Religious unbelief in oral history collections – an audio essay

Dr Paul Merchant


Previous work in which religious unbelief is explored using qualitative interviews tends to involve an interviewer asking about unbelief, in a project concerned with unbelief, often with interviewees who are themselves especially aware of or interested in their unbelief. While this work contributes enormously to our understanding of certain forms of unbelief, it has two disadvantages. One, it tends to focus on very particular sub-groups, such as members of humanist organisations.* Two, it risks artificially foregrounding religious unbelief as an aspect of interviewees’ lives.

In this audio essay I seek to side-step these two problems by examining religious unbelief through interviews that were recorded with no particular interest in religious unbelief. In an innovative collaboration between National Life Stories and the Understanding Unbelief programme, I have been able to explore two sound archives held at the British library:

• ‘An Oral History of the Water Industry’ (C1364): 31 interviews, recorded between 2009 and 2012, with staff and former staff at all levels within the UK water industry. 

• ‘NLSC: City Lives’ (C409): 150 interviews recorded between 1987 and 1997 with workers and former workers in the City of London (in the Stock Exchange, the merchant and clearing banks, the commodities and future markets, law and accounting firms, financial regulators, insurance companies and Lloyd’s of London).

Within these large collections of very long interviews, I have surfaced moments when interviewees talk about not believing in God, lack of interest in and/or engagement with religion, and existential beliefs held in the absence of religious belief (such as belief in ‘fate’). 

In what follows, I highlight two ways in which this work contributes to the Understanding Unbelief programme’s aim to study and improve public understanding of diverse forms of unbelief.  Firstly, though the collections cover a relatively narrow ‘cohort’ (people born in the UK between 1908 and 1959, interviewed between 1987 and 2012 and all ‘successful’ in their careers, in two different ‘industries’), the interviews offer rare ‘data’ on the experience of religious unbelief among those who do not necessarily regard such unbelief as a significant feature of their lives.  Secondly, by listening not just to interviewees but also to interviewers, it is possible to explore the relationship between the way in which questions were framed, and the kinds of talk (and silence) about religious unbelief that followed – vital insights for those conducting their own interviews on unbelief.  In the conclusion, I discuss these two features further through a comparison with a third, rather different collection of interviews at the British Library which was recorded with a specific interest in belief (among a set of 16 themes):  the ‘Millennium Memory Bank’ (C900).

My extracts from the interviews include British Library catalogue references (the C numbers) and, where possible, track numbers and precise timecodes.  In the cases where the interviews have online access, I have inserted hyperlinks to the full interviews.

Avoiding talk about religious unbelief

In this first section I consider three ways in which attention to religious unbelief (and belief) is avoided – or at least escapes attention – in the interviews I used. Firstly, in some interviews, religion and religious belief is simply not asked about. The result is either complete silence (no reference to religion anywhere in the interview) or brief references to ‘church’ that are not followed up by the interviewer, such as this:

…and I had a friend […] who I knew from Youth Matters at – and at church and he was an articled pupil to the chief engineer […] so he was one of these guys who was doing what I thought I’d like to do. [C1364/4, Track 5, 8:28-8:52]

Secondly, most interviewers do not ask directly about religious belief. Instead they ask whether interviewees went to church or Sunday School as children, and if so how they felt about going, whether religion was ‘discussed’ at home and whether or not religion has been ‘important’ or ‘played a part’ in their lives. With such questioning, it is possible for interviewees to say quite a lot about the experience of religion without saying very much at all about their belief or unbelief, as in this first clip:

Audio clip 1

Did the family ever attend church?
No.  My mother was I think reasonably religious but her churchgoing was all in London.  And when they came up to Mansfield, because it was always this sort of temporary basis, I don’t think they sort of fully integrated with sort of church type people at that time, so I think that really broke which the church connections.  To the extent that I was never Christened.  You know, so [laughing] I’m a, I’m a, I’m a non-believer, I’m an atheist or whatever you want to call me.  But, you know I was never Christened.  […]  So, you know that was really the end of churchgoing for my family anyway.  Although you know, I guess we’re still quite religious, there was no church involvement at all.
[…] Did you ever discuss religion within the family?
I wouldn’t think so at all.  Erm, I don’t quite know why: whether it’s because my father was less churchgoing than my mother was or what I don’t quite know, but very, very rarely was ever religion discussed.  [1364/06, Track 2, 40:29-42:17]

Here the interviewee suggests that he has never gone to church regularly, didn’t discuss religion at home as a child, is amused by the idea that he might be called ‘a non-believer’ or ‘atheist’ and is – in the absence of ‘church involvement’ – ‘quite religious’.  The question of what he believes and doesn’t believe is not followed up with further questions (in this case questioning moves onto relations with grandparents). 

