Every year, a gathering the size of a small city happens in a major city in the United States. The joint meeting of The American Academy of Religion and The Society of Biblical Literature (November 23-26) brings scholars together from across specializations within the academic world of religion. They are easily recognized by their tote bags, name badges, and conversations on everything from Canaanite religion to inter-religious dialogue.
These meetings are a chance to connect with colleagues (I post my schedule at my blog for that reason), geek-out over the newest book in one's field, and (of course) tweet (#sblaar13).
Based on my conversations with others, it appears that some might think of The AAR as a group for the religious only (like the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society). Academic work in religion may involve intensely theological conversations from adherents within a faith tradition or the complicated world of inter-religious dialogue. Religious studies, however, covers a variety of approaches from historical and sociological studies to cognitive sciences and evolutionary psychology. One does not have to be religious to study religions. In fact, there is a growing segment of the AAR that are concerned with the nonreligious and secularity.
If the oft-cited, 2012 Pew Research numbers are correct, 1 in 5 Americans are "nones" and have no religious affiliation. Other recent surveys show increasing numbers of those who see themselves as secular. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) by Trinity College (Hartford, CT) and The Center for Inquiry (CFI) have almost a third (28.2 percent) of college students in the United States self-identifying as secular. The 2013 Hispanic Values Survey points out that "those claiming no religious affiliation has increased by 7 percentage points (from 5% to 12%)." And the much discussed study by the Pew Research Center of U.S. Jews shows that one-in-five Jews (22 percent) say they have no religion.
In other words, the nonreligious and the secular are a significant part of American society and no discussion of religion and society is complete if secularity is ignored. For that reason there is (and should be) an increasing conversation on secularity at conferences like The AAR. So, if you are attending this weekend in Baltimore and are interested in finding sessions on the subject of nonreligion and the secular, then consider checking out the guide "Nonreligion and the Secular at AAR 2013." There are plenty of interesting discussions to be had and papers to be heard.
If you see me there, feel free to say hi; I will be the one with the tote bag.