Following my attendance and presentation at the excellent Cultures of Unbelief conference in Rome last week (28-30 May 2019), I was asked for a comment by the Religion Media Centre on the report that was launched there, presenting interim findings from 2019 research in Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The report contains some excellent and up-to-date data which problematizes the notion that those who do not ‘have’ religion (through identification, belief, practice or other measures) are a homogeneous and ’empty’ category. The report can be accessed in its entirety here, and comes with many helpful (and some not so helpful) visualizations: https://research.kent.ac.uk/understandingunbelief/reports/
However, my comment is somewhat critical and picks up on a couple of points that are already being widely disseminated (and to my mind, misinterpreted) in the media.
Here are just some of the headlines that I’ve spotted over the past few days:
- Most atheists believe in the supernatural, despite trusting science (New Scientist)
- Most atheists believe in the supernatural, study finds (The Times)
- Many atheists and agnostics admit they still believe in the supernatural (Earth)
- As it turns out, anti-atheist stereotypes aren’t true (World Religion News)
- Most atheists and agnostics BELIEVE in the supernatural and ‘underlying forces of good and evil’ (Brinkwire)
- Does a new study show all atheists are searching for Christ? (Premier)
Whilst not completely incorrect, and whilst coming in the most part from a ‘good place’, these headlines are problematic. Here was my initial response:
These interim findings provide rich data emphasizing the sheer variety of identities, values and beliefs of ‘atheists’ and ‘agnostics’ but must be treated with caution. Headlines emphasizing the number of atheists that believe in the ‘supernatural’ mistakenly presume that this is contradictory (it isn’t), and are most significantly evidenced by prevalent tropes which dubiously warrant the label ‘supernatural’ – that significant events are ‘meant to be’ and that ‘there are underlying forces of good and evil in this world’. Furthermore, celebrating the significant emphasis on ‘family’ and ‘freedom’ by ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ obscures the fact that these are slippery symbols which gather together hosts of incompatible beliefs – for example, freedom for religion and freedom from religion.
The staff at the RMC were very helpful, and pushed me on a couple of the points I made, and we worked together to produce the following text, published on their website (along with comments from Lois Lee, Julian Baggini and Andrew Copson):
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.
An excellent experience all round,