Take the beliefs of the non-religious seriously

03 November 2017

They hold an intriguing range of world-views, says Lois Lee

THE National Centre for Social Research (Natcen) reported last month that 51 per cent of the British now identify as non-religious (News, 8 September). For the first time, the non-religious have become an outright majority.

The news was widely reported, but, really, there were no big surprises here. Measured in this way, the non-religious have been a majority since 1993, and first crossed the 50-per-cent post in 2010.

One thing that these data should point to, though, is the need for a fundamental review of that non-religion category, and what it contains — not least because, as things stand, the gig is heavily rigged in its favour. In fact, better methods would have shown that the non-religious are not a majority at all.


THE problem is this. The current approach makes a category error when it asks whether people belong to one of several religious traditions, or are not religious at all, and then compares these groups. This pits people who have a specific religious identity (C of E, Roman Catholic, Muslim, etc.) against those who opt for a generic and composite one (the “not religious”).

The situation is paradoxical, since it is precisely because this model is religion-centric in its approach (it pays far more attention to religious world-views than non-religious ones) that the statistics are skewed against religious perspectives. Were it to take the transcendent beliefs and world-views of non-religious people seriously, the picture would look quite different.

In fact, research increasingly shows that the non-religious population is as diverse in its beliefs as the religious one. For example, most of those who identify as “non-religious” on surveys also say that they are atheists in the widest sense (i.e. they live their lives as though God did not exist), but this religious “unbelief” is clearly grounded in different world-view orientations.


British atheists are evenly split: for example, between materialists (for example, they tick the “God does not exist” box on surveys), and strong agnostics, who say that humans cannot make claims about the existence or non-existence of God (17 and 18 per cent of the British population respectively in the last British Social Attitudes survey that asked).

And this is just to skim the surface of what is probably going on. These surveys do not, for example, differentiate between humanist and non-human-centred forms of materialism that come to the surface in debates on the environment, agricultural policy, the human diet — or any other issue that considers the relative value of human life, here compared with the value of other animals or the environment in general.

In coming years, closer attention will also need to be paid to newer world-views such as transhumanism: a technology-driven movement that looks forward to a future in which human consciousness will transcend the constraints of the human body and, according to some iterations, achieve immortality.

Going back to those Natcen figures, if humanists, agnostics, and other non-religious world-views were measured separately rather than bundled together as “non-religious”, that non-religious majority would crumble. Indeed, it would even be possible to reverse the positions and measure specific non-religious world-views against a generic “religious” category, combining all religious outlooks together. Instantaneously, Britain would have a new majority (albeit not an outright one): “The religious”.

It would be daft to do this, of course, but arguably only about as daft as the current practice of counting the non-religious together.


NATCEN’s non-religious majority shows us, then, that, when it comes to how societies understand and head count the world-views of their populations, it is time to move on from “religion”. It will not be easy: non-religious world-views do not tend to be established in institutions, and therefore identities; so it will not be possible to rely on membership and identities to measure them accurately.

Some have argued that a broader understanding of “religion” would solve the problem. But the Natcen figures suggest that trying to corral people into thinking of their world-views as “religious” will be a losing battle.

It is also one for which the gains are unclear. Indeed, I would argue (and have argued) that precisely the opposite is true: recognising that the non-religious have world-views that engage with transcendent questions of existence and are really quite like religious world-views in this regard will help to address the colonising force of the type of secularism that seeks to eradicate spaces and other resources for people to explore their own world-views, and learn about the world-views of others, on the grounds that they are currently open to religious people exclusively. Rather, those who want to protect the spaces that religions currently occupy need to think seriously about sharing them with others.

Recognising that the non-religious have their own complex world-views has another benefit, too, since it helps us to see the UK for what it is: not weighted decisively towards one or other world-view, religious or non-religious, but evenly balanced across a number of world-views — world-views that interact with, influence, and shape each other in myriad ways.

Indeed, a shift from “religion” to “world-views” frameworks might therefore quieten those warring metaphors — of battles and aggressors — that have been so prominent in public discourse on religion and non-religion in recent years.


Dr Lois Lee leads the Understanding Unbelief programme at the University of Kent. Her book Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the secular is published in paperback by Oxford University Press.

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