The Pilgrimage Project has been going on for seven years now (or maybe eight. Wow, is it eight already? It actually is), and in that time we’ve made a number of unexpected discoveries. One of those was the sheer number of people on pilgrimages who declared no religious interest at all.
The paper that I’m currently rewriting, per the ‘revise & resubmit’ guidelines given to us by the journal we submitted it to, looks at some of those atheists. Travelling a traditionally Catholic pilgrimage route which has seen a huge uplift over the past twenty years, many of them profess no belief in a higher being, but report similar experiences to the Catholics’ own.
Unfortunately our survey wasn’t set up to record people with no spiritual beliefs – although ‘Atheist/Agnostic’ is an option on the questionnaire, it’s not something we expected to have to explore in-depth, so we didn’t include much in the way of questions regarding the nature of non-belief.
My job at the moment is to try to make something of the data anyway. Part of the survey we did was qualitative, giving people the chance to explain their thoughts and experiences to a certain extent, and this was helpful. Ideally I’d like a larger pool, and some more broken-down data, but you can’t have everything in this world, and especially not in academia.
I’m intrigued by these atheist/agnostic pilgrims and want to know more about them. One of my favourite quotes from an atheist on one of the pilgrimages was:
“Over the last few years I’ve become a committed atheist, so I’m investigating this belief in nothing. That’s what I’m investigating. How much there is to this nothingness.”
I liked this explanation, and I’d be interested to see how this pilgrim felt at the end of the journey, but unfortunately he was one of those whom we didn’t manage to interview again.
Reading through the literature – specifically, looking at Bainbridge, Baker & Smith’s papers on atheism, I’m seeing a trend in people who identify as unreligious and/or unspiritual, but who still sometimes engage in activities that most would put under these headings. One of our atheists said they pray “several times a week”. I can only assume that, since they said they were atheist rather than agnostic, they took ‘prayer’ to mean the same as ‘meditation’, but I’d like to have explored it more as a concept.
I’m thinking about proposing a new study of atheists taking part in activities that would traditionally be viewed as religious, and talking about how they would define these activities in the light of their own beliefs. Whether there is a latent religiosity there, or whether they would class themselves as more spiritual than other atheists, or whether they are hardcore atheists engaging in such activities for reasons arguably completely unrelated to religion. As an atheist myself, for example, I can still enjoy the silence and stillness of sitting in an empty church. But what I experience in such a building is an appreciation of its atmosphere without attributing it to a spiritual being. I assume that the atheists we met on pilgrimages have similar thoughts, but it would be good to gather some empirical data to back it up.
I would also be grateful for any recommendations you might have regarding the current literature on atheism, and particularly on atheists practising spiritual rituals. And, of course, any suggestions to feed in to future research would be very welcome.
Out of interest, how do you identify religiously? Do you practise rituals or engage in activities that would traditionally be viewed as part of a different religious group? Why?