ThesisPDF Available

Secular but not Superficial: An Overlooked Nonreligious/Nonspiritual Identity



DESCRIPTION: I interviewed ex-clergy (who no longer hold supernatural beliefs or identify as "religious" or "spiritual") to find out how they now express their identities to indicate that part of themselves that they once referred to as "religious" or "spiritual", and to find out how they manage the stigma of saying "I'm not religious" or "I'm not spiritual". I analyze the ambiguous nature of religions/spiritual language, the problem of conflating the literal and figurative meanings of those words, and how that leads to miscommunication and a failure to understand one another. Along the way, I use the new analytical concepts I developed in the thesis to offer a complete re-interpretation of Max Weber’s famous notion of the “disenchantment of the world”, and to analyze Oprah Winfrey's 2013 interview with long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad.
Daniel G. Delaney
B.A., University of Louisville, 1998
A esis
Submitted to the Faculty of the
College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Louisville
in Partial Fulllment of the Requirements
for the Degree of
Master of Arts
in Sociology
Department of Sociology
University of Louisville
Louisville, Kentucky
December 2016
Copyright 2016 by Daniel G. Delaney
All rights reserved
Daniel G. Delaney
B.A., University of Louisville, 1998
A esis Approved on
November 15, 2016
by the following esis Committee:
esis Director
Patricia Gagné, PhD, Sociology Department
Second Committee Member
Mark Austin, PhD, Sociology Department
ird Committee Member
Mary Ann Stenger, PhD, Humanities Department
is work is dedicated
to my wife, Ginny,
and my children, Phoenix, Sage, and Inanna,
who spent so many nights and weekends without me
so that I could bring this research to fruition.
I love you all more than words can say.
F  , my deepest thanks go to Pat Gagné, my teacher,
advisor, and friend. Since my rst class with you eight years ago, you have
pushed me harder than anyone ever has, forcing me to go beyond what
I would ever think or write on my own. You’ve been more patient, un-
derstanding, forgiving, and exible than anyone could ever ask. Idon’t
know how I would have made this journey without your encouragement
and support. Second, to Mary Ann Stenger, who graciously agreed to be
on my committee even aer retirement. ank you for these many years
of friendship and encouragement, and for introducing me to the work of
Elaine Pagels, one of my all-time favorite authors. ird, to Mark Austin,
who stepped in at the last minute to complete my committee. ank you
for the many great aer-class conversations, and for introducing me to
that perennial truism: “People are stupid.
A special thank you to Karen McKinney. Your enthusiasm for, and
encouragement of my work was invaluably heartening as I worked my
way back into academia aer an eight-year hiatus. Another special thank
you to Jonetta Weber, who always took care me when I had missed those
administrative deadlines. Many thanks to the other wonderful professors
who have taught me so much over the past nine years—Bob Carini, Jon
Rieger, Wayne Usui, Gul Marshall, and Natalie Polzer. Finally, to my par-
ents. ank you for your love, and for the sacrices you made that allowed
me to pursue academics.
Daniel G. Delaney
November 15, 2016
S D’  of the sacred and profane as
antagonistic rivals,” the strict dichotomy has been framed in such a way
that “being religious” evokes images of a life lled with profound meaning
and value, while “being secular” evokes images of a meaningless, self-cen-
tered, supercial life, oen characterized by materialistic consumerism
and the cold, heartless environment of corporate greed. Consequently,
to identify as “neither religious nor spiritual” runs the risk of being stig-
matized as supercial, untrustworthy, and immoral. Conicts and confu-
sions encountered in the process of negotiating a nonreligious/nonspiri-
tual identity, caused by the ambiguous nature of religious language, were
explored through qualitative interviews with 14 ex-ministers and 1atheist
minister—individuals for whom supernaturalist religion had formed the
central core of identity, but who have deconverted and no longer hold su-
pernatural beliefs. e cognitive linguistics approach of Frame Semantics
was applied to the process of “oppositional identity work” to examine why
certain identity labels are avoided or embraced due to considerations of
the cognitive frames evoked by those labels.
rough the constant comparative method of grounded theory, a
host of useful theoretical concepts emerged from the data. Several im-
pediments to the construction of a “secular but not supercial” identity
were identied, and a framework of new theoretical concepts developed
to make sense of them: sense disparity, frame disparity, identity misre,
foiled identity, sense conation, and conated frames. Several conse-
quences arising from these impediments were explored: (1)consequences
of sense conation and conated frames for the study of religion; (2)con-
sequences of conated frames for religious terminology; and (3) con-
sequences of the negation of conated frames for those who identify as
not religious, not spiritual, or not Christian. Additionally, four types of
oppositional identity work were identied and analyzed: (1) avoidance
identity work, (2)dissonant identity work, (3)adaptive identity work,
and (4)alternative identity work. Finally, the concept of conated frames
was applied to suggest a new interpretation of the classic Weberian disen-
chantment narrative.
Background: Trends, Identities, and Characterizations 2
e Religious-Secular Divide 6
Denitional Considerations 14
Figurative and Supernatural Senses of Religious Language 14
“Nonsuperciality” as a Placeholder Category 19
Prejudice and Negative Characterizations of Nonbelievers 23
Individual and Collective Nonbeliever Identity 24
Measuring Nonreligious/Nonspiritual Identities with Surveys 25
e Spectrum of Social Stigma 31
Cognitive Frames, Frame Semantics, and Grounded eory 32
Identity Frames and Characterization Frames 35
Oppressive Identity Work and Oppositional Identity Work 37
Research uestions 40
Grounded eory 42
Sampling 43
Data Collection 46
Salient Characteristics of the Participants 48
Deeply Religious Identities 48
Prior Supernatural Worldviews – Disparate  Frames 49
Gradual Deconversions 52
Subsequent Naturalistic Worldviews 54
Aer Leaving the Ministry 56
Impediments to Communicating Identity 58
Sense Disparity and Frame Disparity 59
Sense Conation and Conated Frames 63
Identity Misre 65
Foiled Identity 69
Forms of Oppositional Identity Work 72
Avoidance Identity Work 74
Dissonant Identity Work 76
Adaptive Identity Work 83
Alternative Identity Work 90
Sense Conation, Conated Frames, and the Study of Religion 107
Conated Frames and Religious Terminology 112
Negation of Conated Frames and the Stigma of Nonbelief 114
Enchantment without the Supernatural 118
Summary of Contributions 124
General Applicability 127
Limitations 133
Potential Areas for Further Research 134
T     —a vague term, to be sure, but one
commonly used in reference to those who do not believe that anything
supernatural exists. By supernatural, Ido not mean merely “any order of
things that goes beyond our understanding” (Durkheim [1912]1995:22).
By supernatural, Irefer specically to concepts such as ghosts, gods, devils,
demons, angels, heaven, hell, spirits, spells, and any other conceivable enti-
ties, powers, or realms that purportedly exist in some way outside, above,
or beyond the natural cosmos. Nonbelievers in the supernatural may
choose to identify with any number of labels, including atheist, agnostic,
secularist, pantheist, humanist, skeptic, rationalist, and so forth; or they
may feel no need to include their nonbelief as a part of their self-identities
at all. Iam not interested here in just any type of nonbeliever. e focus of
this study is specically those who possess what philosopher (and nonbe-
liever) omas Nagel (2009) referred to as a “religious temperament”—
that is, those with the same feelings, sentiments, experiences, and concerns
that are oen exclusively associated with religion and/or spirituality, but
who typically do not identify as either.
Many good, general qualitative studies have been published in recent
years that nally allow nonbelievers to speak for themselves about what
they believe and how they live their lives (e.g., Zuckerman 2008, 2011;
Brewster 2014; Cimino& Smith2014; Baker& Smith2015; Zuckerman,
Galen & Pasquale 2016). Some of the stories told by those nonbelievers
hint at the diculties they face with the ambiguous and vague nature
of identity labels such as “religious,” “spiritual,” “atheist,” and “agnostic.
No studies thus far, however, have specically analyzed the nature of that
ambiguity and its role in the conicts and confusion encountered when
deeply religious believers deconvert from their supernaturalist, religious
identities and face the arduous task of constructing new, naturalistic
(meaning only “not supernatural”) identities that still communicate the
depth of their personal convictions.
I addressed these issues by interviewing people whose self-identities
had once been thoroughly imbued with a worldview based on supernat-
ural religious beliefs, and who subsequently abandoned those supernatural
worldviews and their accompanying identities—people who Altemeyer
and Hunsberger (1997) referred to as “amazing apostates.” Ex-ministers
oer a clear contrast between a time in their lives when religion/spiritu-
ality constituted the primary core of their personal and social identities,
and a later time when, aer having abandoning those beliefs and identities,
they had to construct new ones. Isought ex-ministers who no longer be-
lieve any of the supernatural doctrines they had once preached, and who
(with one exception) have abandoned the identity of “Christian minister.
All of them continue to question and explore the “deeper” aspects of life
traditionally ascribed exclusively to religion and/or spirituality. rough
in-depth interviews, I asked them to explain the meanings they had for
religious language, and whether they had found new language to express
those meanings.
Background: Trends, Identities, and Characterizations
In the late 1990s, social scientists began to notice two trends becoming
more prevalent in the American religious landscape. First, an increasing
number of people were beginning to reject the identity of “religious,” but
continuing to identify as “spiritual”—and clearly distinguishing between
the two (Hill et al. 2000; Marler& Hadaway2002). While being reli-
gious increasingly came to be associated only with being aliated with an
institutional religious tradition, at the same time, being spiritual came
to indicate an independent, personal search for such things as deeper
meaning, value, and purpose in life, independently from organized re-
ligion. ose who identied as “spiritual but not religious” were delib-
erately distancing themselves from institutional religions. Many social
scientists began using this same distinction (e.g., Zinnbauer et al.1997;
Roof1999; Ellingson2001), some going so far as to declare a “silent take-
over of religion” (Carrette& King 2005) which was “giving way to spiri-
tuality” (Heelas& Woodhead 2005). Subsequently, many scholars started
treating “religious” and “spiritual” as separate identity variables (e.g.,
Zinnbauer et al.1997; Marler&Hadaway2002; Schnell 2012; Streib &
Hood 2016), combining the four possible answer pairs into a fourfold ty-
pology: (1)nonreligious/nonspiritual, (2)nonreligious/spiritual, (3)reli-
gious/nonspiritual, and(4)religious/spiritual.
Second, multiple large-scale, national surveys (e.g., General Social
Survey, American Religious Identity Survey, National Election Study)
had revealed that the percentage of religious “nones”—those who an-
swer “nothing in particular” or “none” when asked, “What is your reli-
gion?”—had doubled between 1991 and 2000, from approximately 7per-
cent to 14percent of the adult population (Kosmin, Mayer, & Keysar
2001; Hout & Fischer 2002). By contrast, that number had risen only
gradually over the previous 30 years—from 2.2percent in 1960 to 7.3per-
cent in 1980 (Glenn1987), then levelling o at approximately 7percent
throughout the 1980s (Hout & Fischer 2002). By2014, the religious
“nones” had grown to approximately 23percent of the United States adult
Initial interpretations, especially among atheist organizations, as-
sumed that all these so-called “nones” were nonbelievers. Closer analysis,
however, revealed that only 31percent of the “nones” (7percent of the
overall adult population), explicitly identied as either atheist or agnostic.
e remaining 69percent said their religion was “nothing in particular”
because, in accordance with the new religious/spiritual distinction men-
tioned above, they chose not to aliate with any organized religion. In
fact, even while unaliated, 30percent said that religion is still important
in their lives, situating them within the nonreligious/spiritual category.
Now commonly known as the “spiritual but not religious,” this category
has received a great deal of attention over the past two decades (e.g.,
Zinnbauer et al. 1997; Fuller2001; Marler & Hadaway, 2002; Johnston
2012; Ammerman 2013; Escobar 2014; Mercadante 2014; Kenneson
2015; Packard & Hope2015).
Unlike the “spiritual but not religious,” the “nonreligious/nonspiri-
tual” category (the “neither religious nor spiritual”) has received rela-
tively little attention from social scientists—although that trend has been
steadily and rapidly increasing since 2006. edata show that the cate-
gory is anything but homogeneous, and many subtle nuances remain to
be explored and subcategories to be delineated. For example, the “neither
religious nor spiritual” demographic is certainly not all atheists. Of the
39percent of “nones” who said that religion is not important in their lives,
over half still said they believe in God or a higher power, in whatever way
they dene those terms (Lipka 2015). Some of those who said that they
do not believe in God or a higher power nonetheless said that they do not
accept being labeled as an “atheist.” All of this begs the question: what do
labels such as “religion,” “spiritual,” “God,” and “atheist” actually mean to
those in the nonreligious/nonspiritual category? And how do disparate
understandings of those vague terms contribute to the task of circum-
scribing the subgroup boundaries within the category to recognize more
precise identities?
T   has been conducted on them, a great
many things have been said about nonbelievers who identify as neither
religious nor spiritual, much of it derogatory and ill-informed. Whether
they self-identify as atheist, agnostic, nonbeliever, secularist, deist, pantheist,
bright, humanist, or eethinker, people who do not identify as either reli-
gious or spiritual are the targets of disdain from many directions. Pastor
James Emery White, for example, asserted that people in the nonreli-
gious/nonspiritual category “do not have much of an inner world, much
less a place of hope or promise” (2014:197). Psychologist Paul Vitz wrote
an entire book to argue that “the worldview of those who reject God
creates problems like the meaninglessness and the alienation of modern
life” (1999:xiii). Taking his assessment a step further, he proposed that
“irrational, oen neurotic, psychological barriers to belief in God are of
great importance” (1999:5). eologian J.P. Moreland believes that “hap-
piness, meaning to life, and human ourishing are impossible if there is no
God” (2009:152).
Special invective is reserved for the “atheist” label. Eminent scholar
of religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith, for example, made the following
scathing remarks in a 1963 radio broadcast: “It has been said, and I think
rightly [emphasis added], that the only true atheist is he who loves no one
and whom no one loves; who is blind to all beauty and all justice; who
knows no truth; and who has lost all hope” (1963:138). He repeated that
appraisal at least twice more in print, adding further that the true atheist
“knows no courage and no joy,” and “nds no meaning” (1972:53–54;
1979:20). e ease with which anyone can use the Internet to “publish”
anything they feel inclined to write has lied anti-atheist rhetoric to new
heights. Using the infamous Madalyn Murray O’Hair as a paradigm of
atheism, hyperbolic political blogger Dave Jolly asserted the following
characterization of atheists:
True atheism doesn’t stop with the denial God [sic], but the question
and rebellion against all authority.... It’s not just about religious beliefs,
but about every aspect of decency, morals and values.... True atheists are
not just lost souls, but they are dangerous people. ey should not be
trusted. (2014)
A reader of Jolly’s blog added the following comment: “Atheism is the
abode of small minds. Like animals they cannot grasp the concept and,
in their arrogant ignorance they mock what they cannot grasp.” ese are
only a small handful (and far from the worst) among many disparaging
opinions of nonbelievers who identify as neither religious nor spiritual.
Such uncharitable opinions stem from the dichotomous relationship of
the concepts of “religious” and “secular,” which have been framed over the
past few hundred years in such a way that the former represents all that is
meaningful in life and the latter represents all that is supercial.
e Religious-Secular Divide
Émile Durkheim, in 1912, explicitly laid the foundation for the strict
dichotomy between the religious and the secular. In his highly inu-
ential analysis, the sacred and the profane are not merely two ends of a
spectrum, similar in kind but dierent in degree. Rather, the sacred and
the profane represent two qualitatively dierent kinds of things, polar
opposites, antagonistic rivals occupying “two worlds with nothing in
common” ([1912]1995:36). e dichotomy is thus absolute, according to
Durkheim. As William Swatos noted, however, the word “profane” for
Durkheim simply referred to the “ordinary or everyday”—closer to the
meaning of “mundane” than to “profanity” (2003:40). Hence, although
sacred things are “things set apart and forbidden” ([1912]1995:44), the
ordinary and everyday things from which they are set apart are not neces-
sarily considered vulgar or obscene.
Mircea Eliade, almost y years later, reinforced this dichotomy.
Similar to Durkheim, he envisioned an “abyss that divides the two modal-
ities of experience—the sacred and profane” (1959:14). Eliade, however,
characterized the profane in strongly negative terms, as the polar oppo-
site of the sacred in all respects. Bydubbing our species “homo religiosus
(1959:18), he declared religiosity the essence of being fully human. e
implication for the nonreligious is dicult to overlook. In his rather gran-
diose and hyperbolic style, Eliade explained that “nonreligious man...
assumes atragic existence” (1959:203), and “all vital experiences... are
deprived of spiritual signicance, hence deprived of their truly human
dimension” (1959:168). Eliade was not alone in this usage of “profane.
According to Edward Bailey, the meaning of profane, “in ordinary British
English at least, has the quality of (negative) sacredness about it: it is a
moral Abomination, a doctrinal Heresy, an ontological Blasphemy”
Over time, scholars began increasingly to substitute “secular” for
“profane” in the old dichotomy. We can observe this transition merely
by looking at book titles over the years: eSacred in a Secular Age
(Hammond 1985), Between Sacred and Secular (Greil & Robbins 1994),
Beyond the Sacred-Secular Divide (Allen 2011), Social Identities Between
the Sacred and the Secular (Day, Vincett & Cotter 2013), and many more.
roughout the twentieth-century, this polarized, binary view fueled
the development of a deep-rooted conceptual framework commonly re-
ferred to as the “religious-secular divide” (Bernstein2009; Davaney2009;
Mack2009; Nongbri2013) orthe “secular-religious binary” (Hurd2011;
Bender & Taves 2012). Inthis scheme, the religious and the secular are
framed as diametrically opposed, antithetical life stances.
On one side of the divide, “the religious” (and its corollary, “the spiri-
tual”) represents what is oen described as deeper, higher, or ultimate con-
cerns for meaning, value, and purpose in life, as distinct from the normal,
mundane concerns of everyday, worldly living. Peter Berger conceptual-
ized religion as “an all-embracing sacred order... capable of maintaining
itself in the ever-present face of chaos” (1967:51). Chaos, in this case,
entails the “anomic phenomena of suering, evil and, above all, death
(1967:53). Religion, in his denition, is a social institution that serves to
stave o the threat of nihilism—a “sacred canopy” under which humans
in a religious society can lead meaningful lives while keeping the meaning-
less futility of chaos at bay.
e positive aspects of human nature are oen ascribed exclusively
to religion and spirituality. Forexample, in his classic work on the stages
of religious faith, psychologist and minister James Fowler declared that
the deep, searching questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives
are quintessentially “questions of faith” (1981:3). Fowler used the word
“faith” the way today’s authors use the word “spirituality,” as something
“deeper and more personal than religion” (1981:9). Similarly, when one
of his subjects joined a discussion group at his girlfriend’s church, aer
being nonreligious his entire adult life, sociologist of religion Wade Clark
Roof (1999) described how it “triggered experiences of joy, optimism, and
hope—elementary religious responses,” and that “through this reawakening
of religious emotions,... he[found] himself searching in his own life for
greater depth [emphases added]” (1999:20). By simply declaring them to
be “elementary religious responses” and “religious emotions,” Roof sub-
sumed the fundamental human emotions of joy, optimism, and hope,
solely within the purview of religion. And just as Fowler had done, Roof
circumscribed questions of the deeper meaning and purpose of life—
questions that could arise for any self-reective human being, whether
religious or not—and claimed them for religion.
On the other side of the divide, “the secular” is always dened in con-
tradistinction to “the religious” in one way or another—as one scholar
put it, the secular is “religions universally recognized antonym” (Bailey
2003:60). Iwill only briey describe the most commonly used senses, then
elaborate on the sense that is most salient for this inquiry. Inthe mundane
sense, “secular” is merely an adjective for places, objects, and activities that
are “this-worldly” and have nothing to do with religion: hotels, grocery
stores, fashion magazines, mowing the lawn, watching a movie, and so
forth—any aspect of life in which religion is simply not relevant. In the
political sense, secular and secularism refer to the separation of church and
state, the political conviction that institutional religions should not have
control or inuence over government institutions. Secularism can also
refer to the decline of religious practice and belief—people no longer par-
ticipating in religious organizations or believing the doctrines espoused
by religions. Charles Taylor suggests that this is the sense people typically
have in mind when speaking of secularism (2007:2).
In his monumental work, ASecular Age, Taylor proposed another
sense, subtly distinct from the previous one, which he calls the pluralist
conditions of belief. Hedescribed this sense as “a move from a society where
belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which
it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the
easiest to embrace” (2007:3). Many years earlier, Peter Berger had noted
that the pluralization of religious options was “an important cause of the
diminishing plausibility of religious traditions” (1969:55). To extend his
famous metaphor, we can envision the tent aps around the edge of the
sacred canopy” propped wide open, so that people can choose to step
outside and explore other possibilities.
e concept of “secularization” refers to an overall recession of religion
om the public sphere, described by Berger as “the process by which sec-
tors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious
institutions and symbols” (1967:107). Since the beginning of the scien-
tic study of religion, this so-called “secularization hypothesis” has been
framed by Max Weber’s notion of the “disenchantment of the world.
According to the disenchantment narrative, the rational, naturalistic ex-
planations of the world we live in, as revealed by modern science, would
slowly chip away at the supernatural explanations oered by religion.
By extension, religious dogmas would come to be seen as superstitions,
leading inevitably to diminishing religious beliefs and ultimately to the
end of traditional, institutional religion (Herberg 1962; Berger 1967;
Shiner 1967; Mathewes and Nichols 2000; Furseth and Repstad 2006).
Most proponents of the secularization hypothesis and its disenchant-
ment narrative considered religious adherence and belief essential for a
healthy society, and so viewed the decline of religion as a serious threat.
If the majority of the population adopted an overly rational and scientic
worldview, they feared, society could dri toward a more secular orienta-
tion, leading to a state of disenchantment in which a crisis in existential
meaning could potentially plunge modern society into a dysfunctional,
nihilistic malaise (Taylor 1998; Taylor 2007:299). e fear of the im-
pending doom of religion through secularization continued through the
twentieth century. Will Herberg wrote in 1962 that “secularism... has been
recognized as a problem by many philosophers, theologians, and social
scientists” (1962:149). And the Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican
Council declared that “atheism must be accounted among the most se-
rious problems of this age” (Pope Paul VI 1965).
us, the concept of “the secular” eventually took on pejorative
meaning as it increasingly came to represent the antithesis of all the bene-
ts and values that religion stands for and came to be regarded as a threat
to both religious institutions and society as a whole. is is the sense I am
dealing with in this inquiry: “the secular” as the antithesis of the religious.
