October 30, 2013

Young People of ‘No Religion’ and Religious Education Beyond Religious Belief

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 30 October 2013, in response to Abby Day’s interview on Believing, Belonging, and Academic Careers  (28 October 2013).

Divided into two distinct halves, Christopher Cotter’s interview with Abby Day begins with a discussion of her research on the nature of belief and what ordinary people in a modern western society actually believe; and concludes with advice on publishing journal articles and acquiring funding for research projects. In my response, I’ll focus on some of the points raised concerning belief, suggest how Day’s work could benefit youth and education studies and, in particular, explain how I’ve found her approach to the study of belief helpful in my own exploration of the lives of young people who identify as having ‘no religion’.

For Day, the concept of belief has often been taken for granted in the study of religion. Rarely do we ask, what do we mean when we talk about belief? As David Morgan has observed, the academic study of religion in the West has been ‘shaped by the idea that a religion is what someone believes’, and that this amounts to a ‘discrete, subjective experience of assent to propositions concerning the origin of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, the existence of deities, or the purpose of life’ (2010, 1). Although there have been a number of scholars and researchers, particularly within anthropology, who have critiqued this view of religion (Needham 1972; Ruel 2002; Lindquist and Coleman 2008), such an understanding persists and remains prevalent within religious education (RE) in secondary schools. Day’s research not only raises questions about what we mean by belief; she also demonstrates how religious identity is often more complicated than assent to propositions. And both of these insights could be of great value to the study of religion and belief at school, as well as to researchers’, teachers’ and policy-makers’ understandings of the nature of belief within the lives of both religious and ‘non-religious’ young people.

The initial impetus for Day’s interest in what people actually believe came from the 2001 Census in England and Wales, in which 72% of the respondents identified as ‘Christian’. In what appeared to be an increasingly secular society, it seemed puzzling that such a large proportion of the population would self-identify in this way. Day decided to explore more deeply what some of these census respondents meant in their adoption of a Christian identity, by examining what they actually believed. Introducing herself to potential participants as a social sciences researcher rather than a researcher of religion, Day also began her interviews by asking people ‘what do you believe in?’ rather than ‘what is your religion?’ It was only at the very end of her interviews that she raised the topic of religious identity in connection with the 2001 Census. This approach enabled her to focus on belief without asking religious questions. And, by focusing instead on values and meaning, as well as what was important to her participants, Day was able to learn much more about how belief functioned in their lives.

Day’s study of belief beyond ‘religious belief’ encouraged me to adopt a similar methodological approach in my own research with 14- and 15-year-olds who report ‘no religion’, exploring how ticking the ‘no religion’ box related to their wider lives without asking questions about religion. I wanted to learn about the people, places, objects, activities and times – the material cultures – that were significant to these young people, as well as to understand their beliefs and values, their methods of constructing narratives of meaning and purpose, and the influence of family, friends and society on their lives and identities. My primary research method was photo-elicitation interviews, in which the photos taken act as ‘prompts and supports to participant narrative’ (Liebenberg, 2009, 448). But I also wanted to avoid any tendencies to take photos that specifically focused on participants’ ‘non-religiosity’ or illustrated their attitudes towards religion. So I embedded the religion question from the 2011 Census alongside questions that collected other seemingly unconnected data and left explicit discussion of participants’ reasons for self-identifying as having ‘no religion’, as well as of their understandings of ‘religion’, to the end of the interview.

Just as Day discovered, however, where it remains important, interview questions about ‘belief’ or ‘life’ more generally still enable participants to talk freely about religion. But, while Day found that religion and religious beliefs played a relatively unimportant part in the lives of some participants who nonetheless chose ‘Christian’ as their religious identity in the 2001 Census, my research with young people who ticked ‘no religion’ indicates that some who self-identify in this way nonetheless find religion and religious beliefs to be significant in their lives.

Day’s research offers valuable insights into some of the reasons people in a modern western society choose to adopt a ‘Christian’ identity when surveyed. For some, it acts as a ‘social marker’ that helps them to feel secure within their communities, creating a boundary between themselves and others; being Christian is something that they are born into, akin to an ethnic identity. This position is nicely illustrated in her interview with ‘Jordan’, a 14-year-old who she describes as an ‘unbelieving Christian’. Although he states ‘I don’t believe in any religions’, Jordan identifies as ‘Christian’ because ‘on my birth certificate it says I’m Christian’. Day explains that, for him, ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean much, he doesn’t do anything that is typically ‘Christian’, and his understanding of a Christian is ‘someone who believes in God and Jesus and Bible and stuff’. While he does not believe in these things, his grandparents do because they are ‘Irish and really strong Christians’. This understanding of what being a Christian entailed is perhaps not surprising, considering Jordan was ‘reflecting how the term “belief” has become associated with “Christian” over the centuries’ (Day, 2009, 266-7). Day’s research provides a welcome corrective to an understanding of belief as primarily propositional and Christian, illustrating the various ways belief functions in all our everyday lives, cutting across conventional boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Although Jordan differs from my participants in that he identifies as ‘Christian’ rather than as having ‘no religion’, understandings of the Christian religion and of what a Christian identity entails are similar. In many of my interviews, it became clear that participants reduce ‘religion’ to metaphysical, existential and/or ethical belief systems that are either true or false. Since participants do not hold these beliefs, they tick the ‘no religion’ box. For some, in order to identify as Christian it is not only necessary to believe everything within that religion, but to have a strong faith in those beliefs. As one 15-year-old girl told me, ‘I don’t think my belief in God is strong enough for me to tick “Christian”. … If there was a sort of “in between” box, I probably would have ticked that. But to categorise what I believe, I’d say I don’t really have a religion’.

