[Event Report] Understanding Unbeliefs and Reclaiming Enchantment: The 2019 Cultures of Unbelief Conference

In this post, NSRN Deputy Editors Joanna Malone and Jacqui Frost report on findings from the 2019 Cultures of Unbelief conference in Rome. They share insights from the Understanding Unbelief program’s core research projects that were presented, as well as other innovative research being done around the globe to better understand nonreligious beliefs, practices, and identities.CLA (2)Joanna Malone website photo

Last month saw the capstone conference of the Understanding Unbelief program, Cultures of Unbelief, which was held in collaboration with the NSRN annual conference and took place in the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The conference saw speakers from across the Understanding Unbelief program and the NSRN, as well as a public event, The Culture of Unbelief: 50 Years On.

The public event coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Culture of Unbelief conference held by the Vatican’s Secretariat for Non-Believers in 1969, which encompassed world-leading social scientists, theologians, the media, and Pope Paul VI. The Culture of Unbelief: 50 Years On thus reflected on this event and brought together two panels to discuss what we have learned over the last 50 years, and what we can expect to see in the future. Panellists included Fr. Dariusz Kowalczyk, Dr Lois Lee, Dr Victoria Smolkin, Prof. Roberto Cipriani, Prof. Stephen Bullivant, Prof. Lori Beaman, Bishop Paul Tighe and Humanist organizer Andrew Copson.

This year’s conference also included films commissioned by the Understanding Unbelief programme, including work by Briony Campbell, Sanderson Jones and Ariane Porto. Previews of their film projects were screened at the public event, further highlighting the nature and diversity of unbelief over the world. Displayed in the main hall was also a photography exhibition put together by Aubrey Wade, which showcased photographs of unbelievers around the globe.

In one of two keynotes at the conference, Dr. Jon Lanman presented headline findings from the Understanding Unbelief’s core research: Understanding Unbelief: Across Disciplines Across Cultures (ADAC) conducted in Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The findings challenged some of the supposed differences between theists and atheists, showing how each group has beliefs you would not necessarily expect them to and highlighting the messiness of atheism and agnosticism as it is lived in everyday life. For instance, the report shows how:

Unbelief in God doesn’t necessarily entail unbelief in other supernatural phenomena. Atheists and (less so) agnostics exhibit lower levels of supernatural belief than do the wider populations. However, only minorities of atheists or agnostics in each of our countries appear to be thoroughgoing naturalists (Bullivant, Farias, Lanman and Lee, 2019: 3)

The interim findings also showed how on the whole, there were as many similarities as differences between unbelievers and the general population when it came to what is important and what gives meaning in the world, with ‘family’ and ‘freedom’ being the top ranked by both atheists and agnostics, as well as the general population.

The second keynote featured Dr. Lori Beaman, who argued for a “reclaiming of enchantment” as a means of reconceptualizing human/nonhuman animal relations and more adequately addressing environmental degradation and climate change. Dr. Beaman put forth three key steps that need to be taken in order to reclaim enchantment: 1. Reject the myth of disenchantment that has dominated much of the theorizing about modernization and secularization, 2. Expand the definition of enchantment to include “immanent enchantment” and “nonreligious frequencies” that have nothing to do with magic and gods, and 3. Recognize that nonreligious frequencies of meaning are vital to saving the planet. Dr. Beaman made a compelling argument for rejecting the “stewardship” model of human/environment interactions that many religions promote, and instead suggested a “queering of stewardship” that would eliminate the hierarchical-ownership model that stewardship often entails.

There were also 10 parallel sessions of over 40 scholars from around the world, both from the Understanding Unbelief project and members of the NSRN, who presented their research. The main theme of the conference was “unbelief,” and there were important debates about the usefulness of this concept and numerous studies that attempted to flesh out what unbelievers do believe. In one example, Thomas Coleman found that unbelievers believe in plenty of things – including science, nature, humanism, and moral realism. There were numerous studies with a regional focus that shed light on nonreligion and unbelief across the globe. Atko Remmel detailed misunderstandings about unbelief in Estonia, Karin Van Nieuwkerk discussed the politics of nonbelieving in Egypt, Chris Cotter compared cultures of unbelief in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and Yutaka Osakabe explored expressions of the sacred among the nonreligious in Japan. There were also some innovative psychological studies, many of which focused on indirectly measuring the “implicit beliefs” of the nonreligious. For example, Jamin Halberstadt and Jessie Bering found that the nonreligious often act as though they believe in ghosts even when they say they don’t, and Will Gervais described an innovative methodology to indirectly estimate rates of unbelief as a way to overcome the likely under-reporting of unbelief in survey research.

Across many of the panels, scholars offered innovate conceptual and theoretical approaches for understanding lived nonreligious experiences and beliefs. Christel Manning utilized a “meaning as map-making” approach to make sense of her research on how elderly nonreligious people think and talk about death. She argued that meaning-making is a lot like map-making because maps offer coherence and control, and that it is rare for people to have purely religious or purely secular maps. Penny Edgell argued for a cultural approach to nonreligion centered on “nonreligious repertoires”. She suggested that this approach overcomes problematic understandings of nonreligion as solely an absence of something by focusing on organized nonreligious fields of activity, the interconnections between unbelief and practice, and the social contexts in which people construct and express their nonreligion. And numerous presentations focused on the embodied and affective nature of nonreligion. Donovan Shaefer drew on affect theory to frame his historical case study on the design of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, and Mari Ovsepyan argued for a biocultural theory of nonreligion that combines both cognitive and affective elements to better understand what she called “nonreligious social imaginaries”.

Overall, the conference showcased broad, innovative, and exciting research from around the globe that focused on the nature and diversity of unbelief and encompassed important debates about categories, terminology, and the ‘messiness’ of unbelief and nonreligious populations. The work presented at the conference, both from Understanding Unbelief and the NSRN, as well as from people involved with public engagement in this area, provided a hugely significant, informative, and thought-provoking display of the significant and multi-disciplinary work happening in an important and growing field.


Bullivant, S., Farias, M., Lanman, J. and Lee, L. 2019. Understanding Unbelief. Atheists and Agnostics Around the World. London: St Mary’s University Twickenham London

Joanna Malone is currently working towards her PhD in Religious Studies in the University of Kent, as part of the Understanding Unbelief Programme (for more information please visit the programme’s website). Joanna’s PhD research will qualitatively explore the experiences, understandings and significance of non-religion for older adults living in the UK and how this manifests itself in everyday life. The research will examine the nature of older adults’ non-religious identity, working with older adults from a range of different ethnic and social backgrounds, and who do not participate in a non-religious organisation in the UK.

Jacqui Frost is currently working towards her PhD in Sociology at the University of Minnesota, with a focus on nonreligious identity and community. Her dissertation is an ethnographic exploration of a nonreligious congregation, The Sunday Assembly. She is interested in religion and culture more generally as well, and works as a research fellow at the American Mosaic Project where she uses survey data to explore civic engagement and social boundaries among the religious and the nonreligious. See here for publications and projects.


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