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Explaining the causes of atheism and non-belief

Atheism and other forms of non-belief in God(s) are widespread and growing, raising public debates about the personal and social impacts of non-belief and fundamental questions for the scientific study of religion. If, for example, beliefs in God(s) are largely the products of evolved human psychology, then how do we explain the growth of atheism?

While some research has explored the causal origins of atheism, there has been no systematic, multi-disciplinary, cross-cultural attempt to establish the relative importance of hypothesized causal factors.

Our team’s recent Understanding Unbelief (UU) programme (2017-2020) has produced rich descriptive data that distinguishes the fractionated elements underlying the construct ‘atheism’ and shows how they vary across cultures, providing a more stable foundation for causal analysis.

The Explaining Atheism project is a novel continuation of the UU programme, taking up its innovative interdisciplinary methodology but shifting its aim from description to explanation.


Using the successful UU model, Explaining Atheism will combine an interdisciplinary and cross-national core research project with a three-part sub-granting programme, and ensure collaboration and coherence through programme-wide workshops and conferences. Core research will identify the most promising explanations of atheism and combine quantitative and qualitative methods to test their relative importance in Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, UK and US.

Three sub-granting competitions will complement this work, two focused on research (with one specifically for early career researchers) and one focused on public engagement and understanding. The Explaining Atheism programme will be a landmark project for the scientific study of religion and nonreligion, further establish the study of atheism and nonreligion in the academy, and greatly improve public understanding of the causal histories and possible futures of both belief and non-belief.

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Dr Aiyana Willard
Dr Aiyana Willard - Aiyana Willard is a Lecturer (psychology) in the Centre for Culture and Evolution at Brunel University London and a research associate at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford. Her research interests are in the cultural evolution of religion, karma, witchcraft and other supernatural beliefs. Academic career: Lecturer in Psychology, Brunel University London, 2018-current. Postdoctoral researcher, Oxford, 2017-2018 Postdoctoral researcher, University of Texas at Austin, 2015-2017 PhD in Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2015 MA in Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2011
Dr Lois Lee

Related Research Group(s)


Culture and Evolution - Evolution and culture are the two most fundamental and powerful influences on human behaviour, and their effects are what we study at the Centre for Culture and Evolution.

Partnering with confidence

Organisations interested in our research can partner with us with confidence backed by an external and independent benchmark: The Knowledge Exchange Framework. Read more.

Project last modified 09/05/2023