Theory and practice

Are you religious yourself?’

"Denise Cush is Professor Emerita of Religion and Education at Bath Spa University. Recent work has included: assisting with the RE Council’s continuing Worldviews project, providing subject knowledge resources for Buddhist, Hindu and Pagan worldview traditions for REonline, exploring the notion of an academic discipline, and Barbara Wintersgill’s ‘Big Ideas for Religious Education’ project, including publication of a new web-based curriculum for RE"

Being non-binary between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’

Personal worldviews
The Religious Education Council’s Commission on RE (2016–2018) used the term ‘worldviews’ to include both religious and non-religious outlooks on/approaches to/experiences of life. We also distinguished between institutional or organised worldviews, and personal worldviews, noting that the latter may be rooted to a greater or lesser extent in one organised worldview, or may draw upon several. The attention to personal worldviews is important in many ways. It emphasises the diversity found within worldview traditions in real life. It requires us to reflect on how our own worldviews affect how we interpret and understand what we learn about the worldviews of others and, conversely, how our academic study can affect our own developing worldviews. It also reveals a weakness in the binary division between ‘religious’ and ‘non- religious’ worldviews, in that people may be influenced by a variety of religious, spiritual and secular elements in their beliefs, practices, values and sense of identity. This complex mix is not fixed, but can change during a person’s lifetime, and some elements may be emphasised more than others in different contexts.

What do you mean by ‘religious’?
Readers will no doubt have been asked – by pupils or new acquaintances discovering your profession – ‘Are you religious yourself?’ Some may also share my difficulty in answering this question. Even if you do identify with a particular tradition, you may hesitate, wondering how the enquirer might interpret your answer in the light of their own assumptions, or with pupils, whether it is actually appropriate to share your own views within what is an unequal power relationship.
One reply is ‘It depends what you mean by religious.’ Scholars, such as W.C. Smith (1978), have long argued that the notion of separate monolithic systems of belief– ‘religions’ – is a recent Western invention and presumes that all traditions follow the pattern of Christianity. Some have suggested replacing the term with, for example, ‘culture’, ‘faith’ or ‘tradition’, or that we accept that the category is just a tool of scholarship or that it is yours to define (see Cush and Robinson 2021 for a summary of various views). Sociologists of religion such as Woodhead (for example, 2016a) point out that for many the term ‘religion’ has very negative associations – with unscientific truth claims, oppressive organisations, illiberal and old-fashioned social attitudes, or unthinking obedience or as the root cause of war. Every RE teacher must have come across these negative associations – even 50 years ago my choice of degree subject and then career was queried, often disrespectfully. The problem is that the enquirer probably does not have time for your summary of decades of academic scholarship debating the meaning of religion, or the changing uses of the term throughout history. For me, the notion of being ‘non-binary’ between religious and non-religious has finally provided a short answer.

A personal journey
For the first half of my life, I identified with the Christianity (Roman Catholic) of my family and schools, an increasingly liberal version thereof as Vatican II influenced the Church and the secondary school I attended. This survived a mostly Anglican-flavoured Theology degree, a PGCE at a Methodist college, an MA mostly concentrating on dharmic traditions, and nine years teaching and eventually leading RE/RS in a Catholic sixth-form college. However, there came a time when this identity no longer seemed to fit. There was no dramatic ‘loss of faith’ or conversion experience to another worldview, but I resigned my post, considering that I no longer sufficiently represented what might be expected of a Catholic head of RE. More difficult was explaining my new identity in relation to being ‘religious’ or not. ‘Agnostic’ sounded too negative as I did have a clear sense of my values, beliefs, practices and identity – I just did not have a label for it. I remember being at an interfaith conference where everyone literally labelled themselves with stickers as ‘Hindu’, ‘Quaker’, etc. Without a label, I felt out of place. Census forms are also difficult.

Positive pluralism
One label I have used is ‘positive pluralist’. I initially used ‘positive pluralism’ not as a label for a personal ‘faith’ identity, but to describe an approach to RE which sees the sheer diversity of worldviews a positive resource for humanity, so that children should have an education that introduces them to this (Cush and Francis 2001). ‘Positive pluralism’ first occurred to me in 1991 in the USA, when explaining to students how RE in English classrooms compared with the American policy of leaving religion out of state-funded education (‘negative pluralism’). I later started using it to describe my personal relationship to the diversity of worldviews.

