[Blog Series] Creating Data about Nonreligious Belief

Abby Day is a leading sociologist of ‘belief’. Here, she sets out what working with ‘belief’ as a significant category of self-understanding can achieve, for religious ‘unbelievers’ as much as for ‘believers’. She encourages the use of analytical tools that respond to the complexity and multidimensionality of belief, and introduces her own seven-point method as one such approach.AbbyDayweb


‘What do you believe in?’ This was the opening question in my interviews research on belief, and it provoked a variety of responses – some perplexed, some religious, some not sure and some, defiantly, nonreligious.[i] Although my intention when creating those interviews was not to test Lois Lee’s definition of ‘nonreligion’ as being a state in relation to or with religion[ii] (she had not yet completed her research at that stage) it is, in retrospect, a question that could serve well in that endeavour. In this blog I will outline two main methodological issues that are raised when researching belief, and how nonreligion may spill out of the data being created.


Data are mute


One of the most common mistakes researchers in human sciences make, using qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods, is to state that ‘the data’ are saying something. Data say nothing. The researcher says it all through the subjective experience of conducting research; and all research in human sciences[iii] is subjective from the moment the research question is formed, through the research design, to the questions being asked and the conclusions drawn. I often wonder why, if 15-year-old kids can understand this, more mature researchers sometimes do not. I’m thinking here of ‘Jordan’ whose answer to my question ‘what do you believe in?’ drew us in conversation to his startling statement that he was a Christian, but believed in nothing. I was only surprised because my Christian-centric idea about belief carried with it all the heavy baggage of creeds, tenets, and words that seemed to define it.

People like Needham (1972) and Ruel (1982) already understood the Christian, unstable and non-generalizable roots to such notions of ‘belief’,[iv] and their solution was to avoid using the term altogether. In many ways, however, this response is to throw out the proverbial bathwater, since a conversation about ‘belief’ can bring up all the interesting, unstable and sometimes Christian-centric ideas that can richly inform our exploration.[v] From our conversations, I argued that Jordan was saying he was Christian because he was wanting to identify with his English culture, which for him (and for many others, I was to find) was constituted partly by a dominant Christian history. The data never ‘said’ that; I needed to, as Malinowski puts it, be an ethnographer who ‘has to construct the picture of the big institution, very much as the physicist constructs his [sic] theory from the experimental data, which always have been within reach of everybody, but needed a consistent interpretation’.[vi] My interpretation helped me revisit, redefine and nuance the notion of ‘belief’.

Most large surveys measure ‘beliefs’ without the surveyor having the possibility of engaging in such a conversation. This demonstrates that the survey designers assume the term is sufficiently stable and means the same thing to everyone for their methodology to be instructive. And so, for example, they ask people if they believe in life after death, assuming a sort of religious interpretation of heaven or hell. If people say ‘yes’, the surveyors may claim that the ‘data’ show a religious orientation without realising that the question itself is immersed in subjective ideas about what constitutes religion. Most people probably do believe in something like life after death, but they may not couch it in such religious terms. What they believe in, my qualitative studies suggest, is often related to the idea or experience of a spirit world, rather than a notion of an afterlife grounded in the theistic traditions that so often govern our thinking. That is why it is perfectly reasonable for an atheist to believe in life after death.

Nonreligious identification does not necessarily (or even frequently, perhaps) imply a state of materialism; it implies only a state of being other than religious (by somebody’s measure), just as atheism is not necessarily a state of being unspiritual, but a state of being other than theistic. Many nonreligious and nontheistic people in my study believed in ghosts, the continuing presence of deceased relatives, aliens and all sorts of interesting ‘other worldly’ entities and states. Many had even sensed such entities, leading me to create an idea of the sensuous social supernatural. Such categories cut across pre-conceived notions of ‘belief’ and ‘unbelief’, and allow us to build more complicated, and less binary models for understanding believing and believers as part of people’s lived lives.

