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Understanding the causes of atheism in Mauritius

Atheism is on the rise globally, with potentially profound implications for individuals and communities. Understanding the causes of atheism can address important basic questions about humans minds and societies, and may also help communities manage cultural change. 

We will investigate the causes of non-belief through a comparative study of believers, non-believers and atheists from three religious groups in Mauritius, a multi-ethnic, religiously pluralistic island nation.

In the past quarter-century—a single generation—Mauritius has undergone rapid economic and demographic transitions paralleling processes implicated in religious decline elsewhere. In Mauritius, religious participation remains normative but there are indications of atheisation in some demographics, particularly in younger adults who have grown up in a changing world. This context affords a detailed study of the lived experiences that predict non-belief, both at the level of the individual lifecourse and across religious groups.

We will carry out two studies—a large-scale survey and a set of retrospective life history calendar interviews—to assess how different social, material and educational experiences predict non-belief in the context of normative religiosity, and how moderators, such as particular forms of ritual, might protect against religious decline. Our survey will sample broadly from three disparate religious groups—Hindus, Muslims and Christians—targeting people varying in their adherence to within-group religious norms, as well as atheists raised in these different traditions. We will analyse broad patterns of atheisation within and between these groups as predicted by relevant social, material and educational factors.

Our lifecourse interviews will then use a well-validated methodology, life history calendars, to gather both quantitative and qualitative data on the lived experiences of individuals in these groups, and we will use these experiences to predict their beliefs and practices as adults. Motivated by theories of human norm psychology, we will analyse the timing of these experiences over development, with particular attention to middle childhood and adolescence as a ‘sensitive period’ of norm acquisition. Key data will concern the quality of certain social relationships—with grandparents, with teachers secular and religious, and with gods themselves—as potential moderators of religious norm adherence. By further comparing the predictors of non-belief across these religious groups that otherwise share a local ecology, we can assess how the normative practices and precepts of these communities might buffer them against losing adherents to atheism in the midst of broader cultural change.

Our work will expand the focus of research on non-belief beyond Western societies to include Global South nations and diverse religions, with implications for understanding atheisation well beyond Mauritius.

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Dr Matthew Gervais
Dr Matthew Gervais - I'm an evolutionary and cultural psychologist with a background in anthropology. My research takes a multi-level approach to human sociality, seeking to understand the mutual constitution and co-evolution of human emotions, social relationships, and social structures. I use a range of descriptive and confirmatory methods, including long-term participant observation, semi-structured interviews, cultural domain analysis, economic games, and social psychological surveys. I maintain an active field site working with indigenous iTaukei communities in the Fiji Islands. I also collaborate on multi-site comparative studies investigating human psychological and behavioural variation.

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 15/11/2023