In this sense, the secular represents the shallow, supercial, lower, base, ma-
terial concerns of life, and an absence of those deeper, higher, or ultimate
concerns ascribed exclusively to religion and spirituality. is meaning es-
pecially evokes a sense of the secular as the ominous specter of that chaos
outside the sacred canopy, embodying the negation of all the meaning and
values of religion. is sense is the foundation of the religious-secular di-
vide. Caspar Melville summarized this understanding particularly well:
Much beloved of the Islamists and evangelicals, this secularism is the
handy one-word distillation for all that is wrong in the modern world.
Consumerism, divorce, drugs, Harry Potter, prostitution, Twitter, rel-
ativism, Big Brother, lack of moral compass, lack of community cohe-
sion, lack of moral values, vajazzling—all can be lumped together and
explained by the word secular, a kind of contemporary contraction of
heathen and barbarian, with undertones of greed, perdity and vul-
garity. (2011)
Traditionally, the label of “godless” has served as the negative epithet
against nonbelievers—as in “godless heathens,” or the “godless Japanese”
during World War II, and “godless communists” during the Cold War. To
carry on the tradition, Franklin Graham—son of famed preacher Billy
Graham—is currently promoting the negative characterization of “god-
less secularism” as a replacement for the now passé “godless communism
(Montgomery 2016).
In this sense, the secular is oen understood in psychological terms,
to refer to what Peter Berger called the “secularization of consciousness
(1969:4), the development of a psychological shortcoming aicting in-
dividuals said to possess a “secular consciousness” (Peck 1997) or “secular
mind” (Coles 1999). Since the 1970s, evangelical apologists and activ-
ists have deliberately characterized secular people as immoral, nihilistic,
self-centered, narcissistic, or even psychotic (e.g.: Vitz 1999; Moreland
2009; Spiegel 2010; Tashman 2012). Catholic priest John Pasquini
(2009) characterized disbelief in God as a psychological “personality
disorder” stemming from a “distorted mindset.” M.Scott Peck asserted
that people who consider themselves nonreligious have a peculiar kind of
self-centered consciousness, and that they are “oen to experience a sense
of meaninglessness and insignicance... despite their imagined centrality”
(1997:123). Robert Coles (1999) devoted an entire book to painting a
disparaging image of the so-called “secular mind,” characterizing it vari-
ously as spiritual indierence (21), cold, calculating, heartless rationalism
(31), sin and hedonistic temptation (35), living it up/having a good time
(41), consumerism/materialism (102), self-centered, selsh living (103),
immorality, or at least moral indierence (104), the embodiment of vices
(106), and shallow, supercial living(106).
T    how the meanings of religious and
secular have been framed throughout the years in such a way that “the
religious” is portrayed as the sole avenue to a meaningful, fullled life,
and “the secular” as a back alley leading to a supercial, nihilistic life.
As Abraham Maslow observed, “[v]ery many people in our society ap-
parently see ... religion as the locus... of the spiritual life. [It is] widely
and ocially accepted as the path, by many as the only path, to the life of
righteousness, of purity and virtue, of justice and goodness, etc.” (1964:4).
According to this strict, binary dichotomy, “the religious” represents all
that is profound, signicant, seless, communal, and meaningful. “e
secular,” on the other hand, represents all that is mundane, supercial, nar-
cissistic, individualistic, and nihilistic, oen exemplied by characteriza-
tions of absolutist ideologies, rampant materialistic consumerism, and the
heartless greed of corporate business culture (e.g., Axel1993; Coles1999;
Lozo2000; Moreland 2009).
is division of concerns between religious (deep, higher, ultimate)
versus secular (shallow, lower, materialistic) oen inuences how re-
searchers interpret the subjects they encounter in the eld. Whereas ob-
servations of people showing concern over deeper meaning and value in
life are categorized as religious, observations of people showing shallow
concerns over petty desires, empty pleasures, and vain ambitions are
counted as examples of the so-called secular world outside of religion.
Consequently, when faced with empirical examples of self-identied non-
religious/nonspiritual people showing concerns for depth of meaning in
life, social scientists oen employ rhetorical acrobatics which allow them
to subsume those observations, however tenuously, within the category
of religion—because by the denitions imposed by the religious-secular
divide, those people should not be considered secular (Herberg1962;
Roof1999; Besecke2005). For example, despite the fact that his subject
did not self-identify as religious, Wade Clark Roof stretched the bound-
aries of the “religious” category around him, because he could not bring
himself to place the man within the “secular” category:
To think of him as a ‘None’ (or a nonaliate) overlooks the fact that
something profoundly moving is happening within him. Doubt and
lack of a clear conviction about what to believe do not here translate
into a secular outlook; rather they appear to signify just the opposite—a
more open, questioning posture [emphasis added]. (1999:19)
Roof thus insinuated that religious “nones” cannot feel “something pro-
foundly moving” within them, and that a “secular outlook” is the opposite
of an open, questioning posture.
I do not think that this was a deliberate, pernicious eort on Roof s
part, but rather an indication of how the religious-secular divide is sub-
consciously pervasive in the way we think about such matters. e di-
chotomy is deeply embedded within our cognitive processes, and strewn
throughout the language we use in discourse about religion versus non-
religion. Itis ensconced in the fundamental metaphors that shape the
way we think and speak about such things: lost/found, descend/ascend,
dark/light, down/up, shallow/deep. Hence, a lost soul is envisioned as
having descended into darkness, then raised up by religion to ascend into
the light—it once was lost, but now it’s found—out of the darkness and
into the light. Entrenched that deeply within our psyches, the dichotomy
typically goes unnoticed and unchallenged.
Denitional Considerations
e words of religious discourse are used in an exceptionally wide variety
of disparate senses. I will not attempt here to establish necessary and
sucient attributes with which to demarcate religion from nonreligion,
or spirituality from nonspirituality. Nor will I suggest rigid and limited
working denitions (much less, essentialist denitions) for terms such as
religious, spiritual, atheist, agnostic, transcendent, sacred, soul, spirit, and
so forth. Rather, oneobjective of this study is to understand what those
words mean for the participants of the study—that is, the emic meanings
that they hold for the terms, as opposed to the etic meanings ascribed to
them by scholars. Nonetheless, I will need to make explicitly clear a few
fundamental distinctions that are too oen le unacknowledged, but
which will be indispensable for the analysis to come.
Figurative and Supernatural Senses of Religious Language
Most of the central religious terms (e.g., sacred, spiritual, God, soul, etc.)
are associated with a wide range of meanings, which can be categorized
in a number of ways. Bernard Spilka, for example, found that the mul-
tifarious meanings of “spirituality” could be sorted into three broad cat-
egories: God-oriented, world-oriented, and people-oriented/humanistic
(Hill et al. 2000:57). Greenwald and Harder (2003), from a principle
components factor analysis of ratings of 122 adjectives, found that four
categories emerged: Loving Connection to others, Self-eacing Altruism,
Blissful Transcendence, and Religiosity/Sacredness. Most religious terms,
however, and the concepts associated with them, can be sorted fairly
cleanly into two broad senses: thegurative sense and the supernatural
sense. I am not suggesting that this is a strict dichotomy. Some meanings
will fall into both sense categories; a few others might not fall into either.
e vast majority, however—the ones most pertinent to this investiga-
tion—are mostly used in one of these two main senses. Other categoriza-
tion schemes, too, can be sorted into these two broad senses. e rst and
third of Spilkas categories, for example, correspond for the most part to
the supernatural and gurative senses, respectively. His second category
could be interpreted either way, depending on the individual’s worldview.
e rst two of Greenwald and Harder’s categories are fairly unambigu-
ously gurative, and the second two could be interpreted either way.
To make this perfectly clear, we can examine data from a study by
La Cour, Ausker, and Hvidt (2012). ey produced an exhaustive list of
115words and phrases, by asking participants from a variety of world-
views to “express freely all their associations (both positive and negative)
with the word ‘spirituality’” (2012:65). Discarding the negative (e.g.,
anti-intellectual person, self-absorbed person) and everyday (e.g., sport,
diets) items as inconsequential for our purposes, we are le with 99 items.
A handful of those items can be interpreted either guratively or super-
naturally, such as awareness of the ultimate, searching for the sacred, some-
thing larger than oneself, and even striving for God if “God” is understood
metaphorically. e rest can be easily distinguished as either gurative or
e gurative sense of spirituality encompasses a broad range of atti-
tudes, interests, concerns, activities, and emotional states. From the list
generated by La Cour etal., the gurative sense includes items such as
gratitude, loe, joy, meaning in life, compassion, wisdom, values, emotive
person, profound person, music, poetry, artistic, and willing to develop one’s
self. is sense is typically articulated, both in the scholarly literature and
by practitioners, with words such as deep, meaningful, signicant, serious,
and profound. It is characterized by emotions such as compassion, loing
kindness, awe and wonder, connectedness with others, cosmic connectedness,
feeling one with nature, and asense of something greater than ourseles.
Similar to the way many scholars have attempted to dene “religious”
in extremely broad terms to subsume all instances of nonsuperciality
under its umbrella, others have been even more sweeping with the con-
cept of spirituality. Consider just two examples. Robert Fuller developed
the following working denition for his pioneering study of the “spiritual
but not religious” identity:
Spirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issue of how our lives
t into the greater cosmic scheme of things;... every time we wonder
where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when
we die;... when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or cre-
ativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world.
An idea or practice is “spiritual” when it reveals our personal desire to
establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers gov-
erning life. People nd spiritual inspiration not just in sermons, but also
in books and seminars about humanity’s creative potentials. (2001:8–9)
Similarly, in the introduction to a volume entitled Spirituality and the
Secular Quest, volume editor Peter Van Ness devised the following expan-
sive denition:
e spiritual dimension of life is the embodied task of realizing one’s
truest self in the context of reality apprehended as a cosmic totality. It is
the quest for attaining an optimal relationship between what one truly
is and everything that is.... Facing outward, human existence is spiritual
insofar as one engages reality as a maximally inclusive whole and makes
the cosmos an intentional object of thought and feeling. Facing inward,
life has a spiritual dimension to the extent that it is apprehended as a
project of people’s most enduring and vital selves, and is structured by
experiences of sudden self-transformation and subsequent gradual de-
velopment. (1996:5)
Note that, aside from a vague reference to “meaning or power beyond our
visible world”—which could be interpreted either way—neither of these
denitions necessarily entail a supernatural worldview at all. Dened in
such sweepingly broad terms, any thoughtful, self-reective, morally con-
scious, and socially responsible human being could very well be catego-
rized as “spiritual,” regardless of supernatural beliefs.
e supernatural sense of spirituality unequivocally involves supernat-
ural beliefs about the nature of reality. It can be thought of as the literal
sense of the word, in that “spirit” is not considered a mere metaphor, but
is thought to refer to some kind of ontologically real, immaterial entity, in-
dependent of the physical body—a disembodied mind. e supernatural
sense encompasses items from La Cour et al. such as: personal relation to
God, life aer death, guardian angels, reincarnation, clairvoyance, astrology,
occultism, spiritism, and ghosts. People who include the supernatural sense
in their spiritual identities do not consider their beliefs to be mere allegory
or metaphor. Practitioners of New Age spirituality, for example, really do
believe that crystals have supernatural healing powers and that mediums
can communicate with the disembodied minds of people long deceased.
Catholic pilgrims to Medjugorje really do believe that the Blessed Virgin
Mary appeared before six children in 1981, roughly 1900 years aer her
lifetime. Modern, liberal theologians may have developed sophisticated
interpretations of Christian doctrines which allow them to sidestep the su-
pernatural implications, but when evangelicals speak of “the risen Christ,
they most assuredly do not have a metaphorical interpretation in mind.
Despite attempts by many scholars to construct denitions of religion
and spirituality that exclude any reference to supernatural belief, many
continue to dene them in supernatural terms. Eliade, for example, saw a
supernatural worldview as essential to being religious, declaring religious
man’s very “mode of being in the world” as always believing that there is
an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world” (1959:202).
eologian Keith Ward dened religion as “a set of practices for estab-
lishing a relationship to a supernatural or transcendent reality, for the sake
of obtaining human good or avoiding harm” (2004:3). Robert Wuthnow
says that, “at its core, spirituality consists of all the beliefs and activities by
which individuals attempt to relate their lives to God or to a divine being
or some other conception of a transcendent reality” (1998:viii). Rodney
Stark more explicitly states that religion consists of “explanations of exis-
tence based on supernatural assumptions and including statements about
the nature of the supernatural and about ultimate meaning” (2004:14).
Considering the bulk of those denitions, “transcendent reality” and
“ultimate meaning” presumably reside someplace other than the natural
A K F  (1995:xlv–xlvi), for Durkheim, sacredness
was not some supernatural attribute inherent in certain objects. Rather, he
saw sacredness as a quality conferred upon objects by human beings in the
very act of setting them apart from the ordinary (profane). Durkheim’s
argument, as Fields explained it, was that “[h]umans acting collectively
make and remake this quality of sacredness but then encounter it aer
the fact as if it had always been built into objects and was ready-made”
(1995:xlvi). Eliade expressed the exact opposite view: “men are not free
to choose the sacred,... they only seek for it and nd it by the help of mys-
terious signs” (1959:28). Eliade described the sacred as something other-
worldly which manifests itself in certain objects and places. Humans can
only know it when they encounter “an irruption [sic] of the sacred into the
world” (1959:45). In case the supernatural component was still unclear,
Eliade stated it more plainly: “for those to whom a stone reveals itself as
sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality”
ese two broad senses are the source of interminable confusion, mis-
understanding, and false characterization. For example, when theologian
Reinhold Niehbuhr wrote that “secularism is most succinctly dened as
the explicit disavowal of the sacred” ([1937]1986:79), did he mean “sa-
cred” in a gurative or supernatural sense (or both)? Ifsomeone explicitly
disavows the sacred in the supernatural sense, but fully embraces the sacred
in a gurative sense, would Niehbuhr have still considered that person
secular? Similarly, Eliade declared that a man who is not religious is “a
man who rejects the sacrality of the world, who accepts only a profane
existence” (1959:23). For those who identify as neither religious nor spir-
itual, yet who would not reject the idea of sacrality in a purely gurative
sense, would Eliade see them as doomed to a profane existence? eam-
biguity of their language prevents us from determining how either scholar
would have answered these questions. Suce to say—as described above,
and which I will discuss extensively below—secularity is most oen con-
sidered a rejection of both the supernatural and the gurative senses of
“Nonsuperciality” as a Placeholder Category
Because the subject of this research is the nonreligious and nonspiritual,
suppose we approach the question of denition from the opposite direc-
tion. at is, rather than ask what we mean when we identify as “being
religious” or “being spiritual,” let us ask instead, what is it that we are iden-
tifying ourselves against? In other words, what are we intending to com-
municate about what we are not? Consider for a moment all the words and
phrases enumerated in the previous section to articulate and characterize
the gurative sense of spirituality: love, joy, meaning in life, compassion,
wisdom, values, profound person, etal. As attributes of a persons identity,
all of these qualities describe a particular disposition, one that is the oppo-
site of supercial. Now consider the various ways in which Robert Coles
characterized the “secular mind”: spiritual indierence, cold, calculating,
heartless rationalism, sin and hedonistic temptation, self-centered, selsh
living, consumerism/materialism, et al. What kind of person do those de-
scribe? ey all describe a mind that is supercial.
It follows, then, that if we want to nd an identity label that indicates
anonsupercial disposition, without any reference to something supernat-
ural, we need only nd the antonym of “supercial.” Open any English
thesaurus, however, and you will nd no single antonym that represents the
full range of meanings that are diametrically opposite to the exceptionally
broad range of meanings represented by the single word “supercial.” To
be sure, a good thesaurus will provide a long list of words as ostensible ant-
onyms. Each of those words, however, only represents one aspect of non-
superciality; not one comes anywhere close to capturing the full range of
meanings encompassed by the word “supercial.” In fact, those words are
really only antonyms for the very words that are listed as synonyms:
Deep Shallow
Profound Mundane
Meaningful Trivial
Signicant Inconsequential
Fullled Empty
Serious Frivolous
Authentic Insincere
Wise Foolish
Each of those words has a single antonym that suciently represents
the opposite of its meaning. What, then, is a sucient antonym for
If we wanted to describe someone as not supercial, what single word
or small phrase could we use to signify that? As we will discover below, a
great deal hinges on this question, and as it turns out, it is far more dif-
cult to answer than one might expect. A somewhat amusing, yet sur-
prisingly exemplary, demonstration of this conundrum can be found on
the Stack Exchange website in its “English Language and Usage” forum.
Auser named John Wu posed the following question:
I would like to tell my friend to stop dating men who are so supercial,
but state it in apositive way. Please help me complete the sentence: “You
should date men who are more __________.” Sofar the only word I’ve
been able to come up with is “real,” which seems ambiguous and lacks
gravitas. (Wu 2015)
How might we answer that question? Suggestions from other readers
included words such as deep, profound, serious, thoughtful, authentic,
genuine, sincere, earnest, mature, wise, sensible, introspective, insightful,
and perceptive. All of those words taken together come close to describing
nonsuperciality, but needless to say, no one could nd a single word that
suciently captured all the meaning this individual wished to express. But
let us try one more option: “You should date men who are more spiritual.”
Everything about the gurative sense of “spiritual” suciently fullls the
meaning that John wanted to express. In this sense, in the absence of any
other options, the word “spiritual” has becomes the de facto antonym of
supercial.” But because it carries with it an extra set of meanings from
its supernatural sense, John could run the risk of being quite misunder-
stood if he chose that word. His friend might think he is telling her to
nd someone who prays regularly, or consults psychics, or worships na-
ture spirits.
Denitions of spirituality in the gurative sense, such as Fuller’s, are
so all-encompassing that they subsume any nonsupercial sentiment or
activity. We are described as “being spiritual” when we devote ourselves to
such pursuits as contemplating the “big” or “ultimate” questions, searching
for meaning and purpose in life, cultivating an “inner life” with mindful-
ness and introspective self-awareness, being of service to others, experi-
encing overwhelming awe and wonder, feeling “deeply moved” by a song
or story, or undergoing a transformational experience. Ellen Debenport
(a minister and spirituality author) wrote an article about what she calls
spiritual superfoods,” a list of ve “spiritual practices that are so nour-
ishing we should partake of them every day” (2016): (1)create quiet time;
(2)practice denials and armations; (3)speak positive words; (4)hold
a vision for your life; and (5)put your spiritual/moral convictions into
action. None of these experiences and practices require any supernatural
beliefs. Whatever else we may gain from partaking of them, they are all
ways in which we attempt to keep our lives from being supercial. For
the purposes of my inquiry, in lieu of an unambiguous alternative to the
gurative senses of religiosity and spirituality, “nonsuperciality” will serve
as a placeholder.
Prejudice and Negative Characterizations of Nonbelievers
A  ,   by nonbelievers involves, to
a large extent, oppositional work against prejudice and negative stereo-
types. Many studies have now conrmed the negative characterizations of,
and prejudice against nonbelievers in the United States. Cragun, Kosman,
Keysar et al. (2012), for example, analyzed data from the 2008 American
Religious Identication Survey (ARIS) and found that, among all respon-
dents who identied with none of the religion options, only 21.6percent
reported discrimination, but of those who self-identied as atheist or ag-
nostic, 42.9 percent reported discrimination.
Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann spearheaded this new wave of research
with their seminal 2006 study in which they analyzed how and why athe-
ists are the least accepted minority in American society. ey found that
“out of a long list of ethnic and cultural minorities, Americans are less
willing to accept intermarriage with atheists than with any other group,
and less likely to imagine that atheists share their vision of American so-
ciety” (2006:216). ey also found that, while other minority groups
(such as gays and lesbians) have slowly gained acceptance in American
society, the same is not true of atheists. Gervais, Shari, and Norenzayan
determined that “[t]o understand a given form of prejudice, researchers
must rst understand the threat that the target of prejudice is seen to
pose” (2011:1190). Edgell et al. had suggested that atheists are seen as a
threat to the social order because they are considered to be fundamentally
untrustworthy. Gervais et al. conducted a series of social psychology ex-
periments and found that anti-atheist prejudice is, indeed, primarily based
on distrust.
Marcel Harper found that, because atheists remained closeted in the
United States for so many years, religious apologists ran rampant with
stereotypes to defame atheists. rough two studies designed to identify
the most commonly held stereotypes against the nonreligious, he found,
through factor analysis, six unattering stereotypes: “skeptics,” “straight-
forward individualists,” “seekers,” “judgmental cads,” “critical cynics,
and “hedonistic bohemians” (2007:547). In freeform response elds, re-
spondents wrote in labels such as “aggressive,” “arrogant,” “empty,” “evil,
“freaks,” “ignorant,” “lost,” “miserable,” “sinners,” “stupid,” and “shallow.
Stereotype labels such as these form the basis of the negative characteriza-
tions of nonbelievers that will be analyzed in more detail below.
Individual and Collective Nonbeliever Identity
e literature on secular/atheist identity work falls into three general
focus areas: (1)identity formation, (2)identity management, and (3)col-
lective identity. For purposes of this study, I am interested in the rst,
which entails building a new nonreligious identity aer abandoning a re-
ligious one. I am especially interested in any ndings of attitudes toward
religious or spiritual identities, and use of identity work to deal with the
social stigma of nonbelief. Kelly Church-Hearl observed in some of her
participants a reluctance to accept self-identity labels to reference their
spiritual sides.” She suggested that avoiding all labels is one of the many
“oppositional identity work” strategies that some nonbelievers use to cope
with their stigmatized social status (2008:52). As to why nonbelievers
might specically reject the label of “religious,” Church-Hearl found that
many of her subjects had developed negative connotations associated with
religion. “Many respondents claimed that they le mainstream religion
because they felt [it] perpetuates hate, separatism, prejudice, discrimina-
tion, and oppression” (2008:27).