There is some evidence not just of a tendency not to, but of a more active reluctance to, speak about religious belief and unbelief.  Two of the interviewers who worked on the ‘City Lives’ project ‘stand out’ by asking about religious belief directly.  When they do so, interviewees appear to struggle to compose replies, as in this example:

And do you have any religious belief?
Religious?  I’m not, no, a religious person.  I think that’s a…yes, I think like many people I’m very aware that one has probably slipped […] but I do think there’s much more to religiousness, religious practice, than just being seen in church.
Can you expand on that? 
No.  [409/100, Track 1]

It is even possible that interviewees (whether they mean to or not) deter interviewers from asking about religious belief (and therefore unbelief), along with anything else thought to be somehow ‘deep’ or revelatory, by asserting in advance that – in their case – there is no ‘depth’ to investigate.  These three statements are made towards the beginning of an interview that features no discussion of religion at all: ‘Till I was about 14 or 15 I was just devil may care and as long as I was playing football or out or something like that I was ok, because school-wise and things like didn’t really mean anything to us’ [C1364/24, Track 1, 16:29-16:46]; ‘We never got into politics; I think, I mean at 15 or 14 even when he was ok, I would have been just too young to understand what it was about – I wouldn’t have had the [laughs] common sense to take it in, I don’t think really; it wasn’t football so I couldn’t be interested’ [C1364/24, Track 1, 43:13-43:30] and ‘Never read any books.  Comics […] Dandy, Beano, that sort of thing, Eagle’ [C1364/24, Track 1, 44:27-44:16].   From the point of view of the interviewer, these statements might well act against any plan or instinct to ask about religious belief.

The third way in which religious belief (and therefore unbelief) is avoided is connected to the kind of interviews that the ‘City’ and ‘Water’ collections contain.  Though they are unusually long and comprehensive, covering forms of experience that have nothing to do with paid work, they nevertheless concentrate on the working life or ‘career’.  Interviewees were chosen because they did certain jobs, the collections aim to characterise certain industries, and there is a weighting – in terms of questions asked and recorded time – towards experiences of work.  In terms of the avoidance of discussion of religious belief and unbelief, there are two related aspects.  One, it is not difficult for an interviewee not to talk about religion, religious belief or wider existential questions when they have been asked, for example, ‘At that time in the 1980s, how aware were you of what other water companies were doing in terms of water treatment’ or ‘Can you tell me at the time you were chairman, of the makeup of the committee and the kind of discussions you would have had’.  A large volume of talk is generated – all crucial for other studies – that is very unlikely to involve any direct reference to religious unbelief (or belief). 

The second aspect is less concerned with work as a focus of the interviews than with work as a focus of the life in question.  There is some evidence that work took up a lot of intellectual and emotional ‘space’ in the lives of these interviewees.  They speak not just of long hours, but of devotion to work, absorption in work, ‘being happy to be immersed in the world of work’, of finding in work a ‘mission’, of ‘losing sleep’ when they resigned from a post (‘I lay at home that night thinking, ‘what have you done?’ [C1364/18, Track 2, 2:30:35- 2:30:44]), of distracting themselves from or ‘coping’ with bereavement by working.   Against this background, I think it is reasonable to suggest – at least as a starting point for further research (such as that underway by Joanna Malone) – that retirement is experienced as a sudden rush of existential reflection that has been ‘put off’ or absorbed by work.  Consider this striking example:

Audio clip 2

It were strange feeling to be told that you were finishing. […] You drive round the area looking round and thinking well I’m not going to be doing this and I’m not going to be doing that and I won’t be doing this. […] The only thing that I would say about leaving Yorkshire Water, and I said I’d never let this happen, is that – in fact I’m going in on Thursday morning – people do leave Yorkshire Water and […] people disappear into a black hole.  […] You know, people are forgotten about […] cause you tend to find that in Yorkshire Water that people leave and then somebody will say ‘oh so and so’s  died’ and that’s the next time you know about them when you go to somebody’s funeral.  And I think that’s bad.  And I’ve always said that I will never do that […] I’ve no intention of sort of disappearing into this big black hole; I shall go back. […] But I have left a legacy with Yorkshire Water. […] What I’ve done is I’ve spent hours at home drawing sketches and plans that’s now in two big books for Wetherby Area – they’re now in a filing cabinet at Harlow Hill [depot] and I updated all of the schematic plans – I put all my drawings on there […] everything that I knew has been written down or drawn on paper. […]  So, you know, I’ve gone but I’ll be remembered for a long time.  [C1364/01, Track 15, 00:10-14:28]

Given that life story oral history interviews are very often conducted with interviewees who have retired, we might see such interviews as presenting an opportunity to ask more direct questions about whether and how existential and religious matters seemed, to them, more or less salient before and after retirement, accepting that it may be difficult to separate effects of retirement from more general effects of ‘being older’.

Death and unbelief

In this section I examine ways in which discussion of unbelief in the interviews is often associated with thoughts and feelings about death (rather than with, say, thoughts and feelings about birth or nature).  One aspect of this association is a tendency for thoughts and feelings about afterlife to function as shorthand for religious belief in general, as in these two examples:

Audio clip 3

Would you say you had a philosophy of life?
No, I don’t think I have.  As far as life is concerned, I think when one dies, that’s the end of it.  So that all one can do is to give what you can while you’re alive, and when that’s finished that’s over. I certainly don’t believe in any after-life or any nonsense of that sort.  Not at all. [409/09, Reel 5, Track 1]

Audio clip 4

I can’t say that it [religion] was ever very important to me except in the year or so around ones confirmation when everybody goes through this feeling that unless you, unless you take an active interest in religion then your soul is going to be dammed for ever more.  The older I’ve got the more I’ve really had any strong religious belief at all.  If anything, I think I might favour a Buddhist feeling of the likelihood of reincarnation at a lower or higher level, depending on how one has- but the more I, the longer I live, the more I find it inconceivable that one can go on for millions and millions of years or that this world can go on for millions and millions of years.  I sometimes think to myself, you know, it was the 140th boat race.  Will there at one time be the 1,300,242nd boat race?  [laughs]  Horrible thought, isn’t it really, in a way?  [laughs]  So that I probably wouldn’t acknowledge it to my wife or she wouldn’t be pleased if I did, but I suspect, myself, that one snuffs out when one dies and that’s the end of everything. [409/01, F1006]

As I have indicated, interviewers in these collections tend not to ask directly about religious belief and two interviewers therefore ‘stand out’ by doing so.  When they do so, more often than not, they introduce an association of religious belief with thoughts and feelings about death and afterlife, either in the question itself (And do you have religious beliefs?  I mean do you have some belief about what happens after death, or not? [409/97, Tape 3, Side A]), or by the timing of the question, as here:

What was your relationship with her [your grandmother]?
Well I think it was very good […] I’ve very warm feelings.  She died of cancer, and that was very distressing, because you know, she suffered a lot […] she had always been such a kind and gentle soul and it seemed rather harsh that somebody like that should, you know, suffer so badly at the end of her life.
And do you have any religious belief?
[409/100, Track 1]

Whether introduced by the interviewer, or by the interviewee, the association of religious belief and death provides a certain focus for religious unbelief in this group of interviewees.  This focus is a concern not to be ‘taken in’ by (emotionally) attractive ideas:

I’m very sorry your mother died of cancer.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
No.  ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than’ I’ll…whatever it is, ‘in our philosophy’, but, that I do not unfortunately believe in an afterlife, although sometimes you can give yourself a little bit of a comfort by thinking that there may be.  And if there is, well, it will be a nice bonus, but…  It’s very easy to see how one makes up an afterlife, it’s a very easy thing to make up, and when you miss people very much you tend to sort of console yourself by thinking that they are watching and so on.  But, I don’t believe it.
[409/134, F5288-A/Part 20]

And, similarly:

