The Bone Wars

Ever since I first learned of the term, I have not been the most avid fan of ‘non-religion.’ It’s always felt a bit too general, a little too ambiguous, and fairly equivocal in its meaning. Perhaps my greatest critique, though, is its use of ‘religion.’ As a relational term, the ‘non-religious’ individual is defined by their relationship to ‘religion’ which, for quite some time now, has been a term we just can’t seem to define with any certainty. So, for me, using ‘non-religion’ is like saying we’ve somehow figured out what ‘religion’ is, even if that just reflects our acceptance that it is a category ‘defined’ in yet an equally broad or general manner. One of my favorite requests of colleagues who us it, then, is to provide a definition of religion against which they are using ‘non-religion’ relationally. This has provided fun discussions, and at times erudite descriptions and defenses. I’m still not quite convinced.

While this post is about my dislike of ‘non-religion,’ it is also a criticism of the discourse within which the term ascended: the theoretical approach of defining and examining tricky terminology by creating, using, and promoting new terms, which I discussed briefly in last week’s post on Rumsfeldian Atheism. So, while ‘non-religion’ might seem to get the brunt of my discussion here, it is also aimed at terms like ‘ir-religion,’ ‘un-belief,’ or ‘positive and negative’ Atheism. To borrow their own language, then, I am using ‘non-religion’ here in a relational manner, allowing it to stand in as the direct representative for what I determine as ‘terminological abstractions.’

Which brings us to this post, and a look back. My first face-to-face encounter with ‘non-religion’ was at the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network’s conference in 2012, held at Goldsmith’s University in London. I was very new to the field, and was thus a bit ill-prepared, so my attempt to criticize the term itself was perhaps a bit too mired in tangential humor. However, I still think the argument stands, which is why it is presented herein. First, though, and before delving into my criticism, I believe ‘non-religion’ deserves a fair introduction, which I present here with minimal commentary.


The term itself, upon which the research organization The NSRN has built its foundation, stems from Lois Lee’s Doctoral Thesis, “Being Secular: Towards Separate Sociologies of Secularity, Nonreligion, and Epistemological Culture,” as well as a number of subsequent publications.[1] However, for the definition of ‘non-religion’ I will be using two sources connected to the NSRN, one from a description of their research agenda, and the other from their glossary of terms.

From the ‘about’ section of their page:

The two concepts of nonreligion and secularity are intended to summarise all positions which are necessarily defined in reference to religion but which are considered to be other than religious (see Lee, 2012). Thus, the NSRN’s research agenda is inclusive of a range of perspectives and experiences, including the atheistic, agnostic, religiously indifferent or areligious, as well as most forms of secularism, humanism and, indeed, aspects of religion itself. It also addresses theoretical and empirical relationships between nonreligion, religion and secularity.[2]

From the glossary:

Something which is defined primarily by the way it differs from religion. E.g.s might then include atheism, ‘indifference’ to religion and agnosticism would all be examples. Humanism would not be an example (although empirical cases of humanism may well be considered profoundly nonreligious in practice). Alternative spirituality would not be included where this spirituality is defined fundamentally by its autonomous principles and practices.[3]

With these two examples we get a better idea about why the term itself was constructed and how it might be made useful. They also provide what I feel is the ‘double-edge’ issue of using this sort of terminology. On one end, it provides a pragmatic, even practical, signifier that can summarize and house any and all sorts of relatable concepts under a general canopy. In this way, when we discuss individuals who share ideologies such as ‘Atheism’ or ‘agnosticism’ or ‘humanism,’ but do not wish to be labeled as such, using a term like ‘non-religion’ alleviates the issue of externally defining an individual rather than simply allowing them to internally define themselves. This, perhaps, works best when conducting sociological or survey-based quantitative research. On the other hand though, using a general term, even in all its practicality, might create larger issues concerning clarity. As well, and like I cited in my introductory critique, this also leads to a somewhat normative notion about what we mean by ‘religion.’ This, perhaps, is more problematic when conducting qualitative research.