Barb Amandine observed similar behavior, but in response to all iden-
tity labels: “Amajority of non-believers, when asked to categorize them-
selves, choose not to do so” (2011:10). Jesse Smith observed that avoiding
the label of atheist “primarily has to do with its deviant and stigmatized
status in American culture” (2013:84). Likewise, according to Smith and
Cimino (2012), many nonbelievers avoid the label of atheist due to the
many negative connotations associated with it. Some groups, therefore,
try to “disassociate themselves from the atheist label and seek to promote
a new secularist identity, such as the ‘brights’” (2012:22). Jesse Smith sug-
gested that many atheists, while they seek to be included in the atheist
community, also seek to produce a “change in how the public views that
community” (2013:96). In this sense, many atheists are attempting to re-
ame “the secular” as something positive.
Measuring Nonreligious/Nonspiritual Identities with Surveys
Because much of the measurement of “identity” typically comes in the
form of survey questionnaires, one would think such questions would be
craed with care and precision. Unfortunately, the religion-oriented ques-
tions on most of the largest surveys are fraught with problems, oen as a
result of inattention to the disparate gurative and supernatural senses of
the words involved, and the disparate cognitive frames those words poten-
tially activate in the minds of the respondents (as discussed below). e
consequences of ignoring the ambiguity of religious language can be quite
staggering, potentially causing the research data to be a signicant source
of misinformation and misunderstanding. Distorted interpretations of
such tainted data come from journalists and scholars alike—oen from
the survey organization’s own reports.
Most large-scale surveys with any questions on religion contain
some variation of the standard “Do you believe in God?” question. at
question in itself suers greatly from the extreme ambiguity of the word
“God.” e developers of the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, however,
decided to extend the question and broaden its scope by asking, “Do you
believe in God or a universal spirit?” Belief in the existence of a super-
natural, personal deity, whether that deity is believed to be active in the
world (theism) or to have created the world then le it alone (deism), is a
dierent thing entirely from belief in an impersonaluniversal spirit”—in
the words of Coleman, Silver & Hood, “it would be (at the least) an em-
ical misnomer if we were to call this ‘God’” (2016:363). If we refer to both
beliefs with the same term—theismwe erase the conceptual distinction,
which is counter-productive to the rigorous needs of scholarly analysis.
Instead of improving the conditions of scholarly discourse, the authors of
this question increased ambiguity and confusion.
To make matters worse, when the Pew Forum presents the results of
that question in tables, graphs and reports, they display the variable title
only as “Believe in God”—inexcusably leaving o the “ora universal spirit”
half of the original question. Consequently, the published results literally
erase the distinction between those who say they believe in a personal deity
and those who say they believe in a “universal spirit.” From this we get
the absurd oxymoron of the atheist who believes in God. e Pew results
indicate that 5 percent of self-identied atheists answered that they are
“fairly certain” or “absolutely certain” that God exists, leading to popular
news headlines such as “Why so-called atheists believe in God, Heaven,
and even the Bible.” e author even quoted the original answer in full,
then immediately dropped the “or a universal spirit” half to make a bold,
newsworthy soundbite: “e graph showed that a fraction of self-identi-
ed atheists expressed absolute certainty that there is a ‘God or universal
spirit.’ at’s right: some atheists believe in God ” (Grant 2014).
None of the questions in any of the large national surveys bother to
take into account which sense (gurative or supernatural) the respondents
have in mind for words such as God, spiritual, religious, sacred, soul, and
so forth. I have come across only one measurement scale that recognizes
the distinction between the gurative and supernatural senses of spiritu-
ality. Cragun, Hammer, and Nielsen (2015) designed what they call the
“NonReligious-NonSpiritual Scale” (NRNSS). ey recognized that the
two disparate senses of the word “spiritual” would compromise results
with ambiguity, so they decided to specify one sense over the other, and
stated it clearly in the instructions to eliminate any confusion:
Some people use the terms “spirituality” and “spiritual”... as just having
to do with: aspecial or intense experience, an appreciation for existence,
meaning in life, peacefulness, harmony, the quest for well-being, or emo-
tional connection with people, humanity, nature, or the universe.... In
contrast to that broad approach, when you answer the items in THIS
questionnaire we’d like you to think about ‘spirituality” and ‘spiritual’
in the specic, SUPERNATURAL sense..., having to do with things
which are beyond or transcend the material universe. (2015:39)
Although their denitional choice to alleviate the ambiguity allowed
them to dierentiate between “nonreligious/spiritual” and “nonreligious/
nonspiritual,” that choice led to the exclusion of another identity. What
of those individuals who do not call themselves religious or spiritual and
do not hold supernatural beliefs, but who do value “an appreciation for
existence, meaning in life, peacefulness, harmony, the quest for well-being,
[and] emotional connection with people, humanity, nature, or the uni-
verse”? In other words, what of the “nonreligious/nonspiritual/nonsuper-
cial” identity? e secular but not supercial are invisible to this scale.
Had the researchers included a separate set of questions for the gurative
sense of spiritual, they might have inadvertently created a measure for the
“nonsuperciality” variable.
uestions of religious aliation vary signicantly from one survey or-
ganization to the next. eGeneral Social Survey has always asked, “What
is your religious preference?” and included “None” among the choices,
along with an open-ended “Other” option. e Pew Forum asks, “What
is your present religion, if any?” Among the options is listed: “Atheist (do
not believe in God).” eNational Survey of Religious Identication con-
tained the simple question, “What is your religion?,” and included “None”
among the litany of religious institutions. Curiously, it included both “hu-
manist” and “agnostic” as choices, but excluded “atheist.” Itcontained no
questions about belief. eAmerican Mosaic Project survey asked the
question without ambiguity: “What religion, ifany, were you raised in?”
e intended sense of the word “religion” (in all these examples) is clearly
an institution. e available options in the American Mosaic Project,
however, only oered one choice for no religion: “Noreligion/Atheist/
Agnostic.” And the follow up question—“And what is your current reli-
gious preference, if any?”—would be ambiguous if not for the context set
by the previous question.
Asking a question in the form of “What religion are you?” is to ask a
completely dierent question from “How religious are you?” e former
is a question of group aliation, the latter of personal disposition. e term
“religion,” however, is sometimes used in the sense of personal religiosity,
while “religiosity” is sometimes indicated only by measures of church at-
tendance. So when the Pew Forum survey puts the question in the ambig-
uous form of “How important is religion in your life?,” the respondent’s
answer is signicantly impacted by whether he or she thinks at that mo-
ment of “religion” in the sense of “religious aliation” or in the sense of
“traditionally religious feelings and concerns.” And by not being more
explicit, the developers of the questionnaire seem to have completely ig-
nored the entire phenomenon of the “spiritual but not religious.
When the Pew results indicate that 7 percent of self-labeled atheists
answered that “religion” is somewhat or very important in their lives (Pew
Research Center 2015:45), what does that tell us? Are they saying that
a religious institution” is important to them or that “thinking about the
ultimate questions” is important to them (for example)? We have no way
of knowing, because their use of the word “religion” is too ambiguous.
Further complicating the issue: what wording should be used in this con-
text when speaking of “atheism”? Should it be referred to as a “religious
group,” “religious category,” or “religious demographic”? Surely all these
nomenclatures cannot escape the implication that atheism is somehow
“religious,” or at least religion-like; so why refer to it as “religious” at all?
Some researchers today are, instead, placing nonbelief within the category
of “nonreligion” (Lee 2015; Zuckerman, Galen & Pasquale 2016), which
has its own denitional problems, aside from continuing to dene it in
relation to religion.
Even asking a question such as “How oen do you think about
meaning and purpose in life?” is susceptible to sense disparity. e respon-
dent may think in terms of general meaning and purpose in this life here
and now, or of the ultimate meaning and purpose of existence. Someone
who thinks that there is no such thing as inherent ultimate meaning and
purpose in the universe (i.e., some supernatural, guiding, disembodied
mind that “has a plan” for it all) may be inclined to say that they don’t
think about it all that oen, even if he or she does oen contemplate gen-
eral meaning and purpose in life. Someone in a more critical frame of
mind might even hear that question and ask, “What does ‘meaning and
purpose in life’ even mean?”
All of the issues discussed above render survey data almost useless for
researchers interested in measuring identity in terms of being “religious
or “nonreligious.” Indeed, the very concept of “religiosity” is problematic.
Some social scientists want to dene religion in extremely broad, vague
terms and claim some kind of universal or “implicit” religiosity in everyone
(e.g., Schnell 2003; Bailey 2012). e concept of “implicit religion” is a
prime example of an etic category dened so broadly that it can be im-
posed on almost anything. In fact, Karen Lord admitted that the term
is “intentionally broad” (2006:205), and that “although not everything
is implicitly religious, anything can be [emphasis added]” (2006:206).
She readily admits that scholars who apply this concept “have tended to
counter diculties arising from this breadth by re-dening, rening and
tailoring the construct to their particular eld” (2006:206). e current
study takes the opposite perspective: rather than expanding the denition
of religious terms so broadly that they can subsume any and all nonsuper-
ciality, the boundaries of what constitutes religion and spirituality should
be more clearly demarcated.
T       is the problem of con-
structing a new social identity aer shiing from one that is normative
(even reputable) to one that is tainted and oen stigmatized. In this case,
I refer specically to someone shiing from a religious or spiritual iden-
tity to one distinguished by nonbelief in religious doctrines in particular
and in the existence of anything supernatural in general. Such nonbelief
can be easily concealed, thus avoiding the stigmatized status by remaining
only potentially “discreditable” (Goman 1963). All the subjects of this
study, however, were specically “out of the closet” as nonbelievers. In the
process of analyzing the data gathered from in-depth interviews, I began
to discover points of commonality among the theoretical sources detailed
below—points at which they could be woven together, complimenting
and reinforcing one another, resulting in a broader gestalt framework, its
constituents working together to form something greater than the sum of
its parts.
e Spectrum of Social Stigma
Erving Goman dened stigma as “an attribute that is deeply discrediting”
(1963:3), and made the important distinction between someone with an
unmistakably obvious stigmatizing attribute and someone with an attri-
bute that can be easily concealed in order to avoid the stigmatized identity.
Although Goman used terms such as “discredited” and “tainted” synon-
ymously with “stigmatized,” and treated “normative” and “stigmatized” as
binary categories, Iwill treat them as “graded categories” (Lako 1987:21;
Saler 1993:xiv), suggesting a spectrum of graded social statuses. For ex-
ample, although “discredited” can refer to an injured or defamed character,
it can also refer merely to a loss of trust in someone—not necessarily a
stigmatized status. “Tainted,” however, has no lexical sense from which
implications of corruption or contamination are absent; it unmistakably
implies some degree of stigma. A similar distinction can be made on the
other end of the spectrum, in that some “normative” identities—such as
doctors, judges, and ministers—are perceived as more “reputable” than
Cognitive Frames, Frame Semantics, and Grounded eory
Cognitive ames can be thought of as mental structures of meaning built
from interconnected collections of beliefs, images, sensory impressions,
knowledge, patterns of practice, emotions, attitudes, and judgements,
bundled into organized packages in our brains, and all brought to mind
together as a single unit when we encounter a word or other symbol
(Fillmore & Baker2009:314). e most eective and ecient way to
grasp the concept is by example, and Fillmore and Baker provided a clear
illustration. Imagine you see a group of children entering a house, carrying
brightly wrapped boxes with ribbons and bows. e scene is likely to ac-
tivate the   frame in your mind, leading you not only to
infer that the children are going to a birthday party, but also “to expect
that the childrens experiences during the time of the party will include
games, toys, and cake, and lighted candles on the cake, as well as a singing
of the birthday song” (2009:315). Far more than the mere dictionary de-
nition of “birthday party,” all of these assumptions, along with all of your
memories of birthday parties that you have experienced yourself, comprise
the frame in your mind that gives meaning to what you have seen (and to
the symbolic phrase “birthday party”).
It is important to understand that acognitive frame is much more
than a dictionary denition; it is an entire “conceptual representation, or
mental model” (Wendland 2010:28). AsLako explained, “all words are
dened relative to conceptual frames.” (2004:xv). When we hear a word,
our brains do not function like computers (Epstein2016) by searching
for the word in a database and retrieving its denition. Our brains do not
think in dictionary denitions; they think in ames. According to Lako,
cognitive frames are “physically realized in the neurocircuitry of [our]
brain[s]” (2008). Words and other symbols are like triggers that activate
those circuits. “When you hear a word, its frame (or collection of frames)
is activated in your brain” (Lako 2004:xv). Animportant consequence
of this biological reality, as Ernst Wendland explained, is that “one cannot
fully comprehend the meaning of a single word without access to all the
essential background knowledge that relates to that word” (2010:30). In
other words, you cannot lookup the full meaning of a word in a dictio-
nary, because meaning consists of all the cognitive frames activated in our
brains that shape our understanding of the symbols of communication
(Fillmore & Baker2009:317).
Robert Entman distinguished four locations where frames aect social
interactions and events: the text (any form of symbols used for communi-
cation), the culture (the “stock of commonly invoked frames” (1993:52)
we are socialized into), the communicator (someone who speaks a word
with a certain frame in mind), and the receiver (someone who hears the
word which activates a cognitive frame). Put another way, frames are
“embedded in personal, social, and institutional roles” (Shmueli, Elliot,
&Kaufman 2006:217). e “texts” I am concerned with in this study are
(1)the words, images, testimonials, etc. that constitute the stigmatizing
frames held by believers about nonbelievers, and (2)the eld of identity
labels available to nonbelievers for communicating social identities. As we
analyze various types of frames discussed below, we will oen need to rec-
ognize the location in which the frame resides.
Frame Semantics is a method of linguistic analysis that is a uniquely
suitable compliment to Glaser and Strauss’s (1967) “grounded theory”
approach to generating theory from concepts that emerge out of quali-
tative research data. e objective of grounded theory is to understand
the standpoint of those under study by paying close attention to the words
(i.e., linguistic forms) they use to express their thoughts, attempting to
discern “nuances of [their] language and meaning” (Charmaz 2006:32–
34). Semantics is the study of the meanings of words, and Frame Semantics
is “the study of how... we associate linguistic forms (words, xed phrases,
grammatical patterns) with the cognitive structures—the ames—which
largely determine the process (and the result) of interpreting those forms”
(Fillmore & Baker 2009:314). Fillmore and Baker explain that “the
ground observations about Frame Semantics must be the ways in which
users of the language understand what is communicated by their language
[emphasis added]” (2009:320). us, Frame Semantics provides a means
of achieving the objective of generating grounded theory. By applying
Frames Semantics to grounded theory methodology, those “nuances of
meaning” can be uncovered by excavating the underlying cognitive frames
that constitute those meanings.
For the remainder of this study, Ihave adapted a typographical con-
vention from Lako and Johnson (1980) by rendering the names of cog-
nitive frames in , in the same way that they rendered names
of metaphors. When referring specically to identity labels, the names of
those labels will always appear in quotation marks. In the coming pages,
each time you read the name of a frame or identity label, take a moment to
observe everything that arises in your mind.
Identity Frames and Characterization Frames
Much of the literature on conict management focuses on the mediation
or negotiation of what are known as “intractable conicts”—conicts that
seem impossible to resolve, either because the dierences are too great or
the parties involved are too dicult and stubborn. Examples include envi-
ronmental justice disputes, racial and ethnic strife, and territorial disputes.
e conicts between believers and nonbelievers quite oen fall into this
category. Social scientists researching the techniques of intractable con-
ict mediation recognize that the two parties in such conicts understand
a situation or event in completely dierent ways, and that the source of the
conict can be illuminated by analyzing the disparities in the cognitive
frames that form each side’s understanding of identity labels. As Shmueli
et al. explained: “As lenses through which disputants interpret conicts,
divergent frames limit the clarity of communication and the quality of
information, and they encourage escalation” (2006:217). Frame analysis
allows mediators to determine how each conicting party views the other,
and with that understanding, attempt to resolve the conict by reframing
one or both views.
In this approach, “a frame is a way of labeling these dierent individual
interpretations of the situation” (Lewicki, Barry, & Saunders 2016:142–
143). e analytic techniques of Frame Semantics can prove useful for the
task of identifying, labeling, and “unpacking the multiple frames dispu-
tants hold to get a clearer picture of the conict’s drivers” (Campbell &
Docherty 2004:769). In the same-sex marriage debate, for example, we can
see how communication between the opposing sides is severely hampered
by recognizing that those opposed to same-sex marriage are characterizing
these relationships with the   frame, while the other is char-
acterizing them with the   frame. On a broader scale, aer
the mass murder of 49 people at an Orlando LGBTQ nightclub, some few
supporters” of the attack, in an attempt to justify the murders, invoked
the anti-gay   frame (Tashman 2016) and 
frame (Rajaee 2016) to activate negative cognitive frames in the minds
of their listeners. During their libuster, democratic leaders attempted to
humanize the victims by reading detailed personal stories of each victim,
for hours on end, in order to activate positive cognitive frames such as the
 / frame, the   frame, the
  frame, and many others. Two concepts developed by in-
tractable conict mediation researchers have proven useful for the present
study: “identity frames” and “characterization frames.
Identity ames describe how individuals or groups view themseles,
derived from such sources as “demographic characteristics, place or loca-
tion, roles they play, interests they hold, and institutions with which they
are aliated” (Campbell & Docherty 2004:774). For example, a nonbe-
liever might hold what could be called the  identity frame,
considering qualities such as being level-headed, clear thinking, and unim-
pressed by specious reasoning to be important parts of his or her identity.
According to Campbell and Docherty, identity frames are “a major con-
tributor to dispute intractability.” reats to self or group identity (even
if only perceived and not real) are a major source of tension that can drive
a conict into an intractable state. Identity frames, unfortunately, are also
“one of the least malleable frames over time” (2004:774). Shmuelietal.,
however, assert that changing each side’s identity frames “is not necessary
for managing conicts or reaching agreements” (2006:211). Instead, they
and other researchers recommend focusing on changing characterization
frames in order to resolve the conict.
Characterization ames (sometimes called “stereotyping frames”)
describe how individuals or groups view others (Burgess2003; Campbell
& Docherty2004:775). In intractable conicts, characterization frames
are typically used to delegitimize the other party’s position, to denigrate
the character of the opposing party, or even to dehumanize the opposition
outright. For example, on one side, a Christian fundamentalist might hold
the   characterization frame for nonbelievers, con-
vinced that nonbelievers cannot be trusted because they have no ultimate
reason to be ethical; on the other side, an atheist might view Christian
fundamentalists as embodying the -  char-
acterization frame, trying to impose their absolutist, dogmatic moral rules
upon the rest of society. Negative characterization frames are the cogni-
tive impressions that fan the ames of prejudice, resentment, and hostility
toward others. ey are, however, easier to change than identity frames.
In order to make any progress toward resolution, therefore, researchers
advise that “stakeholders are better o focusing on reframing characteriza-
tion frames” (Shmueli et al. 2006:211).
Oppressive Identity Work and Oppositional Identity Work
Social psychologists Michael Schwalbe and Douglas Mason-Schrock
(1996) dened “identity work” as “anything people do, individually or
collectively, to give meaning to themselves or others.” More importantly,
they explained that identity work is “largely a matter of signifying, la-
beling, and dening” (1996:115). Such signifying, labeling, and dening
inevitably involves words and the cognitive frames that those words ac-
tivate. As they explained, identity itself “is not a meaning but a sign [i.e.,
label] that evokes meaning, in the form of a response [i.e., frame] aroused
in the person who interprets it” (1996:115). Note the similarity in lan-
guage of that last sentence to the way Lako, Fillmore, and Baker describe
“evoking” cognitive frames. Schwalbe and Mason-Schrock analyze “iden-
tity-making as cultural struggle” between dominant and subordinated
social groups engaged in two types of subcultural identity work: “oppres-
sive” and “oppositional.
Oppressive identity work occurs in a process called “othering,” in
which a dominant social group stigmatizes a subordinated group (or at
least “taints” their identities) by imposing disreputable identity attri-
butes on its members (Schwalbe & Mason-Schrock 1996:139)—in other
words, by generating and imposing characterization ames. In a now sem-
inal paper in the growing research on prejudice against atheists, Edgell et
al. demonstrated this exact process by uncovering “the degree to which
atheists represent a symbolic ‘other’ against which some Americans dene
themselves as good people and worthy citizens” (2006:214). ey found
that many Christian Americans hold stereotyped impressions of atheists,
typically imagined as an individual who lacks concern for the common
good of society and is against putative “traditional family values.” Two
common types stood out:
Some people... associate [atheists] with illegality, such as drug use and
prostitution—that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable
community from the lower end of the status hierarchy. Others saw athe-
ists as rampant materialists and cultural elitists that threaten common
values from above—the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out
of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than
everyone else. (2006:225–227)
Edgell et al. thus uncovered two prime examples of negative characteriza-
tion frames produced by a dominant group through oppressive identity
work which we might call the -  frame and -
-  frame, respectively—products of Christian oppressive
identity work against nonbelievers.
Oppositional identity work occurs when a marginalized social group
resists, or comes to terms with, the tainted or stigmatized identity attri-
butes imposed upon them by the dominant group. Members of the mar-
ginalized group must “transform discrediting identities into crediting
ones” (Schwalbe & Mason-Schrock 1996:141), redene the identities
in some way to render them less discrediting, or establish new identi-
ties. In her work on atheism as a minority identity in Appalachia, Kelly
Church-Hearl (2008) utilized Schwalbe and Mason-Schrock’s two types
of identity work to describe the struggles of non-Christians in a region
dominated by conservative Christians. According to Church-Hearl,
“based on participants’ reports, many Christians engage in... ‘oppressive
identity work’ by claiming that atheists and naturalists lead immoral lives”
(2008:48–49). e non-Christians thus had to engage in oppositional
identity work to nd strategies to counteract the negative stereotyping
imposed by the dominant Christian culture. Church-Hearl cataloged
the strategies she heard from her respondents, including: staying “in the
closet,” avoiding labels, exhibiting superiority, using humor when dealing
with Christians, being confrontational by invalidating their beliefs asking
impossible questions that Christians can’t answer, and seeking social sup-
port from other non-Christians through books, the Internet, and meetup
groups (2008:53–61).1
T   detailed above weave together to
form a cohesive whole. e linguistic technique of frame analysis oered
by Frame Semantics lends substance to the concepts of identity and char-
acterization frames utilized in the eld of intractable conict mediation
by analyzing them as cognitive ames. at combination then allows us to
esh out the social psychological concepts of oppressive and oppositional
identity work by analyzing them in terms of characterization and identity
frames. Uncovering and deconstructing the stereotyping characterization
frames located within the culture of the dominant group, and identifying
the various ways they might be manipulated in the process of oppositional
1 I am indebted to Kelly Church-Hearl for pointing me toward the work of Schwalbe
and Mason-Schrock.
identity work, may allow the identity frames of the subordinated group to
be reasserted.
