate in avowedly "secular" coalitions, they relate to religion in diverse ways that the scholars who study them have thus far overlooked. Some groups want nothing to do with religion, some seek to emulate it, and others are avowedly religious. This dissertation is an ethnographic study of the leaders and activists who run these groups and promote secularism. Relying on sixty-five in-depth interviews with group leaders and members, as well as more than two years of participant observation, it situates organized nonbelief within the evolving landscape of American religion. Because existing studies have mapped nonbeliever groups onto a polarized secular/religious spectrum, they have failed to account for the religious diversity within the secular. To make it legible, I argue for a rhizomatic framework that attends to the many different ways in which organized nonbelievers imagine the secular/religious boundary and their relationship to it.
Working from the discipline of Religious Studies, I unite two emerging fields that have thus far stood apart: the social scientific study of nonbelievers and the study of the secular and secularism. Drawing from recent theoretical work on the secular, I argue for a more nuanced understanding of the secular/religious boundary, and I demonstrate how it shifts over time and across groups. Drawing from my ethnographic and historical research, I argue for a new framework that can account for the everyday forms of secularism that bear little resemblance to the pervasive, structuring condition described by theorists. In turn, I argue that scholars should adopt a more reflexive approach that acknowledges their entanglement in making the American secular.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Bender, Courtney J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 24, 2015