Audio clip 5

And do you have religious beliefs now?
Yes.  Not terribly well articulated, but I do.  [pause]  And I’d need much more notice of that sort of question to think them out properly, and articulate them really.
But do you sense that there might be something after death?  You don’t think it’s necessarily being snuffed out for good?
I’m not completely sure, really. […] I think the dilemma, basically, that I face is: is religion something which has been thought up by man to provide him with an answer to all the unanswered questions?  […] I think that man is inclined to believe that he is- his intelligence is so important that it can’t just last a lifetime, and he can’t actually admit that.  And I think that’s one side of it.  And that the religion provides the answer to all that.  Whether there is a life hereafter, or whether one’s spirit goes on or not, I don’t actually know. [409/70, Tape 2, Side B]

Unbelief seems to follow from, or perhaps be constituted by, a state of not wanting to be affected by wishful thinking, or reliant on ideas that are merely a comfort.  This might explain the ‘but’ followed by a change of topic in this example ‘I couldn’t say whether I believe in afterlife etcetera – I would be rather fascinated by the idea of a spirit world, but…’ [409/100] and the willingness of another interviewee to stress that the feeling he had of his mother ‘soaring overhead’ after she died ‘quickly faded’, to be replaced by more down-to-earth visions of his mother (and father) living on in memories [409/70, Tape 2, Side B]

Furthermore, there is some evidence that wariness about the emotional attractiveness of the idea of afterlife is connected to a wider association of religious belief with irrationality, expressed in statements such as ‘we never went on Sundays, and I think Dad would have thought we were a bit unsound if we had wanted to go to church’ [409/127], ‘he broke down and he took up religion in a very heavy way and it was a bad time’ [409/19, F46, Side B] and

Were your parents active in the Chapel?
My mother was slightly.  My father wasn’t.  I think he was an intelligent man […] a man of very independent views, and it was he who made all the children […] go out to the public libraries and borrow books, and read to him. [409/28, F373, Side A]

Unbelief and ordinariness

In the collections I used, interviewees rarely speak directly about a lack of religious belief.  However, I suggest that they indicate this lack of belief in the way in which they respond to questions about experience of religion in childhood.  In particular, there is a strong tendency to stress the ordinariness of churchgoing, in three senses: ordinary in the sense of common (‘everyone went’), ordinary in the sense of taken-for-granted/not reflected on (‘you just went along with it) and ordinary in the sense of not special, sacred or otherworldly.  The first two kinds of ordinariness are expressed in these extracts:

I never really thought about it because you just thought, well I’ve got to go. [C1364/13, Track 1] 

Who made the decision as to you going to Sunday school?
I think – I think it was probably encouraged by my father, who had been a very keen churchgoer when he was younger, in fact he goes to church now every Sunday; my mother never used to bother. […] And then I think [pause] it kind of b- it was natural thing to do in the northeast at that time. [C1364/8, Track 1, 31:02-33:10]

Did you parents ever discuss religion, or?
No, there wasn’t a great deal of discussion regards to that at all.  Erm, you just, there was a mixture in our streets: you were what you were.  There wasn’t any religious sort of thoughts or anything.  Erm, you just got on with it. [C1364/20, Track 2, 1:01:57-1:04:08]

Audio clip 6

I was made to go to church as a child.  And then church became a social event, because you used to go and other people used to go.  So going to Sunday school then became an opportunity to chat to friends and going to church in the evening became an excuse to talk to even more people that you knew […] but I had no [pause] no great belief. [409/93, Track 1]

Audio clip 7

And why did you make the decision to be confirmed?
[pause] I suppose I would say, quite unspectacularly, that it was the thing to do, ‘cause I was in a church group.  I mean I didn’t have any sort of [pause] conversion on the road to Damascus or anything.  [laughs] It was- just happened.  […]
How did you find the Sunday School?
[pause] Don’t know.  Well it was just – you went to Sunday school on a Sunday afternoon. […] Don’t even know how long for.  But huge numbers.  [C1364/02, Track 2, 2:33:04-2:39:51]

Implied in these extracts is the third sense of ordinariness: churchgoing as not special, otherworldly or sacred.  This is made more explicit in other extracts, such as this description of the church one interviewee attended as a child:

It was St Johns Church of England church. […]  It was opposite the gasworks [laughs]. Which made a wonderful backdrop for wedding photos, as you can imagine; you used to have to go around the corner. [C1364/03, Track 1, 1:24:11-1:24:34]  

