Core values bring unbelievers and general population closer, study says

Several universities has launched the study ‘Understanding Unbelief’.“Atheists and agnostics endorse the realities of objective moral values at similar rates to the general populations”.

Evangelical Focus

LONDON · 04 JUNE 2019 · 16:55 CET

Photo: Toa Heftiba. Unsplash (CC0).,
Photo: Toa Heftiba. Unsplash (CC0).

The universities of Kent, St Mary's Twickenham London, Belfast and Coventry have published the study ‘Understanding Unbelief: Atheists and agnostics around the world’.

The report “seeks to map the nature and diversity of the varied phenomena traditionally labelled as ‘unbelief’, across different national settings”.

It combines “in-depth, face-to-face interviews and conceptually linked, nationally representative surveys, across six geographically, culturally, linguistically, politically and religious diverse settings: Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States”.

“This allows us to ask more detailed questions than large, general social surveys not designed for probing the nuances of these specific topics”, authors said.



Dr Lois Lee, one of the authors of the study, argued that “these findings show once and for all that the public image of the atheist is a simplification at best, and a gross caricature at worst”.

“Instead of relying on assumptions about what it means to be an atheist, we can now work with a real understanding of the many different worldviews that the atheist population includes”, she added.

The research was presented at a conference held at the Vatican on May 28 –30, which was Co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Non religion and Secularity Research Network.



According to the study “atheists and agnostics endorse the realities of objective moral values, human dignity and attendant rights, and the ‘deep value’ of nature, at similar rates to the general populations in their countries”.

“There is remarkably high agreement between unbelievers and general populations concerning the values most important for ‘finding meaning in the world and your own life’”, it added.


Current religious affiliation of atheists/agnostics. / University of Kent.



Although the majority of people who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics in these countries claim not to be affiliated with any religion, with ratios ranging from 63% (Denmark) to 85% (China), there is still, a significant minority opted for a religious identity in all countries.

Among all the possible options, Christian is the most popular in Denmark (28%), Brazil (18%), the United Kingdom (15%), the United States (12%), and China (7%), while Buddhist is the most popular in Japan (8%).

Data show that between less than a third and a third of atheists and agnostics are identified as such in the countries analyzed. In some, even the "non-religious" label is more common, although ‘humanist’, ‘free thinker’, ‘sceptic’, or ‘secular’ are also used.

“Popular assumptions about ‘convinced, dogmatic atheists’ do not stand up to scrutiny. Unbelief in God doesn’t necessarily entail unbelief in other supernatural phenomena”, the study pointed out.



When asked if they feel confident that their beliefs about God’s existence are the right ones, “agnostics tend to have the least confidence in their views”, the report showed.

Meanwhile, “all six of our countries’ atheists express overall levels of confidence in their beliefs about God’s existence either notably lower than (Brazil, China), or broadly comparable to (Denmark, Japan, UK, US), the general population’s”.

For instance, the comparatively high level of confidence exhibited by America’s atheists matches more-or-less exactly the high ‘religious confidence’ of Americans in general.



The research shows that atheists and agnostics and population in general have very similar opinions about human dignity, with the exception of Japan.


Unbelievers worldview./ University of Kent.

In relation to the value of the natural world, regardless of its usefulness to humans, “in most of the countries surveyed (Denmark, the UK, USA and Brazil) our unbelievers and general samples endorsed it at near-identical levels. But in China, and Japan, unbelievers were less likely to endorse the statement (77% vs. 93% in China, and 55% to 79% in Japan)”.

“Across all countries and across both samples, however, the majority of participants endorse the claim of the inherent value of the natural world”, the study explained.

Furthermore, “the belief that in the long-run, society becomes better over time, shows a cross-national variation”. While in Japan, just 13% of unbelievers and 21% of the population as a whole affirmed this statement, the Chinese figures are vastly different (69% and 83%).



According to the study, “there is a remarkable level of similarity between unbelievers and the general population across our countries in what makes the world and life meaningful”.

Family was the most frequently chosen item in all general population samples, and in four of the six unbeliever samples. Further, where it was not the most frequently chosen item, it came either second (Brazil) or third (China)”.

Brazilian and Chinese unbelievers chose freedom as the first value, which “ranked second in half of our samples, and never fell out of the Top Five chosen items in any sample”.

“Other items frequently appearing in the Top Five across both samples are compassion, truth, nature, science, friendship and equality”, the report concluded.

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