[Blog Series] Research Methods for the Scientific Study of Nonreligion

Over the next two months, the NSRN will work in collaboration with the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief* project to present a series of blogs providing practical guidance for the empirical study of nonreligious individuals, institutions and cultures, as well as exploring outstanding methodological challenges and new opportunities. In this opening blog, the series editors, Lois Lee, Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias and Jonathan Lanman, introduce the series.

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There is growing scientific recognition of the need to understand nonreligious populations more deeply – an interest illustrated by the publication of volumes of initial research, and by research initiatives such as the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College, Hartford, CT and, of course, the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) itself.[i]

These first explorations should be particularly commended for taking on the daunting challenge of finding empirical approaches to what was, and probably still is, one the largest unresearched populations in the human sciences:[ii] at around 1.1 billion people worldwide, religious ‘nones’ count as the world’s third largest ‘religious’ group (Pew Forum 2015), yet until recently scientific studies of this and similarly-defined populations were ad hoc and nothing approaching a sustained body of work could be discerned (Bullivant and Lee 2012).

As the NSRN bibliography attests, the situation is today markedly different, and the achievements of the past decade are striking. At the same time, the sheer size of nonreligious and nontheist populations means that even this sustained effort has, in many ways, only just begun to skim the surface of the work needing to be done. Some areas are increasingly well developed – such as research with cultural and activist movements including the New Atheism, and on the topics of nonreligious identity and community formation – whilst other questions and themes are much less studied.

Even more strikingly, research into nonreligion has tended to focus on North America and some parts of Europe – with important exceptions that prove the rule. In general, first research has relied heavily on data from participants from WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) countries, even though those countries are markedly dissimilar from other parts of the world in many respects.

Even within these settings, we do not yet have extensive understanding of how demographic factors – class, gender, ethnicity, religious background and so on – shape and are shaped by nonreligion. Particular groups are over-represented in existing studies and the comparative work needed to show how nonreligious beliefs take form as a result of different demographic positions and experiences is lacking.

The next major task for scholars of nonreligion is, then, to describe and understand the nature and variety of nonreligious perspectives, beliefs and cultural formations across different cultural and demographic contexts. This is a challenging, but exciting prospect for those engaged in the empirical study of religion, nonreligion and secularity and in related projects of theory building.

This is an endeavour that will involve inputs from researchers from across disciplines and across the world. It is also one that will require methodological precision and innovation. One of the major achievements of pioneers of scientific research in this area is the provision of methodological innovations, reflections and precedents for future research to build from. But, as an emerging field of enquiry, we do not yet have a fully-developed and centralised body of conceptual and methodological tools that will help both to consolidate and disseminate this growing body of knowledge. Likewise, with terminology, we do not have the shared reference points that would support effective communication not only across disciplines but even within them – a situation which also limits opportunities to scrutinise and develop core concepts in light of new knowledge.

Blog pieces will take one of several approaches. Some blogs will introduce readers to the approaches that have been successfully used in the study of nonreligion. Others will engage with recognised methodological challenges in the field: how, for example, can we recruit non-affiliates, that is people who do not themselves identify in explicit non-religious terms and do not participate in any non-religious organisation, for research? What concepts can we best use to approach cross-cultural research? Yet other blogs will explore new methodological possibilities and opportunities, including pieces drawing on methodological approaches in other fields.

The series aims to provide researchers with immediate and ongoing access to methodological experiences and innovations emerging in the field, as well as exploring new methods for future research. By these means the series will, we hope, dramatically improve the ease and opportunity of conducting empirical studies of the nonreligious, as well as improved opportunities to reflect upon and critique those approaches.


*This series is part of the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief project, generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation in collaboration with UCL, St Mary’s University Twickenham, Coventry University and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN). This project particularly focuses on the beliefs and meaning systems of nonreligious people – what we are calling nonreligious belief. This broad category attempts to capture the religious, religious-like, and religion-related ideas and convictions of nonaffiliates and atheists. It includes a wide array of specific beliefs, such as those about God(s) and supernatural agents, the nature and meaning of life, and the moral status of religious traditions. The blogs in this series particularly address this theme, broadly understood, though they also provide resources that will be useful beyond this framework. The project website will be launched in May 2016 and will be announced on the NSRN website.

We will continue to develop methodological resources in the longer term. If you have an idea for a blog topic or would like to get involved, please send your suggestions to Dr Lois Lee at lois.lee [at] ucl.ac.uk.


Bullivant, Stephen and Lois Lee. 2012. ‘Non-religion and Secularity: The State of the Union’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1), 19-27.

Pew Research Center. 2015. America’s Changing Religious Landscape, available online at: http://www.pewforum.org/files/2015/05/RLS-05-08-full-report.pdf (last accessed on 3 July 2015).

[i] Michael Martin, Phil Zuckerman, Stephen Bullivant and Lois Lee, Stephen Bullivant and Michael Ruse, Ruy Blanes and Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic have all edited significant collections in this field, whilst Johannes Quack, Christopher Smith and Richard Cimino, Lois Lee are amongst those who have published research-based monographs in the field.

[ii] It is not quite true to say that this population was entirely unresearched before 2005, but there was certainly no sustained tradition of work. See Bullivant and Lee 2012.

Lois Lee is Research Associate at the Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL, PI on the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief project (John Templeton Foundation) and Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network co-director. Recent publications include Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular (OUP, 2015) and Negotiating Religion: Cross-Disciplinary Approaches (Routledge, in press).

Stephen Bullivant is a Senior Lecturer at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. Among other books, he co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (OUP, 2013; with M. Ruse) and Secularity and Non-Religion (Routledge, 2013; with L. Lee and E. Arweck), and is currently writing The Oxford Dictionary of Atheism (OUP) with Lois Lee.

Miguel Farias leads the Brain, Belief and Behaviour group at Coventry University. He has previously been a lecturer at Oxford University where he also did his doctorate in experimental psychology. His major research interests are the psychobiological roots of beliefs and the effects of spiritual practices.

Jonathan Lanman is Assistant Director of the Institute of Cognition & Culture, and Lecturer in Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast. His research aims to utilize the tools of both cognitive and social anthropology to examine religion, atheism, morality, and intergroup relations.


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