Similarly, the following account stresses that though church experiences could be ‘bizarre’ and ‘weird’, they were not viewed at the time or since as in any way special:

Audio clip 8

I wanted to ask you about, say, a typical Sunday; what was that like when you were growing up?
Interviewee: […] Sunday mornings my grandfather used to come over and take us to church – my sister and I –– my brother very occasionally, though my brother had a knack of disappearing […] he somehow got away with it. […] But anyway,     so we then used to go to the Baptist church, I suspect it was cause it was opposite our house, I don’t think there was any other…-  so my sister and I went with my grandfather from 11 till 12 […] then you had Sunday dinner […] , then my grandfather usually stayed to dinner […] And then at half past two my sister and I would go over the road again to Sunday school in the afternoon and you’d have to endure the whole afternoon of this completely boring Sunday school– and it was always about missionaries in India or Africa and picture of lots of little coloured children and missionaries ‘bringing salvation to these benighted savages’, you know, it was all pretty bizarre, weird.  [C1364/19, Track 2, 1:21:44 – 1:25:20]

For this interviewee, going to church and Sunday school were very local, ordinary, easily explained matters of fact.

The ordinariness of religious experience is, to some extent, emphasised by the way in which religion is asked about in these interviews.  Experiences of church are asked about in the same way as experiences of other kinds, such as – in the following examples – shopping and bus trips (the interviewee’s mother in this case worked as a bus conductor):

When you were a child […] and you went out, say, shopping with your mum, how would you feel about going out on these kind of shopping trips?
Oh, yeah, you were just dragged along basically; didn’t particularly, you know – you just had to go because it was- you know, it had to be done and they weren’t going to leave you at home […] so you just had to follow around really. [C1364/11, Track 2, 14:18-15:30]

How did you feel as a child when you were sort of growing up about having to go to church?
I think to start with we, you know,  it was just something that we did, you know, but it in the end it was just something, you know, we stopped going to church when we were about 14, 15 cause just didn’t want to know anymore. [C1364/11, Track 2, 1:08:46-1:06:16]

How did you feel going to Sunday school; what did you think about it?
I used to think [pause] I used to think it was ok.  Just go along and just went along to it and enjoy the singsong a bit and enjoy seeing the other kids. […] And probably just went, did it, and came back and just went out and played, I don’t know. [C1364/8, Track 1, 31:02-33:10]

As a junior school kid I remember going – and sitting on the bus until my father was home from work and I could go home.  So I used to go on bus trips down to the train station and back again, the train station and back again. […]
How did you find that; the going on the bus on these trips?
I thought it was [pause] I don’t think I really m’ – I can’t recollect minding or wanting to be home or being frustrated by it; I think it was just, it was just part of the schedule and part of the system really.  So I went along with it. [C1364/08, Track 1, 34:22-35:18]

In these pairs of examples, there is no sense – from interviewer or interviewee – that going shopping and going to church, or going on a bus and going to Sunday school might be different kinds of past action and experience.  

Not God but not nothing

Interviewees in these collections who state or indicate a lack or religious belief do not necessarily operate with a metaphysical nothingness.  Instead, religious unbelief runs alongside, or may be underpinned by, other kinds of belief in ways in which life is patterned or even determined.  In the following clip, for example, the interviewee expresses his belief that ‘there must be some purpose in life’ in the midst of a fairly assertive dismissal or religion:

Audio clip 9

I had the impression, from what you said about your childhood, that you are not actively religious; is that true?  
Correct.  I’ve never been confirmed.  My parents – my father was the son of a vicar […] but neither of them paid much […] active attention to religion […] and I’m not interested in religion. There seem to me so many different types of religion.  There must be some purpose in life, but what it is I can’t divine and I’m not going to spend time guessing about it.  And so the particular-  the rituals of the church leave me completely unmoved. [409/09, Reel 5]

Here, then, lack of interest in religion does not follow from a view that there is nothing for religion to be about.  Instead, religion is seen as futile reaching for something which he nevertheless feels must be there.  There is something behind life; it’s just not worth ‘guessing about’.

