Atheists do not feel life is devoid of any meaning

A bus displays an atheist message in Kensington Gardens, London, in 2013
A bus displays an atheist message in Kensington Gardens, London, in 2013
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Last week, my fellow researchers and I released our initial report, ‘Understanding Unbelief: Atheists and agnostics around the world’.

This report is the result of the largest international research effort on atheism and non-religion to date and presents some interesting and encouraging findings in an increasingly polarised world.

Jon Lanman

Jon Lanman

We launched this report in Rome on the 50th anniversary of the first academic conference on unbelief, hosted by the Vatican in 1969. That conference was organised in the wake of the establishment of a pontifical secretariat for non-believers, one of the numerous efforts after the Second Vatican Council to encourage inter-religious dialogue, but faced a challenge in that data on unbelievers was minimal.

Since 1969, the number of those not believing in the existence of God(s) has been substantially increasing, with very rough estimates putting the global number at around 700 million, making ‘unbelievers’ the world’s 4th largest ‘religious’ group [based on work by Californian Professor of sociology and secular studies Phil Zuckerman in 2007, to gather up hundreds of various survey results from around the world].

The number of books, articles, and films championing atheism and secularism, and the public discussion surrounding these cultural products, has also dramatically increased over the last 15 years.

This flourishing of ‘unbelief’ has produced difficult questions for governments around the world, whether it is UK policy makers and courts deciding who qualifies as a ‘humanist’ as they seek asylum and whether or not to recognise humanist marriages, or Chinese officials deciding the extent to which to suppress religious organisations and superstitions to maintain an officially atheist state.

Our team noticed that while much excellent research had been done on atheism and humanism in recent years, most of it had been done in Western countries and with people who are either quite vocal about their atheism or members of atheist or humanist organisations – and who are, consequently, unlikely to be representative of those not believing in the existence of God(s) as a whole.

Our goal was to get more representative data about the nature and diversity of unbelief. 

While we have funded a total of 22 research teams around the world, our central research programme, entitled ‘Understanding Unbelief: Across Disciplines and Across Cultures’, combines nationally representative surveys and in-depth interviews with unbelievers in Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the UK and the USA (total participants, 6,780).

Here are a few of our findings:

• Unbelievers exhibit significant diversity both within, and between, different countries. Consequently, there are a great many ways of being an ‘unbeliever’

• 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 as agnostics show lower confidence, and atheists similar levels of confidence, in their views as the general population

• 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 as the majority of those not believing in the existence of God(s) reject the idea of an ultimately meaningless universe

• 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. 

Our data directly counter common stereotypes about unbelievers such as 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 6 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. 

• Dr Jonathan Lanman is a senior lecturer in Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast. For the full report, please see https://research.kent.ac.uk/understandingunbelief