Shaping debate on religion in public life.

We need to talk about Unbelief

11 Jan 2017

“Speak English!” said the Eaglet to the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, “I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!”

“I know what “it” means well enough, when I find a thing,” said the Duck.

Researchers I’ve spoken to within the growing academic field of Unbelief would agree that they are still finding out what this thing is – they speak of it as a slippery term – and debate the relationship between the categories of Non-religion and Unbelief – terms which still probably don’t mean much outside academic circles.

“Do you mean atheist?” asked a friend. Not just atheist  – I said – it’s more non-religion. And what is it about non-religion that is so interesting? She said. In other words – what’s the story?

All of this poses a challenge to those of us in the media who are interested in telling people’s stories and communicating the shifting patterns of religion, belief, identity – and straight away, I know, I have fallen into the same semantic quagmire that academics find themselves in – and have to ask how appropriate is it to use the terms associated with religion when we’re talking about things which are in contradistinction to it.

I think we all know the overarching narrative of the trends which are taking place in Britain – growing number of Nones or unaffiliated, an overall decline in church attendance, while at the same time the continued and increasing importance of religion as a marker of identity for certain groups. What we hear less of are the stories of the individuals behind the first of those trends.

In particular I’m interested in how important a non-religion identity is for the Nones? What makes up that identity? Is it a positive one – as it is for many atheists and humanists – which says something about who they are as people and what motivates and inspires them? Or is it a negative  descriptor which tells me very little about them and which even they may not care about very much?

I become interested in the None identity when it denotes more than a simple label. So, in learning about Unbelief and non-religion, I want to hear from those carrying out qualitative research which tells me about the individuals for whom this is an important descriptor. I want to know how they came to the position they hold, family influences, life events, how their views have changed over time, where they look to for guidance and authority, the communities to which they belong, their daily behaviour and practice. Most of all, though, I want to know whether and how having a non-religious identity makes a difference to the way they live their everyday lives.

The other thing I want to know is how non-religion is changing as a result of being studied and as a result of non-religious people becoming more self-conscious about that identity. Is non-religion becoming a movement? Is it providing communities of belonging? The obvious example of course is the Sunday Assembly where atheists and others meet to sing, hear inspiring talks and socialise. It is a church without God. Are groups such as these developing mechanisms to identify and support the pastoral needs of their members? Are they motivated to look outside of themselves to the neighbourhoods they are part of, to respond to the needs they see there?

For many Christians the church provides the locus out of which they live many aspects of their lives –  spiritual, social, volunteering; they campaign on a range of issues they care about, because (they might say) they are Christians. The church has an infrastructure to help them do that. Does non-religion – as a category – aspire to any of this? Do Nones want to hang out with other Nones because of that shared identity, do they want to do their volunteering and campaigning as Nones rather than as members of the other groups to which they belong? Do they feel they lack the resources and infrastructure to do so? To what extent does being a None provide any of the motivation for social activism?

Those are some of the questions I want to know from researchers in this field and which I think my audience – which most of the time is the BBC Radio 4 listenership  – would also be interested in. Because of their age (average 55), Radio 4 listeners are less likely than the general population to be Nones, but we can probably assume that non-religion and Unbelief will increasingly reflect where they are at. That doesn’t mean that they’re not interested in religion. 92% of them look to Radio 4 to keep them up-to-date with news and current affairs and you can’t do that if you don’t take account of the role that religion plays for good and ill in the lives of people the world over. An ICM survey last year suggested that only 15% of Radio 4 listeners claimed to listen to programmes on religion, but it wasn’t clear what was meant by programmes on religion –was it worship programmes, or programmes with a specific remit to discuss religion, or any number of one-off documentary series?

This reminds me of a conversation I had recently with Dr Lois Lee from University College, London in which she said, “I research an interesting  group of non-religious people who think of themselves as not interested in religion and non-religion but demonstrably are.”  I’d be interested to know about their listening habits. There’s a really useful piece of research to be done on which general newspapers, websites and broadcast programmes self-conscious Nones feel best cater to their interests and needs. I’m not a None so perhaps am not qualified to comment, but one of the strongest radio contenders I can think of would be selected interviews from a BBC Radio 3 series with Joan Bakewell, which is sadly now no more and was – ironically – called Belief.

A new book Religion and Atheism; beyond the divide reflects the  overlap between religion and non-religion, belief and Unbelief. I’m grateful to the academics and others who have pushed us beyond the adversarial debates of a few years ago. It seems to me that we are now in a space where a growing number of people are prepared to say – to paraphrase the words of the Cheshire Cat in Alice – “you’re not crazy. Your reality is just different to mine.”

This post is adapted from a talk given by Rosie Dawson at University College London during a roundtable on Non religion and Unbelief in 2016.

Rosie Dawson is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation and a Producer on BBC Radio 4.


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