Understanding Unbelief Report

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A report from the Understanding Unbelief programme, led by the University of Kent, has found a wide variety of beliefs among atheists and agnostics.   15% in the UK say they are Christian. 14% are spiritual but not religious. A significant proportion believe in supernatural phenomena. Research took place in six countries. No great difference was found between believers and non-believers on commonly held values such as freedom and family. The full report is here:

Dr Lois Lee, Programme Leader of ‘Understanding Unbelief’ and Senior Research Fellow in Religious Studies at the University of Kent

This report shows the sheer diversity in the beliefs and worldviews of so-called non-believers. Atheists and agnostics are often treated with a broad brush, but this study suggests that that is hugely reductive. It could provide a significant basis for moving away from tokenism in the representation of “unbelievers” in all areas of media and public life. It is also striking to find that on big moral issues religious believers and non-believers differ very little. Historically societies have often perceived a wide gulf between theists and non-theists but this study suggests that that is false. It’s hopeful in many ways that that sense of polarisation seems to be misplaced.’


Julian Baggini, philosopher, journalist, co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine, who has written extensively on atheism, secularism and the nature of national identity. He is a patron of Humanists UK.

‘This report challenges the lazy assumptions we make about belief by showing how much diversity there is within and across the categories of believer, agnostic and atheist. In particular, it reveals how varied atheists are in their beliefs and how the vast majority defy the negative characterisation of them as dogmatic. The most hopeful aspect of the report is that it shows most people are deeply committed to the same basic set of moral values irrespective of what they think about the existence of God or the truth of religion. It is clear that disagreements in matters of belief and unbelief should not be the cause of social or even moral division.’


Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, Humanists UK

‘The encouraging news for all those who believe in social solidarity between the religious and the nonreligious is the fact that many values are shared by those who believe in gods and those who don’t. This is a positive basis for the future. Many of the findings in the research are ambiguous and it is very welcome that further research is being done. What is clear is that the line between different kinds of belief is increasingly blurred. Findings like the fact that many people who identify as Christians don’t believe in god raise new questions for those who insist – wrongly – that religion is not continuing to lose its salience.’


Dr Chris Cotter, University of Edinburgh,  CEO of The Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO);  Co-Director at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network

 ‘These interim findings provide rich data emphasising the sheer variety of identities, values and beliefs of ‘atheists’ and ‘agnostics’, but must be interpreted well.  One reading of the data is that it generally shows that atheists and agnostics are not all that different from the broader population. Another is that atheists and agnostics are very similar to ‘religious believers’. If this is taken to mean that they are ‘not really’ atheists or agnostics, this would be a gross oversimplification. Headlines emphasizing that atheists believe in the ‘supernatural’, mistakenly presume that this is contradictory.  But we know from existing research that while atheists don’t believe in some sort of theistic God, their position doesn’t say anything about fate, or ghosts, or karma etc. Responses such as significant events are ‘meant to be’ and that ‘there are underlying forces of good and evil in this world’, need not refer to the supernatural. They could be used to explain rational causation of events or societal forces.  The report’s findings of shared values such as ‘family’ and ‘freedom’, shows that these are powerful symbols, but they are very broad categories which can mask very real differences.’



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