So, while I definitely see the merits in using such general terminology, I still believe the bad outweighs the good. Moreover, I have frequently felt that constructing a new term, rather than focusing on a singular term that would then contribute to the discourse being formed by our collective examinations, seemed more like an impractical abstraction. Classifying all of us under a canopy might make practical sense in a sociological manner, but for the sake of clarity—perhaps even ethnographic clarity—this sort of generalization does more harm than good.

This argument took up the root of my presentation at the NSRN conference, which, with all its tangential and anecdotal non-sensory aside, I hope will make better sense of my argument.

Dinosaur Disparity

In 1877 Othniel Charles Marsh, a professor and paleontologist at Yale University, documented and published the discovery of a number of large vertebrae that he associated under the genera ‘sauropod.’ He named this specimen, Apatosaurus, or ‘deceptive lizard.’ Soon after, he documented another find, the largest, partially in-tact fossilized remains of any sauropod ever discovered. He named this one Brontosaurus, or ‘thunder lizard.’ While this might seem like an innocuous series of events, the discovery of these two dinosaurs speaks directly to the issue of terminological disparity, mostly because the latter dinosaur, Brontosaurus, never technically existed. Rather, what Marsh labeled as an entirely new species—Brontosaurus—was really just an adult specimen of the smaller Apatosaurus vertebrae. Thus, the Brontosaurus never really existed. It has always been an Apatosaurus.

While on the surface this presents an issue of taxonomic accuracy, which I will discuss below, the underlying problem concerning accuracy doesn’t become a major issue until a century later in October 1989. In that year, and as a promotional ‘tie-in’ with the video cassette release of Universal Picture’s The Land Before Time, the United States Postal Service released four ‘dinosaur stamps’ with the images of a Pteranadon, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Brontosaurus, and Stegosaurus.

stampland before time

For the Postal Service, these stamps were meant to provide more scientific depictions of the dinosaurs featured in the film. For the scientific community, however, they merely represented a misguided insult. Not only did they dismiss the fact that the Pteranadon was, in fact, not a dinosaur, but their perpetuated use of ‘Brontosaurus’ demonstrated an allegiance to familiarity rather than accuracy. After all, these were teaching aids, and they were teaching the wrong information.

Of course, the US Postal Service is not alone in its guilt. This is an issue that has carried on worldwide, demonstrating a discursive allegiance to the generally familiar mistake.  For example:


This becomes an especially troubling issue when one considers the role commercial marketing plays in the discursive construction of conceptual identities. Consider, for example, the beloved ‘Littlefoot” in The Land Before Time, and the 13 sequels that have perpetuated his likeness as a ‘Brontosaurus.’

littlefootScreen Shot 2014-12-16 at 17.21.36

Then again, the blame of perpetuating this mistake is not solely the fault of stamps and blockbuster animated films.

In fact, the popular misidentification of Brontosaurus has been happening since 1914’s Gertie the Dinosaur helped spawn a number of Lost World themed comics all depicting a sauropod titled ‘Brontosaurus.’


Equally guilty is the marketing campaign of Sinclair Oil, which has used the image and name of the Brontosaurus since their two-ton animatronic sauropod was unveiled at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, and then re-cycled again in the New York World’s Fair’s Dinoland in 1964.


Walt Disney, of course, also has a hand in furthering this mistake, specifically for his use of the term ‘Brontosaurus’ in 1940’s Fantasia, a film that not only perpetuated the incorrect name, but also featured a battle between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Stegosaurus, an impossible interaction as the latter had been extinct for at least 80 million years before former ruled the Cretaceous period.


Even today, this controversy carries on in books and toys and hideous t-shirts, proving that when marketed properly, an incorrect term can over-power and even supplant an accurate one.


