Who are the nonreligious? Depending on how they are counted, the nonreligious today may be considered the world’s third largest ‘religion,’ trailing only Christianity and Islam. They exercise an increasingly influential voice on issues from the immigration crisis in Europe to secular-religious tensions in Asia Pacific. Now a developing body of research is shedding critical light on the diversity and complexity of this group in an age when the makeup and balance of religious and nonreligious populations, along with their shared history, matters in ways both small and large.
Religious fashion matters. It matters to individuals who view wearing head scarves, kippas and turbans as a positive expression of faith, and it matters to societies increasingly setting restrictions on religious attire in response to concerns ranging from security to the belief that increasing diversity represents a threat to the essential character of their nations. So how, in the face of intense political and social pressures, can nations balance issues of religious freedom, tolerance and national identity? A developing body of research sheds some light on the debate.
The transition to more religiously and ethnically diverse societies is rarely a smooth one. An economic downturn and heightened security fears have made it particularly challenging for countries throughout Europe. Amid the turmoil, many governments have forgone efforts at social integration in favor of legislation restricting religious freedom. But research indicates such efforts only increase conflict.[