Most atheists and agnostics believe in supernatural powers and that there are “forces of good and evil”, even though they do not necessarily believe in God, according to a new study.
The Understanding Unbelief programme, led by the University of Kent, interviewed thousands of people who identified as atheists and agnostics in six countries — Britain, the United States, Brazil, China, Denmark and Japan.
The report defined atheists as people who “don’t believe in God” and agnostics as people who “don’t know whether there is a God, and I don’t believe there is a way to find out”. The researchers found that a minority of atheists and agnostics, or “unbelievers”, rejected all of the supernatural beliefs which were put to them. It found that the majority of people who did not have faith still believed in at least one aspect of the supernatural, such as life after death, reincarnation or astrology. They also sometimes believed that some events were “meant to be” and that there were forces of good and evil.
One of the authors, Jonathan Lanman of Queen’s University, Belfast, 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.”
About a third of atheists and 40 per cent of agnostics in Britain believe that some events are “meant to be”, compared with just over 60 per cent of the general population. Almost 20 per cent of atheists believe in life after death, compared with 55 per cent of the general population.
Almost a third of atheists and around 45 per cent of agnostics believe in underlying forces of good and evil, compared with almost 60 per cent of the general population. In total, 71 per cent of atheists and 92 per cent of agnostics held at least one supernatural belief, which might also include karma.
Lois Lee, senior research fellow at University of Kent’s department of religious studies, 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.”