Research Questions
What are we to make of nonbelievers who self-identify as neither religious
nor spiritual, yet who demonstrate the nonsupercial disposition of the
gurative sense of spirituality? When faced with such individuals in the
eld, social scientists oen employ rhetorical acrobatics to subsume those
observations, however tenuously, within the categories of “religious” and/
or “spiritual,” because they have diculty categorizing them as “secular”
(e.g., Herberg1962; Roof 1999; Besecke2005; Streib & Hood 2016).
When studying individuals who do not t into predened identities, we
need to take an emic approach and listen to how they identify and describe
themselves, then attempt to discern new categories, or whole new vocab-
ularies if needs be, to avoid misrepresenting them. My aim in this research
is to explore possible answers to the following questions with regard to
this particular segment of the “neither religious nor spiritual” population:
(1) How do they go about forming and articulating an identity of their
own when our culture has never developed the language to speak
about a nonsupercial life without falling back on religious/spiri-
tual language with its supernatural connotations?
(2) What new terms or metaphors, if any, have they come up with to
express the same aspects of their personalities that “Christian min-
ister” once expressed?
(3) How do they deal with the tainted or stigmatized status of their new
“nonbeliever” identities?
(4) Because they do not t the stereotypical characterization of secular
people—that is, as supercial—how do they deal (if at all) with
the fact that some believers might deny that they are secular and
label them as “spiritual” because they t the gurative sense of that
(5) If someone does not want to identify as “religious” or “spiritual,” be-
cause they do not want to imply that they hold supernatural beliefs,
how do they communicate an identity that relates the fact that they
are not supercial? In other words, what commonly understood
term (or phrase) could be used as an identity label for people who
are secular but not supercial?
Grounded eory
I     with no fully-formed theoretical frame-
work, just a general notion—based on preparatory research and prior
exploratory observations—that George Lako’s technique of cognitive
frame analysis might prove useful. I knew my goal was to make sense of the
fact that so many thoughtful, self-reective people, who had been deeply
religious all their lives, now have trouble identifying as religious or spiri-
tual. Butat the outset, I had no idea what theoretical frameworks might
help make sense of it all. Glaser and Strauss (1967) designed their “con-
stant comparative method” (described in more detail below) specically
for this research scenario, insisting that “the initial decisions are not based
on a preconceived theoretical framework” (1967:45). eir “grounded
theory” approach formed the foundation of my methodology.
As Kathy Charmaz points out in her exposition of grounded theory,
theories are not discovered, they are constructed. Butsuch theories are not
built out of thin air. Rather, “we construct our grounded theories through
our past and present involvements and interactions with people, perspec-
tives, and research practices” (2006:10). In other words, we begin with
what Herbert Blumer called “sensitizing concepts” (1969:147–148), ac-
cumulated from prior reading, research, and experience. e sensitizing
concepts described in the Introduction led me to ask the questions upon
which this study is based. As Charmaz explained it, to generate grounded
theory “we begin by being open to what is happening in the... interview
statements so that we might learn about our research participants’ lives,...
study how they explain their statements,... and ask what analytic sense we
can make of them” (2006:3).
Grounded theory is built through a continuously iterative process of
coding data as it is gathered, analyzing the codes to look for any emerging
patterns or concepts, gathering more data and revisiting previous data to
constantly compare one to the other. is process is repeated until nothing
new emerges (the point of saturation), all the while constantly revisiting
the literature looking for anything that may help make sense of the con-
cepts emerging from the data. In this way, the researcher is “forced to de-
velop ideas on a level of generality higher in conceptual abstraction than
the qualitative material being analyzed” (Glaser & Strauss1967:114).
us, rather than a method of only applying pre-developed theory to
the data, this is an analytic inductive method designed to systematically
generate theory that “corresponds closely to the data” (Glaser & Strauss
1967:114). In other words, “grounded theory” is grounded in the data.
As stated above, to answer my research questions I needed participants
who had been deeply religious for most of their adult lives, who stopped
believing the supernatural worldview of their religions and subsequently
le religion altogether, and who were still the same thoughtful, self-reec-
tive people they had been. Additionally, I needed people who were not
concealing the fact that they are nonbelievers, who had publicly come out
of the closet, and thus had to engage in managing the stigma of a nonbe-
liever identity and to construct new identities to replace their “believer”
identities. To nd such people, as a reasonable theoretical source, I sought
ex-clergy who no longer believed the doctrines of their former religions
and who were publicly open about their deconversions.
Twenty years ago it may have been nigh impossible to nd openly
nonbelieving ex-ministers. But between the Internet and the proliferation
of local groups, such people can nally be seen and heard.
Random sampling was not an option in this situation because the number
of openly nonbelieving ex-ministers is so miniscule and dicult to nd
that a random sample would be impossible. Under these conditions, oppor-
tunity and snowball sampling are the most appropriate sampling methods.
Iwas fortunate to be able to begin with opportunity sampling to recruit
four participants who Ialready knew through my participation over the
past 10 years in secularist groups in two midsize, Midwestern cities. All
four enthusiastically agreed to be interviewed, and one put me in contact
with another ex-minister he knew.
Ex-ministers being so few and far between, I knew no one else who
could give me referrals, and Google searches for terms such as “ex-min-
ister” or “ex-clergy” revealed nothing. So to nd more participants, I had
to improvise on the traditional snowball sampling method by following
leads on websites, blogs, podcasts, and so forth—a sampling method I
began to call “cyber snowball sampling.” Roughly two years before I sub-
mitted the proposal for this study, Ibegan to write down the names of
any ex-clergy I came across on the Internet. Having been engaged with the
online nonbeliever community since the early 1990s (before the World
Wide Web, when we communicated through LISTSERVs, and USENET
groups), Ihave gained an extensive familiarity with the locations of non-
believers on the Internet. Some ex-ministers contributed to group blogs
on sites such as and Some maintained
their own blogs, which were linked to from other secularist sites. Several
had published books about their deconversions, and I heard them being
interviewed on podcasts such as e Humanist Hour, e Free ought
Prophet, e inking Atheist, e Friendly Atheist, and Progressive Spirit
as I listened to them to and from work. Sometimes one ex-minister would
mention the name of another ex-minister, and I would search for that
name. I was also fortunate that several members of e Clergy Project2
came out publicly as nonbelievers during that time period.
By the time I received approval from the Institutional Review Board
and was ready to begin soliciting participants, Ihad gathered a list of over
40 ex-clergy. I searched for their names on Google and attempted to nd
contact information for them on websites, blogs, podcasts, and social sites
such as Facebook, Twitter, and I was able to obtain
some form of contact information for 25 of the names (email addresses,
Facebook accounts, or blog contact forms). Aer multiple attempts—
sometimes through multiple channels—to contact each of them over a
period of roughly two months, Ireceived responses from 12, and was able
to successfully schedule interviews with 10. Having been involved with
the nonbeliever community for so many years, I had an “insider” status
that allowed me to establish trust and rapport more easily than if I had
been an unknown outsider or someone from a religious organization.
Of the 15 participants interviewed in this study, eight had been
more or less theologically liberal ministers (Presbyterian, Methodist/
uaker, United Church of Canada, Catholic, two Independent Baptist,
Black Baptist, and Progressive Evangelical), six had been theologically
conservative (three Southern Baptists, one Independent Baptist, and
two Pentecostals), and one, from the United Church of Canada, de-
scribed himself as “right-of-center.” One participant was black, the other
14 were white. ree participants were women, the other 12 were men.
Ages ranged from 36to81, with a mean of 52 and median of 56. Number
of years in active ministry ranged from 5 to 35, with a mean of 18 and
2 e Clergy Project is a private and anonymous online forum for ministers who have
stopped believing but are still “in the closet” and typically still working as ministers.
median of 20. e number of years since they le the ministry had two
outliers: 1.5 years and 49 years. Without those two outliers, the number
of years ranged from 5 to 12, with both mean and median of 7 years.
Finally, 14of the participants were ex-clergy, and one was actually still an
active minister who had come out publicly as an atheist, and so was going
through a very similar process of nding new labels to manage the stigma
and communicate identity.
Data Collection
Aer shedding their former religious identities, some ex-clergy began
writing blogs to both share their arduous deconversion experiences and,
more importantly for this study, to continue doing what made them be-
come ministers in the rst place: exploring, and discussing matters of sub-
stance. During the time I was attempting to make contact for interviews,
I began siing through these blogs looking for material that addressed my
research questions. I found some data of interest in the blog posts, but
much of it proved to be too general for my specic questions, and thus of
limited use.
e use of in-depth, semi-structured interviews encourages partici-
pants to be more focused and go into greater depth, allowing insight into
their own interpretation of the words they use and the identities they
choose (Charmaz 2006:25–27). To say that I took a decidedly emic ap-
proach to the collection and analysis of data means that Iconsidered the
words, denitions, and cognitive frames drawn out of the participants
with searching questions as paramount to gaining insight into their un-
derstandings of their identities and situations. As a purely emic endeavor,
interviews were designed to elicit rich explanations from participants
about why they chose to accept or reject specic identity labels, and what
those labels mean to them.
I conducted interviews from March through May of 2016. Interview
durations ranged from 44 minutes to 2 hours 44 minutes, with a mean of
1:30 and a median of 1:20. Iconducted four of the local interviews in-
person at the participant’s location of choice—either at a coee shop or
in the participant’s home—and recorded the interviews with a ZoomH1
professional audio recorder. e h local participant preferred to be in-
terviewed over the phone, so I interviewed him, along with the 10 geo-
graphically distant participants, with Skype.
e Skype application can connect users for an audio or video call
through the Internet, and for a small fee, Skype can even be used to call
telephones, thus allowing researchers to eciently and aordably include
participants from virtually anywhere in the world (Deakin & Wakeeld
2014; Iacono, Symonds & Brown 2016). Skype conversations can also be
easily recorded. I recorded all remote interviews with the Audio Hijack
application by Rogue Amoeba Soware, which has the ability to separate
each side of the conversation onto the le and right channels. I transcribed
all interviews in their entirety with the Express Scribe transcription appli-
cation by NCH Soware, and replaced real names with pseudonyms for
all participants. All data was stored in an Apple Disk Utility encrypted
disk image and backed up to an encrypted thumb drive.
Salient Characteristics of the Participants
Deeply Religious Identities
A       had been deeply devoted
to their religious beliefs, feelings, and practices for many years—devoted
enough to dedicate their lives to their religions. As ministers, their religious
convictions formed the core of their personal and social identities. Most
had been religious all their lives, and many had parents or other relatives
in the ministry. Evan, for example, was a h-generation Baptist minister
whose great, great grandparents came to the United States from England
as missionaries to Native Americans. He preached his rst sermon at the
age of 15 and was ordained at18. He recalls how much religion saturated
his identity:
Religion was not something I did, religion was something I was. I mean,
it was the air I breathed and the water I drank. In my home everything
centered around religion. Nothing else mattered. We were taught that
your sole purpose of being here on the Earth is to glorify God. And I’d
never questioned that.
Melissas parents got “baptized in the Holy Spirit” when she was a toddler,
and raised her in a non-denominational Charismatic church where her fa-
ther was the worship pastor. From an early age, she recalls, she had always
“lled leadership voids wherever they were,” leading children’s ministries
in middle and high school. Her vocation in ministry began with a tradi-
tional “calling”:
I believed that I was hearing God’s voice. I believed that that was what
I was called to do, was to lead and speak his truth and speak his words.
And it was conrmed in the fact that people listened, and people fol-
lowed my lead.... I wanted to help people nd God’s will for their lives,
and then help encourage them and equip them on that journey.
Others became actively religious during high school or college. Luke,
for example, had a “conversion experience” at the age of 19, and says that
he was a “Jesus Freak” in the ’70s (complete with “bell bottom jeans” and
playing in a Christian Rock band). Before doubts began to creep into
his mind in 2005, he had spent 15 years as the senior minister at one of
the largest congregations in the United Church of Canada, and was con-
vinced that his religion was the “one true faith”:
To be a spiritual person just was who I was. My faith infused almost every
facet of my life. I couldn’t separate it out and categorize it, and say that
I was spiritual in this area but not in this area. It was just sort of who I
was as a person. It informed everything, from my sense of humor to,
obviously, my activities throughout the day—of course, I was in ministry
so, I mean, it’s my job.
Prior Supernatural Worldviews – Disparate  Frames
Before they stopped believing, their worldviews consisted of supernatural
cognitive frames. Almost all of them had conceived of God, to a greater
or lesser extent, as a supernatural person who was capable of emotions (i.e.,
love, jealousy, anger), who listened to prayers, and who could intervene
in their lives even though he (and it was always a “he”) existed “beyond”
or “outside of ” the natural world. eir  frames, however, were far
from identical. Most of the theologically conservative participants held a
 frame clearly constituted by the image of the Judeo-Christian deity
as described in the Old Testament. Kenneth and Daniel, for example,
were both raised in extremely conservative Christian families. Daniel was
raised Pentecostal, but dried away from its major tenets aer joining a
small “Hipster” church (McCracken 2010) where the pastor encour-
aged him to enroll in a Southern Baptist seminary. Kenneth grew up in
a Southern Baptist megachurch in Mississippi. At age 15, he was the rst
in his family to become deeply involved in the church when a friend in-
vited him to an evangelical youth conference. Even as a teenager, Kenneth
had always been “very passionate about studying the New Testament and
studying the rst-century church.” Both Daniel and Kenneth, along with
others, held many traditional cognitive frames of a personal, supernatural
deity, including the   frame and the   
D: [God was] the creator of the universe, redeemer, person run-
ning the show. Especially at the seminary, I would have dened it as om-
niscient, omnipresent, separate from creation. You know, like, I would
have used all those terms.
K: Well, you know, honestly it meant the traditional, evan-
gelical Christian picture of God, that was singular creator, Trinitarian
Christian theology. I believed God was a father gure. I saw him very
much as a loving, caring person. Denitely as a person. Not just any
person, but a person with whom you’re supposed to have a very deep
and personal intimate relationship.
ose who had been theologically liberal also conceived of God as
a distinct, supernatural being, but the  frame in their minds was
not quite as well-dened or anthropomorphic. Aaron actually did not
believe in the existence of a supernatural deity in his youth, despite the
fact that his father was a prominent, progressive evangelical leader. He
started believing when he had a “conversion experience” in high school.
roughout his years in ministry, he says his “theology kept changing,
and he did not hide that from his followers. Bethany was raised in a lib-
eral Catholic family, with a strongly devout mother. She considered be-
coming a nun, but decided to study theology at a liberal Jesuit seminary,
with plans to become a hospital chaplain. Both Aaron and Bethany used
more amorphous language to describe what might be called the general
  frame:
A: God was all-loing. at was the primary identication. I be-
lieved that there was a personal God who was trying to communicate
directly with me. And I was doing everything I could to open up that
channel of communication, and to hear that voice. Obviously at that
point I was thinking there is this God, who is trying to communicate
with people. I denitely felt there was a God out there.
B: Initially, God was just this loving being that wanted so much
to share his love with humanity, and that we were just bad, because we
continually rejected it, but that God was always calling us to relation-
ship. God never stopped being that separate being.
Cheryl’s  frame was even less clearly dened. She had been raised
in a family that attended a liberal, social justice-oriented congregation in
the United Church of Canada, where she says they never did things like
reciting the Nicene Creed. Although she still thought of God as a being,
in some nebulous way, the  frame she absorbed from her upbringing
bordered on the metaphorical    frame:
Well, I think I had this idea that God was a being. But it was more—
like, we used language like “love,” and the conversation was always about
“God is love” and stu like that. So, like, there were no pictures of God
around my church.
As she grew older, and especially when she attended theological college,
her conception of God became even less substantial; by the time she grad-
uated, she no longer thought of God as an ontologically separate being at
all. Even though the    frame in her mind had become pure
metaphor, the language she used when talking about God still carried
the implication of something separate from, and larger than the natural
world, something like the   frame:
ere was this being which was morphing into a “force,” or a “power,” or
something. Like, I didn’t think of heaven as a place where people went
when they died and where God lived. Right? I would have said that God
was explored as a concept at that time. But I know that I talked to my
children about God. So I do think that I had a sense of a presence that we
could draw on for support and for comfort and stu.
ese are only a few examples of the disparate frames among Christian
believers for what is arguably one of the most foundational concepts of
their religion. We see such a wide swath of contradictory  frames that
it should be readily apparent to any social scientist studying religion that
the simplistic survey question, “Do you believe in God?,” will inevitably
yield essentially meaningless results unless further questions clarify what
the respondent means by “God.” Such frame disparity is not conned to
the “god” concept. As I will examine below, believers from dierent de-
nominations hold disparate frames for the very institutions and activities
that we collectively identify as “religion” and “spirituality.
Gradual Deconersions
Many of the participants said that they had either always entertained
doubts, or had started doubting early on. Several started doubting to the
brink of disbelief as a result of the rigorous course of study they experi-
enced in their seminary training. Others only started doubting later in
their careers. Regardless of when they started doubting, their journeys
away from belief shared many basic features. Doubts crept into their
minds slowly but tenaciously, typically over a period of two to ve years
(sometimes longer), during which they read widely, reected deeply, and
struggled with the conclusions they eventually could no longer avoid:
E: We were taught that your sole purpose of being here on the Earth
is “to glorify God.” And I’d never questioned that. I began to question
when I was in my sophomore year in college. Well, I struggled and strug-
gled, talked to dierent professors, tried to talk to my father, tried to talk
to other ministers, and I didn’t get good answers.
In addition, some of those who had been theologically conservative de-
scribed emotional turmoil during the process:
P: My belief in God and Christ was all wrapped in a great deal of fear.
And so when I was challenged, like, I was terried. Because I realized my
theology was kind of like a Jenga block tower—that all it would take was
one of the more important blocks to be taken out, and the whole thing
could come crumbling down. And I was really in a cold sweat, terried
over that.
e long journey out of supernatural religious beliefs, for all 15 par-
ticipants, involved a great deal of reading and discussion about theology,
philosophy, and history. Most said that they started learning more about
the physical and life sciences, citing specic physicists, cosmologists, and
biologists who strongly inuenced their worldviews:
J: I started reading Carl Sagan. en I started reading and listening
to all the lectures from Neil deGrass Tyson. en I started reading phi-
losophy. Going back to—I’dnever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance. I started reading Plato. Ijuststarted reading everything I
could get my hands on.
Some—especially those who had been theologically conservative—
said that they began to learn facts about the Bible and the history of
Christianity that they had never been exposed to, facts that contradicted
what they had always been led to believe. Many also began, for the rst
time, to read religious and philosophical authors outside the literature
of their own denominations. Some learned this information in seminary,
others discovered it on their own as they attempted to answer nagging
questions. Over time, they began to notice that certain beliefs no longer
made sense, and that the answers oered by their religions were unsatis-
factory (phrases like “didn’t make sense anymore” and “didnt get good
answers” were common). Eventually, the arguments against their super-
natural worldviews simply began to make more sense. Finally, they came
to realize that they no longer believed that a supernatural deity exists:
B: God never stopped being that separate being. It’s just that,
at one point I realized I was the architect of this deity that I claimed to
worship.... And then, it was just a matter of me then reconciling myself
to this new worldview.
Subsequent Naturalistic Worldviews
Once they realized that they no longer believed in the existence of a super-
natural, personal deity, they quickly came to the conclusion that nothing
supernatural exists:
L: Do I believe that there’s an invisible sky god? No. Do I believe
that there is a force beyond ourselves? You know, right now I’d say no.
I pretty well think this is it. I do not for a moment believe that there
is an external, objective spiritual force that’s acting upon us. I have no
evidence that even suggests that.
When Luke says he does not believe that there is a “force beyond our-
selves,” he is referring specically to the concept of a supernatural force,
not merely a vague notion of “something greater than ourselves.” e
disparate senses of that concept are a common source of confusion.
Christopher Lasch, in his famous work on narcissism, dened God in
the following vague sense: “In religious terms, the revolt against nature
is also a revolt against God—that is, against the reality of our dependence
on forces external to ourseles [emphasis added]” (1978:244). Lasch was
quite possibly echoing Schleiermacher’s assertion that the “feeling of abso-
lute dependence” constitutes the essence of religion ([1930] 1999:12).
Regardless, as Durkheim so painstakingly established, a sense (orfeeling)
of a “force beyond ourselves” need not be conceived in supernatural terms.
Weexperience society itself, aer all, as a force greater than ourselves, upon
which we are absolutely dependent.
Several participants mentioned conversations with former colleagues,
congregants, and friends who deny that they can possibly be content with
life if they really think that no God exists and that no aerlife awaits
them—a view we could call the   frame:
S: In dealing with people, both publicly and privately, it’s a
common thing that Ihave to deal with. Because it’s impossible for some
people to wrap their minds around: “How can your life have meaning
and purpose if there is no God?” And I say, well, all Ican tell you is
that it does, that life in and of itself—because I’m a sentient, thinking,
rational being—does have meaning and purpose.
Fear of losing all meaning and purpose in life without God is a common
theme of Christian apologetics (e.g., Warren 2002; Moreland 2009). Self-
styled “New Age gurus,” such as Deepak Chopra, oen write of the need
for some form of belief in a “higher power,” or “guiding force” that gives
life meaning. Most oen, this view is expressed in terms of “ultimate”
meaning or purpose, not in the temporal sense of meanings that are most
important here and now, but in the teleological sense that there must be
either a deity or some kind of universal guiding force that has a grand
plan for the universe and guides all of life toward some ultimate, precon-
ceived end. As pastor Rick Warren put it: “e purpose of your life ts
into a much larger, cosmic purpose that God has designed for eternity”
(2002:21). Evan refuted that perspective in a calm, reassuring tone:
I’m 81 now, and in all likelihood, maybe another 10, 15, best chance
20 years and I’m history. I don’t think there is any intrinsic, ultimate
meaning to life. I think we create our own meaning. I just think we’re
one hundred percent irrelevant as far as the universe is concerned. But
as far as each other is concerned, we’re not irrelevant. e world, for me,
is meaningful because of meaningful, human relationships, not divine
interventions. And that’s enough for me. It may not be enough for some
people, but it is enough for me, and it gives my life plenty of meaning.
e participants in this study no longer believe that such a deity, force,
power, or disembodied mind exists. And despite the claims of people like
Warren, Moreland, and Vitz, they do not think that such a belief is neces-
sary for a meaningful, worthwhile life.
