Understanding Unbelief Across Disciplines, Across Cultures (ADAC)

As part of the Understanding Unbelief programme, core cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural research will be undertaken across six national settings. The Understanding Unbelief: Across Disciplines, Across Cultures (ADAC) research will be conducted by the programme leads and will provide opportunities for collaboration with other researchers and other research settings through the UU research grant competitions.


At a JTF-funded 2015 scoping meeting on the study of nonreligion, a meeting which lead to the Scientific Study of Non-religious Belief project and the Understanding Unbelief programme, leaders in the emerging and related scientific studies of atheism, nonreligion and secularity identified two key requirements for an improved science of unbelief: 1) the development of interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies and 2) the expansion of research to include a greater variety of socio-cultural settings.

1) Without the development of interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies, important insights and techniques generated by one discipline will continue to be lost on others.  For example, work in the cognitive sciences demonstrating the existence and importance of implicit religious beliefs and of ‘unbeliefs’ serving similar psychological functions as religious beliefs raises significant questions for sociological mapping of secularisation across the world. Similarly, work in the sociology of religion demonstrating large variations in levels of theism across national settings raise significant questions for work in psychology and the cognitive science of religion about the role of universal psychological processes in explaining theism, non-theism and atheism.

2) Without the expansion of research on ‘unbelieving’ to include a greater variety of socio-cultural settings, scholars risk making premature and mistaken universal declarations of the nature of ‘unbelief’. Given the tendency for work on unbelief and nonreligion to be conducted in North Atlantic countries, it is imperative to extend research outside of this region, and in particular to regions where the category of ‘religion’ is either absent or understood quite differently and where the dominant religious tradition is not Protestant Christianity. Further, given the diversity of socio-cultural contexts and demographic factors that influence religion and nonreligion within North Atlantic countries (e.g. gender, class, ethnicity), it is also imperative to conduct research specifically examining unbelief across these demographic lines if we are to make well-supported generalisations about the nature of ‘unbelief’ and lay the foundations for future scientific research into its causes and consequences.

Research funded through RFP1 and RFP2 will help address the need for interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research, but this work cannot solve the problems of disciplinary silos and a narrow focus on the North Atlantic world on its own. For one, these research streams encourage but do not require interdisciplinarity, since the need for such work must be balanced against the need for in-depth studies. (In addition, Early Career Awards made through RFP2 will frequently fund a single researcher and will not therefore have the capacity for extensive comparative or interdisciplinary work.) Further, while project teams funded through these RFPs will come together to share progress reports and best practice at two programme events, this alone will not produce an integrated understanding across field sites, disciplinary perspectives, and methods.

The Understanding Unbelief: Across Disciplines, Across Cultures (ADAC) will therefore conduct an integrated, interdisciplinary, and cross-cultural research project on the nature and variety of unbelief. The ADAC project will be a multi-method, interdisciplinary investigation of unbelief across six countries and dozens of demographic categories.

As well as producing important knowledge about unbelief in six theoretically significant countries, ADAC also aims to provide core interdisciplinary knowledge to support the effective integration of insights arising from other projects within the programme.

ADAC investigates the same research questions as the Understanding Unbelief programme as a whole. Its focus is therefore on the nature and diversity of ‘unbeliefs’ in and of themselves and across cultural and demographic contexts. Its unique contribution is to combine inter-disciplinarity and cross-dimensional research and to do so on a sufficiently large scale to provide a broad base for the understanding of unbelief that the programme aims to produce.


The Understanding Unbelief programme team have expertise across the human sciences, including sociology, social anthropology, psychology, cognitive science, and religious studies. Drawing on this expertise, the ADAC team are building a multi-part question schedule that includes qualitative and quantitative interview interviewing and cognitive anthropological techniques such as free-listing. These interviews will be contextualised by ethnographic work each research location.

ADAC will involve in-depth, semi-structured qualitative interviews with 30 people from each national setting (outlined below), making sure that array demographic groups are represented. In addition, ADAC will design and conduct online surveys with representative samples from each country. Researchers will be resident in each setting for several months, and ethnographic fieldnotes will be kept in each setting, documenting relevant features of the local contexts in which data is gathered.

The question schedules used for interviews will focus on key areas in the study of unbelief. Rather than seeking to provide a comprehensive study of relative, affirmative and negative forms of ‘unbelief’ in any one context or from any one disciplinary perspective, these questionnaires will focus on key areas within each approach to unbelief that can be effectively compared, contrasted and triangulated. The ADAC team will also consult with researchers funded through the grant competitions on these question schedules in order to benefit from programme-wide expertise.

Through this unusually extensive and rigorous process of development, ADAC aims to build research tools to help address methodological challenges facing cross-cultural work and disciplinary exchange in this field. Indeed, one major output of research will be the question schedules themselves.

Gathering data from the same populations but through diverse methods (both qualitative and quantitative) will allow us to triangulate findings arising from each. Moreover, carefully designing these methods to work across cultures and applying them in each setting will provide rich data for comparative analysis.


This interdisciplinary methodology will be employed in a range of contexts, both national and demographic. The proposed national cases are Brazil, Denmark, Japan, China the UK, and the US, selected on the basis of presence and variation of theoretically significant characteristics such as population size, prevalence of religious belief, religious traditions, discursive traditions around concepts such as ‘religion’, prevalence of anti-religious organisational activity, levels of existential security, and a variety of religious backgrounds.

In countries such as the US and Brazil, ‘unbelief’ is still an exception to the norm. Meanwhile, Japan has particularly high levels of atheism, but also exhibits widespread presence of spiritual and magical beliefs and practices. While unbelief is growing in the UK and the number of confident nontheists and agnostics are now both larger than the number of confident theists (British Social Attitudes survey 2008; www.britsocat.com), this ‘unbelief’ is combined with ‘quasi-religious’ beliefs, such as conspiracy theories and the widespread belief in mindfulness meditation as a spiritual technique to increase pro-social emotions (e.g. empathy, compassion) and behaviours.

Through these methods, our aim is to chart unbelief across settings, to identify and describe relationships between demographic dimensions and socio-psychological variables within these settings, to find patterns of unbelief across them, and to generate hypotheses concerning the causes and consequences of unbelief.

Data gathered through these main methods will be contextualised by further analyses of data from cross-cultural survey programs such as the World Values Survey (WVS) and the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), and supplemented by additional data sources available in the selected countries (e.g. Pew Forum’s ‘Religious Landscape Survey’ in the US). This analysis will allow us to track ‘big picture’ trends and compare the impact of demographic, socio-cultural, and attitudinal variables on unbelief in these different settings.

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