My research interests in the lives of young people who report ‘no religion’ dovetails with the emerging field of Nonreligion and Secularity Studies. Lois Lee has provided a working definition of ‘non-religion’ as ‘anything that is primarily defined in a relationship of difference to religion’ (2012, 131), indicating the necessity of reflexivity not only about specific relationships of ‘difference’ but about understandings of ‘religion’ itself. Day is right to emphasise the importance of clarity in relation to the term ‘belief’, but perhaps she could have spoken more during the interview about what she means by ‘religion’. This would then assist further discussion of her proposal that ‘belief’ crosses conventional boundaries between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’, making religion, as she says, ‘a subset of belief’.

For the young people of ‘no religion’ that I interviewed, ‘religion’ is understood as consisting of impossible propositional beliefs that are displaced by scientific knowledge. Religion requires acceptance of all its beliefs and cannot incorporate participants’ diversity of beliefs; as another 15-year-old girl said, ‘there would never be a religion for everything I thought’. Religion demands restrictive ethical beliefs, behaviours and belongings that limit autonomy and authenticity. And even when religious ethics are admirable, participants separate ethics from religion because religion remains reduced to primarily metaphysical beliefs.

Although there were a number of reasons that these young people viewed religion and belief in this way, one influence on their understanding clearly came from what they were taught in school. In state-maintained secondary schools in England, some form of RE is mandatory and one of the ways in which schools meet this requirement is through exam courses at GCSE. ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ is one of the most popular strands of exam RE, with pupils being tested on their knowledge of how religious adherents are supposed to live and act, and on their ability to critique religious truth claims and provide rationale for their own beliefs about what is true. For example, the following questions have been set on recent exam papers:

Explain why some people say that religious revelation is only an illusion (AQA GCSE Religious Studies Short Course Specification A, June 2010)

Explain why most Christians are against euthanasia (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Do you think the universe is designed? Give two reasons for your point of view (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Although this might help pupils develop their critical thinking skills, this approach to the study of religion seems to reinforce the notion that religion is concerned with private, individualized beliefs of an ontological, epistemological and/or moral nature. It does not provide room for pupils to consider how ‘religion’ might be broader than assent to propositional beliefs or to explore further the nature of belief and how it can function in all our everyday lives. As Day writes of Jordan, ‘[He] had many beliefs, although not in God, Jesus, the Bible and “stuff”. He believed in doing well at school, helping at home, being with his friends’ (2009, 267).

In recent years, there has been increased debate about the inclusion of secular philosophies within the RE classroom. As I have argued elsewhere , there seem to be a number of problems with some of the recommendations that have been made in this debate, specifically that it repeats the assumption that belief (whether religious or secular) is tantamount to assent to propositions. But exploring the nature of belief more broadly would seem to be one way in which young people could understand religion ‘beyond belief’ and start to recognise the role that beliefs play in all our lives, rather than viewing belief as solely propositional and peculiar to religion. Space within the curriculum should perhaps be found, therefore, to encourage pupils to explore the nature of belief as not only a marker of religious identity but also of social or relational identities, as Day suggests.

Towards the end of the interview, Day discusses some of the ways in which academics can disseminate project findings, as well as give back to the communities they have involved in their projects. Day’s research into what people actually believe has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of how belief functions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. My research with 14- and 15-year olds suggests that it would be helpful if more of these insights could reach not only researchers of religion but also educationalists and policy makers, in order to benefit young people studying religion and belief at school.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.


  • Day, A. (2009) ‘Believing in Belonging: An Ethnography of Young People’s Constructions of Belief.’ Culture and Religion 10 (3) 263-278
  • – (2011) Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, L. (2012) ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
  • Liebenberg, L. (2009) ‘The visual image as discussion point: increasing validity in boundary crossing research’. Qualitative Research 9:441-67.
  • Lindquist, G. and Coleman, S. (2008) ‘Introduction: Against Belief?’ Social Analysis 52 (1) 1-18
  • Morgan, D. (ed.) (2010) Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge.
  • Needham, R. (1972) Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Ruel, M. (2002) ‘Christians as Believers’ in Lambek, M. (ed.) (2002) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.


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