Aer Leaving the Ministry
Although a few seemed “burnt out” on the ministry by the time they le,
the majority expressed the sentiment that they still feel like ministers and
that they still feel the same concern for deeper social connections and the
desire to serve others:
S: My counselor tells me: “You know, you’re still a preacher. You
just changed the core of your beliefs. You’re still the same person who
wants to help people.
Some even consider what they are doing now as a kind of continuation of
their ministry. Most transitioned to careers with similar characteristics to
what they had been trained to do as ministers. Evan le the ministry at age
32 and earned a PhD in clinical psychology. Daniel had originally planned
on entering the graduate program in family therapy at his seminary until
it lost its accreditation by switching to a strictly “Bible-based” curriculum.
He chose to attend a public university, earned an MA in marriage and
family therapy, and currently works as an independent therapist. Robert
now works for a community development organization that performs
service work in Central America. And James, aer receiving his M.Div.
in counseling psychology from his seminary, went on to earn a PhD in
genetics at a public university and now works in the health, nutrition, and
tness industry as an epigeneticist and sports psychologist.
While Kenneth said that he and another ex-pastor “sometimes joke
about being ‘secular ministers,’” a few actually did go on to create new
“ministries” in one form or another. Aer leaving Christianity, for ex-
ample, Aaron still felt the passion and concern that drove him when he
was a minister. For roughly 30 years, his ministry had been focused on
the cultivation of community in inner-city ghettos. He now channels that
passion in another direction by volunteering as the humanist chaplain at a
university. Hefeels that the need for this kind of community is only going
to increase as more people leave religion:
I think that over the next 25 years, fewer and fewer people are going
to be able to believe in supernatural narratives. And that casts most of
those people out into the world where they will have no community,
where they will feel disconnected. And so, the question that consumes
me the most is: How do I inspire, train, bring together people, to show
them how to build communities that transform people’s lives by creating
an atmosphere in which loving relationships, and a sense of wonder,
and an excitement about making the most of your life is supported and
ey all felt the absence in their lives of the kind of community that reli-
gious institutions provide. Many said that the community and fellowship
was one of the few things they missed from their past vocations, and that
they recognized the need for such community among nonbelievers.
Impediments to Communicating Identity
When claiming social identity labels for ourselves, we attempt to choose
words that we think will successfully communicate something important
about who we are—something that we feel must be communicated if our
identity is to be more fully apprehended by others. When the participants
in this study were ministers, they had a simple, concise identity label that
activated a cognitive frame with a vast range of identity characteristics.
e   frame instantly established a baseline for
what kind of person they were—their basic worldviews, values, concerns,
and so forth—and unmistakably indicated that their values and concerns
were not supercial. Aer abandoning that identity, the participants of
this study encountered diculties as they struggled to construct a new
identity. Aaron, for example, said, “I struggled a great deal with what to
call myself when I rst was done with Christianity.” James expressed the
same frustration quite colorfully:
I’m trying not to identify with labels. And it’s just, what the fuck do you
call yourself? [In a mocking tone:] “I’m a freethinker”? You know, that
sounds like you farted on accident. [Laughter.] Or, “I’m a Bright”? You
know? at sounds like you’re a Smurf! It’s like: What are you?
Eorts to construct new identities are greatly hampered by vagueness and
ambiguity on many levels. In this section I will attempt to identify and
explain the most salient impeding factors that emerged from this data as
the participants dealt with the question: “What do I call myself now?”
Sense Disparity and Frame Disparity
e fact that a word has multiple senses—known in linguistics as “pol-
ysemy”—is not, in and of itself, particularly noteworthy. Most words
have multiple senses, and religious terms are not unique in that respect.
Ordinarily, polysemy involves a word with multiple meanings that are
related within a more or less homogeneous semantic eld. e dierent
senses of “secular,” for example, all refer to some aspect of that which is
not religion (nonbelief, mundane objects, social institutions, politics, etc.).
e intended sense of a word is normally clear from the context in which
the word is used, and we have no need to begin a conversation explicitly
dening our terms. But that is not always the case.
By “sense disparity” Imean a state in which two (or more) sides in
a discourse are using signicantly dierent meanings for the most pivotal
words and phrases within the context of that discourse, resulting in severe
and persistent miscommunication. e two thus continue to “talk past”
one another, either because they do not realize or choose to ignore the fact
that they are referring to dierent things with the same words.
Ihave already discussed the distinction between the gurative and su-
pernatural meanings of religious/spiritual words. We may casually think
of these as related “senses,” but they are actually substantially dierent
meanings. To speak of supernatural beings or forces intervening in your
life is completely dierent from describing a feeling of inner peace or a
personally transformative experience. is disparity regularly impedes the
identity work of nonbelievers. When asked how they would respond if
someone asked them “Are you religious?” or “Are you spiritual?,” many
said that it would depend on what sense the questioner had in mind:
A: I would say, it depends on what you mean by “religious.” If you
mean, “Am I consumed with answering life’s ultimate questions?”, then
I would go like, “Absolutely I’m religious.” And if somebody asked, “Are
you spiritual?”, I would say, “Oh, it depends on what you mean by spiri-
tual.” Because I’m denitely cultivating what I would call a “secular spir-
ituality,”but there’s not a supernatural bone in my body.
T: I would have to ask them what they meant by that. If you’re
talking about values, and the interconnectedness between people, sure.
But if you’re talking about any reality outside the space-time universe,
you know, what science can show, then no.
In other words, if the person asking the question is using “religious” or
spiritual” in a strictly gurative sense (“life’s ultimate questions,” “values,
“interconnectedness”), then they might be willing to accept those identity
labels, at least in that context. But if those words are being used in the
supernatural sense (“a reality outside the space-time universe”), then they
reject them. (In a later section I will raise the question of whether it is
possible to avoid the supernatural sense when identifying as religious or
e extreme ambiguity of the word “spiritual” has become somewhat
notorious among social scientists, who oen lament the ongoing need to
“unfuzzy the fuzzy” boundaries of the ill-dened category (Zinnbauer et
al. 1997). Most of the participants in this study were reluctant to use the
label for that very reason—they feared that it would cause confusion, be-
cause others would most likely have dierent understandings of the word
than they now do. Bethany and Robert, for example, knew their answers
immediately when asked how they respond to the question, “Are you a
spiritual person?”:
B: No. No. I don’t believe in a “spirit,” so how can I believe in
“spirituality”? Ivacillate, but mostly I land on the side of, I think we
need to retire that word, because Ithink it’s just too confusing.
R: I would not identify myself as a “spiritual person.” Ithink it’s
too confusing. Soif I say I’m a spiritual person, people make all kinds
of assumptions based on their perception of that word. I guess for me,
when someone asks what you are, they’re wanting clarity, not ambiguity.
And I think “spiritual” is pretty ambiguous.
Disagreements over the denition and use of the “atheist” identity
label provide an example of how disparate identity and characterization
frames can develop out of sense disparity. Nonbelievers oen argue about
the “true” meanings of identity labels such as “atheist,” “agnostic,” and
“humanist,” and vigorously debate whether to accept or reject them. Evan
expressed a common sense disparity for the “atheist” label, one that is ar-
gued incessantly in comment threads and discussion forums throughout
the Internet:
Atheist”... means somebody who has no belief in a supernatural being.
Sometimes people think that atheists are people who claim, “I know for
certain that there is no supernatural being.” And of course, the reality is,
you can’t prove a negative. So, atheist does not mean somebody who is
100 percent certain. It’s just somebody who has no belief in a supernat-
ural being.
It may seem like an inconsequential semantic distinction, but it is a per-
sistent point of contention between nonbelievers who call themselves
atheists” and nonbelievers who have disdain for that label (and some-
times for the people who use it). Disparate senses of a word, of course,
activate dierent cognitive frames, leading to ame disparity.
By “frame disparity,” I mean a state in which a communicator under-
stands a word or phrase with one cognitive frame, but that same word or
phrase activates a substantially dierent cognitive frame in the receiver. In
the present example, the resulting disparate frames can be determining
factors in the decision to accept or reject the various identity labels avail-
able to nonbelievers. With the rst sense of the “atheist” label, for example,
Evan is describing the common    identity frame for
atheism—a frame held by many who decide to claim the “atheist” label.
e second sense activates a common negative characterization frame
which we might call the    frame. is
frame is oen used by theists to characterize atheists as arrogant know-it-
alls who claim to know something they cannot know with absolute cer-
tainty. Infact, that very characterization frame was one reason Aaron gave
for his complete rejection of the label:
I’ve never used the label of atheist, and never would.... I think for a lot of
people what atheist means is, “I’m absolutely sure there is no God.” And,
you can’t prove a negative. And so, just on a purely intellectual basis, the
best I could be would be “agnostic.
ose two quotes illustrate a common issue for nonbelievers who are
trying to decide how to identify aer abandoning religious belief. Both
Aaron and Evan are nonbelievers (neither believes that a deity exists) and
ontological naturalists (neither believes that anything supernatural ex-
ists). Evidently, they both agree that “you can’t prove a negative.” ey
even both identify with the “humanist” label. Yet one identies with the
atheist” label (with the    identity frame) while the
other rejects that identity label. Aaron rejects the “atheist” label not neces-
sarily because he himself still holds the   
characterization frame, but because he is all too aware of the presence of
that characterization frame in others, and chooses to avoid that identity
label in order to avoid being mischaracterized—that is, to avoid what I
will refer to as an “identity misre.
In the previous example, frame disparity was caused by disparate de-
nitional senses. Frame disparity can also result when individuals have in-
ternalized signicantly dierent cognitive frames early on in life, through
socialization in dierent subcultures or from dierent life experiences.
For example, when James was asked how he viewed atheists when he was
still a Christian, a stereotyping frame instantly activated for him:
Gothic! [Laughter] You know? In a small town, if you were an atheist it
was because you were just mad. You know. “ere are really no atheists.
at’s what you believed in a small town.... ere’s just people who are
upset about the church and about God.
Call it the   frame. James explained how he had be-
lieved that no one ever really disbelieves in the existence of God. In his
understanding at the time, people who claimed to not believe were really
just rebelling against God. In his small town, the “Goth” kids evidently
became the prototype for that characterization frame. e 
 frame was most likely not the identity that the Goth kids in his
hometown had intended to communicate.
Sense Conation and Conated Frames
By “sense conation,” I mean a state in which a word or phrase with signi-
cant sense disparity is regularly used without any indication, from speaker
or context, of which sense is intended, leaving the meaning in a state of
unresolved ambiguity. When the word is used in this state, the multiple
senses activate their respective cognitive frames simultaneously, thus cre-
ating a conated ame in the mind of the receiver. By “conated frame,
Imean a cognitive frame comprised of two or more disparate frames fused
into one, so that the sub-frames are always activated together, and one
sub-frame is dicult to conceive of without the other. Religious terms
are prime examples of sense conation and conated frames. e gura-
tive and supernatural sense is almost always le unspecied, the intended
sense is rarely obvious from the context, and more oen than not, both
senses are intended or assumed. e word or phrase thus remains in an un-
acknowledged ambiguous state, everyone involved in the communication
le to their own interpretations.
roughout her many years as a minister, Cheryl has talked and
written about spirituality and sometimes refers to herself as spiritual. For
some time now, however, she has been conicted about its use. At var-
ious times throughout the interview, she said she does use the term, and at
other times she said she does not use it. Finally, she said that she is starting
to avoid the word:
Because I have come to nd the idea of spirituality intertwined with the
concept of a supernatural being or power, it’s now a troublesome word
for me. I don’t believe in anything that resides or exists in a realm “be-
yond” the natural world.
Why would its association with the concept of a supernatural being or
power make it a “troublesome word” for her? e “intertwining” she re-
fers to is sense conation of the gurative and supernatural senses. It is
troublesome because when she uses the word, she intends for it to be un-
derstood only guratively, but the sense conation prevents that by acti-
vating a conated  frame, and it would take constant vigi-
lance to keep only the   sub-frame activated
without the   sub-frame creeping into
one’s thoughts.
If we identify with the “spiritual” label, we cannot control whether
or not the   frame will be activated along
with the   frame. at seems to be the sticking
point for many nonbelievers who might otherwise accept the label. When
the phrase “I’m spiritual” is spoken with no qualication, a conated ame
is activated: aconated  frame comprised of both the -
  and the   frames, fused
into one. As Fillmore (1976) and Lako explained, a cognitive frame is an
entire package of beliefs, images, impressions, and other frames, all acti-
vated together as a single unit. us, when the conated  frame
is activated, both sub-frames are inevitably activated as one, so that the
person automatically understands the word in both gurative terms and
supernatural terms simultaneously. As we will see below, other religious
terms suer from this same sense conation, and the continuous use of
those words without qualication has resulted in conated frames that are
dicult or impossible to separate.
Identity Misre
By “identity misre,” I mean the result of a frame disparity between the
communicator’s identity frame and the receiver’s characterization frame,
which leaves the receiver with a signicant misapprehension of the com-
municator’s identity. An identity misre occurs when an identity label
activates characterization frames in others which dier in a signicant
way from the identity frame the label was intending to communicate. An
identity misre can be either detrimental or benign. e former could po-
tentially result in a tainted or stigmatized identity. e latter could have
no eect at all, or it could lead to an embarrassing, humorous, or even
reputable identity, but an erroneous identity nonetheless.
I asked all participants if there was anyone with whom they would not
use the “atheist” identity label. Bethany was one of the few who said no:
[Without hesitation] No. I mean, I’ve used that term to dene myself in
media and at conferences. And I think it’s an important term to use, es-
pecially in light of the legislation in Ontario, that atheism is considered
a “creed.”
Bethany lives in Canada where (as others from Canada conrmed) she
says she never feels any social stigma for identifying as an atheist:
I’m an atheist. It’s just not an issue. Most Canadians won’t say to you,
“Oh, you’re a heartless, horrible devil that is set on the destruction of the
universe.” Most Canadians won’t say that. My mother will. But nobody
else I know would [laughter].
In her social context, using the “atheist” identity label does not activate
negative characterization frames in others and so does not result in an
identity misre. On the whole, for those who had been theologically
liberal, identity misre was minimal, with little to no consequences. For
those who had been theologically conservative, however, the identity mis-
re was oen extreme and the consequences severe. Loss of friends, loss
of job, divorce, bitter confrontations with family, and estrangement from
children were not uncommon.
Aer Evan had le the ministry and started graduate school, his wife
thought that his lack of enthusiasm for religious observance was just a
phase. Eventually, she came to realize that he was not going back:
Aer I had nished my degree and was teaching, and she realized that
not only was I not going to church then, but that I wasn’t ever going to
go back to church, that just, tragically, ended the marriage. She said she
couldn’t put up with that.
His parents died just prior to 2000, having convinced themselves that he
was “really still a Christian,” but that he “just didnt still use the language.”
His siblings, however, were another matter:
I have a brother and sister who are still devoted Baptists and they have
decided to break o all contact with me once my book came out.
at was over six years ago, and he has had no contact with them since.
Note that Evan had stopped believing and le the ministry almost 50
years ago, so his siblings had known that he was a nonbeliever for almost
45 years, but had not cut o all contact with him until he published a
book about his nonbelief. Evan did not elaborate any further on that rela-
tionship. I can only hypothesize that proclaiming his nonbelief in such a
public way must have amplied the stigma of it, and that was simply too
much for them.
Identity misre is not limited to discredited, tainted, or stigmatized
identities; it can occur for those who communicate an identity frame that
is normative or reputable. Ifsomeone says, “I’m a Christian,” for example,
that label may very well activate something like the intended 
 frame for most people (possibly evoking images of food
pantries, childrens homes, a Father Knows Best family life, and the like),
but for some people it may activate the -  frame
(perhaps evoking images from the 1960s of white Christians shouting and
kicking black people attempting to sit at a public diner). Fiy years ago,
the   frame in most people’s minds did not evoke the
 frame along with it. Today, it oen does. For most people, the
  frame would evoke an image of a benevolent, self-
less man caring for the needs of his “ock,” but for others it might evoke
images of televangelists and faith healers getting rich o gullible people
willing to send huge sums of money (which could be considered instances
of the more general -  frame).
e resulting misidentication can dier from one person to the next,
depending on the connotations each person associates with the identity
label. e communicator may use a label that is usually normative or rep-
utable and be unaware that the label activates inaccurate characterization
frames in the receiver. Consider someone who identies as a “spiritual
person.” At a minimum, their   identity frame would
contain some subset of the characteristics from the gurative sense of the
word. ey may hold the    frame, for example, or
the - frame. When they communicate that iden-
tity, they might intend for the receiver to think of them as a conscientious
person who cares about the welfare of others, who always strives to be a
better person, and who is deeply concerned with the things that matter
most in life. If, however, this person had said, “I’m a spiritual person,” to
Paul or James in the early days of their ministry careers, that phrase would
have activated the   characterization frame:
P: “Spiritual,” when I was going through seminary and so on, to me
it had negative connotations, because in the Pentecostal church “spir-
itual” (or “mysticism,” or “contemplation,” things like that) was a very
negative thing—even demonic.
J: Our spirituality was that we had a relationship with the only
one, true God, and there’s nothing outside of that. And if you found
yourself being spiritual outside of God, then that was evil. at’s not
spirituality, that’s demonic. ... Anything outside of Christianity. If you
believed that you were spiritual in any form,... you believed it was true
because you were being manipulated by demons.
Hence, in their relationships with Paul or James, identifying as a “spiri-
tual person” would result in a stigmatized identity—a detrimental identity
If, on the other hand, this hypothetical person had said to Cheryl,
“I’m a spiritual person,” a very dierent characterization frame would be
activated in Cheryl’s mind:
When I engage with people who identify as “spiritual people,” I oen
want to gag, because they’re engaged in these self-centered, self-fulll-
ment practices which are all about them having some kind of “spiri-
tual high.” Right? ey’re not about engaging people. So this myopic
self-fulllment stu, which “spiritual practices” oen are, I [nd] little
meaning in that.
For Cheryl, the phrase “spiritual person” activates the -
  frame—a frame examined in detail by Edwin Schur
in his 1976 study of the Human Potential Movement, which he charac-
terized as “a clear invitation to self-absorption” (1976:4). Hence, in their
relationship with Cheryl, their identity would certainly be far from what
they intended to communicate, but would not be considered “stigma-
tized”—perhaps merely discrediting. In both cases, the identity frame that
the person had intended to communicate with the “spiritual person” label
missed its mark entirely, activated an undesirable characterization frame,
and resulted in an erroneous understanding of the persons identity. e
rst resulted in a stigmatized identity, the second resulted in what Iwill
call a “foiled identity.
Foiled Identity
When an identity misre is benign, Iam using the term “foiled identity”
in contradistinction to Goman’s “spoiled identity”—another term he
coined for a stigmatized identity. A foiled identity is not tainted or stig-
matized, but it is fundamentally erroneous. e foiled identity may be con-
sidered inconsequential, and thus be of no concern, or it may be considered
objectionable (and thus undesirable) to the person whose identity has been
foiled. Cheryl, for example, had frequent experiences of the kind so oen
described by mystics—adissolving in the mind of the boundary between
where youend and everything that is notyou begins. When she told a col-
league about these experiences, he put an identity label on her that she
considered objectionable:
Marcus and I did a week-long conference together,... and I shared [my
experiences], and he said, “Oh, you’re a mystic.”... He labeled me as a
“mystic” at that conference. Which really bothered me.... And I’m like,
don’t give me that label. I don’t want that label.... Because to me, that’s
like a hierarchy of special super-spiritual people. Right? Ihave an ex-
perience that is very similar to an experience he has had.... But his was
an experience of “God.Mine was something happening in my fucking
brain. Right? Like, it was not an experience of God. I never even thought
of it as an experience of God, even when I was an adolescent.
Being labeled a “mystic” would not have been discrediting or stigmatizing
in the context of a religion and spirituality conference. On the contrary, to
the religious audience she was speaking to, identifying as a mystic would
have been highly reputable. Nonetheless, Cheryl was angry that her col-
league had imposed that identity upon her against her will.
Aside from Aaron and Paul, all other participants said that they gen-
erally avoid identifying as either religious or spiritual. Robert explained
his uneasiness with the “spiritual” label:
I’m nervous about using “spiritual” because it oen still implies the
supernatural. Most of the time, when I really dig into what somebody
means by spiritual, what it really means is: “I still believe all these reli-
gious things, I just don’t like the church very much”—people whose core
beliefs may not have shied very much, but who for whatever reasons
are fed up with the institutional church, or institutional religion.
e type of people he is referring to are those who now typically identify
as “spiritual but not religious.” Considering that most of the participants
in this study oen do and say things that would be considered spiritual in
the gurative sense, the “spiritual but not religious” identity would seem
like a natural t. Not one of the participants, however, claims that iden-
tity. Robertchooses to reject it because he does not want others to assume
that he “still believes all those religious things” (i.e., supernatural things).
Kenneth has a problem with it because, as a category, he thinks that it is
too broad, and he does not want to be “lumped” into the same category
with believers:
When large polling groups, like PRRI or Pew, try to do studies to iden-
tify where people are on the belief spectrum, when they use terms like
“spiritual but not religious,” you know, if you dene that as people who
are interested in ultimate questions, now you’ve got a huge lump of
people being thrown in to the same group as other people who are the-
ists, but just don’t like church. And that’s a problem. You know? We need
more precise metrics than that.
If Robert Fuller’s gurative denition was the only one with which
the word “spiritual” was understood—that is, if the only meaning of that
word was, essentially, the opposite of supercial—the participants of this
study could easily identify with it. Iasked Kenneth if he could identify as
spiritual using Fuller’s denition:
Um, I would proisionally agree with him. And what I mean by that is
that, ifwhat he means is that I’m interested in those ultimate questions,
then I agree with him. I think my only hang up is that that word is used
in such specic ways where I’m from, that I would want to make sure the
word’s not miscommunicating.
