Kent and the Vatican to host atheism conference

An event co-hosted by the University’s ‘Understanding Unbelief’ project, the Pontifical Council for Culture (the Vatican department responsible for dialogue with non-believers), and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, will explore ground-breaking new research advancing the scientific understanding of atheism and nonreligion.

Taking place at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome from 28-30 May 2019, the ‘Cultures of Unbelief’ conference presents findings from the multidisciplinary research programme, aiming to map the nature and diversity of ‘unbelief’ across the world.

As part of the main conference programme, the Pontifical Council for Culture are partners for a one-day event marking 50 years since the Vatican’s own ‘Culture of Unbelief’ conference held in 1969.

Gordon Lynch, Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology in the School of European Culture and Languages (SECL) at the University of Kent, said: ‘The growth of different forms of non-religion has been a significant development in many societies across the world in recent decades. This conference, drawing together findings from the most substantial international programme of research in this field, promises to be a genuinely landmark event in taking forward both our understanding of the varieties of non-religion and the social implications of these.’

Dr Lois Lee, Senior Research Fellow in Religious Studies in SECL, is Principal Investigator for Understanding Unbelief. The project, which is supported by a £2.3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation is co-led by psychologist Dr Miguel Farias (Coventry University), anthropologist Dr Jonathan Lanman (Queen’s University Belfast), and sociologist Professor Stephen Bullivant (St Mary’s University).

Recent popes have repeatedly voiced a desire for greater understanding between ‘those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown’ as Pope Benedict XVI put it in 2009 when he announced his new initiative for Christian-atheist dialogue known as the Court of Gentiles. More recently, Pope Francis has written of ‘a sincere and rigorous dialogue’ with nonbelievers as being ‘nothing other than positive, not only for us individually but also for the society in which we live’.

The current collaboration comes at a time when rates of unbelief and non-religion appear to be rapidly rising across the world, with potentially significant social, cultural, and political implications. New figures published last year by Understanding Unbelief researcher Stephen Bullivant revealed that 70% of UK 18-29 year-olds identify as having ‘no religion’.