Don’t pigeonhole unbelievers as hard atheists, study cautions

Don’t pigeonhole unbelievers as hard atheists, study cautions

Religious and non-religious people share more than common stereotypes might suggest, according to a major study presented at the Vatican this week.

“Our data directly counter common stereotypes about unbelievers,” Dr Jon Lanham of Queen’s University Belfast said of the Understanding Unbelief programme, which mapped the diversity of unbelief across Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the US and the UK.

“A common view of unbelievers is 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,” the Belfast-based anthropologist said, explaining that the study’s data showed this cliché to be untrue.

“In a time when our societies seem to be growing more and more polarised, it has been 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,” he said.


Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Prof. Stephen Bullivant of London’s St Mary’s University said the study had found that “even within a particular country there’s a huge diversity of ways of being an unbeliever”.

This diversity has serious implications for how the Church reaches out to those of no religion, he said, cautioning against assumptions that all unbelievers are ‘hard’ atheists with purely naturalistic outlooks.

“There’s a whole spectrum of belief in spiritual realities, in a universal life force, in underlying forces of good and evil, in fate, in astrology – these people are not living in a wholly disenchanted materialistic world,” he said.