Becoming Non-Believers: Explaining Atheism in Childhood

Project: Research project (funded)Research

Project Details


Why do children grow up godless? How does the formation of their non-belief in God(s) relate to their family upbringing, education, and wider socio-cultural contexts, and what is the interaction between these different aspects of their formative social environment? It is widely accepted that atheism and other forms of non-belief in God(s) are on the rise in many societies and that this is linked to changing processes of socialization in relation to religion and belief. Existing sociological research has demonstrated that socialization within both the family and education is contributing to the rise of the ‘non-religious’ (a category which usually overlaps with ‘atheists’). Psychological studies have also emphasized the importance of cultural learning processes in causing atheism, and several studies have highlighted the need for further research into the effects of particular aspects of socialization in relation to atheism. However, without qualitative research into this formative stage in the development of atheism, significant questions remain about how distinct socialization processes — such as socialization within family networks versus teaching environments versus peer relationships; and four distinct processes of socialization into or away from religious worldviews, and into or away from atheistic worldviews — function on their own and in relation to one another. This includes fundamental questions, not only about the mechanisms and relative significance of different socialization processes, but also about whether and how these processes can be distinguished from one another in practice as in theory.

The aim of our project is to examine the major causal mechanisms which sustain and strengthen non-belief in God in middle childhood (7-11 years old) and shape beliefs and worldviews over the life course. The project builds on previous research — Nonreligious Childhood: Growing Up Unbelieving in Contemporary Britain — which examined what it means to children to grow up unbelieving and how children’s non-belief and non-religion are shaped in home and school settings. It conducted multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with children, parents, and school teachers in primary schools in three contrasting areas of England to investigate how children experience and negotiate their non-belief in their everyday lives.

Through new analysis of this rich qualitative dataset, this project will investigate the following research questions:

1. How does the formation of children’s non-belief in God(s) relate to socialization processes within the family?

2. How does the formation of children’s non-belief in God(s) relate to socialization processes taking place within schools?

3. How do these processes interact as causal mechanisms through which non-belief in God(s) is formed in childhood?

4. What is the relative significance of the success or failure of socialization into religious worldviews and into nonreligious worldviews within these processes?

5. As ‘atheization’ takes place across generations, how and why do forms of non-belief in God(s) change in this process, e.g. from ‘analytical atheism’ to ‘spiritual atheism’?

Drawing on realist and process approaches to understanding causality, our analysis will engage with and contribute to cross-disciplinary causal accounts of atheism, generating new theories about how individuals become non-believing during childhood and over their lifetimes.
Short titleBecoming Non-Believers
Effective start/end date1/09/2230/06/24