Vatican hosts atheism conference

Understanding atheism and its diversity were among the aims for a major conference on unbelief held at the Vatican this week.

The two-day conference, co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the University of Kent, began by launching the global “Understanding Unbelief” programme, presenting results from its research.

The multidisciplinary research programme is led by the University of Kent in collaboration with St Mary’s University Twickenham, Coventry University and Queen’s University Belfast.

Their findings – published in a report “Understanding Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics around the World” – mapped the nature and diversity of ‘unbelief’ across Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, UK and the USA.

Unbelievers were asked about their attitudes to issues such as supernatural phenomena, whether the “universe is ultimately meaningless” and what values matter most to them.

Interim findings show that in all the countries, the majority of unbelievers identified as having ‘no religion’.

However, unbelief comes in many forms and the research report notes unbelievers exhibited significant diversity both within and between different countries.

The researchers also found that a lack of belief in God didn’t necessarily entail unbelief in other supernatural phenomena.

Rather, they found the majority of unbelievers expressed belief in one or more supernatural phenomena.

Perhaps surprisingly, as it is contrary to popular belief, the report says only around a third of unbelievers in each country regard the universe to be ultimately meaningless.

Unbelievers’ views on morality and values were also under the researchers’ spotlight.

They report finding most unbelievers endorse objective moral values, human dignity and attendant right. They also support the “deep value” of nature, at similar rates to the general populations in their countries.

Likewise, unbelievers and general populations agree about the values they think are most important for “finding meaning in the world and your own life”.

Both rank “family” and “freedom” highly.

“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,” one of the researchers says.

“The implications for public and social policy are substantial – and this study also stands to impact on more everyday interactions in religiously diverse societies.”



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