Others combine lack of belief in God with belief in the existence of something behind, or after, or in addition to what might be called observable or apparent reality:

Audio clip 10

I suppose one looks, as one gets older and older, more at the hereafter.  I’ve never- I’ve been a bit of an agnostic I think religiously. I was brought up in the Church of Scotland which is a fairly sort of, a strict upbringing again.  I’ve never really believed very seriously in a god.  I always thought in a private kind of way that there was probably a hereafter, because it seemed to me there were too many things that weren’t- loose ends that weren’t tied up, if there wasn’t one.  So a sort of negative attitude towards it.  [409/08, F20, Side A]

Audio clip 11

And do you have religious beliefs?  I mean do you have some belief about what happens after death, or not?
I think that they have actually got slightly weaker.  I mean I just don’t know quite to be honest what I believe.  I mean I’m quite clear about right and wrong and that kind of thing, and there must be something up there somewhere, but I find it difficult to- with the sort of Church of England- I mean it’s a good habit to get into, but I mean I find it…I mean I do not say the Creed when I go to church, because I don’t actually I think, I’m not sure I believe it. [409/97, Track 5]

For another interviewee, an assured lack of belief in God (‘basically I’m an atheist’) runs parallel with belief in ‘fate’ as a creative force active in the world:  

Audio clip 12

In the Royal Marine Reserve you had to spend two weeks away at […] ‘annual training’.  I spent two weeks training down at Plymouth.  And my wife that is now, was on holiday at Plymouth with her friend.
That was lucky?
Now, lucky.  If you just imagine – London being London, i.e. there.  Plymouth being over there.  And Portsmouth there.  Now if that’s not fate.  I’m not religious or anything like that, but if that’s not fate, you tell me what is.  From London to Fareham, where my wife’s people come from, is 98 miles.  From London to Plymouth is – I don’t know how many.  It’s a long way.  But we met at Plymouth.  On Plymouth Ho. […] Well, it must have been fate.  You know, all that distance apart.  [409/20, Reel 1, Side B]

Though this interview is unusual in naming the cause of events in his life ‘fate’, others seem to come quite close to his position in the way in which they comment on observed patterns in their lives.  I have in mind discussions of luck in life that go beyond saying things like ‘well again, it was almost at the toss of a coin’ [409/16, F35, Side B] or ‘that’s how my life began – that single sentence’ [409/09, Reel 1, Track 1].  Sometimes, for example, interviewees suggest that the pattern of observed events was ‘strange’ or ‘uncanny’ in a way that hints at hidden causes, such as ‘there are those individuals […] who […] sort of lurch from one disaster to another and, and it’s quite uncanny how things can happen to some people’ [409/27, Track 10] or:

It was early January ‘50, and I was due to be de-mobbed in mid-February and I was just contemplating whether I’d ask the Army to keep me on for another six months out there when I heard that my girlfriend’s […] father had been killed in a road accident, so I duly decided that I’d come back home and did.   And again, that was another strange incident that if I had stayed on there for six months, again, I wouldn’t have come into Barclays Bank.  Strange how it happens. [409/01, F1002]

Others have reason to believe that certain life events were predetermined, or at least foreseeable:

But it all came about in this very strange way, and the lady with the Tarot cards was absolutely right, one hundred per cent. [409/39, Track 9]

My mother, very shortly after my birth, had my horoscope done, and one of the things that the horoscope said, was that I would always gain pleasure and success from things connected with water.  And that has turned out to be amazingly true.
In what ways?
Well, this, she also said that my first choice would be to be a naval officer.  So I rowed successfully at Eton, I joined the Navy for my National Service, and became a naval officer, and then I rowed successfully at Cambridge.  I am still connected with my College boat club, I coach them in the summer, and now, I am a main Board Member of the National Rivers Authority.  So water has been a constant theme of, as the horoscope said, pleasure and success throughout my life. [409/70Tape 2 Side B]

Another prefers the view that ‘life is full of circularities’ that are not predictable, but which – like the idea of predestination – impress a rightness or completeness onto events: ‘My father […] made all the children, because he couldn’t read, you see, go out to the public libraries and borrow books, and read to him.  Now, that was a marvellous education for me.  And one of the great and interesting circularities in my life, is to find myself in […] 1980, asking Mrs. Thatcher at No. 10, in fact insisting, that we must have a great building, to be called the British Library, next door to St. Pancras, because libraries shaped my life in many ways.   And I owe it entirely to him.  [409/28, F373, Side A]