While I might conclude here, using the metaphor of the perpetuation of an incorrect, yet popularized term as a warning about the use of constructed definitions for the sake of generality, it is the genesis of this disparity, not just the disparity itself, that I believe offers an even clearer argument.

The Bone Wars

Between 1872 and 1892 two men, Edward Drinker Cope

copeand Othniel Charles Marsh,


vied for paleontological superiority, going to outrageous—almost comical—lengths to out-accomplish one another with discoveries and publications. They lied about their findings, stole specimens, sabotaged each other’s digs, and forged their data. They constructed whole skeletons using a ‘splitting’ technique, the combination of fossilized remains from completely unrelated sources, mixing bones of different age, sex, and species to create a more complete—and generalized—specimen. For example, Marsh used the skull of a Camarasaurus to complete the incomplete skeleton of his Brontosaurus, altering the way he and other paleontologists assessed the eating habits and environments of his greatest find.

splitting Brontosaurus body with Camarasaurus head splitting2

splitting4 Brontosaurus body with Apatosaurus head splitting3

Moreover, this equally led to a vague description, and drawing, further occluding the facts about the correlation between Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus

bro skello

Brontosaurus excelsus, gen. et sp. nov.

  “One of the largest reptiles yet discovered has been recently brought to light, and a portion of the remains are now in the Yale collection. This monster apparently belongs in the Sauropoda, but differs from any of the known genera in the sacrum, which is composed of five thoroughly co-ossified verte-bras. In some other respects it resembles Morosaurus. The ilium is of that type, and could hardly be distinguished from that of M. robustus, excepting by its larger size. One striking peculiarity of the sacrum in the present genus is- its comparative lightness, owing to the extensive cavities in the vertebrae, the walls of which are very thin.

  The lumbar vertebras have their centra constricted, and also contain large cavities. The caudals are nearly or quite solid. The chevrons have their articular heads separate. The sacrum of this animal is, approximately, 50 inches (l-27m) in length. The last sacral vertebra is 292°TM in length, and 330mm in transverse diameter across the articular face. A detailed description of these remains will be given in a subsequent communication. They are from the Atlantosaurus beds of Wyoming. The animal was probably seventy or eighty feet in length.” [4]

As might be expected from this sort of confrontation, their feud bred factions, so that the next generation of palaeontologists, whose job it was to make sense of this chaos, took up sides within either camp.

One of these individuals was Henry Fairfield Osborn, osborn a contemporary of Cope’s, who took it as his personal duty to destroy Marsh’s reputation and undermine all of his findings, particularly his sauropod specimens. To do this, he divided Marsh’s collections into synonymous taxonomies, using terminology that seemed similar, but still different, so as to deconstruct the larger concept into something that appeared otherwise ambiguous or dubious. What this also meant was a shift in terminology, not only removing Marsh’s influence in how these specimens were labeled, but altering them in such a way as to support his own stipulations.

Later, and in order to condense Osborn’s taxonomies into something more cohesive, Elmer Samuel Riggs, riggs conducted his own survey, concluding even more decidedly—and objectively, as well—that many of the discoveries made by both men were equally synonymous. Most pertinent to this discussion here, he proclaimed with finality that Marsh’s notorious Brontosaurus was not in fact a unique species, but was rather a mislabeled adult skeleton of the previously discovered Apatosaurus.

After examining the type specimens of these genera, and making a careful study of the unusually well-preserved specimen described in this paper, the writer is convinced that [Marsh’s] Apatosaur specimen is merely a young animal of the form represented in the adult of the Brontosaur specimen. …In fact, upon the one occasion that Professor Marsh compared these two genera he mentioned the similarity between…their respective types. In view of these facts, the two genera may be regarded as synonymous. As the term “Apatosaurus” has priority, “Brontosaurus” will be regarded as a synonym [5]

With just a few sentences, Riggs made the closing statement on the issue of the Brontosaurus, demoting it from an identified thing, to a synonymous mistake.