Why be concerned with such a seemingly inconsequential miscommu-
nication of identity, especially when identifying as spiritual but not re-
ligious would allow them to avoid the stigma of their nonbelief? ey
could easily use the words “God” and “spiritual” in the gurative sense,
and not worry about the fact that the receiver might assume the supernat-
ural sense as well. None of the participants considered that option accept-
able, because none of them wanted anyone to think that they still believe
in anything supernatural. Avoiding the foiled identity of “supernaturalist”
is important enough to them that they are willing to risk the tainted or
stigmatized identity of a nonbeliever rather than be identied as some-
thing they are not, no matter how reputable:
W: I would not identify as being spiritual, just because of the
connotations that that word has. Spiritual in the sense of believing in
some kind of “spiritual reality” apart from the natural reality—“life aer
death,” having a “soul” that lives on aer the death of the body, stu like
K: For many people where Iam, they believe that “spirit” refers
to a second layer of reality—like, you know, an additional layer of meta-
physical existence that coincides with the physical. And I don’t believe
that that is a real thing. So my one hang up about the word “spiritual” is
that I don’t actually think that “spirits” are real things, and so I get a little
bit uncomfortable with the word for that reason.
Although all the participants share most of the characteristics asso-
ciated with the   frame, they do not wish to
be aliated with any of the worldviews that the  -
 frame implies. In other words, they want to avoid an identity
misre that would lead to a foiled identity. Confusion is dicult to avoid
when the word “spiritual” is rarely, if ever, qualied to indicate whether the
gurative or supernatural sense is intended. And the situation seems to be
no better in scholarly discourse than in common parlance. Instead, even
in the scientic study of religion, the word is almost always used without
clearly indicating which sense is intended, the two senses are thus conated
in the single word so that it activates both cognitive frames.
Forms of Oppositional Identity Work
I turn now to combining the gestalt theoretical framework woven together
in Chapter III with the theoretical concepts explicated above, and ap-
plying them to the analysis of oppressive and oppositional identity work.
It must be said at the outset, however, that when discussing “oppressive
identity work,” I do not mean to imply that all (nor even most) Christians
consciously or actively engage in oppressive identity work against nonbe-
lievers. Nor am I implying that all or most Christians overtly agree with the
negative characterization frames. As we saw in a previous section, several
of the participants in this study had not internalized those frames, because
they had friends in their past who identied as atheists or nonbelievers.
As Entman explained, however, frames can be located in the culture
as well as individuals, and Christians can be the receivers of those frames
through many channels—books, magazines, radio, television, movies,
church pulpits, and of course Internet websites and podcasts. ese neg-
ative cultural characterization frames against nonbelievers are generated
not only by extremists such as Pat Robertson, Ray Comfort, and Dinesh
D’Souza, but also by ministers from the pulpits, by journalists such as Cal
omas and Ross Douthat, and by professional scholars and public intel-
lectuals such as J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, and Paul Johnson.
e proliferation of such frames produced from the backlash against the
New Atheists alone would make an interesting study in and of itself.
If an individual’s stigmatized attribute is not readily apparent, he or
she must deal with how to manage the public information about that at-
tribute. Societies such as the United States are saturated with these neg-
ative characterization frames of nonbelievers. In such societies, all non-
believers—regardless of which self-identity labels they choose to accept
or reject privately—must decide whether or not to make their nonbelief
publicly known. As Goman put it: “To display or not to display; to tell
or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case,
to whom, how, when, and where” (1963:42). e easiest way to avoid the
consequences of a stigmatized identity is, of course, to avoid the identity
altogether through concealment—i.e., to stay “in the closet.” Kelly Church-
Hearl dierentiated between two types of concealment as strategies of
private oppositional identity work: avoiding all labels (2008:54) or just
staying silent/closeted (2008:57) with regard to the labels that reveal their
nonbelief. All of her participants “indicated that they are, to some degree,
‘in the closet’ when it comes to their personal beliefs about spirituality”
(2008:57) and that those two strategies allow them to pass as Christian—
or at least as participating in the American “civil religion.”
When operating in this way, completely within the private sphere,
concealment can be considered the most basic form of oppositional iden-
tity work. A nonbeliever can go his or her entire life without ever publicly
discussing the topic of belief in the existence of God or the supernatural.
Just how many nonbelievers choose “not to let on” is, for obvious rea-
sons, extremely dicult, if not impossible, to measure. Nonbelievers who
choose concealment, however, are not my concern in the present study. All
the participants of this study are “out of the closet” as nonbelievers, and
so are all engaged in one or many types of oppositional identity work in
the public sphere. Oppressive identity work is directed, either deliberately
or unconsciously, toward engendering a foiled identity at best, or a fully
stigmatized identity at worst. Oppositional identity work is deliberately
directed toward alleviating foiled, tainted, and/or stigmatized identity.
Below, I identify and examine four types of oppositional identity work
that emerged from my interview data.
Avoidance Identity Work
Avoiding tainted or stigmatized labels is a simple and straight forward
strategy for dealing with the negative characterization frames wrought
by cultural oppressive identity work. e modus operandi of avoidance
identity work is simply to avoid those specic identity labels that are most
likely to activate negative characterization frames in others, resulting in an
identity misre. Most participants in this study are open about their non-
belief, but avoid the “atheist” label when possible, and do not generally
consider it their primary identity. Instead, they typically use labels such as
“freethinker,” “secularist,” “agnostic,” or “humanist.” While they prefer not
to identify themselves as atheists in public, most said they would answer
“yes” if someone asked them directly. e following statements are typical
of their ambivalence toward, and general avoidance of, the “atheist” label:
K: I mean, I’m willing to embrace the word atheist, because it
is a correct statement: I do, in fact, not believe in any gods. It’s just that
it’s such a limited term. Iwould only embrace it if there’s only one single
point I’m trying to make.
L: Well, I’m reluctant to use the word at all. I do describe myself as
an “atheist” even though I have diculties with that.... If someone says,
Are you an atheist?” I’ll say, “Yeah, I am.” But I’m hesitant to even de-
scribe myself as an atheist publicly because of the negative connotations,
the arbitrariness of it. ere’s something about the word I don’t like.
A,    that “there’s not a supernatural bone
in my body,” was the only participant who completely rejects the “atheist”
label. When asked if he considers himself an atheist now, he answered
without hesitation: “I’ve never used the label of atheist, and never would.
Asked to clarify his reluctance, his response revealed a common dilemma
ex-Christians face when attempting to construct a new identity:
I struggled a great deal with what to call myself when I rst was done
with Christianity. Because “atheist,” to many people simply means “an-
ti-theist.” It means that you actively are trying to undermine other peo-
ple’s faith and the idea of faith. And, I’m absolutely not trying to do that.
Like, if people are happily believing in God, I’m happy to let them do
that. And so, I’m not an anti-theist.
Like all nonbelievers, when deliberating upon which identity labels to
apply to himself, Aaron had to take into consideration any possible neg-
ative characterization frames associated with the “atheist” label—in this
case the -  frame—and decide whether or not he
can accept being saddled with those characterizations.
Considering that Aaron now volunteers as a humanist chaplain at a
university, his reluctance is understandable. Avoiding the negative char-
acterization frames associated with the “atheist” label is particularly im-
portant for him as he tries to build community for nonbelievers at the uni-
versity. In such a position, he must be approachable. Anything that would
put up barriers between him and the people who need that community
would work against his eorts. If people at his university constantly re-
ferred to him as “the atheist chaplain,” young students coming into the
university with strong negative characterization frames about atheists
could easily be put o by the label. e “humanist” label does not activate
nearly as many negative characterization frames as “atheist,” so he chooses
to use it as his primary identity.
Aaron’s rejection of the “atheist” label is not an attempt at complete
concealment of his nonbelief. He is, in fact, very open about the fact that
he no longer believes in anything supernatural, and he discusses it reg-
ularly in his humanist campus ministry and on a podcast he produces.
So he is not avoiding the general stigma of nonbelief. Rather, he knows
that the “atheist” label will activate the worst of the negative characteri-
zation frames in many people, so he chooses to not use that label at all in
an attempt to avoid the identity misre that would lead to a stigmatized
Dissonant Identity Work
Some individuals approach oppositional identity work from the other
direction; they not only accept the tainted identity labels, they openly ex-
press them in a deliberate attempt to lessen their stigmatizing power. I
will refer to this form of oppositional identity work as dissonant identity
work. e modus operandi of dissonant identity work is to induce cognitive
dissonance within the oppressive characterization framework by placing
into public view individuals whose characteristics starkly contradict the
negative characterization frames associated with the tainted identity. e
concept of cognitive dissonance refers to the unpleasant state of mental
tension that occurs when a new “cognition” (belief, image, attitude, judge-
ment, etc.) contradicts a cognition already well-established in a person’s
mind. When such a state arises, he or she is compelled to nd a way to
relieve that tension (Cooper 2007; Aronson 2008). As we saw in Chapter
III, beliefs, images, attitudes, and judgements are the constituents of cog-
nitive frames. So to describe cognitive dissonance in terms of framing:
cognitive dissonance occurs because thehuman mind rebels against the
presence of contradictory cognitive frames. ose contradictory exam-
ples force those within the oppressive framework to become cognizant of
the gaping frame disparity between their characterization frames and the
identity frames of those who openly identify with those labels.
In a culture saturated with supernaturalist cognitive frames, anyone
publicly communicating nonbelief in the supernatural is engaged in dis-
sonant identity work to some extent. All the participants of this study,
for example, came out of the closet as nonbelievers (if not “atheists”), not
only to their friends and families, but in the public sphere, through blogs,
podcasts, letters to the editor, and through newspaper, magazine, radio,
and television interviews. Many even published books detailing their de-
conversion stories. Bydoing so, they challenged the established character-
ization frames about nonbelievers, exposing those frames as erroneous by
oering themselves as living counter-examples, despite the backlash from
those who would defend the challenged characterization frames.
C      for over 15 years. e
members of her church were well aware of her naturalistic worldview, and
she says that the vast majority shared in that view. Nor did she hide her
views from her colleagues, many of whom, she says, are naturalists as well.
Since she was ordained in 1993, no one in the leadership or higher courts
of the denomination concerned themselves with what she or her congre-
gation believed—until, that is, Cheryl decided to call herself an “atheist.”
As it turns out, living in Canada confers no guaranteed immunity against
a tainted identity:
It was in 2013. We were doing an “Interview an Atheist at Church Day,
and we had the executive director of the Clergy Project coming, and she
was going to be interviewed by me. And then the situation in Bangladesh
became world news. One author had been murdered and four bloggers
were subsequently arrested. And at the same time there was a pianist
in Turkey that had been sentenced to 10 months in prison for being
an atheist. So, I went to my board and talked to them about also being
interviewed as an atheist, and taking that label on. Because clearly I was
one, and I’d been called that publicly. But I had never identied myself
as an atheist.
On February 15, 2013, a secular blogger named Ahmed Rajib Haider
was brutally mutilated and murdered in front of his home in Dhaka,
Bangladesh for insulting Islam (Chalmers 2013). en, in early April,
2013, four secular bloggers in Bangladesh were arrested for “hurting reli-
gious sentiments” (Winston 2013). And on April 15, 2013, international
pianist and composer Fazil Say was given a 10-month suspended sentence
for blasphemy by a court in Istanbul (Arsu 2013). Cheryl had always had a
very strong sense of social justice, and cited that as one of the main reasons
she became a minister. ese and other atrocities against nonbelievers
stirred her to reect upon why, aer all these years as a nonbeliever, she
had avoided publicly identifying with the “atheist” label.
e question of what identity label best represented her position on
theistic beliefs had been a recurring dilemma, and her story provides a
prime example of the felt need to avoid the tainted label:
When I wrote my rst book I know I certainly didn’t believe in a super-
natural being with interventionist powers. I identied as a “nontheist” in
that book. en, subsequent to that, I realized that a number of my col-
leagues also identied as “nontheist,” but they still had this sense of the
supernatural. So, I didn’t want to call myself a nontheist in my second
book. I didn’t actually identify as an atheist personally till probably right
when my rst book was published. Shortly aer that was when I realized
that the term “nontheist” was not working and that “atheist” would have
to be the next term. But I didn’t want to use that in my second book, so I
identied as a “theological nonrealist”—which is all verbal calisthenics,
Asked why she had decided against “atheist” and invented a euphemism
instead, she simply acknowledged: “I think I anticipated exactly what’s
happened.” Despite her social status as the minister of a thriving congre-
gation, despite all that she had done for her community, and despite ev-
erything she had written and spoken, she knew that publicly claiming the
atheist” label could (even in Canada) lead certain people to disregard all
of it and to question her worthiness as a minister.
Eventually, her sense of social justice, agitated by the events in
Bangladesh and many others like it in other countries, was enough to over-
come her hesitancy. As a deliberate act of oppositional identity work, she
decided to publicly identify as an atheist:
It was an act. I mean, my church taught me how to stand in solidarity
with people. And so, when I did that, that’s exactly what I was doing.
ere are a lot of derogatory characteristics that are put onto the word
“atheist.” None of those bloggers identied as atheist. ey identied
as secular, and the word atheist was attached to them in order to incite
Her choice to adopt the “atheist” label is a paradigmatic case of opposi-
tional identity work. As mentioned above, the atheist identity is mired
by a great many negative characterization frames, which are reinforced
through many cultural communication channels. Cheryl’s story high-
lights the fact that oppositional identity work can either operate within
the private sphere, staying in the closet as a personal defense mechanism
against a stigmatized identity, or it can operate within the public sphere as
a form of social justice for all who are aected by the stigmatized identity.
Although she had been open about the discredited and potentially
tainted identity of general nonbelief, she had avoided the heavily stigma-
tized “atheist” identity simply by not using that label publicly. She knew,
as a matter of denition, that she was an atheist, meaning only that she did
not believe in the existence of a supernatural, personal deity (asshe put
it: “clearly I was one”). Up to that point she had engaged only in private
oppositional identity work in relation to that particular identity, avoiding
the label so that the oppressive identity work within the culture would not
aect her. In this way she could safely stand outside of its path and avoid
the gaze of those who—consciously or unconsciously—perpetuate that
By publicly identifying as an atheist, she chose to engage in opposi-
tional identity work in the wider public sphere. Stepping into its path, she
immediately felt the gaze of those who perpetuate the oppressive identity
work against atheists. Many people were not happy about such a prom-
inent minister identifying with such a tainted label. As she so noncha-
lantly put it: “So, yeah. My denomination was very upset.” A few ministers
within her denomination started speaking out against her. Others made
attempts to instigate hearings in the higher courts of the church to deter-
mine whether her beliefs were “in essential agreement” with the denomi-
nations ocial articles of faith.
Cheryl says that most of her colleagues hold a conception of God
based on the more impersonal   or  
frames, and that many others share her purely metaphorical view. Despite
the fact that they too do not think of God as a personal, supernatural
deity, many of them still held the negative characterization frames toward
the “atheist” label itself, which they absorbed from their culture:
When my church joined the Oasis Network, one of my colleagues sent
an email out telling everyone that we had joined an organization “that is
trying to kill church, and prevent conversation about God in the public
realm.” Well, that’s complete crap. So I’ve been quite frustrated with my
colleagues, who would never assume that Muslim meant terrorist, but
they assume that atheist means religion-hater. And that’s a problem. And
they don’t see that as an issue. ey don’t see the similarity there.
e identity frames exhibited by Cheryl profoundly conicted with the
characterization frames of her opponents. e   and
-  frames led them to believe that all atheists
are “angry at God” and want to destroy religion, yet here was a promi-
nent minister, obviously not against religion, identifying as an atheist.
e  frame evokes an image of atheists living mis-
erable lives of moral depravity, yet here was a minister living a reasonably
happy life and deeply engaged with moral concerns. e  frame
evokes an image of atheists aimlessly wandering through meaningless lives
with no sense of value, purpose, or self-worth, yet here was a minister with
a clear sense of meaning, value, and purpose.
Because the mind rebels against contradictory frames, it is compelled
to nd a way to relieve cognitive dissonance. In the situation at hand,
one option would be to deny the opposing identity frames and reassert
the negative characterization frames in an attempt to reinforce them.
InCheryl’s case, that meant (1)accusations that she is really against reli-
gion (despite the fact that she remained the pastor of a congregation), and
(2)judgements that she is no longer worthy of being a minister. Another
option, however, would be to call into question the accuracy of those neg-
ative characterization frames, and to re-evaluate the stigmatized status of
the tainted identity. Dissonant identity work aims for the latter.
is type of oppositional identity work is not uncommon. For
example, in an attempt to counteract the negative characterizations
of Mormons during Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run, the LDS
Church used dissonant identity work in their “I’m a Mormon” adver-
tising campaign (Goodstein 2011). Similarly, Richard Dawkins’ “OUT
Campaign” (MacAskill 2007) and Todd Steifel’s “Openly Secular” cam-
paign (Dawkins & Blumner 2014) both attempted to counteract negative
characterizations of nonbelievers—the former with the “atheist” label, the
latter with the “secularist” label. Some evidence does point to the veracity
of such eorts to raise awareness in the general public of the prevalence of
nonbelievers. Using longitudinal data from the World Values Survey, Will
Gervais found that in most societies, perceived “atheist prevalence was
negatively related to anti-atheist prejudice” (2011:546). rough two of
his own social psychological experiments, he then found that anti-atheist
prejudice was reduced among those with a higher perception of the prev-
alence of atheists in society (2011:549). Colin Koproske, too, found that
acceptance of [nonbelievers] will rely on Americans’ exposure to atheists
and their opinions” (2006:49).
It remains to be seen, however, whether the extreme stigma of the
atheist” label can ever be overcome. e higher courts of her denomina-
tion did eventually hold hearings, and for several months aer our inter-
view Cheryl was ocially “on review” to determine whether she should
be allowed to remain a member of its clergy. Subsequently, the Review
Committee delivered their verdict that they consider her to be “unsuitable
for ministry” in the United Church of Canada. She wrote the following
aer that nal meeting with the Review Committee: “As a ‘nontheist,
I was no threat. As a ‘theological non-realist,’ Iwas probably misunder-
stood. But as an ‘atheist’? How could that be tolerated?” e identity la-
bels we choose really do make a dierence in the cognitive frames evoked
by those labels in others.
Adaptive Identity Work
We saw above how the act of publicly communicating a stigmatized iden-
tity label can operate as a form of public sphere oppositional identity
work by challenging the dominant characterization frames in an attempt
to destigmatize the identity. Conversely, we saw that avoiding specic
tainted labels can operate as a form of private sphere oppositional identity
work, to safeguard an individual against the stigmatized identity. When
someone who is already out as a nonbeliever wishes to avoid a stigmatized
label such as “atheist,” other identity labels must be found to counteract
the generally tainted status of nonbelief. Aaron and Paul chose an option
that we might call adaptive identity work. Its modus operandi is to adapt
the meanings of the dominant identity labels by attempting to modify
the cognitive frames that they evoke. Some of the participants—primarily
Aaron and Paul—are attempting to reame the “religious” and “spiritual”
identity frames by redening them in such broad senses that they can
apply to nonbelievers as well:
A: Religion to me, and at my university, is not a particular set of
beliefs. Religion is the pursuit of answers to life’s ultimate questions.
And so, I work at the Oce of Religious Life, and I’m happy to be there.
Because I’m trying to answer life’s ultimate questions too. I simply an-
swer those questions within the realm of the natural world.
P: For me, spiritual is a persons inner life that we nurture as we
struggle to understand mystery, and ourselves, and one another.
is may seem like a copout, as if they are taking the easy way out by
capitulating to the dominant culture’s identity frames. In fact, one fac-
tion within the online atheist community roundly scorns nonbelievers
who choose this option, derisively labeling them “accommodationists.
Adaptive identity work, however, can be anything but easy.
Both dissonant and adaptive identity work operate by attempting to
change conceptual frames within the dominant cultural framework. e
dissonant identity work that Cheryl eventually took upon herself is an
attempt to change the tainted characterization ames in the dominant cul-
ture. Conversely, adaptive identity work is an attempt to change the repu-
table identity ames of the dominant culture. Recall, however, that social
scientists who research intractable conict mediation (e.g., Campbell &
Docherty2004; Shmueli et al. 2006) have found that identity frames are
far more dicult to change than characterization frames. It could be said,
then, that although avoiding the stigmatized identity labels may make it
easier to endure, adaptive identity work of this kind is far more dicult—
if not impossible—to accomplish.
ose who attempt adaptive identity work encounter two intermi-
nable diculties, both arising from the extreme frame disparity between
the established cultural frames and the new frames they are trying to es-
tablish in their place. First, because the labels already have well-established
meanings, the communicators must always qualify them by including a
caveat of some sort to explain their alternative meanings and avoid misin-
terpretation and identity misre:
A: I don’t like it that “religion” and “spirituality” get associated ex-
clusively with supernaturalism. So, all of those things, you kind of have
to throw the word “secular” in front of them, or else, at this stage in the
game, you’re gonna confuse people.
B: I do use the word “transcendent,” but I always give kind of a
disclaimer when I use it. So it’s always “like” transcendence. You know,
that sort of thing.
C: I use the word “sacred.” It’s one of the words I use regularly.
But I dene it every time I use it. So I say, “by which I mean something
that is too important, or crucial, or central to our human experience for
us to degrade it, or deny it, or risk losing it.
Whenever a nonbeliever is using religious/spiritual language, “the caveat”
is sure to appear at some point, in an attempt to avoid a foiled identity.
Second, despite the caveat, they cannot completely avoid misinterpreta-
tion and identity misre. Within their own communities they may reach
a point at which they no longer need to qualify and explain their mean-
ings. But when they use such language outside the communities, frame
disparity inevitably leads to identity misre. Cheryl noted that the people
in her congregation experience this problem when they use words like “sa-
cred” with people outside the congregation:
at’s how I’ve nurtured the use of “sacred” in my congregation. But I
don’t know that they notice me giving them a denition every single
time I use the word. Sothey might use that word outside of the congre-
gation and have it misinterpreted. So if someone misunderstood them,
and said, “But I didn’t think you believed in things coming from God,
they’d say, “But I don’t. at’s not what I mean by ‘sacred.’”