The extracts in this essay provide a rare view of the nature of unbelief in a group of people who are not necessarily especially aware, interested in or used to talking about their unbelief.  In other words, they capture kinds of everyday, not especially committed, not especially thought-through unbelief that might be both widespread and hard to study.  We might say that this is a major advantage of reusing interview collections recorded in projects with different aims from our own

However, this advantage comes at a cost.  The interviewees we have heard from were not usually asked directly about religious belief, and were asked about the experience of religion in a way that allowed matters of belief and unbelief to be avoided.  Therefore, while we might access a form of everyday, unprompted unbelief, we do not find detailed accounts of how those with no religious belief see the world, or – perhaps equally important – detailed accounts of what they take religious belief in others to consist of, beyond hopes about life after death.

There are other collections of interviews which, though not concerned specifically with unbelief, were recorded with closer attention to religious belief.  An example at the British Library is the ‘Millennium Memory Bank’ – over 5000 biographical interviews with people all ages and backgrounds across the UK, recorded by BBC Radio in 1998 and 1999, exploring sixteen themes including ‘Beliefs and Fears’.  My own study of a ‘sample’ of 384 of the recordings suggests that – perhaps because the interviewers had this theme in mind – interviewees were more likely (than in ‘City’ and ‘Water’) to be asked about their religious beliefs or, as in this example, ‘religious or spiritual feelings’: 

Do you have any religious or spiritual feelings?
No, I don’t, no, no.  I don’t think I’m a very spiritual person which in some ways I wish I was but I don’t think I am.  I think I’m very earth-bound really and I’m certainly not a believer, I don’t have a faith at all.  [My son] asks me if I pray and what I would pray to if I prayed cos he prays to God he says, so I say I would pray to mother earth if I prayed, but I don’t pray [laughs]. [C900/05598]

However, more indirect questions about engagement with religion, such as Were you brought up to be religious? [12115] and what kind of religious background do you come from? [05133] are still very often asked.  And, in the sample I explored, it was only when children were being interviewed that the interviewer asked follow-up questions about belief and unbelief, such as ‘What is it you don’t believe about God?’ [C900/18135] or ‘Well, can you elaborate on how you do believe in him [God]? [C900/15116].  These follow-up questions often produced very detailed responses, such as this:

I mean if you don’t necessarily believe in a god […] or he that created it, what do you think it’s all about then, life, what are we doing here?
Well, we must be here for a reason.  […]  I don’t think we’re just here by chance, there is definitely a reason for being here.  […]
So do you think there is some form of god up there, is there some higher being sorting it out for you?
I think there’s something.  I think there’s something.  I don’t think, like when you’re younger you think of, whenever someone says the word ‘God’, you just think of an old man with a white beard and sitting on his cloud.  I remember, I used to think that heaven was this great big long wooden table [laughs] and I thought there were all these skeletons sitting at the table eating a meal.  And I remember then there was a parrot at the cage at the top of there [laughs], at the head of the table with God.  I don’t know why I thought that.  [laughs]  Quite disturbed.
Disturbed child, yeah. [C900/06094]

I suspect that the openness and detail here is as much a function of the specific questions on belief (such as ‘is there some higher being sorting it out for you?’) as it is of a particular, forgiving, informal atmosphere in the encounter between a seventeen year old (in her home) and an older interviewer.  Nevertheless, one does wonder what might have been produced in ‘City’ and ‘Water’ interviews by questions of this kind.  Therefore, one of the results of the Understanding Unbelief programme that I will most value is improved understanding of the kinds of questions on unbelief that a) tend to produce detailed responses, and b) can be asked – without being experienced as unduly odd or uncomfortable – in any interview, however formal. 

Paul Merchant
National Life Stories
The British Library
19 November 2018


Rob Perks and Mary Stewart provided very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.  This project/publication was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation (JTF grant ID# 60624) managed by the University of Kent. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation or the University of Kent.

*Lois Lee, Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias and Jonathan Lanman, 2017. Understanding Unbelief: Background. Understanding Unbelief, available at 

Image Credit: dmitryzhkov on / CC BY-NC-SA