News Release

Vatican hosts major atheism conference with University of Kent

The global Understanding Unbelief program to advance the scientific understanding of atheism and nonreligion will today (May 28) present results from its research at the Vatican in Rome

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Kent

The global Understanding Unbelief programme to advance the scientific understanding of atheism and nonreligion will today (28 May) present results from its research at the Vatican in Rome.

The multidisciplinary research programme led by the University of Kent maps the nature and diversity of 'unbelief' across six countries including Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, UK and the USA

The research is supported by a £2.3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and is led by the University of Kent in collaboration with St Mary's University Twickenham, Coventry University and Queen's University Belfast.

Researchers asked about attitudes to issues like supernatural phenomena, such as life after death and astrology, whether the 'universe is ultimately meaningless' and what values matter most to them. They used internationally recognised terms to identify unbelievers - atheists (i.e., people who 'don't believe in God') and agnostics (i.e., people who 'don't know whether there is a God or not, and don't believe there is a way to find out').

Key findings from the research include:

  • Unbelievers exhibit significant diversity both within, and between, different countries
  • In all six countries, majorities of unbelievers identify as having 'no religion'
  • Relatively few select 'atheist' or 'agnostic' as their preferred (non)religious or secular identity
  • Popular assumptions about 'convinced, dogmatic atheists' do not stand up to scrutiny
  • Unbelief in God doesn't necessarily entail unbelief in other supernatural phenomena and the majority of unbelievers in all countries surveyed expressed belief in one or more supernatural phenomena
  • A common supposition - that of the purposeless unbeliever, lacking anything to ascribe ultimate meaning to the universe - does not bear scrutiny
  • Most unbelievers endorse objective moral values, human dignity and attendant rights, and the 'deep value' of nature, at similar rates to the general populations in their countries
  • Unbelievers and general populations show high agreement concerning the values most important for 'finding meaning in the world and your own life'. 'Family' and 'freedom' ranked highly for all.

Co-hosting the event are the Pontifical Council for Culture - the Vatican department responsible for dialoguing with non-believers - and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, co-founded in 2008 by University of Kent sociologist Dr Lois Lee.

Dr Lee, who is Senior Research Fellow in Kent's Department of Theology and Religion, is Principal Investigator for Understanding Unbelief. The project is co-led by psychologist Dr Miguel Farias (Coventry University), anthropologist Dr Jonathan Lanman (Queen's University Belfast), and sociologist Professor Stephen Bullivant (St Mary's University).

Speaking about the research project, Dr Lee said: '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. The implications for public and social policy are substantial -- and this study also stands to impact on more everyday interactions in religiously diverse societies.'

Dr Lanman said: 'Our data directly counter common stereotypes about unbelievers. A common view of unbelievers is that they lack a sense of objective morality and purpose but possess an arrogant confidence and a very different set of values from the rest of the population. Our representative data across six diverse countries show that none of this is true. In a time when our societies seem to be growing more and more polarized, it has been both interesting and encouraging to see that one of the supposed big divides in human life (believers vs. unbelievers) may not be so big after all.'

The conference will run from 28 -30 May, 2019.


The full 'Understanding Unbelief' report is available from 00.01am Tuesday 28 May 2019 at

For further information and interview or image requests contact Sandy Fleming at the University of Kent Press Office.
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The conference will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Vatican's own Culture of Unbelief conference in March 1969. That event, also held at the Gregorian University, was the world's first international conference for the social-scientific study atheism and nonreligiosity.

The current collaboration comes at a time when rates of unbelief and nonreligion appear to be rapidly rising in many countries throughout the world, with potentially significant social, cultural, and political implications. New figures published last year by Understanding Unbelief researcher Professor Stephen Bullivant revealed that 70% of UK 18-29 year-olds identify as having 'no religion'.

Established in 1965, the University of Kent - the UK's European university - now has almost 20,000 students across campuses or study centres at Canterbury, Medway, Tonbridge, Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome.

It was ranked 22nd in the Guardian University Guide 2018 and in June 2017 was awarded a gold rating, the highest, in the UK Government's Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

In 2018 it was also ranked in the top 500 of Shanghai Ranking's Academic Ranking of World Universities and 47th in the Times Higher Education's (THE) new European Teaching Rankings.

Kent is ranked 17th in the UK for research intensity (REF 2014). It has world-leading research in all subjects and 97% of its research is deemed by the REF to be of international quality.

Along with the universities of East Anglia and Essex, Kent is a member of the Eastern Arc Research Consortium (

The University is worth £0.7 billion to the economy of the south east and supports more than 7,800 jobs in the region. Student off-campus spend contributes £293.3m and 2,532 full-time-equivalent jobs to those totals.

Kent has received two Queen's Anniversary prizes for Higher and Further Education.

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