Being non-binary in relation to the religious/non-religious divide
Somewhere between 2016 and 2018, I heard Richard Holloway (2016) talk about identifying as ‘non-binary’ between being ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’, and found this idea personally liberating. Recently people have started using the term ‘non-binary’ in relation to gender, preferring to use ‘they’ instead of either ‘he’ or ‘she’ as best reflecting their identity and experience. As far as I know, Richard was the first person to make this suggestion in relation to the religious/non-religious binary. However, similar thinking is found elsewhere in religious studies, such as in the work of the Finnish professor Peter Nynäs (2018,p. 57), who does not actually use the term ‘non-binary’, but in discussing the use of terms such as ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ or ‘secular’ maintains that ‘the categories we impose on people are not necessarily in correspondence with how they live and experience their lives’. In practice, people may draw upon a variety of beliefs, values, practices and identities with the outcome that it is hard to describe their worldview as either religious or non-religious. Linda Woodhead claims that ‘somewhere in the middle is where most people in Britain are: neither religious or secular, or a bit of both’ (2016b, p. 11). Nynäs (2018, p. 57) argues that this does not mean that such worldviews are confused or incoherent but that ‘people combine spiritual and religious positions with secular values into authentic and unified outlooks of life’, in a dialogical relationship with their context.

The changing religious landscape: diversity, hybridity, multi-religious belonging and the steep rise in the ‘non-religious’
Nynäs (2018, p.59–60) points out that the world is changing and that ‘contemporary religious subjects are situated in a different context’. An increasing number of people exhibit ‘multi-religious belonging’ (Oostveen 2020, p. 10). Some are still rooted mainly in one tradition but find the teachings and practices of another very helpful. Others find themselves identifying with a hybrid of two traditions, because of mixed heritage or personal experience: ‘existentially interfaith’ (Nesbitt 2011, p. 232). An increasing number of people are not based in any particular tradition, but have their own eclectic mix of several, referred to by descriptions such as ‘patchwork religiosity’ (Lähnemann 2008, p. 6) or ‘religion alacarte’ (Franken 2016, p. 312). Such terms, however, usually refer to a new way of ‘being religious’ rather than challenging the religious/secular divide.

In many European countries, there has been a recent substantial rise in the number of people identifying as ‘non-religious’ – the ‘nones’ (Woodhead) – so much so that the study of non-religion has become an important sub-discipline in religious studies. However, ‘it depends what you mean by “non-religious”’. Though there are many who mean they reject everything connected with the term ‘religion’ and may call themselves atheists or Humanists; there are others who have practices, values and even beliefs that observers might call ‘religious’. Some such people may be rejecting ‘organised’ religion while practising their own ‘spirituality’, or downplaying the relative importance of religious elements in relation to their identity as a whole.

In this changing world, to quote from Nynäs again, ‘neither the category of religion nor the concept of secularity provides sufficient tools for understanding the emerging complexity’ (2018, p. 62). The idea of being ‘non-binary’ helps in adding a further option to those of belonging to one tradition, belonging to two traditions, multi-religious belonging, being spiritual but not religious, or being non-religious.

Non-binary worldviews and RE

Since starting to think about ‘non-binary’ as a useful label for my own worldview, I have been exploring the implications for religions and worldviews education (for example, 2018, 2020, 2021). Norwegian professor Oddrun Bråten has simultaneously found the idea of being non-binary between religious and non-religious in religion and worldviews education very useful as reflecting the reality of where many people find themselves, and as assisting us in understanding how personal worldviews are formed. Bråten (2022, pp. 326, 332) argues for a ‘super wide’ 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 classroom experience, and suggests an RE that is relevant to everyone.
There are many implications of introducing the idea of being non-binary between religious and non-religious into RE. It reflects the changing social reality where some people identify as religious, others as non-religious and still others find it difficult to say either. This situation is reflected in our classrooms. Mark Plater’s researchers (2013) discovered that primary children found it difficult to answer whether their family was religious. Nixon, Smith and Fraser-Pearce (2021) found that roughly 50 per cent of RE teachers in England and Scotland do not identify as ‘religious’ and are thus likely to be classed as ‘irreligious’ – but perhaps, as their findings suggest, the situation is more complex. Would the ‘non-binary’ option help by giving some RE teachers a third option between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’?

