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Queen’s researcher launches report at the Vatican on the understanding of ‘unbelief’

The global Understanding Unbelief programme to advance the scientific understanding of atheism and nonreligion will today (28 May) present results from its research at the Vatican in Rome.

Catholic church

The multidisciplinary research programme maps the nature and diversity of ‘unbelief’ across six countries including Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The research is supported by a £2.3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and is led by the University of Kent in collaboration with Queen’s University Belfast, St Mary’s University Twickenham, and Coventry University.

Researchers asked unbelievers about attitudes to issues like supernatural phenomena, including life after death and astrology, whether the ‘universe is ultimately meaningless’ and what values matter most to them. They used internationally recognised terms to identify unbelievers - atheists (i.e., people who ‘don’t believe in God’) and agnostics (i.e., people who ‘don’t know whether there is a God or not, and don’t believe there is a way to find out’).

Key findings from the research include:

  • Unbelievers exhibit significant diversity both within, and between, different countries
  • In all six countries, majorities of unbelievers identify as having ‘no religion’
  • Relatively few select ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ as their preferred (non)religious or secular identity
  • Popular assumptions about ‘convinced, dogmatic atheists’ do not stand up to scrutiny
  • Unbelief in God doesn’t necessarily entail unbelief in other supernatural phenomena and the majority of unbelievers in all countries surveyed expressed belief in one or more supernatural phenomena 
  • A common supposition – that of the purposeless unbeliever, lacking anything to ascribe ultimate meaning to the universe – does not bear scrutiny
  • Most unbelievers endorse objective moral values, human dignity and attendant rights, and the ‘deep value’ of nature at similar rates to the general populations in their countries
  • Unbelievers and general populations show high agreement concerning the values most important for ‘finding meaning in the world and your own life’. ‘Family’ and ‘freedom’ ranked highly for all.

Co-hosting the event is the Pontifical Council for Culture – the Vatican department responsible for dialoguing with non-believers – and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (www.nsrn.net), co-founded in 2008 by University of Kent sociologist Dr Lois Lee.

Dr Lee, who is Senior Research Fellow in Kent’s Department of Theology and Religion, is Principal Investigator for Understanding Unbelief. The project is co-led by anthropologist Dr Jonathan Lanman from Queen’s University Belfast, psychologist Dr Miguel Farias from Coventry University, and sociologist Professor Stephen Bullivant from St Mary’s University Twickenham.

Speaking about the results from the project, Dr Lanman said: “Our data directly counter common stereotypes about unbelievers.  A common view of unbelievers is that they lack a sense of objective morality and purpose but possess an arrogant confidence and a very different set of values from the rest of the population. Our representative data across six diverse countries show that none of this is true. In a time when our societies seem to be growing more and more polarized, it has been both interesting and encouraging to see that one of the supposed big divides in human life (believers vs. unbelievers) may not be so big after all.”

Dr Lee said: “These findings show once and for all that the public image of the atheist is a simplification at best, and a gross caricature at worst. Instead of relying on assumptions about what it means to be an atheist, we can now work with a real understanding of the many different worldviews that the atheist population includes. The implications for public and social policy are substantial — and this study also stands to impact on more everyday interactions in religiously diverse societies.”

The conference will run from 28 –30 May, 2019.

The full ‘Understanding Unbelief’ report is available here: https://research.kent.ac.uk/understandingunbelief/reports/