Non religious belief



This page sets out the background to the Understanding Unbelief, particularly drawing attention to key contributions from different human science disciplines, convergences between them, and opportunities for improving our scientific understanding of unbelief from this basis.


State of the field

Psychological Studies

Sociology and Anthropology

Open Questions

Next Steps

State of the field

There is growing scientific recognition of the need to better understand the related phenomena of nonreligion and unbelief. This is illustrated by the formation of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College, Hartford, CA in 2005 and the international Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) in 2008, as well as by the publication of several collections of initial research (Martin 2007; Zuckerman 2010; Bullivant & Lee 2013; Bullivant and Ruse 2013a; Blanes & Oustinova-Stjepanovic 2015). 

The term ‘unbelief’ has its own history within this broader and diverse area of research. Deriving from Western Christian traditions, ‘unbelief’ has been used as a folk category rather than a scientific one. Yet, the diverse phenomena that the concept encompasses – relating to beliefs in God or gods, the afterlife, supernatural agency, fate, and so on – are still very often held together in people’s minds, so that more precise concepts such as ‘atheism’ are often stretched to include all of these phenomena, despite their not necessarily having to do with theism per se. Because of this, the notion of ‘unbelief’ can work its way into scientific as well as popular thought without our notice.

Elsewhere, ‘unbelief’ has played an explicit role in scholarship. In 1969, the Vatican held a historic and pioneering conference on ‘unbelief’, an event that is widely seen as the first major scholarly event in the broader fields of nonreligious and secularity studies (Bullivant & Lee 2012) and which in 1971 (Caporale & Grumelli) produced a field-launching edited collection on The Culture of Unbelief. More recently, in Charles Taylor’s (2007) seminal work on secularism, ‘unbelief’ is a central category, and one that is distinct from but crucial to his notion of a ‘secular age’. These examples demonstrate the close tie between notions of ‘unbelief’ and Christian traditions of thought, but the concept has currency outside of these traditions, too. For example, The Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Flynn 2007) – the only encyclopaedia on atheism, secularity, irreligion and/or nonreligion – prefers the concept of unbelief for its perceived neutrality and lack of normative bias, something of value to the several contributors to this volume who participate in ‘unbelieving’ activism themselves. 

The Understanding Unbelief programme seeks to critically reflect upon this core concept, and to build on and integrate emerging work in an ambitious and interdisciplinary programme of activity – the result of which will be a deeper and, importantly, more comprehensive understanding of unbelief. In so doing, it builds upon and seeks to advance the following areas of enquiry. 

Psychological Studies

Firstly, this programme will build upon work in the psychological sciences that has complicated our understanding of the nature of beliefs, in terms of distinctions between implicit and explicit belief (Sperber 1997; Barrett 1999), for example, or the role of heuristics and biases (rather than conscious rational thought) in influencing such beliefs (Stein 1996; Gigerenzer & Selten 2002; Kahneman 2011): the implications of this emerging understanding of belief in general are only beginning to be applied to unbelief (Farias 2013; Lanman 2013). 

Elsewhere, researchers are making initial investigations into the possibility that individuals with explicit ‘unbeliefs’ might also hold implicit beliefs in the ultimate design of natural (Kelemen et al. 2013) and personal (Heywood & Bering 2014) phenomena. They are also investigating the role of content and context biases in predicting religious and unbeliefs (Henrich 2009; Lanman & Buhrmester 2016; Willard; Gervais/Norenzayan 2012), and the similarities and differences between religious beliefs and unbelief in their psychological functions and effects (Schnell & Keenan 2011; Farias 2013).

Sociology and Anthropology

In sociology, survey research on unbelief has produced a range of insights into international differences and longitudinal trends in the incidence of some kinds of unbelief and nonreligious identification (e.g. Gill & Lundsgaarde 2004; Norris & Inglehart 2004; Zuckerman 2007; Pew 2012, 2015). This work tends to rely on a limited range of ‘unbeliefs’ and nonreligious identities, but has recently been supplemented by new work that begins to make important inroads in distinguishing between different kinds of ‘nones’ (Lim et al., 2010; Lee 2014) and nonreligious organisations (Diversity of Nonreligion project). 

Work in sociology and anthropology also explores the politics of non-affiliate identities, attending to issues of discrimination against nonreligious individuals (e.g. Cragun et al. 2012; Edgell et al. 2006; etc.), for example. Initial ethnographies of Atheist and nonreligious humanist organisations and contexts (e.g. Quack 2012; Engelke 2014; Cimino & Smith 2014;) are also emerging, helping to enhance survey research with qualitative nuance and providing insight into the contexts and practices surrounding some areas unbelief. 

Finally, very recent work has begun to explore the alternative existential and metaphysical beliefs that sometimes ground nonreligious identities and religious unbeliefs (Lee 2015; see also Droogers & van Harskamp 2014). Sometimes called ‘worldviews’ in the sociological and anthropological literature, emerging interest in existential belief, practice and cultural formations connects with psychological approaches to understanding the outlooks of ‘unbelievers’ (e.g. Schnell 2010).