P’     as a stand-alone case study of the
pitfalls encountered in adaptive identity work, caused by the discouraging
confusion of these despairingly ambiguous labels. His answers to my ques-
tions reveal the kind of continuous inner conict caused by the frame dis-
parity of such primary identity labels as “religious” and “spiritual.” Within
a year aer leaving Christianity, Paul noticed what Aaron had predicted:
many of his readers, aer leaving their religions, found themselves “cast
out into the world,” feeling disconnected, with no community. Before
long, he found himself lling the role of a minister once again:
I launched my website as a site where I could provide my resources to
help people through spiritual transition. Instead, what happened was
that a community startedto form.
esizeable readership of his blog had followed him through the years, as
he chronicled his journey out of Christianity. Some had traveled that road
with him, interacting through comment posts on his blog. Others, who
had either already le or were in the midst of leaving Christianity, came to
his site seeking support for their own journeys.
By 2012, Paul decided this community had outgrown his personal
website and needed to stand on its own. He created a separate site that
could more eectively facilitate community-building, and thus began his
new “online congregation”:
My online community provides a safe place for people to achieve their
own spiritual freedom and independence. I say it’s about “spiritual inde-
pendence” because I want people to nd their own way of being spiri-
tual, whether they’re in the church or out. It’s to be able to choose, and
walk, and live out their own spiritual paths. ere’s over 200 members at
this point. It’s just online, so people from all over.
e members hold a wide variety of worldviews and identities. Some use
the religious/ spiritual language, others prefer to avoid it. Some reject la-
bels such as “atheist” or “secular,” others embrace them. His role in this
new ministry is more as a facilitator than a preacher. ecommunity it-
self is based on the exploration of ideas and beliefs rather than adherence
to doctrines, and Paul explores along with them rather than preaching to
them, encouraging them to come to their own, independent conclusions.
As he likes to describe it: “We all eat at the same table but we like dierent
things.” e few guidelines (“table etiquette”) include the following: have
respect for “the inherent worth and dignity of every person;” treat all
members “with respect, compassion, equality, and dignity;” do not make
assumptions about the beliefs or opinions of others—listen before you
speak; and encourage all members in a “free and responsible search for
truth and meaning.
Paul recognizes that each member of his community brings a dierent
meaning to the table for words such as “religious” and “spiritual,” and that
the disparity in meaning can be a signicant source of communication
breakdown. Truth be told, he says, he prefers to not use those labels at all.
Such extensive ambiguity, he admits, leaves him wondering what anyone
really means when they describe themselves as “spiritual”:
“Spiritual,now, can mean anything from yoga to crystals to the Spaghetti
Monster to you name it. When somebody says they’re “spiritual,” I have
no idea what they mean. I have absolutely no idea. And the same when
somebody says they’re “religious.” I don’t know what they mean by that.
Do they mean that they have a liturgical cycle in their life? Or do they
meditate in front of a candle? ere’s just all kinds of baggage with it
now. at’s why I try not to use those words.
Several other participants expressed the same desire to avoid all identity
labels, along with the reluctant acknowledgement that they cannot be
avoided. Note that, although he says that he tries not to use these terms, he
used the word “spiritual” four times in the description of his online com-
munity quoted above. Moreover, when asked if he would identify himself
as “spiritual” to someone with a New Age worldview, he reluctantly said
that he would, because he feels that he has no choice:
I wouldn’t avoid the word. I can’t avoid the word. at’s my problem. I
can’t seem to avoid it. Iusethe word “spiritual” only because I can’t think
of a better one.
As we will see in the next section, the inability to think of a better word is
a pervasive problem for nonbelievers.
Some of the other participants had chosen to identify with the “hu-
manist” label, so Iasked Paul if he ever uses that word, and what it means
to him:
P: “Humanist” for many people would just mean “secular.” Although
I appreciate the word, for me humanist implies the rejection of that soul
side of life. If I were to say, “I’m a humanist,” I’m afraid it would give
the impression that I’m rejecting all notions of “soul,” or “spirit,” or that
whole side of things.
I: Okay. And when you say “soul,” do you mean it in the
sense that there is an immaterial thing that exists, called a “soul,” or...
P: Yeah.
I:... or do you mean “soul” in a metaphorical sense?
P: [pause] Inner life. For the inner life. A metaphor for the inner
life. Yeah.
at exchange le me wondering: How does Paul actually conceptualize
the word “soul”? What does his cognitive frame for that word consist of?
Before I nished the question, he had agreed that “soul” referred to “an
immaterial thing that exists.” But aer considering for a moment whether
or not he meant it in a metaphorical sense, he agreed with that also, saying
that he uses the word as a metaphor for a person’s “inner life.
Paul regularly expressed disparate frames for words with which he
struggled back and forth. It was a perfect example of the kinds of inner
struggles anyone faces with deeply ambiguous words. He had the same
problem with words like “spirit” and “spiritual”:
I can think of one atheist friend now who struggles to understand him-
self better, interpreting his dreams using the Jungian kind of way of ana-
lyzing it, and wondering how he’s connected with the rest of the world,
and his dealing with the mystery of, say, death, and suering, and evil
in the world. at, for me, is a “spiritual” endeavor. Hewould not call
it that, because “spiritual” for him just has too many negative connota-
tions, and it impliesspirit.
Note the sense disparity present in Paul’s dual use of the word “spirit.” In
the previous quote, he said that he was afraid the “humanist” label would
imply that he is “rejecting all notions of ‘soul,’ or ‘spirit,’” which would
result in an identity misre. In that context, heused the word “spirit” (syn-
onymously with “soul”) in the gurative sense, as a metaphor for “the inner
life,” and to refer precisely to those characteristics he described his atheist
friend as having in the latter quote. His friend, however, rejects the “spiri-
tual” label because it implies “spirit” in the supernatural sense.
If the above description of my conversation with Paul seems disjointed
and confusing, that is no accident. It illustrates the eects of the extreme
frame disparity of such vague, ill-dened, “fuzzy” words. Mentally jug-
gling all those disparate frames leads not just to a fundamental breakdown
in communication, but to a fundamental breakdown incognition. at
is one of the pitfalls that makes adaptive identity work so dicult—and
perhaps impossible—to maintain. e identity frames of the dominant
cultural group are not only venerable and vast, they are also continuously
supported and reinforced by that dominant group. And if those in the mar-
ginalized group continue to use the same language, as Lako pointed out,
those words will continue to evoke the dominant frames, thus reinforcing
them. In that respect, adaptive identity work can actually work against its
intended objective.
Historical evidence is not on the side of adaptive identity work. For
over a century, a handful of philosophers and theologians have been pro-
moting a philosophical position known as “religious naturalism” or “spiri-
tual naturalism.” In the modern West, the idea of religion without the su-
pernatural has enjoyed a rich history, with its roots in the panentheism of
Baruch Spinoza and the pantheism of Giordano Bruno (Stone 2008:18).
From John Dewey and George Santayana in the rst half of the twenti-
eth-century, to Ursula Goodenough and Loyal Rue at its end, those who
identify as “religious naturalist” or “spiritual naturalist” have attempted to
reframe religious/spiritual language so that it only includes the gurative
sense. Aer all this time, however, the number of people who self-identify
as “religious naturalists” or “spiritual naturalists” remains miniscule. e
vast majority of nonbelievers, even those who are similar to the partici-
pants in this study, are reluctant to use that language. Aaron, for example,
was the only participant in this study who even mentioned the phrase “re-
ligious naturalist,” and that was only in passing as he was trying to think
of alternative labels. He does not primarily go by that label. e identity
simply has not gained ground among the population of nonbelievers.
Alternative Identity Work
Almost all the participants in this study prefer not to use labels such as
atheist” or “agnostic” as their primary identities, because those words
only identify them by what they do not believe and say nothing about what
they do believe. Yet they reject the “religious” and “spiritual” identity la-
bels, and prefer not to use any of the language associated with religion and
spirituality, because the supernatural connotations of those words would
cause identity misres and lead to foiled identities. How, then, do they
construct new identity that communicates nonsuperciality aer leaving
religion? Some engage in dissonant and/or adaptive oppositional identity
work. And although both of those endeavors help, each in its own way, to
ght the oppressive identity work from the dominant Christian culture,
they do not contribute to the creation of new identity.
By refusing to identify with the labels of either the negative character-
ization frames or the positive identity frames from the dominant culture,
most of the participants are taking an alternative path to oppositional
identity work. e modus operandi of alternative identity work is to step
outside of the current cultural framework by ignoring the currently ubiq-
uitous identity and characterization frames, and attempting to invent and
cultivate an alternative identity framework. Figuratively speaking, they
are refusing to play the game. Consider the following two examples of how
William and Cheryl are engaging in adaptive identity work.
W      to be a minister aer his de-
conversion, much like Aaron and Paul. Unlike them, however, William
deliberately avoids religious and spiritual terminology. When asked if he
considers himself “spiritual,” he gave a weary, somewhat exasperated sigh:
Not really. Only if we carefully dene what we mean by “spiritual.” And
I would argue that an atheist can be “spiritual” in a general kind of way,
like Sam Harris talks about. But in most cases I would not identify as
being spiritual.
Once he came out of the closet, William became more involved with the
community of nonbelievers in his city. Over time, he recognized some-
thing missing, a need he felt he could ll. He started a weekly meetup
group for nonbelievers interested in study, self-reection, and discussion
of philosophical, scientic, and even religious topics. He calls it a “secular
Sunday school for adults,” and treats it as a sort of “secular ministry”:
I still consider myself to be a minister. I just minister to a dierent group
of people now, with a dierent worldview. Because the way I look at
it, even atheists need ministry, in the sense of having community and
people around them that care about them, and will look aer their wel-
fare. Because to me, that’s what ministry is all about. It’s the care and
nurture of other people.
Contrary to Aaron’s denition of religion, this group’s rejection of the
religious and spiritual identities does not equate with a rejection of “the
pursuit of answers to life’s ultimate questions.” Although, the way William
describes it, the members of his group are not so much “seeking answers”
as they are exploring the questions.
e group meets for several hours every Sunday for breakfast at an
Irish pub, while William facilitates discussions based on a chapter from
a book they are studying at the time. Past selections include such ti-
tles as Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21stCentury
by Unitarian minister William Murray, and Waking Up: A Guide to
Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris (one of the original four
“New Atheists”). Although those two books use the language of religion
and spirituality—albeit, in a gurative sense—the group thoroughly en-
joyed studying both, and even agreed with most of what the authors had
written. Even so, William says, they constantly balked at words like “reli-
gious” and “spiritual,” because the religious terminology implied too much
of the supernatural. He said that most of them felt fairly comfortable with
the word “reverent,” because it carries far less supernatural connotations,
and is commonly used outside of a religious or spiritual context. So, for
example, if he was reading a quotation from the book in which the word
“religious” or “spiritual” appeared, he would replace it with “reverent,” and
that made the author’s words more palatable to everyone.
C     in extensive alternative iden-
tity work with her congregation for many years. For example, she stopped
using the word “God” because it always carries supernatural connotations.
She rewrote the prayers used by her congregation so that they do not ref-
erence a supernatural being. Although she is a paid minister of the church,
she does not play the role of the authority that everyone must listen to
and accept without question. Accordingly, her talks are no longer called
sermons,” they are now called “perspectives.” She explains:
We call them “perspective[s]” (and there’s a bracket around the “s” at the
end). So the idea is that I’m merely sharing my perspective on something,
and you have the responsibility to take it and add your perspective to it.
Like you’re interpreting it through your perspective. And then when you
share it again, you’re sharing it with your perspective added to it. So it’s
an aggregate by the time somebody talks about it someplace else.
Her “perspective[s]” no longer concentrate on “god talk,” and are not al-
ways centered around the Bible. Instead, she and other speakers focus on
ere’re three things that we focus on as regularly as possible. When
we come together on Sunday, we are reminding ourselves that we are
grounded in the interconnectedness of life, we’re guided by love as a
value, and we’re there to grow in wisdom. So when I’m speaking, I am
generally talking about something to do with our relationships—with
ourselves, with others, and with the world.
She is in the process of gradually reaming the way her congregation
speaks of all the various nonsupercial practices at their church. is is
not just a matter of changing the words they use. To make real change, she
must change the underlying cognitive frames that constitute the meanings
of those words.
A’    the “atheist” label, and his desire to con-
tinue using the “religious” and “spiritual” labels, was based in part on the
fact that the “atheist” label only indicates what someone does not believe,
and says nothing about what someone does believe:
If I simply say “I’m an atheist,” they go like, “Oh, I get it. You don’t be-
lieve in God.” And I’m like, yeah, yeah, but that’s not my “spiritual iden-
tity.” My spiritual identity is somebody who’s convinced that this life is
the only one that there is, and whose response to that is: “How do I
make the most of it?”, and whose conclusion is that the way to make the
most of it is to commit yourself to love and justice and wonder.
is was a common opinion among the participants—even among those
comfortable with identifying as atheists. Most agreed with Aaron that the
label is insucient, and many choose to identify with the “humanist” label
for that very reason. ey see “humanist” as a positive label that identies
them by the values they hold rather than just by what they do not believe:
M: I nd the terms like “atheist” and “agnostic” to be sorely
lacking. Because it really just says what you believe about God, which I
nd to be very limiting and kind of useless. I prefer to be known more by
how I engage with the world and the people around me. And so in that
sense I would prefer to be known as a “humanist.
S: Atheism, to a large degree, has nothing to oer. It’s just a lack
of belief. at’s why I’m also a humanist, because I think humanism is the
way forward. It’s humanism that gives me my ethical and moral frame-
work by which I develop my worldview.
Many nonbelievers choose to identify as humanists. But does the hu-
manist identity suciently signify the nonsupercial side of life and cover
the same range of meaning as the “spiritual” identity label? William seems
to think that it does:
I: In the past, when you said, “I’m a minister,” that identi-
ed the kinds of values that you held, your basic beliefs and worldview,
and so much more. Is there one label that could do that now?
W: [without hesitation] at would be “humanist.” Humanist
carries the connotations of having a deep concern for relationships with
others, and relationships with the world—you know, that type of thing.
So to me, humanist takes the place of spiritual.
Like other identity labels, however, “humanist” has the potential for iden-
tity misre, because it has multiple senses that activate disparate cogni-
tive frames. Atthe opposite end of the frame disparity continuum from
William, we saw in a previous section how Paul thinks of “humanist” as
communicating“a rejection of that soul side of life”—which is to say, a
rejection of that nonsupercial side of life. us, we have two frames for
the “humanist” label that are polar opposites. Whereas William interprets
“humanist” as a suitable substitute for “spiritual,” Paul sees the “humanist”
label as completely lacking the identity content he associates with the
spiritual” label.
e “humanist” identity label has also accumulated negative char-
acterization frames in other cultural contexts. In his study of the spiri-
tual but not religious identity, Robert Fuller delineated “three types of
unchurched Americans”: the “spiritual but not religious,” the “religiously
ambiguous,” and the “religiously indierent.” e third type, he informs
us, are “secular humanists,” whom he characterizes as follows:
About one in every seven Americans is completely indierent to religion.
We oen call these people “secular humanists” because they reject super-
natural understandings of the world and instead rely solely on reason
and common sense. [emphasis added](2001:2)
He further asserts that “secular interests and activities... lack any concern
with a larger reality” (2001:8). Whereas William had said that he con-
siders “humanist” a good substitute for “spiritual” in the gurative sense,
Fuller—a professional religious studies scholar—dismisses the secular hu-
manist identity out-of-hand by characterizing it with what we might call
the   frame: people who “rely solely on reason and
common sense,” and are seen as being “completely indierent” to the kinds
of values and emotional experiences commonly ascribed only to religion
and spirituality. Recall that I quoted Fuller’s denition of spirituality as a
paradigm for the gurative sense of the term. Fuller suggests that secular
humanists, such as Bethany, do not even t his gurative sense because
they “reject supernatural understandings of the world.
Aaron, who now identies as a humanist chaplain, originally had mis-
givings about the label because it activated another common characteriza-
tion frame in his mind:
Initially I wasn’t really drawn to “humanist.” I mean, we’re just animals
like all the rest of them. And so the idea that I’m a humanist would make
it seem like Idon’t care about dogs, or about elephants. And I do. And,
you know, there are other sentient creatures that grieve the deaths of
their loved ones, or that have social contracts, and that share and that
show compassion.
ose who have identied as humanists for many years are all too familiar
with this characterization frame, because this way of characterizing hu-
manism is common among its critics (e.g.,Ehrenfeld 1978:5; Hitchcock
1982:61; Taylor 2007:299). With this frame—call it the -
  frame—humanists are portrayed as deifying human
beings, or at least raising them to the status of the “highest good.” Cheryl
was quite familiar with this characterization, and spoke of it with derision
(aecting a righteous tone in her voice to imitate the people who say it):
I oen call myself a humanist. And, then I have to explain it, because
people say, “Well, you know, I don’t think humans are the be-all and
end-all.” Because, you know, in that early understanding of ‘humanist,
that’s where they went. So I have to explain: “Yeah, well, it’s a broader
understanding at this point in time.” So. Yeah.
Many of these ex-ministers do, in fact, identify as humanists now.
e “humanist” label seems to be the main contender to replace my “non-
supercial” placeholder as an alternative label for the gurative senses of
religious and spiritual. But even those who identify with it recognize that
it does not fully communicate their identity. To echo Jürgen Habermas
(2010), they have an awareness of something missing:
E: ose of us who have experienced a deconversion and no longer
are believers— when at one point we were not only believers but very,
very committed and inoled believers—belonging to a religious group
becomes an extended family. And to replace that is not an easy thing to
do, even when you have secular groups that you belong to. Where I live
there is a very strong humanist community. We have our own building,
and two Sundays a month we have a meeting, where we will have var-
ious speakers, and then usually have a breakfast or lunch together. And
that somewhat takes the place of it. But it’s not quite the same thing,
because the emotional component of being a member of a church, or of
any strong religious denomination, is so important.
at “emotional component” that comes with a large community
with tightly integrated cognitive frames of meaning was mentioned by
others as well. Melissa expressed this same frustration:
I miss the community. I really do. I miss—I miss singing. Like, I miss
singing about stu that has meaning to me, and singing about more than
just —— I’m in a choir, you know, but that’s just words, that’s technique,
you know.... And it scratches an itch, to a point. But you know, it’s not
the same, because I’m not in the same place anymore. But I do, Imiss the
community.... at’s a cultural experience to me, that I will never have
On one of his podcasts, Aaron said that his eorts as a humanist chaplain
are directed toward building “something that [is] thoroughly secular, and
yet emotionally resonant.” He means “secular” in the sense of absence of
religion, not antithesis of religion. In other words, he wants it to be sec-
ular but not supercial. It may be that the  identity frame does
encompass all of the meanings and values included within the -
  frame, but that in practice, humanism has diculty
delivering all of the interpersonal connection and emotional support of a
community that institutional religions successfully produce.
B  , Paul could tell people, “I’m a pastor,” and
that identity would communicate a great many things about him—most
notably, the fact that his chief concerns are with the nonsupercial side of
life (“that soul side of life”, as he put it). Iasked him if he had found any
new labels that could communicate those same aspects of his identity that
the “pastor” label had:
[Laughter] My wife and I talk about this all the time because, like, just
last Saturday we went to a wedding where we were going to be sitting
at a table with a bunch of people we didn’t know at the reception. And
I’m like, “Honey, what am I gonna tell them what I do?” [laughter]
And we always struggle with that. I don’t want to just say, “I’m involved
with spirituality.” at has a lot of implications, right? So I am nervous
when I get to the “spiritual” part. When I say I’m an artist, people usu-
ally get that. But when I say, “Icritique what’s wrong with the Church,
and Christianity, and belief,” then that’s like throwing a little grenade in
there. You know?
I then asked him, if someone with a New Age worldview were to read the
description of his online community (in which he used the word “spir-
itual” four times), does he think they might assume it was a New Age
ey probably would. And that’s why I have a problem using any of these
words. Like “believe.” Somebody says, “Are you a believer?” I know if I
say “Yes” then they’re gonna imagine a whole world of what that means,
In that short quote, Paul describes the fear of identity misre and the de-
sire to avoid a foiled identity shared by most of the participants in this
study. is is the conundrum faced by anyone who chooses to avoid the
“religious” or “spiritual” labels, but who has what could be described as a
religious or spiritual temperament or personality.
e following exchange with Melissa, worth quoting in its entirety,
encapsulates the entire problem I have been investigating:
I: So then the question is, what kind of language can we
use, without falling back on religious/spiritual language, to express
our—for lack of a better term, our “ultimate concerns”? Without the
religious and spiritual language, how do we talk about that side of
M: Yeah. I actually wrote about the idea of “transcendence,” or
wonder, or awe. And part of my argument has always been that one of
the huge limiting factors of the “atheist community,” one of the chal-
lenges is that, within that group of people, there are a lot of people who
are very—they’re feelers—or they’re, like, the artistic types. ey’re the
people like my husband, who will probably never call himself an “atheist,
even though he doesn’t believe there’s a god. And “agnostic” is probably
even a little bit too harsh for him. Because he’s an artist, he’s a feeler. He
was always the one who experienced God in a much more emotional
way—deep in his soul, you know. Where is the place for those people
in atheism? Because we still have those feelings. We still look up at the
stars and think about how far away they are, and just—how do you de-
scribe that feeling? And there’s just so many moments of awe, and tran-
scendence, and wonder, and, and—for lack of a better way of putting it:
spiritual! You know: spiritual experiences. But, you know, they’re NOT
“spiritual” experiences! [laughter] But there’s no other way to describe
it! [laughter]
I: Right. So your husband doesn’t want to use the words
“agnostic” or “atheist” because those imply that all of that is absent?
M: Yes. Exactly!
I: Okay. And if you talk about that with a word like “tran-
scendence,then what are people going to assume?
M: Yeah! [laughter] Yeah. at you’re crazy, probably. [laughter]
Because then it becomes this, like, “WOOOOO”—kind of, you know,
out there.
I: “Woo.” [laughter] Right. So let’s say you’re talking to
somebody who’s New Agey, and you use words like “transcendent” or
“spiritual,” what are they going to assume you mean by those words?
M: Yeah! Yep . Yep .
I: So if you want to talk about, all of that, what words do
you have? Because to non-humanists, “humanist” doesn’t really commu-
nicate that aspect about us.
