Vatican to host atheism and secularism international conference

The Vatican’s second-ever international conference examining the rise of atheism and secularism will be held in late May.

The first conference was held in 1969 during St Pope Paul VI’s leadership.

This year the Vatican is joining forces with a University of Kent research initiative to host the “Cultures of Unbelief” conference.

Scholars from a range of disciplines will gather at Rome’s Gregorian University to discuss the results of the “Understanding Unbelief” research initiative. During the past two years this initiative has been mapping the rise and nature of non-religion across the world.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of “nones” — those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or of no particular religion — will reach 1.2 billion worldwide by 2060.

Young people are particularly likely to identify as nones.

Last year an Understanding Belief researcher found 70 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in the UK identify as having “no religion”.

Research into unbelief has also focused on countries where the majority population is made up of nonbelievers, while other projects are looking at the motivations, experiences and problems faced by non-believers in religious societies.

The conference will also hear from researchers who have being examining themes such as non-religious childhoods, the persistence of magical thinking, and the ways in which mindfulness meditation might be seen to constitute a secular religion.

No plans have been announced for Pope Francis to address the conference, but organisers say the possibility remains open.

What’s important, they say, is to build a dialogue and collaboration between believers and unbelievers to gain a greater understanding of the others’ metaphysical, existential and moral beliefs.

“The growth of different forms of non-religion has been a significant development in many societies across the world in recent decades,” says Gordon Lynch, a professor of modern theology at the University of Kent.

“This conference [draws] together findings from the most substantial international programmes of research in this field, and promises to be a genuinely landmark event in taking forward both our understanding of the varieties of non-religion and the social implications of these.”

Prof. Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University in Twickenham says the Church has long realised that atheism needs to be understood properly.

In his view, the conference could help stem the tide of people leaving the Church.

“We recognise that very sincere moral people are all striving to reach the truth and we need to understand that better. Part of the reason for dialogue is on the one hand for us to understand them but it’s also for them to understand us,” he says.


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