Methodologically, realising that data don’t ‘speak’ – or, at least, that they are part of a broader conversation in which the researcher has played a determining role – is important because it creates a constant state of tension, uncertainty and, ideally, reflexivity in the researcher. For the study of nonreligious belief, this realisation can also free researchers from the strictures of preconceived concepts of what ‘unbelief’ entails, whilst still allowing us to work with those concepts constructively instead of discarding them altogether.


Beliefs are the stories we tell


One of the most productive ways of working with a more complicated notion of ‘belief’ is to explore what people tell us about believing. People have beliefs because those beliefs say something about them. In many places in the world, ‘believing in’ something or someone is a critical part of their identity. For example, when we want to express our love or support for someone, we tell them ‘I believe in you’. When we want to make a stand for values that orient, or we would like to think orient, our behaviour, we say ‘I believe in that [social justice, fairness, equality and so on]’. That beliefs are not usually seen as ‘facts’ to be proven is their purpose and strength. That is why it is so important for some religious people to depart from belief, to say that they do not believe in God, but know or experience God.

If beliefs are wrapped up in identity, then the only way we will get at them is to prompt people to tell us about themselves, to tell us stories. These ‘belief narratives’, as I like to call them, are stories that are sometimes clear and sometimes messy, and they can provide insights into at least seven aspects of what people believe in:

  • the content of their beliefs,
  • how they practise them,
  • where they got them from,
  • how salient they are to them,
  • what the function is for them,
  • when they exist for them,
  • and where.

Provoking these kind of multi-dimensional stories can lead us into a better understanding of the substance and contours of religion and nonreligion. It is how I discovered that people who said they were not religious in our interview could also be the same people that ticked the ‘Christian’ box on the national census. I created a category of nonreligious Christians who were, in three of the seven aspects (content, practice, source) I analysed above, nonreligious. The only time Christianity arose was when it had a certain salience and functioned to claim a kind of identity that was performed in the time and place of filling out a national census form. Keeping with Lee’s definition, the identity of nonreligion was only sparked when explicitly linked to a religious category by an instrument that forced a choice. That had all sorts of ramifications – some theoretical, some ethical, and some practical.[vii]

Researching such matters may be, at least at first, a little messy, but such are the matters themselves. Analytical tools that aim to disaggregate different elements of believing and to understand their complicated relations to religion, nonreligion and areligion, too, are necessary to grapple with this messiness. Messiness is not the same as meaninglessness. To many people, when they matter they really matter, mess and all.


Dr. Abby Day (Abby.day at gold.ac.uk) is Reader in Race, Faith and Culture in the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, where her teaching, research, writing and supervisions cover sociology of religion, media and religion, and critical criminology. Past Chair of the Sociology of Religion Study group in the British Sociological Association, her work focuses on improving the academic and public understanding of complex religious and non-religious identities, from ‘Christmas Christians’ to ‘Friday Muslims’. These manifestations are often tied to national, ethnic, gendered and historical identities.


[i] Abby Day, 2013 [2011]: Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Lois Lee, 2015. Recognizing The Non-Religious : Reimagining The Secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

[iii] This frequently also applies to natural science, as Latour argued (1993. We have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), but I am restricting my argument here to human sciences.

[iv] Rodney Needham, 1972. Belief, Language and Experience. Chicago: Chicago University Press; Malcolm Ruel, 1982. “Christians as Believers.” In Religious Organization and Religious Experience, ed. J. Davis, 9–32. ASA Monograph 21. London and New York: Academic Press.

[v] Day, 2013 [2011], Believing in Belonging.

[vi] Bronislaw Malinowski, 1961 [1922] Argonauts of the Western Pacific. New York: E.P. Dutton: 93.

[vii] Abby Day and Lois Lee, 2014 ‘Making Sense of Surveys and Censuses: Issues in Religious Self-Identification: Introduction,’ Religion, 44:3, 345-356.



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