M: No! And even if you go into it so far as to explain it to some-
body in great depth, they’re still just like: “Well, isn’t that just like being
a good person?” And, you know — yeah. But there is a philosophical un-
derpinning to being a good person. Like, what compels you to be a good
person? What do you believe about that world, and about humanity’s
role in the world that makes you be a good person? Like, what does that
even mean?
I: Yeah. And even the American Humanist Association
has adopted this slogan of “Good Without God” from Greg Epstein.
But is that all humanism really means, that you’re good without God?
And if that’s the case, if that’s all humanism is communicating, then how
do we communicate…
I: …the rest.
M: …the rest.
M: Yeah! Yeah, exactly! It is! It is complicated.
Complicated it most certainly is. To say that “spiritual experiences” are not
spiritual experiences”? Such a statement is dicult to comprehend unless
we recognize that she is contending with two highly disparate senses of
the word “spiritual” within a single thought. What she was saying, if we
parse out the senses, is that those moments of awe and wonder are “gu-
rative spiritual experiences,” but not “supernatural spiritual experiences.
Many of the other participants also mentioned these kinds of experiences:
S: I do think, you know, I can sit out on the swing on a starry
night and look up and you know, you see this awesome, wondrous sky,
and you realize it goes on for light years, you know, and you can’t help
but have a sense of wonder about those things.
L: You can be an atheist and you can be moed by music, or moved
by a mountain, in a way that sometimes is hard to put into words. You
know. I could be moved to tears by a piece of classical music. And, where
did those tears come from? I don’t know. So, you know, there’s some-
thing about us as human beings that can be very mysterious. And I try
to, sometimes, to plumb that, to try to understand that. But I think that
just, again, how I’m wired.
B: For me, moments of awe are all about things that resonate—
things that are kind of the universal emotional events.... All of those
little things, from the birth of my son to being there as someone is dying
and just spending time with them in their nal moments. All of those
things matter, and it evokes the same emotion in me as they would in
other people who call themselves religious. And I think religious people
might nd that shocking.
If we do not want to call such experiences “spiritual,” due to the su-
pernatural connotations, what then do we call them? When I put that
question to each of the participants, it was almost always met with long
silence, but I could hear those proverbial wheels turning as they tried to
come up with an answer, only to nd that they could not. e part of my
conversation with Luke just prior to the quote above is a good example:
L: I try to keep an open mind about meditation. But again, for me
personally, I would not therefore call myself a “spiritual person.” Because,
again, everybody’s got their understanding of what that means.... But,
for me, if being spiritual means that there’s some sort of an external force
in the universe out there, or force that I’m connecting with? No, I dont
really see it that way.
I: Okay. So, if you were talking with someone else who
you knew was also an atheist who doesn’t typically use the religious lan-
guage like that, what language would you use to describe that side of you
that is interested in the—for lack of a better term—the deeper meanings
of life, for example?
L: [Long pause…] Hmm. [Long pause…] Um. [Longer pause…]
I: So, I think other people would say, “I’m spiritual,
right? And to them that kind of encompasses all that. But if you don’t
want to say you’re “spiritual”—because, as you said, if you’re talking to
an atheist, they might interpret that as you saying you believe in super-
natural spirits—how would you describe that to other atheists—other
nonbelievers—other “nonsupernaturalists”?
L: [Long pause…] Um. [Long pause…] [Laughter] I really am
thinking here! [laughter]. Uhhh. I guess I would [Pause.] [Sigh.] I would
[Pause.] Ifsomebody is an atheist and I’m trying to describe my open-
ness to the deeper questions and the deeper experiences of life? I guess I
would just try to phrase it that way. I’m not sure what labels I could use.
In his classic study of religious experiences and values, Abraham
Maslow acknowledged the diculty presented by our limited vocabu-
lary. Lacking a neutral label as a reference for nonreligious people who
are, nonetheless, “aware of Tillichs ‘dimension of depth’” (i.e., nonsuper-
cial), he awkwardly referred to them as “serious” people, and put that
word, along with the word “religionize,” in quotation marks to indicate
that he recognized their inadequacy:
[It is] my impression that “serious” people of all kinds tend to be able to
“religionize” any part of life, any day of the week, in any place, and under
all sorts of circumstances.... Of course, it would not occur to the more
“serious” people who are non-theists to put the label “religious experi-
ences” on what they were feeling, or to use such words as “holy,” “pious,
“sacred,” or the like. (Maslow [1963]1970:31)
Indeed, one of Maslow’s stated goals was “to demonstrate that spiritual
values have naturalistic meaning,... that they do not need supernatural
concepts to validate them” ([1963]1970:4). By the time he wrote the
preface to the 1970 reprint, he confessed that he had been unable to nd
a better label for such people. “Existentialism,” he conceded, “is used in so
many dierent ways by dierent people,... [that] the word is now almost
useless, in my opinion, and had better be dropped. e trouble is that I
have no good alternative label to oer” ([1963]1970:xvii). Scholars today
who have taken up the mantle of studying this topic are still struggling to
nd an adequate moniker for such people.
A     the same method of
social change advocated by George Lako in his book, Don’t ink of an
Elephant (2014). Applying his cognitive frame analysis techniques to pol-
itics, he explained how, over the past several decades, conservative politi-
cians have established the language used in political discourse, and thus
determined which cognitive frames are activated for various hot-button
issues. (For example, referring to tax cuts as “tax relief ” activates a 
 frame, which evokes a feeling of being aicted by something that
needs to be relieved. e politician can then position himself as the one
who can provide that relief.) He explained that if you continue to use the
language of your opponents, even when arguing against them, you will
continue to activate those frames, and thus reinforce them: “When you
argue against someone on the other side using their language and their
frames, you are activating their frames, strengthening their frames in those
who hear you, and undermining your own views” (2014:xii).
Lako’s advice, then, is to stop using the words of the opposition en-
tirely, and to work toward creating new words with new frames, based on
your own values: “Because language activates frames, new language is re-
quired for new frames. inking dierently requires speaking dierently”
(2014:xiii). e question then becomes: How do we develop new identity
labels, and new cognitive ames to give substance to those labels? All of the
participants recognized the problem, but none could think of a solution:
T: I realize the problem. Because if we don’t have the language,
use the language, maybe at times insist upon it, we leave ourselves below
the radar. I think we need new words, but I just don’t know what they
are.... [When I was a Christian] I used the language that I felt was mean-
ingful. But also, that language had a long history that I did nothing to
create. I think we’re at that point. I dont even know how we change the
conversation on this. I really don’t. But I do think that working on it is
better than throwing up our hands and not.
C: I think it’s because we don’t yet have a word that replaces “spir-
itual” that doesn’t have that “otherworldly” connotation. is is part of
the challenge. You know? Idon’t really know a word for that. But what
we’re talking about, it’s when you explore what makes us human, and
how can we make that experience rich and vibrant.... I think that we
really have to nd language to talk about that.
Ryan Cragun and Barry Kosmin (2011) may have been on the right
track when they suggested that we already have the language—that it can
be found in the many forms of human expression already employed by the
well-established tradition of the humanities. In their critique of a book
by Alexander and Helen Astin and Jennifer Lindholm (2010) that rec-
ommends teaching “spirituality” to college students, Cragun and Kosmin
pointed out aglaring omission:
e crux of their argument is that colleges do not attend to the “inner”
self; they oer students insucient opportunities to develop self-aware-
ness. Strangely, that this is one of the key aims of the humanities in the lib-
eral arts curriculum is not mentioned. Instead, it is implied that in order
to develop “self-awareness,” students need religion. [emphasis added]
In other words, plenty of “wisdom” has been expressed—independent
of any religious or spiritual traditions—by wise, thoughtful individuals
throughout history, across many cultures, and through many dierent
styles of communication—philosophy, literature, music, art, poetry,
drama, etc. Bethany, the only participant to respond to that question
without hesitation, had essentially the same idea:
B: It seems like the language of “faith” is kind of like a dead lan-
guage to me, almost the way that Latin is for the world. at’s really how
the wordage, and verbiage just doesn’t —— it just —— it’s an outdated
I: Interesting. So what kind of language have you found
to replace it?
B: I would say that the English language is lled with won-
derful ways to describe something that you nd meaningful. I mean, I
talk about values a lot, because I think people understand values. And I
think they understand the words like kindness, and compassion. ere are
a lot of these simple words that we use on a regular basis that very, very
adequately represent the meaning of the hoohah that I used to use. And
the other thing is that they make sense. ey don’t need to be decoded.
Of all the types of oppositional identity work identied by this study,
alternative identity work might have the best chance of aecting real,
lasting change. Avoidance of volatile identity labels, of course, only helps
individuals in the short term. Dissonant and adaptive identity work are
both attempts to change long-standing cultural frames (characterization
frames and identity frames, respectively). Although changes of that nature
are not unheard of, we know from the literature on intractable conict
mitigation that such changes are extremely dicult, and limited in their
eectiveness and scope. e  and  identity frames,
and the various  characterization frames, may prove to be
impossible to change, at least not to the degree required. And even if they
are changed, the old frames for those words will continue to linger and
resurface. As Lako said, “framing is social change.” By the same token,
aming is identity change. Finding new language to express values and
meanings without supernatural connotations would take a coordinated,
cooperative eort, and could take many generations to yield meaningful
results. But creating new frames seems to be the only way to eventually
leave the old frames behind.
Sense Conation, Conated Frames, and the Study of Religion
A      uses deliberate
sense conation as a literary device. New Age and psychiatric spirituality
authors such as Deepak Chopra, omas Moore, and M. Scott Peck, reg-
ularly use words such as transcendent, spirit, and soul without explicitly
stating whether they mean something supernatural or not. e power of
this literary device comes from carefully using the words in such a way that
the reader can interpret them guratively or literally, or both. e word
soul,” for example, is a key term throughout all of Moore’s books, but
he never explicitly states whether this term refers to some supernatural,
disembodied mind that exists aer the body dies, or whether he is simply
using the word in a gurative sense. By using a word like “soul” in this way,
readers are free to supply their own interpretations. us, in the minds of a
devout Christian or a New Age practitioner the word might activate both
the   and   frames (the conated
 frame), but only activate the   frame in the mind
of a secular humanist—and all three can get something of value from
reading the book.
Such deliberate use of sense conation is a perfectly acceptable tech-
nique for the self-help and inspirational spirituality genres, and it makes
for a ne literary device in poetry and creative writing (including the reli-
gious/spiritual variety). But for the academic study of religion—especially
the scientic study of religion—such imprecise language is antithetical to
the goal of cogent analysis. Far too oen, professional social scientists,
philosophers, and religious studies researchers use words such as spiri-
tual, transcendent, soul, divine, and sacred without ever explicitly stating
whether they are using the terms guratively/metaphorically. Consider
the following two examples.
Kelly Besecke has done brilliant sociological research on people
having nonsupercial conversations “in otherwise ‘secular’ settings such
as bookstores, lecture halls, movie theaters, and cafes” (2005:181). To
indicate that these conversations are more than secular (i.e., more than
supercial), she spreads the category of “religion” around such activity by
interpreting it as a form of inisible religion (Luckmann 1967), dening
religion broadly as “a societal conversation about transcendent meaning”
(2005:181). Nowhere throughout her writings could I nd an explicit
statement indicating whether “transcendent” is meant to be understood in
an ontological, supernatural, otherworldly sense or a metaphorical, gura-
tive sense that could include a “this-worldly” notion of transcendence. She
does, however, dene “transcendent meaning” in terms that clearly imply
some kind of inherent purpose or signicance built-in to the universe:
e idea of transcendent meaning implies an ultimate context, beyond
other contexts, that provides eternal, cosmic signicance.... ‘[T]he tran-
scendent’ refers to a context for life that exists on a plane beyond ap-
parent reality (2002:32).
With the gurative and supernatural senses le conated, readers are
le to their own interpretations. Although Besecke avoids the term “su-
pernatural,” I am not sure what else she could mean by a “plane beyond
apparent reality” on which a “context for life” exists. She never elaborates
upon just where this plane might be located, nor of what unknown sub-
stance such a plane might consist, but she clearly indicates that it is not
something of the natural world. Nor is it clear what the word “plane” even
means in this context. Are we to think of something akin to the supernat-
ural realms of existence in the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy role-playing
game—the “Astral Plane” and “Ethereal Plane”? Use of such language ob-
fuscates rather than claries intended meaning.
Peter Berger’s seminal work, e Sacred Canopy, has been a staple
of religious studies curricula for over forty years. Part of its appeal as a
broadly applicable work of scholarship in the study of religion is its neu-
tral and naturalistic approach to the subject. It is neither an apologetic for
any one religion, nor a polemic against religion in general; rather, it of-
fers an intriguing metaphorical model with which to conceptualize such a
complex social phenomenon. Berger does not explicitly indicate whether
or not he is talking of something supernatural with concepts like the “sa-
cred canopy.
Berger’s ambiguity on that point came back to bite him, as it were:
within two years aer its publication, Berger felt misgivings about the way
he had portrayed religion. He realized that the book “read like a treatise
on atheism,” and that it could “easily be read... as a counsel of despair for
religion in the modern world.” Worried about “the possible eect of e
Sacred Canopy upon the unwary reader” (1969:ix–x), he wrote a correc-
tive sequel—ARumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscoery of
the Supernatural—in which he defended the importance of supernatural
belief to religion, explaining that “the term, particularly in its everyday
usage denotes a fundamental category of religion, namely the assertion
or belief that there is an other reality, and one of ultimate signicance for
man, which transcends the reality within which our everyday experience
unfolds” (1969:2).
Sense conation also has a deleterious eect on quantitative research.
e Pew Forum’s survey question, “Do you believe in God or a universal
spirit?”, is an excellent example of a survey measure gone awry by inat-
tentiveness to sense conation. e vast majority of believers conceive of
the word “God” with one or more varieties of the , -
  frame, an ontologically real being with a personality, who
created the universe, cares for human beings, listens to prayers, and acts in
the world (Hutsebaut & Verhoeven 1995; Barrett & Keil 1996; Kunkel
et al. 1999)—that is,anontological sense of the word “God.” Arelatively
small segment of believers conceives of the same word in a broad, non-per-
sonal sense, typically articulated with phrases such as “higher power,
“guiding force,” “universal spirit,” and so forth. ese divergent meanings
are distinct enough that it is fair to say that belief in the existence of a
“universal spirit” is not at all the same as belief in the existence of a “super-
natural, personal deity.” e Pew Forum, however, asks a single question
for both concepts, then conates the two into the single word “God” by
dropping the “or universal spirit” part when they display the variable in
ocial graphs, tables, and reports. It is the equivalent of a bait-and-switch.
e quality of survey questions (and hence of the data they provide) could
be greatly enhanced if question developers had a better understanding of
cognitive frames and took into account the disparities in the frames their
words might activate in the minds of the respondents.
A relatively new set of theoretical terminology has been gaining cur-
rency recently: vertical transcendence versus horizontal transcendence (e.g.:
Hood, Hill & Spilka 2009; Streib & Hood 2013; Coleman, Silver &
Holcombe 2013). e two concepts can be thought of as “otherworldly/
supernatural transcendence” versus “worldly/naturalistic transcendence.
Keller, Coleman, and Silver (2016) are at least explicit about the fact that
they are merely substituting one term for another:
Does the person refer to higher powers, to a supernatural world beyond?
is we would call vertical transcendence. Or is the person invested in
concerns beyond their own personal life, concerns, which, framed in
a theological vocabulary, might be called “ultimate”? en we would
speak of horizontal transcendence. (2016:258)
Streib and Hood (2016), on the other hand, suggest that the concept of
“transcendence” should be considered one of the primary characteris-
tics of religion, and substantive beliefs in divine beings and supernatural
agents only secondary (2016:9). ey then explicitly state that they do not
want to divide “transcendent experiences” into natural and supernatural
so that they can talk about naturalistic transcendence as “horizontal tran-
scendence” (2016:10). is rationale begs the question: If what we really
mean by these phrases is a feeling of transcendence that involves a sense of
something beyond, above, or higher than the natural world, as compared
to a feeling of transcendence that involves only experiences in the natural
world, why then do we feel the need to avoid the obvious nomenclature of
supernatural transcendence versus naturalistic transcendence? Why do we
go out of our way to nd euphemisms for these terms? By playing such
semantic games, rather than increasing clarity and precision (as Streib and
Hood claim) we are creating more obfuscation and confusion.
e issue of supernaturalism seems to be a sort of elephant in the
room when it comes to discussions about religion and religious beliefs.
Are we talking about something supernatural or arewe not? Do we mean
“transcendent” in a naturalistic (gurative/metaphorical) sense, or in a
supernatural (literal/ontological) sense? Far too oen, it is impossible to
discern the intended meaning. So when we read Robert Fuller state that
secular interests... lack any concern with a larger reality” (2001:8), we are
le wondering: Is he referring to some kind of ontologically real, super-
natural realm of existence, consisting of some unknown substance, and lo-
cated somehow outside of or beyond the natural world? Or is he referring
merely to the reality of the lived experiences that give human beings an
understanding that they are but one part of the larger whole of society, or
a sense of their small place in an incomprehensively large cosmos, which
they might describe guratively as “transcendent”? To add insult to injury,
many scholars of religion and spirituality avoid overtly referencing the su-
pernatural nature of their subject by shrouding it in ever more ambiguous
euphemisms, sometimes attempting to lend them weight through capital-
ization: Divine, Mystery, Ultimate, Absolute, Innite, Transcendent, and
on andon.
Conated Frames and Religious Terminology
When the senses of a word are conated—that is, when the word is always
(or nearly always) spoken without the intended sense clearly indicated,
or with both intended—a frame for each sense is activated as a single con-
ated ame in the minds of those involved in the communication. When
someone speaks or hears the word “spiritual,” for example, all the various
attributes of both the   and 
 frames are activated in the mind as a single, conated
 frame. Even in the minds of people who do not believe
that anything supernatural exists, when they hear the word “spiritual,
both frames are activated.
When supernaturalist believers use words like spiritual, divine, soul,
and transcendent, they have no reason to distinguish between the two
senses. ey will use the words with both senses in mind, and may not
even be aware that they hold two disparate frames in their minds simul-
taneously for the same word. Indeed, they may not consider them to be
disparate at all. e two frames are always fused into one conated frame,
and the supernaturalist would have no occasion to think of one without
the other. It would never occur to them to even conceive of one without
the other—it simply goes without saying that spiritual sentiments and
practices include supernatural beliefs of some sort, even if only vague and
For anyone studying and writing about religion, this is a real problem.
Although supernaturalist believers have no need to distinguish the two,
social scientists do—we might even say that we have an obligation to do
so, out of scholarly integrity. Durkheim, for example, did (eventually) get
explicit about the fact that when he spoke about “the sacred” and “god,” he
was not talking about something supernatural (something “real,” yes, but
not something supernatural).
e word “God” suers from severe sense conation, which I suspect
is one of the main sources of negative characterizations of nonbelievers. In
its gurative sense, the word “God” is an enormous symbol, representing all
values, virtues, hopes, emotions, and experiences in life that humans most
deeply cherish. Ministers, apologists, and theologians repeatedly (and
sometimes aggressively) assert that without God there can be no love, no
joy, no morality, no hope, and so forth—that God is the source of all those
things, and that without “Him” we would be existentially destitute. All of
those meanings and values are concentrated within the  
frame. Because the word “God” is also almost always conceived of as either
a supernatural deity, or supernatural force or power (“universal spirit”)
of some kind, the   frame is rarely activated separately
from the   frame—indeed, the two seem almost in-
separable. So, when the word “God” is uttered, it activates the -
  frame along with the   frame, and for a great
many people, one cannot be thought of without the other.
Because religious terms are almost always used in a conated state,
and have been for so many centuries, even if we attempt to use the word
only in its gurative sense, both frames will still be activated. As Lako
likes to demonstrate: if you are told, “Don’t think of an elephant,” you
cannot keep the  frame from being activated in your brain,
even though you were told not to. In order to use a word like “spiritual”
in only its gurative sense, you would have to repeatedly remind everyone
involved in the communication that only the gurative sense should be
kept in mind (the caveat). e question then becomes: Is that possible?
Can they be separated? ose are dicult questions, which I cannot an-
swer here. Since cognitive frames are automatically activated upon hearing
a word (or any other symbol), I suspect that the unintended sub-frame
cannot be fully suppressed. But to determine that would require exten-
sive, rigorous social psychological experiments (for any social psychologist
who is up to the challenge).
Negation of Conated Frames and the Stigma of Nonbelief
As discussed in the previous section, the word “spiritual” activates the
conated  frame—a fusion of the  
and   frames—in the mind of the listener.
What happens, then, when someone says, “I’m not spiritual”? As Lako
explained, even “when we negate aframe, we evoke the frame [emphasis
added]” (2014:xii). Hence, even when someone says, “I’mnot spiritual,
the conated  frame is activated. equalifying presence of
thenegative particle “not,” however, changes the cognitive process, so that
when “not spiritual” is heard, two things occur in the mind of the listener.
First, the word “spiritual” activates the listener’s conated 
frame, so that all the meanings contained within both the 
 and   frames are brought to
mind. Second, because the identity label was negated by the word “not,” a
new frame is automatically generated—a negation of the conated -
 frame, which includes negated versions of both sub-frames.
When the conated  frame in the mind of a believer
is negated by someone saying, “I’m not spiritual,” the conated -
 characterization frame contains the opposites of all those
character traits contained within the   frame.
Consequently, even though the nonbeliever only meant to negate the -
  frame, the fact that the frames are conated
means that the listener will get the impression that the person does not
possess those character traits represented by the  -
 frame. Hence, the nonbeliever ends up with a severe identity mis-
re, and most likely a spoiled identity. is applies equally to the negation
of the conated  frame activated by saying “I’m not religious
or “I’m secular” (since “secular” is equivalent to “not religious”). ebe-
liever with a conated  characterization frame does not
necessarily explicitly think words such as, “is person who says he is not
spiritual must be a shallow, supercial person with no meaning or purpose
in life.” Cognitive frames are not necessarily manifest in that way in our
brains. Nonetheless, that impression will be present to some degree.
A similar process occurs for the word “God.” When a person says,
“Idon’t believe in God,” the word “God” activates the entire conated
 frame in the listener, which includes all the attributes of the -
  frame, such as loe, grace, compassion, community, and so forth.
e word “don’t” then negates the entire conated  frame. e nega-
tion of the conated  frame contains the opposite meanings of both