Towards a psychology and sociology of atheism and non-belief

If the world’s estimated 1.1 billion atheists and non-believers were grouped together as their own “religion,” they would be the world’s third-largest, trailing only Christianity and Islam. Any serious psychology or sociology of religion must take into account the beliefs and experiences of non-believers — yet the scientific study of atheism and non-belief has lagged behind the study of religions, with varied forms of non-belief often relegated to being defined by what they aren’t rather than what they are.

The John Templeton Foundation enthusiastically supports scientific research that touches on many of life’s big questions, especially questions with potential to provide deeper insights into the nature and effects of religious beliefs and practices. What is perhaps less known is that since 2014 the Foundation has also funded a series of research projects aimed at increasing our understanding of the sociology and psychology of atheism and other forms of non-belief. For the same reasons that it is important that we understand the causes and implications of religious activity and belief, it is also vital to understand the potential reasons for and benefits of various ways of being non-religious. Anything less would be settling for only a part of the picture.

THE NUMBERS AND NATURES OF NON-BELIEF

One of the first researchers on atheism to receive Templeton funding was Will Gervais, an evolutionary and cultural psychologist at the University of Kentucky. Gervais has used experiments and innovative survey techniques to help fill gaps in our basic understanding of the prevalence of and reasons for non-belief. In two initial studies, Gervais collected data suggesting that the true number of atheists in the United States may be as high as 26 percent — more than double the number generally reported in standard Gallup polls.

Among those non-believers, Gervais has investigated whether individual cognitive styles (analytic versus intuitive) or mentalizing ability (being able to accurately represent the contents of other people’s minds) may predispose people toward non-belief. Gervais’s work to date suggests that cognitive factors play a minor role compared to the cultural availability of (and individual dissatisfaction with) specific religious ideas, symbols, and practices.

As some of Gervais’s most extensive studies, including an unprecedented in-depth survey of 3,000 self-identifying non-believers, are completed and analyzed, he will make that dataset public in the hope of pushing the field towards more in-depth insights into the nature of religious disbelief.

ATHEISTS, ALIENS AND MAGICAL THINKING

At the University of North Dakota, psychologist Clay Routledge has been delving into what he calls the secret religious lives of atheists. His Templeton supported research has looked at whether non-believers are prone to certain types of “magical thinking” — be it belief that everything happens for a reason or that UFO conspiracy theories are true. Findings so far suggest that it is indeed common that non-believers still embrace supernatural beliefs.

Through this work, Routledge has developed a psychological measure of “need for meaning,” and has found that it is correlated with increased belief in the supernatural both for atheists and for religious believers. Intriguingly, he has found that such beliefs can even be amplified by priming an individual’s need for meaning by, for instance, having them read an essay that emphasizes the smallness of humans in the universe.

“We never expected that you can take atheists and have them think about meaning for a few minutes and then all of the sudden they’re going to be radical believers,” Routledge says. “But just at this basic cognitive level can you crack the door a little bit? Does having people think about meaning make them just a little more open to magical ideas? That’s what we’ve found.”

UNDERSTANDING UNBELIEF

Across the Atlantic, a group of social and cognitive scientists are overseeing a significant project — backed by $2.8 million in Templeton funding  — to incentivize research into the nature of unbelief in God and other supernatural beings. The Understanding Unbelief project is led by sociologist Lois Lee (University of Kent), together with social psychologist Miguel Farias (Coventry University), cognitive anthropologist Jonathan Lanman (Queen’s University, Belfast), and theologian and sociologist Stephen Bullivant (St Mary’s University, Twickenham).

Lee says that with the recent rise of secularism, particularly in Western Europe, social science has lagged behind the phenomenon: “It’s only recently that we’ve had these kind of empirical concepts where you can say, OK, well what does it mean to be non-religious? Let’s not just chart the decline of religion — that tells a bit of the story, but let’s really find out what’s going on instead.”

The Understanding Unbelief project centers on core interdisciplinary, cross-cultural research undertaken by the project’s leaders. This research focuses on non-believers in five different countries — Brazil, Denmark, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. By combining methods  from different disciplines such as cognitive psychology and cultural anthropology, Lee and her colleagues hope to gain a better understanding of what unbelief entails in different parts of the world with different religious histories.

In addition to the core research, the Understanding Unbelief project has awarded subgrants to dozens of other researchers. Findings from these will add rich data from additional cultural contexts ranging from other European cultures to Muslim-majority contexts like Egypt. Lee’s University of Kent colleague Anna Strhan is undertaking a subgrant-funded study of non-religious upbringing in the U.K. “It’s the first time anything like that is being done with non-religious children,” Lee says. “In the U.K., an overwhelming majority of young people are non-religious. So it’s very important, we think, to understand what’s going on in those formative years.”

Because the study of atheism and unbelief is so novel, Lee and her colleagues are giving special attention to supporting projects by early career scholars with an eye towards developing researchers who will continue to contribute to the field in the coming decades. These early career grants include analyses of unbelievers’ narratives of living and dying, surveys of unbelief among people within a Muslim cultural context in Sweden, as well as investigations into how to accurately measure belief in God around the world.

TOWARDS A NEW TERMINOLOGY

When Lee steps back to look at the scientific study of non-religion, one of her greatest hopes concerns one of the simplest and most fundamental matters: a clarification of the basic terms surrounding religion and non-religion. There is a temptation to bundle all forms of atheism and non-belief into a single category. But a single category isn’t enough. Lee stresses that, “If we only had terms like theism and religion to describe all the different denominations, national cultures, everything you wanted to say about religion, we’d be misled”

Lee says she hopes the term non-religious will itself eventually become obsolete.  “What I would imagine happening is that the language of atheism, unbelief, non-religion will disappear, more or less,” she says. “We’re trying to find a word that is a substitute for religion, to put it slightly crudely, that will get us to something that religious and nonreligious have in common.”