Expert comment: The British being of no religion is no surprise

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Wide view of a church altar area
Altar St Mary and St Eanswythe Folkestone Monday 10 July 2017 by hawkflight1066 }

As new research shows that more than half of British people say they are of no religion, Dr Lois Lee, a world leading expert in unbelief from the University, says we shouldn’t be surprised.

Commenting on the British Social Attitudes survey, Dr Lee said: ‘We are now a very firmly nonreligious country, but there’s no doubt that we have a strange blind spot about this. Even though the nonreligious have been the majority ‘religion’ in the UK since 1993 and first passed the 50% mark several years ago in 2010, we’re still surprised by the latest data hammering home this long-term trend. The reaction to this research is a case in point.

‘I think an underlying issue here is that we know the numbers, but we don’t really know what to make of them. It’s astonishing to think that, though a third of the world’s population do not affiliate with a religion, what we know about religious “unbelievers” comes from just a handful of studies, most of which focus on the US and the UK, or even more narrowly on the writings of a tiny number of prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins. And this means we often struggle to make space for nonreligious worldviews in schools, the media and the law.

‘I’m pleased to say that this situation is changing. The Bishop of Liverpool has responded to the BSA data by pointing out that not having a religion and being an atheist are not the same thing – and he’s quite right. However the large majority of nonreligious people are atheist or agnostic in their beliefs, and here at the University of Kent our Understanding Unbelief programme is transforming what we know about them.

‘Overall, this programme will bring about a dramatic change in our knowledge. The really interesting question now isn’t how many people no longer identify with a religion, but what they are identifying with instead. That’s something we’ll be able to speak much more confidently about at the end of this research. And, thinking more widely, this programme stands to build a truly global understanding of what it means to be an ‘atheist’ or so-called ‘unbeliever’.

‘I think we’ll look back on this as a major milestone in our understanding of the nonreligious – and of the religious, too, in fact.’

Dr Lois Lee joined the School of European Culture and Languages Kent in 2017. She is principle investigator on the Scientific Study of Non-religious Belief project and the £2.3 million Understanding Unbelief programme, both largely funded by the Philadelphia-based John Templeton Foundation.