Understanding unbelief in secular social action: Doing whose work?
PI: Dr Timothy Stacey, Religious Studies, University of Ottawa, Canada
Dr Timothy Stacey, University of Ottawa, Canada (Principal Investigator)
Dr Lori G. Beaman, University of Ottawa (Co-Investigator)
Dates: 1 July 2017- 30 September 2018
“I’m doing God’s work”, answered a Christian social activist when asked why he was campaigning for a living wage. What does the unbeliever answer? The aim of the proposed study is to understand how unbelief is shaped in relation to “secular social action”: action oriented towards issues in which religion is no more than a secondary concern; namely, social and economic justice.
Perhaps paradoxically, there is plenty of research linking specific religious beliefs to secular social action. Partly as a result, policy makers in the UK, US and Canada have focused funding on religious groups when seeking to stimulate secular social action.
As to the vague concept of unbelief, it is not even clear whether we mean the ‘absence’ of religious beliefs, or the presence of alternative beliefs, let alone how unbelief is shaped in relation to secular social action. Yet with unbelief on the rise in the UK, US and Canada, policy focus on religious groups is not only potentially divisive, but also short-sighted.
Drawing on ethnographic research with social activists in Vancouver, Canada, this project aims to understand how unbelief is shaped in relation to the everyday conversations and practices of activists: what inspires them to act? How is this inspiration shaped by their ideas of what is real and unreal, possible and impossible? How do they make sense of the world, of society and of individual moral responsibility? What kinds of stories do they tell? How are these ideas and stories shaped in relation to their practice? And how is their practice shaped in relation to the particular opportunities and pressures associated with where they live?
Vancouver is an ideal setting for this project, having a long history of both unbelief and social activism, which have been linked to a sense of spirituality fulfilled in, and a sense of duty towards, the rugged landscape of mountains, forests and waterfalls.
By answering these questions, this project contributes to both academic and public understandings of unbelief; and, in so doing, a more reflective practice amongst policy makers and practitioners engaged in secular social action.