The Vatican and Kent host major atheism conference

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Vatican, Rome

The global Understanding Unbelief programme to advance the scientific understanding of atheism and nonreligion has presented results from its research at a conference at the Vatican in Rome.

The multidisciplinary research programme led by the University of Kent mapped the nature and diversity of ‘unbelief’ across six countries including Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, UK and the USA

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

Researchers asked about attitudes to issues like supernatural phenomena, such as 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 included:

  • 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 was the Pontifical Council for Culture – the Vatican department responsible for dialoguing with non-believers – and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, co-founded in 2008 by University of Kent sociologist Dr Lois Lee.

Dr Lee, Senior Research Fellow in Kent’s Department of Religious Studies, was Principal Investigator for Understanding Unbelief. The project was 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).

Speaking about the research project, 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.’

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.’

The conference ran from 28 –30 May, 2019.

The full ‘Understanding Unbelief’ report is available at