Rejecting the binary division implied by phrases such as ‘religious and non-religious worldviews’ helps towards creating an education in religion and worldviews that is inclusive of all pupils (and teachers). It also helps to illustrate the limitations of the ‘World Religions Paradigm’ in RE, that beliefs, values, practices and identities do not fit into monolithic, unitary, discrete boxes. It encourages students and teachers to be reflexive about the many influences and strands in their own developing worldviews, and how this may affect the way they learn and teach about religious and non-religious traditions. However, religion and worldviews as an academic school and university subject is not only, or perhaps even primarily, about exploring and developing one’s own worldview (though if the study has no impact on this it is hard to argue for it being educational). So, I am not arguing that we give up systematically exploring traditions that we may label for convenience ‘Buddhism’ or ‘Christianity’, but that we need to take account of diversity, change and continuity, influences from other traditions, and the varying ways individuals and communities engage with these traditions in the light of their own experience.

Dharmic traditions and non-binary thinking
The idea of identifyingas ‘non-binary’ is a relatively new one, but non-binary thinkinghas a much longer history. Difficult as it is for those formed by the dominant ‘Western’ tendency to think that things are either true or false, many strands within Jain, Hindu and Buddhist philosophy question the polarised yes/no, true/false approach. From Hinduism, especially neo-Vedanta, I learnt the idea that things are not so much true or false but true, truer and truest. Such thinking can reconcile, for example, polytheism, theism and monism. Though of course it is still debatable which is ‘truest’, this makes space for other ideas to be relatively true. In Buddhism, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, there is also an idea of levels of truth – conventional and ultimate. The Buddhist notion of ‘skilful means’ (the ability to discern the best thing to do or say within any given context) does not just apply to ethics, but to teaching. Sometimes what is taught is not 100 per cent ultimately or literally true, but it is what that particular audience needed to hear to get them onto the next step on their spiritual progression. The Buddha himself referred to his teaching as a ‘raft’ – something to get you across the river, but which you do not need to carry with you when you get there. The central Buddhist teaching of no unchanging self is relevant to the fluidity of identity. The Jain concept of anekantavada(‘non-onesidedness’ or ‘relative pluralism’) in particular helped me to understand that what sounds contradictory can both (or all) be true.
Such ideas have led me to argue for ‘epistemological humility’, avoiding arrogance in claiming to know the truth and being open to learning from the views of others. Unless you are omniscient, all your statements about reality can only be partially true and come from a particular perspective, and are flawed by the limits of trying to express them in human language. Non-binary statements such as being both or neither or in-between or beyond1 the religious/non-religious divide may sound at first somewhat confused, incoherent or indecisive, but they reflect the difficulty of describing experience within the limitations of language.

Managing the religious/ secular divide in practice

Contesting the binary division between religious and non-religious (or secular in the sense of non-religious) is not just an academic debate but of practical importance. In some situations, whether something is labelled religious or secular can be a matter of life and death, but nearer to our classrooms, what about Christmas, Easter or Halloween? The religious and the secular are very hard to disentangle, but we are often required to do so. For example, in England, civil funerals (which began in 2002) often contain a mixture of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ elements, anecdotally over half (Davies 2022). However, civil weddings, in order to be legal, must have no religious content. In 2018, my partner and I planned a non-binary and pluralist wedding, with blessings (Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Pagan) following a non-religious ceremony. We found out just in time that religious blessings were not even allowed in the same building, which was only licensed for civil ceremonies. Having examined the venue’s license carefully, we ended up having the civil ceremony in the deconsecrated chapel followed by the blessings in a marquee in the adjoining garden.

Rejecting the binary choice between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ in personal worldviews both liberates individuals from constricting categories and, in the RE classroom, encourages a more inclusive and reflective approach to studying organised worldviews and trying to understand how people come to think, feel, act and identify as they do.