Engaging with the public to understand life's big question

Religious Studies scholar, Dr Lois Lee is working with the public to advance the scientific understanding of atheism and non-religious world views. Written by Sunder Mahendra.

A third of the world’s population do not affiliate with a religion. Traditionally, nonreligiosity and atheism were thought mainly to involve the absence of significant forms of practice and belief, and to be insignificant in themselves. At the same time, these positions were associated in research and the popular imagination with a number of beliefs and dispositions, e.g. being more disposed to analytic thinking and science, nihilism, and moral relativism. 

Dr Lois Lee, Research Fellow in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of the Understanding Unbelief research programme says that we need to take the Beliefs of the Non-religious Seriously, and argues that non-religious belief should be understood better since not only is nonreligious culture a present and influential force in contemporary societies but that its study also helps us to recognise the existential, meaning-making dimension to the lives of nonreligious people – something that the nonreligious and religious have in common.  

Through her research project ‘Understanding Unbelief’ Dr. Lois, who is a principal investigator on the project, sets out to achieve a dramatic change in our knowledge of what unbelievers and unreligious identify with and to build a truly global understanding of what it means to be an ‘atheist’ or so-called ‘unbeliever’ 

Her work focuses on the way in which social structures and regional cultures shape the religious and existential beliefs and commitments of so-called unbelievers, addressing questions about the nature and diversity of those beliefs and commitments.  

Understanding Unbelief project is largely funded by the Philadelphia-based John Templeton Foundation. The project’s aim is to advance the scientific understanding of atheism, agnosticism and other forms of so-called religious ‘unbelief’. It examines the precise nature of unbelief in religious phenomena such as God/s, the afterlife, the ultimate purpose of life, and also interrogates meaning systems, rituals and cultures unbelievers adopt. As well as core research undertaken by Dr. Lois and the programme team, the Understanding Unbelief programme involves numerous academic and non-academic collaborators from around the world. 

Public Engagement  

Dr. Lois has a strong interest in working with research communities in the wide dissemination of research as she believes that we often struggle to make space for nonreligious worldviews in schools, the media and the law. She is a prolific public speaker and has given presentations at various events and at a variety of different fora. She founded the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) and the journal, Secularism and Nonreligion (S&N), and is co-editor of the NSRN book series, Religion and Its Others: Studies in Religion, Nonreligion and Secularity (De Gruyter). She also works with community groups as well as national and local media to disseminate her own - and NSRN's - research outside academia. She published a book ‘Recognising The Non-Religious’ and co-edited ‘Dictionary of Atheism’ and recorded a video discussing her research findings. 


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