21 June 2019

Exploring Unbelief

The 2019 Cultures of Unbelief conference announcement.
Welcome back. Here’s one you may have missed. There was an international conference held recently on Cultures of Unbelief.
Report of the 1969 unbelief
conference, published 1971
by University of California
Press; reprinted 2019
(available from Amazon)

Co-hosted in Rome by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, the event marked the 50th anniversary of a similar Vatican conference.

Cultures of Unbelief Conference
The 3-day conference was designed to explore how unbelievers engage with religion, their diverse existential, metaphysical and moral beliefs, and prospects for dialogue and collaboration between believers and unbelievers.

Toward that end, the conference had sessions of primarily academic speakers from around the world, with attendees including leaders of religious and nonreligious groups, journalists and educators.

A major conference highlight presented in parallel sessions was the capstone report of the Understanding Unbelief program’s core research project.

Understanding Unbelief Program
The Understanding Unbelief program is aimed at advancing the scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of unbelief around the world.

Begun in 2017 with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the program is based at the UK’s University of Kent and operates in collaboration with St Mary’s University, Twickenham, Coventry University, Queen’s University Belfast and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.

The program has awarded grants for research and public engagement, but its core research project is Understanding Unbelief Across Disciples, Across Cultures (referred to as ADAC).

Surveying Atheists and Agnostics
The ADAC applied an interdisciplinary approach to explore the nature and variety of unbelief in cultural and demographic contexts. That initially involved fieldwork and surveys across six countries: Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the UK and USA.

The researchers enquired about supernatural phenomena, life after death and astrology, whether the universe is ultimately meaningless and what values matter most. They used internationally recognized terms to identify unbelievers (atheists, agnostics).

Example ADAC survey query responses: Percentages of atheists/agnostics combined (darker color bars) and general population in six countries that agree strongly or somewhat with the statement on evolution (from research.kent.ac.uk/understandingunbelief/wp-content/uploads/sites/45/2019/05/UUReportRome.pdf).
The ADAC’s interim findings, presented at the conference, were also released at the conference in a 24-page program report, Atheists and Agnostics Around the World.

Key ADAC Survey Findings
I’ll summarize the report’s eight key findings.

1. Atheists and agnostics exhibit significant diversity both within and between countries.

2. The majority of unbelievers in each country identify as having no religion. Nevertheless, 28% of atheists and agnostics in Denmark and 18% in Brazil identify as Christian; 8% in Japan identify as Buddhist. Most unbelievers in Brazil, Denmark, the USA and UK were brought up Christian.

3. Relatively few unbelievers select atheist or agnostic as their preferred identity; only small proportions use other labels (e.g., humanist, free thinker, sceptic, secular).

4. Popular assumptions about convinced, dogmatic atheists do not hold. Unbelievers in Brazil and China are less confident in their beliefs about God than are the general populations.

5. Unbelief in God does not necessarily entail unbelief in supernatural phenomena. The majority of unbelievers in each country expressed belief in one or more supernatural phenomena.

6. A common supposition--the purposeless unbeliever, lacking anything to ascribe ultimate meaning to the universe--doesn't hold. The meaningless universe is a minority view among unbelievers in all countries.

7. With few exceptions, unbelievers endorse objective moral values, human dignity and attendant rights, and the deep value of nature, at rates similar to the general populations.

8. There is remarkably high agreement between unbelievers and general populations on the most important values for finding meaning in the world and your own life. Family and freedom ranked high for all; compassion, truth, nature and science were also popular, though less unanimously.

Wrap Up
The Cultures of Unbelief conference was held at a time when unbelief appears to be rising with potentially significant social, cultural and political implications.

The interim findings of the Understanding Unbelief program’s core research project are also timely, countering stereotypes about unbelievers. As a coauthor of the ADAC report noted, 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.

Thanks for stopping by.


2019 Cultures of Unbelief conference (find link on list of upcoming events): research.kent.ac.uk/understandingunbelief/events/current-events/
Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network: nsrn.net/
ADAC report Atheists and Agnostics Around the World: research.kent.ac.uk/understandingunbelief/wp-content/uploads/sites/45/2019/05/UUReportRome.pdf
Article on conference and Understanding Unbelief program: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-05/uok-vhm052319.php

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