Yet, and even though attempts at correcting this inaccuracy are constant reminders of the Apatosaurus’ true identity,

apato correct

Brontosaurus still lives on. This is perhaps mostly the result of public discourse, of the way a term is consumed and propagated, and thus crystalized by its very usage. It is also, I might add, a warning against using synonymous—generalized—terminology in place of more correct terms.


One might think that this critical little anecdote about the dangers of terminological creativity is my attempt at promoting the term ‘Atheism’ above the term ‘non-religion.’ This would be, as I hope to elucidate, an incorrect perception. Rather, my criticism is not made here to promote my own work, but rather to suggest a bit more caution.

That is, I would argue that the ‘bone wars’ represents an ideal correlation to the discourse that develops out of an emerging field, such as the study of Atheism, non-religion, humanism, secularity, etc. Likewise, I think it in many ways echoes the difficulty in attempting to find a singular group identity out of the variants that we produce in our research. Like the larger field of Religious Studies, we are each providing a discursive sample of a larger entity, so that a general definition, such as ‘non-religion,’ though pragmatically used to provide a canopy under which we might all co-exist, is just as disparaging as generalizing the term ‘religion.’ Of course, one might then argue that even when we are actually researching something quite unique in the larger field of Religious Studies, we are still doing so under the canopy of a pragmatically ambiguous ‘religion.’ Which I agree. However, I do not see this as the end result of using the term ‘non-religion.’ Mostly, this is because our acceptance of the term ‘religion’—though not everyone has accepted this—comes with the caveat that we have progressed along a distinct tract beginning with sui generis notions about the substantive vs. functionalist quality of ‘religion,’ and arrived at a point with no real conclusive and final ‘definition.’ Which is the point, I think. For this reason, I avoid using the term ‘non-religion’ because I do not beleive adding a further ambiguous term to our discourse provides any sort of assistance in the process. Does this mean the study of Atheism, non-religion, humanism, secularity, etc., falls under the canopy ‘religion?’ I’d say yes. Which is likely where I separate myself from the NSRN.

So, in the end, this discussion is not so much about my issue with using the term ‘non-religion’ as a replacement for terms such as ‘Atheism,’ but is rather an argument that a synonymous umbrella is not really all that necessary. After all, we have at least a vague idea about what a ‘dinosaur’ is, even when that concept is amended and altered and changed within the discourse on what might constitute an Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus. Like ‘religion,’ ‘dinosaur’ is a fluid, plastic term, a discursive entity that does not need to be defined, but that is rather imbued by the discourse on entities like Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus. Which for me works for Atheism and ‘religion.’ That might not work for everyone, which I accept. Yet, I’d much rather contend with the disparity between ‘Atheism’ and ‘religion’ than place myself under a terminological umbrella that seems like an established concept merely given a new name. That’s a bit too much like calling an Apatosaurus something it isn’t.

[1] See also Lois Lee, “From Neutrality to Dialogue: Constructing the Religious Other in British Non-Religious Discourses” in Maren Behrensen, Lois Lee, and Ahmet S. Tekelioglu, eds., Modernities Revisited (Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences 2011); Lois Lee, “Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-Religion Studies” (Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 27, No. 1), 129-139; and Stephen Bullivant & Lois Lee, “Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-Religion and Secularity: The State of the Union” (Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 27, No. 1), 19-27.



[4] Charles Othniel Marsh, “Notice of New Jurassic Reptiles” (American Journal of Science, 3rd series, v. 18, 1879), 501-505.

[5] Elmer Riggs, “Structure and Relationships of Opisthoceolian Dinosaurs, Part I, Apatosaurus Marsh” (Publs. Field Col. Mus. Geol., Ser. 2, 1903), 165-196.

See also:

Pixar’s upcoming film ‘The Good Dinosaur,’ which is described as such: “Arlo, a 70-foot-tall teenage Apatosaurus, befriends a young human boy named Spot.”

Stephen Jay Gould’s own discussion in Bully for Brontosaurus

5 thoughts on “The Bone Wars

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