Close menu Resources for... William & Mary
W&M menu close William & Mary

Secular Misfits: What Humanistic Jews and Ex-Muslims Can Teach Us About Religion:

On a dreary Wednesday on the campus of William & Mary, students and faculty sought refuge at the end of the day in the warm light of Tucker Theater. The group was gathered to attend the second Religious Studies Department speaker event of the semester, a presentation by Professor Joseph Blankholm titled “Secular Misfits.”

Professor Blankholm earned his Ph.D. at Columbia in New York before settling down on the west coast as a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. On Wednesday, February 26, he returned to the east coast to present his research at the university. Professor Blankholm is in the Religious Studies department at his institution, but his research on secularism and atheism is grounded in a sociological perspective that drives his ethnographic research.

Dr. Blankholm presents from the podium

Just after 5 p.m., Professor Patton Burchett of William & Mary’s Department of Religious Studies introduced Professor Blankholm and took the floor for the following hour. He started with an overview of the more than 14,000 nonbeliever organizations in the United States. His research primarily focuses on the Humanistic Jews, secular Jews in the United States who identified with the Humanist movement, and Ex-Muslims of North America, a group of former Muslims in North America. Professor Blankholm referred to these and other groups as “Secular Religious Hybrids” who straddle the worlds of religion and atheism. Their lack of full belonging in either of those worlds is what led Professor Blankholm to label them as “misfits.”

One of the big concepts of Professor Blankholm’s presentation was the idea that there can be a “secular Jew” or an “Ex-Muslim” but an Ex-Christian is just referred to as secular and not a “Secular Christian.” This supports the idea that the current notion of secularism is exclusive of people who are not White former Christians. However, groups like the Humanistic Jews and Ex-Muslims of North America are creating new ways of being secular and broadening that group.

Another major focus of the presentation was on the affirming and negating nature of some nonbeliever groups’ names. For example, Humanistic Jews is an affirming name, and this takes the form of church-like communities. On the other hand, Ex-Muslims of North America is a negating name, and this takes the form of a loss of culture. Ex-Muslims believe that their language and holidays are so grounded in Islam that they feel like they must give up those cherished aspects of their lives to support their religious beliefs. 

After a captivating and well-organized presentation, Professor Blankholm conducted an active question-and-answer session. He gave thorough and thoughtful responses to a variety of questions from audience members. Some of these questions focused on other potential emerging secular groups, how secular people pass along or do not pass along that tradition to their children, and the gender identity and diversity of language in the groups he studied.

Professor Blankholm’s upcoming book on his research, The Secular Paradox: Organized Nonbelief in the United States, is in the process of being published, and will be available for purchase in the near future.

The next Religious Studies event will be held on Wednesday, March 25 at 12 p.m. in Wren 204. Professor Maggie Fraser Kirsh will be giving a talk called “From Survivor to Citizen: Rehabilitating Young Holocaust Survivors in Great Britain and Israel” as part of the department’s Brown-Bag Lunch Series. We hope to see you there!