Frequently Asked Questions

What is nonreligion and why is it important?

An increasing number of people identify as having no religion. Recent surveys from countries that were traditionally majority Christian show that a significant percentage of the population is nonreligious. 

The results from the 2021 Canadian census showed that 35% of the population was not religious, more than doubling from 16.5% twenty years earlier. In the United States, recent findings from the Pew Research Center suggest that Christians could become less than half the population in just a few decades. Right now, about 30% of people in the United States are religiously unaffiliated.   

Other countries are experiencing similar trends. In recent census results from 2021 in England and Wales, only 46% of the population identified as Christian while 37% checked the “no religion” box. In Australia, 39% of the population is nonreligious while only 44% are Christian. In Latin America, where most people have traditionally identified as Roman Catholic, the “nones” are also on the rise. As of 2019, about 19% of the population in Argentina is religiously unaffiliated. In Brazil, meanwhile, 12% of the population states that they belong to no religion. 

In the Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark), no religion makes up from about 20% to 30% of the populations, but when considering questions like the percentage of people who believe in God or who say religion is important in their lives, we see that the trend toward nonreligion in the region becomes even starker. 

In the countries mentioned above, young people are even more likely to identify as nonreligious, suggesting that the percentage of people identifying as nonreligious will continue to grow. This is an important social shift with wide-ranging implications, but it has yet to receive sufficient attention.  

Many people define nonreligion by focusing on what is absent: that is, what do nonreligious people lack that religious people have? But our project has a different focus: we investigate the substantive content of nonreligion – what are the values, beliefs, and practices of people who self-describe as nonreligious? How do social institutions reflect this massive social change? What might the positive and negative impacts be? 

Is nonreligion the same thing as atheism?

Not necessarily. Atheism is about a lack of belief in God or gods. Atheists can be nonreligious, and vice versa, but there are some complicating factors. A person could consider themselves nonreligious – for example, they don’t belong to or identify with any religious group – yet still believe in God. Alternatively, a person might not believe in God, but could still consider themselves religious: they might attend a Unitarian church or a Buddhist temple, for example. So, while there is overlap between these terms, they are not one and the same. 

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What is the social impact of nonreligion?

The rise of nonreligion has opened new possibilities for living well together. It has meant that a common moral framework based on a transcendent order is no longer the only option. For some people this can be disorienting, but it also opens new possibilities.  

Since religion – and more specifically, Christianity – has suffused so much of western culture, it stands to reason that the decline of its influence has wide-ranging effects, often in unexpected ways. How should we mark key moments in life – like births, marriages, and deaths – when these have been significantly influenced by Christianity?  Christianity has also shaped, for example, how we conceive the environment and our relationship to it. The decline of Christian hegemony has perhaps opened new ways to think about this relationship.  

In short, our project wants to go beyond asking whether this shift is positive or negative, but instead to think about changing lifestances, relationships, and institutional frameworks.  

What is a lifestance?

A lifestance refers to how we think about the world, and how we live and act within it. It’s how we relate to other people, other animals, and the environment. Lifestances can include religious or spiritual perspectives, but also nonreligious ones as well. Lifestances might not always be clearly articulated by the people who hold them, although they can be. That is, someone doesn’t need to have a grand theory about humanity’s relationship with nature, for example, but we can discover their lifestance by looking at their actions.  

The goal of talking about “lifestances” in some aspects of this project instead of “nonreligion” is to be able to talk about the ways in which people think about and engage with the world without always needing to make “religion” the main reference point. In this way, for researchers, “lifestances” might be a more fruitful way to talk about certain issues than “nonreligion.” It also continues to leave space for religion if that is something that is important to people.