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   School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics

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  Dr Jonathan Lanman  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Atheism, agnosticism, and other forms of non-belief in God or gods are widespread and growing, raising public debates about the personal and social impacts of non-belief and how to include such perspectives in legal frameworks, education, and public policy (Zuckerman 2007; Lee 2015; Smith & Cragun 2019). Further, the growth of non-belief, as well as its uneven distribution around the world, raises questions for the scientific study of religion and culture. If beliefs in God or gods are largely the products of evolved human psychology (Boyer 2001, Barret 2004), then how are we to explain the growth and distribution of atheism, agnosticism, and other forms of religious non-belief (Lee and Bullivant 2010; Lanman 2012a; Mercier, Kramer, and Shariff 2018)? What are the main causes of atheism? 

With generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation, in collaboration with QUB, Brunel University, University of Kent, St Mary’s University Twickenham, Coventry University, and University of Notre Dame Australia, the new Explaining Atheism research programme is the first major research initiative of its kind to examine the causes of atheism across disciplines and across cultures.

The programme has several components. Firstly, it involves grant competitions, to generate and fund research from across the human sciences, investigating the causes of atheism across demographic groups, cultural settings, and historical periods. Secondly, its core interdisciplinary research team will work across these areas to build a more integrated understanding of the causal origins of individual and societal non-belief through a central research project called Explaining Atheism: Across Disciplines, Across Cultures. Finally, the programme includes public engagement activities that aim to develop knowledge exchange between academic researchers in this field and wider publics. Together, these strategies aim to produce the most systematic scientific account of the causal origins of atheism, agnosticism, and other forms of non-belief to date. 

In collaboration with the Explaining Atheism programme, QUB is providing two fully funded studentships to support doctoral research that will contribute to the programme’s broad goals and participate in our core research projects.

Studentship 2: Qualitative

The recipient of the Qualitative studentship will work with the core team to qualitatively and potentially quantitatively analyze hundreds of existing interviews from Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, Sweden, UK, and USA in order to examine how the causal factors identified elsewhere in the project manifest in individuals’ lived experience, illustrate and deepen our understanding of those processes, and generate new theories about how people and societies become non-believing.

The recipient will be invited to pursue additional research that reflects their own personal interest in the causes of atheism. The programme is broad and ambitious, and projects might focus on any region(s) of world, social grouping(s) or ways people become atheists. Projects may utilize anthropological, sociological, or psychological methods, but will be empirical with a predominantly qualitative focus.

The appointed researcher will work with a supervisory team led by Dr Jonathan Lanman (Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queens University Belfast) and supported by Dr Lois Lee (Religious Studies, University of Kent), and will be an active member of the Explaining Atheism programme team.

Applications for this studentship are welcome from anyone with a strong academic track record in a relevant discipline (e.g. sociology, anthropology, psychology, religious studies) who is able to demonstrate a strong interest in the programme theme as well as the range of skills necessary for this kind of collaborative project. Previous experience with fieldwork, interviews, and qualitative analytical software such as NVivo is desirable.

APPLY by using QUB’s Applications Portal and following the instructions.

Your proposal should include the following:

• An explanation of why you are interested in this research programme and the core research project of Explaining Atheism: The Causal Origins of Individual and Societal Non-belief

• An additional research proposal of your choosing, outlining an additional research topic and methodology within the broad area of Explaining Atheism

• An explanation of how your previous academic training provides a strong basis for you to undertake research in this area (e.g. through the particular modules/courses or dissertation topics that you have pursued, or particular theoretical/methodological approaches that you are interested in)

• An explanation of how you see this studentship project providing a basis for your future academic or professional work

• Contact details of two academic referees who would be able to comment on your suitability to undertake this research

Interviews for short-listed candidates will take place online in May 2022. Candidates will also be asked to provide a sample of their written work prior to interview.

Funding Notes

This DfE funded studentship is open to UK candidates. The value of an award includes the cost of approved fees as well as maintenance support (stipend). As an indicator, the level for 2021/2022 was £15,609.


Applicants are encouraged to acquaint themselves with the results of the Understanding Unbelief (2017-2021) programme, especially the initial report, found here:
Further questions about the Understanding Unbelief programme can be discussed by emailing Dr Lois Lee at
Further questions about the Explaining Atheism programme can be discussed by contacting Dr Jonathan Lanman at
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