Open Questions

While all of this work helpful, the scientific understanding of ‘unbelief’ is still in its nascent stages (see Bullivant & Lee 2012; Bullivant & Ruse 2013b; Zuckerman 2010) and is limited therefore in a number of regards. These limitations include the following: 

• Contributions in different disciplines remain largely disconnected from one another. 

• Basic issues such as the psychological structure and cross-cultural variability in unbeliefs remain largely unexplored. 

• A conceptual reliance on generic atheism or on basic identifications inhibit the study of a wider array of (and beyond) ‘unbeliefs’, values, and cultures, and the reliance on self-reporting in some research limits what can be discovered about underlying psychology, behaviour, affect, and practice. 

• Qualitative and ethnographic research has tended to focus on small nonreligious organisations rather than the beliefs, attitudes, experiences and practices of those who do not participate in such groups – the majority of unbelievers in many settings.  

It is also clear that ‘unbelief’ is not a natural kind but rather a category that incorporates many and diverse: 

• existential and metaphysical beliefs, from beliefs about the nature of life and reality, including life’s purpose, and the existence of supernatural forces and agents, 

• levels of representation, e.g. implicit as well explicit beliefs; practice, symbols, patterns of social relations as well as ideas, theories and other intellectual manifestation of belief

• facets and dimensions, e.g. salience; stability; relative, negative or alternative forms. 

It is likewise clear that these beliefs exist in a wide array of individual and social contexts – genders, classes, ethnic groups, nations, regions, religious backgrounds, etc. They are also are attached to a number of personal and social identities (e.g. ‘atheist’, ‘secular humanist’, ‘freethinker’, ‘indifferent to religion’, simply ‘not religious’ (Lee 2014), etc.); or may alternatively be entirely implicit and not manifest in self-understandings or expressed through public identifications. Disaggregating unbelief also encourages a move away from more bounded forms of holistic thinking in which some people are described as religious and others as nonreligious – or as believers and unbelievers. Rather, we start to imagine and document more ‘hybrid’ configurations in which a single individual might have, say, a materialist conception of life and the afterlife, whilst also deriving other existential beliefs about what matters in life from their Catholic background and holding ethical principles informed by a degree of agnosticism and the sense that humans should not exert undue influence over the lives of others. Finally, we need to consider that diversity across all of these dimensions may also be intersectional in myriad ways.

Next Steps

To advance the scientific study of unbelief we therefore need to systematically document and understand this diversity by,

• ‘mapping’ unbeliefs as psychological, social and cultural phenomena, 

• providing more detailed accounts of the diverse types of, and aspects to, unbeliefs, and, 

• documenting the different combinations in which these diverse ‘unbeliefs’ manifest. 

In this work, this research programme seeks to addresses the following particular issues in the existing literature: 

1. Initial research into the nonreligious has focused on areas such as identity and community-formation, but research into the content of unbelievers' beliefs, attitudes and dispositions is under-developed in some disciplines and patchy in others. In psychology, for example, work has begun to explore the causes of unbelief, but relatively little work has investigated its different dimensions and, consequently, its effects (e.g. on health and well-being) (Schnell 2010). A well-rounded programme of research into the nature of unbelief is therefore called for. 

2. Existing research into nonreligion has, in all disciplines, focused narrowly on North America and (parts of) Europe – with important exceptions like Schielke (2012) and Quack (2010) that prove the rule. In psychology, and in keeping with most psychological research, initial work in this discipline has relied heavily on data from participants from WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) countries, despite these being ‘outliers’ across a large range of cognitive processes (Henrich et al. 2010). Much the same can be said of research conducted in other disciplines. Cross-cultural work is needed, not only to better understand unbeliefs in their diverse contexts, but to ensure that theories hold beyond the national borders within which they are produced.

3. Without more nuanced models of unbelief, demographic studies – of class, gender, ethnicity, religious background and so on – have been limited. Certain groups, particularly elite groups (see e.g. Sheard 2014) are over-represented in existing studies, and the comparative work needed to show how ‘unbeliefs’ take form as a result of different demographic positions and experiences is lacking.  

4. Responses to ‘big questions’ about unbelief are currently hindered by disciplinary and theoretical fragmentation. Relatedly, there has been little theoretical dialogue or collaboration between qualitative work and the emerging quantitative research on nonreligion, atheism and related phenomena within human science disciplines, thus depriving quantitative work of useful qualitative detail and critique and depriving qualitative research of significant methods of understanding bigger picture patterns. 

Reference: Lois Lee, Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias and Jonathan Lanman, 2016. Understanding Unbelief: Background. Scientific Study of Non-religious Belief, available at www.ucl.ac.uk/non-religious-belief/understanding-unbelief/background 

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