What are the beliefs of those who do not believe in God? A new survey presents some counterintuitive and contradictory findings, such as the belief in supernatural phenomena.

An ongoing research project called “Understanding Unbelief” aims at mapping the nature and diversity of non-believers (both atheists and agnostics) across different national settings. It involves participants from six countries and three continents (Brazil, United States, Denmark, United Kingdom, China and Japan). 

The survey comprises about 1,100 representatives per country and its interim findings were presented in Rome recently.
Those who do not believe in God, both because they think he does not exist or because it is not possible to know anything about it, were asked if they considered themselves to belong to a particular religion. Many of them answered positively. For instance, 28% of unbelievers from Denmark labelled themselves as Christians. What they probably mean here is that they come from a Christian background and this heritage is still somehow significant for them. 

A majority of atheists and agnostics from Western countries were brought up in a Christian tradition while nonreligious upbringing prevails among Chinese (82%) and Japanese (70%) unbelievers, according to the study.
Belonging without believing may appear a contradiction if we consider religion only in terms of convictions but being part of a tradition persists even when those convictions are lost.

Participants were asked then how they would identify themselves. ‘Non-religious’ was the most popular designation in every country except China, where instead ‘atheist’ is preferred.
With regard to supernatural phenomena such as reincarnation, astrology, karma, it would be expected that atheists and agnostics do not agree with their existence. Instead, the opposite is the case. Even if to a lower degree, when compared with the rest of the population, a substantial percentage of unbelievers accept supernatural phenomena. More than half of Chinese agnostics believe in astrology, for instance. They are strikingly more like to accept supernatural phenomena than those from other countries and this is a peculiarity shared with the rest of the population.
Moreover, “the belief that there are ‘underlying forces’ of good and evil, that ‘there exist a universal spirit or life force,’ and that ‘most significant life events are meant to be and happen for a reason’ are the most endorsed among unbelievers globally”. (p. 14)

Among atheists, Brazilian and Chinese are the most ‘supernaturally inclined’ while the Japanese are the least. Absolute naturalists, who would deny any existence of supernatural beings or phenomena, are a minority among non-believers in every country surveyed.
These findings prove that a sense for the supernatural, which is part of being human, remains in non-believers and it is channeled into different directions, according to their background culture. For instance, where a certain credence is accepted by the general population, such as the existence of forces of good and evil which prevails among Brazilians, it appears to be similarly prevalent among the atheists or the agnostics of that country.

Does the universe possess any meaning or purpose for those who do not believe in God? Yes, according to the study. “With the exception of Brazil, where 47% endorse such a view, only around a third of unbelievers in each country regard the universe to be ultimately meaningless. While unbelievers are admittedly more likely to take this view than the population at large, curiously this is not so in Japan.” (p. 16)

This Japanese exception is something worth exploring. The interim results offer no explanation yet as they are based simply on statistical surveys while the second part of the research will focus on in-depth, face-to face interviews and might help with the interpretation of data.

Participants were asked to find the most important items, from a list of 43 words, to them for finding meaning in the world and in their own life. There was no substantial difference between unbelievers and general populations concerning the answer, ‘family’ and then ‘freedom’ ranking highly for all, according to the study.

The research also found no consistent difference between unbelievers and the general population with regard to the objectivity of moral norms or of human rights.  While unbelievers are more likely to endorse the claim that ‘what is right and wrong is up to each person to decide’ in China and the United States, members of the general population are more likely to endorse it in Brazil, Denmark, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

It appears that cultural differences rather than religious faith, or lack of it, explain cross-national variations better. The study shows that being an unbeliever is complex and does not exclude many counterintuitive and often contradictory beliefs.