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Sunday Traditions: Not Just for the Religious

December 13, 2018

Portrait of Jacqui Frost

Portrait of Jacqui Frost
Photo by Phuong Tran, CLAgency student

What creates a community? How do individuals use community to fulfill their civic duty? Jacqui Frost, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology, explains her research on nonreligious individuals in the US and why understanding community is a crucial step in understanding the nonreligious experience. 

A Growing Population

As an atheist herself, Jacqui Frost knows firsthand how difficult finding community as a nonreligious individual can be. That is why, with almost 30 percent of the US population identifying as “nonreligious,” it has become increasingly important to understand this diverse and under-studied population and the communities they create. “Traditionally,” explains Frost, “the nonreligious are seen as socially isolated individuals who don’t volunteer and don’t care about other people. My research is pushing back against these stereotypes and saying we don’t actually know a lot about these people.” 

In order to fully understand the nonreligious experience, Frost says, we need to dive in deeper. She decided to base her dissertation around a nonreligious gathering called the  Sunday Assembly, designed for people who want a similar experience to a religious church, but whose views don’t align with traditional religious beliefs. Instead, the assembly is a communal space to meet, study, and understand the experience of fellow individuals in the pursuit to create community without religion.

Community without Category

One thing Frost realized as she began to study atheists was that whenever atheists were talked about, it was in contrast to religious people. Instead of focusing on not going to church or not believing in God, her experience was much more about discovering her own beliefs and embodying them in everyday life. “Decisions I make are based on being an atheist,” Frost says. “My research is trying to say nonreligion is not just the lack of something, it is actually something in itself. It’s a set of values and beliefs in and of itself, and [my research] is trying to flesh out what those values and beliefs are.” 

As more of the nonreligious population gathers to create community, one main focus is inclusivity. Many people left the church as a result of feeling excluded or devalued, and the goal of a nonreligious gathering such as Sunday Assembly is for every individual to feel welcome and included—no matter what beliefs they hold. Although many still reject any organized gathering completely, it’s important that those who wish to create and build community are not alone.

The Struggle for Acceptance

Atheists, agnostics, and other nonreligious individuals are 22.8% of the US population according to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey, which is an increase of 6.7% since the results from 2007. Yet, they are still subject to discrimination. Frost studies why women in particular are less likely to profess identity as an atheist and more likely to declare some sort of religious affiliation. “Many academic papers have tried to claim that it’s a biological thing,” explains Frost. “They think women are more likely to be religious as a side effect of being more risk-averse and fearing the unknown, specifically, the afterlife.” However, Frost’s research suggests the religious affiliation of women to be a social issue. 

Because nonreligion, especially atheism, is still stigmatized in many places, being a woman only magnifies the marginalization. Frost concludes, “it’s not that women are more risk-averse, it’s that they experience more risk.” By rejecting religion, women are often seen as rejecting femininity and their supposed “rightful” place in society, including the obligation to supervise the moral upbringing of their children and fulfill the emotional needs of the family. This means that women are more likely to be discriminated against for rejecting religion. 

Atheism, then, is socially risky for women because it “violates gendered expectations,” as Frost explains. In a society as educated and aware as the US, there are still great strides to be made in understanding, accepting, and creating a comfortable space for the nonreligious. 

Crafting Comfort

In the 21st century, it is easy to focus on the strides that have been made in equality and forget about the huge holes that have yet to be filled. Religion is one of the many areas in society still affected by historical inequalities. With Frost and other researchers in the Department of Sociology, light is finally beginning to be shed on the understudied and misunderstood nonreligious population. During a time when a growing number of people are identifying as unaffiliated, these communities stand as a crucial opportunity to create a country of understanding.

This story was written by an undergraduate student content creator in CLAgency. Meet the team.