Asking grown-ups about religious unbelief

In this post, Paul Merchant reflects on the how there are differences in the way children and adults are asked about religion and (un)belief in oral history interviews.

This blog is concerned with an observed difference between the ways in which adults and children tend to be asked about religion in three collections of ‘life story’ oral history interviews at the British Library:

  • Adults tend not to be asked directly about religious belief and unbelief, but instead about their experience of church attendance, from childhood onwards (the rare questions about belief focus tightly on belief in afterlife).
  • Children are much more likely to be asked directly about what they do and don’t believe, and therefore give richer answers, full of references to images of God or gods and thoughts about creation, human life and death and so on.

I will briefly provide some evidence of this difference using extracts which are typical rather than exceptional, and then reflect on why this difference might be of interest not just to oral historians, but to analysts of unbelief in other disciplines.


In An Oral History of the Water Industry (31 interviews recorded 2009-2012) and NLSC: City Lives(150 interviews with workers in the City of London recorded 1987-1997) interviewees are almost always asked about religion in childhood, and in particular whether they went to church, chapel or Sunday School, if they did how they ‘felt about’ going and – in some cases – whether religion was ‘discussed’ at home.  As this pair of clips from the same interview illustrate, religion is approached in exactly the same way as other features of childhood:

Example A: childhood churchgoing

Childhood churchgoing

Example B: childhood shopping trips and weekend activities

Childhood shopping trips and weekend activities

We might well admire the way in which the interviewer here asks about shopping trips and churchgoing so consistently.  Arguably as a ‘good’ social scientist, she does not allow any prior assumptions about the ‘specialness’ of religion to intrude.  The problem is that we do not discover much about the nature of the religious unbelief that is implied by a statement such as, ‘we stopped going to church when we were about fourteen-fifteen cause just didn’t want to know anymore’.

Just occasionally, interviewers for City Lives were inspired to deviate from this mode of questioning by asking more directly about belief and unbelief, but this was always focused – as in these two examples – on matters of death and afterlife. 

City Lives interviewee 1

City Lives Interviewee 1

City Lives interviewee 2

City Lives Interviewee 2


I turn now to a different collection of shorter life story interviews: Millennium Memory Bank(5439 interviews recorded in 1999 by staff of BBC local and regional radio stations).  Unusually, this collection includes interviewees of all ages (the youngest was five years old).[1]  Compared to older interviewees in this and other collections, those under the age of 18 were much more likely to be asked very direct questions about what they did and didn’t believe in, such as:  Would you say that you haven’t got a religion then and you don’t believe in God?[C900/13502A]/ Are you religious at all?  Do you think there’s a God? [C900/12093]/ What do you believe in – are you religious?[C900/01048]/ Are you religious or do you have any other beliefs?[C900/06589]/What is it you don’t believe about God?[C900/18135].  Such questioning often produced detailed characterisations of and reflections on religious unbelief:

Interviewer: Do you have any sort of belief – like religious belief or, you know, belief in greater things? 

Erm, I’m not sure really; I haven’t thought about it that much.  Erm, I think I’d like there to be a God to like watch over everybody and check that everything’s going ok.  But, I’m not really sure – I can’t really imagine a head in the clouds watching over everybody. [C900/01066]

I mean I do think – this might sound a bit weird – but I do think there’s like a spirit of Christmas, if that makes sense.  It might not necessarily bring you presents, you know, whatever, but I think there’s something.  I don’t know, it’s just, I think there’s something there at Christmas.

Interviewer: A Christian spirit?  Are we talking God?

[pause] I don’t know.  I’ve never really thought about it.  It’s just kind of, it’s like, it’s like a Father Christmas thing, but not somebody who brings presents, something that’s friendly.  I suppose maybe God, in a way.[C900/15116]

Are you religious or do you have any other beliefs?

 …my personal beliefs are that the whole- the religion Christianity is just, was just an excuse for not properly understanding the world, I think.  …I think inevitably we still need a religion because it’s something to believe in and if you haven’t got anything to believe in, you haven’t really got anything. [C900/06589]

So what?

Why should this observed difference interest the readers of this blog?

Firstly, there is some evidence that it may be a difference that exists in the growing literature on nonreligion and unbelief.  As a starting point for further exploration, I tentatively offer the following comparison. Christel Manning’s list of ‘questions about a parent’s worldview’ deployed in her work on ‘unaffiliated parents’ includes only one question that asks about belief directly (‘Do you believe in God, or a higher power?) among others seeking responses about ‘participation in organized religion’ as a child and whether ‘religious, spiritual, or philosophical paths’ have been ‘explored; or ‘engaged with’ since.[2]  By contrast, Abby Day (whose ‘research journey’ was strongly influenced, she tells us, by an ‘interview with Jordan, 14’) bases her book Believing in Belonging (2011) on interview material in which questioning of people ‘aged 14-83’ was much more likely to confront belief directly, through questions such as ‘what do you believe in?’, ‘do you ever think about the purpose or meaning in life? If so, what?’. ‘I wonder what your thoughts might be on how the universe came into being’ and ‘what happens to you after you die?’[3]

Secondly, the difference raises important questions for anyone designing research projects in which religious unbelief is explored using new or archived interviews. Should we use and record interviews in which questions are indirect, allowing features of religious unbelief to emerge in the flow of conversation, perhaps by being only implied, hinted at and suggested? Or, in the rather short time in which we have to read or conduct interviews, should we favour those in which questions ask more directly for details of individual unbelief?


This blog draws on research using archived oral history interviews that was supported by a collaboration between National Life Stories at the British Library and the Understanding Unbelief programme at the University of Kent.  It was much improved by comments the NRSN blog editors. 

[1] Rob Perks, ‘The Century Speaks: A Public History Partnership’, Oral History (2001) 29(2), pp.95-105.

[2] Christel Manning, Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children, London, New York University Press, 2015, p. 199.

[3] Abby Day, Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.29-39.

Dr Paul Merchant is an oral history interviewer working for National Life Stories at the British Library, working on its project ‘An Oral History of British Science’.  He has worked in collaborations with the Royal Society’s ‘diversity in science’ programme, the University of Birmingham’s ‘Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum’ and most recently with the University of Kent’s Understanding Unbelief programme.   


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