Educating ‘Young Nones’ part 1: Young People of No Religion and Religious Education

In the first of a two part series reflecting on his research among school-aged ‘young nones’ in Britain, Simeon Wallis discusses theSimeon Wallis emphasis on propositional beliefs within religious education, and the debate around the inclusion of secular philosophies in RE.

‘I’m not religious, so why should I study religion?’ This was a remark that I heard often during my time as a teacher of religious education (RE) in secondary schools in England. Encounters with students who described themselves as ‘not religious’ led me to ask questions about the inclusion of secular philosophies within RE, and to undertake ESRC-funded doctoral research on the lives of young people of ‘no religion’.

In the 2011 Census, 14.1 million people in England and Wales self-identified as having ‘no religion’. Taking issue with the wording of the census, the British Humanist Association’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson said that ‘the number of those leading their lives with no reference to religion [is] much higher’ than this. But is it the case, as the BHA also suggested, that those who report ‘no religion’ are necessarily ‘nonreligious’? Or are they, as implied by the Pew Research Centre’s 2012 report on the 46 million adult ‘nones’ in America, ‘religious without religious affiliation’? In other words, do these numbers represent growth in ‘believing without belonging’ (Davie 1994) or the rise of what researchers are beginning to term ‘nonreligion’ (Lee 2012)? What can researchers and policy makers conclude from these data? Why and how should these numbers affect the content of RE? And do the self-identities of these adult respondents also reflect the beliefs and experiences of young people?

These are pressing questions surrounding the theory and provision of RE. According to Linda Rudge, the ‘silent majority’ of young people in RE classrooms feel that they are, as one eleven-year-old boy said, ‘nothing’. Writing in 2001, Marilyn Mason, former Education Officer for the BHA, identified meeting the needs ‘of all pupils in the classroom, including those who are not religious’, as a major challenge for RE today: ‘If RE is supposed to help pupils towards a sense of identity and a formulation of their own life stance, it should not ignore such a large section of the population’. In recent years, there has been increased debate about the inclusion of secular philosophies within RE in England – a view championed by the BHA.

However, much of the popular debate concerning the inclusion of secular philosophies within RE is founded on, and arguably constrained by, taken-for-granted assumptions. The authors of a 2004 Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report on the national framework for RE presume that religion is mostly concerned with assent to propositional truth claims. As such, there should be no problem accommodating the evaluation of secular philosophies within RE alongside the evaluation of religious worldviews. But this assumption reflects what has been called the ‘philosophical turn’ within RE, according to which metaphysical and existential beliefs about the world are of critical importance for the study of both religion and the secular.

For example, many of the most popular GCSE and A-Level Religious Studies exam papers test young people on their ability to critique religious truth claims, on their knowledge of how religious adherents should live and act, and on their ability to provide rationale for their own beliefs about what is true:

Explain why some creationists do not believe in the Big Bang theory (OCR Advanced Subsidiary GCE, January 2011).

Explain why some people say that religious revelation is only an illusion (AQA GCSE Religious Studies Short Course Specification A, June 2010).

Explain why most Christians are against euthanasia (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010).

Do you think the universe is designed? Give two reasons for your point of view (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010).

This philosophical turn in RE is partly due to the influence of Andrew Wright’s religious education pedagogy – a critical realist approach that emphasises the importance of the search for truth in the study of religion: ‘The heart of religion lies … in the claims to truth it makes about the objective nature of the universe and the place of society and individuals within this worldview’ (1993:72).

As Melissa Lane observes in her response to the IPPR report, there are several problems with approaching religion as if it were tantamount to belief, since a number of religions would treat ‘belonging and observance as primary, rather than belief’. While Lane criticises the report’s recommendations because they misrepresent religion by reducing it to propositional truth claims, does the recommendation that secular beliefs should be studied within RE similarly misrepresent nonreligion as primarily cognitive?

Despite the increasing amount of academic research on nonreligion (Lee and Bullivant 2010), much empirical research has focused on adults. Even the Young Atheist Research Project was mostly concerned with older teenagers and young adults who self-identified as ‘atheists, freethinkers, humanists, secularists or sceptics’. We therefore have very little understanding of the ‘silent majority’ who participate in, and are affected by, RE – and around whom this education is being designed. My own research, focusing specifically on younger adolescents attending secondary schools in England who all report having ‘no religion’, will contribute to this lacuna. By offering insights into the lives of these ‘young nones’, it will complement European-wide studies of young people’s perspectives on religion and religious education, such as those carried out by Knauth et al. (2008) as part of the REDCo project. It will also contribute to our understanding of the nature of nonreligion as an aspect of human life and society, investigating the extent to which young people have beliefs, identities and material expressions that can meaningfully be described as ‘nonreligious’. Questions surrounding nonreligion and young people are broad and pressing, and should not be forgotten within the emerging field of nonreligion and secularity studies.

In the second part of this two part series, to be published in a few weeks time, Simeon will discuss the benefits of using the photo elicitation interview technique for examining how young people’s experience of ‘lived nonreligion’ relates to the concepts and theories employed by researchers in this field.


Davie, G. (1994) Religion in Britain Since 1945. Blackwell: Oxford.
Knauth, T., Jozsa, D., Bertram-Troost, G. and Ipgrave, J. (2008) Encountering Religious Pluralism in School and Society: A Qualitative Study of Teenage Perspectives in Europe. Munster: Waxman.
Lee, L. and Bullivant, S. (2010) Where do Atheists Come From? New Scientist 2750:26-7.
Lee, L. (2012) Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
Rudge, L. (1998) ‘I Am Nothing’ – Does It Matter? A Critique of Current Religious Education Policy and Practice in England on behalf of the Silent Majority British Journal of Religious Education 20(3): 155-165.
Wright, A. (1993) Religious Education in the Secondary School: Prospects for Religious Literacy. London: David Fulton Publishers.

Having taught religious education in secondary schools in England, Simeon Wallis is now a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. He has a BA in English Literature from the University of Exeter and an MA in Religious Studies from Lancaster University. For further information about his research, see his page.

This entry was posted in NSRN Blog, Research Questions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Educating ‘Young Nones’ part 1: Young People of No Religion and Religious Education

  1. Janet Eccles says:

    It is true, Simeon, that our research looked at young people in their late teens, early twenties but we did ask about their primary and secondary years’ religious education experiences. They were variable. In some schools, these were almost non-existent but one striking example was given of a teacher in an extremely religiously diverse area who did ask her students if they didn’t believe in anything and if so, that was fine, It is interesting, in view of your comments, that it was the word ‘belief’ that the teacher used but in this case this seemed to make sense to the student, in that she did not believe, she told us, she was going to hell, if she denied there was a G/god, something her more religious classmates had told her was the case. JE (Research associate, Young Atheists Project)

    • Hey Janet, thanks for leaving a comment. Abby Day’s research, asking questions about belief without asking questions about religion, is quite useful for exploring belief beyond its reduction to propositional beliefs (about the existence of God or hell, to use your examples). Her data includes one fourteen-year-old boy, ‘Jordan’, who says he’s a ‘Christian’ but doesn’t believe in ‘owt’ (anything). Abby shows how he does, however, express beliefs about doing well at school, helping his family and being with his friends, whilst not believing in God, Jesus, the Bible ‘and stuff’. So this example from her research is another illustration of how religion might be reduced to assent to specific propositional beliefs, such that other beliefs (as well as how those beliefs function – relationally, socially or performatively etc) are often occluded from study (by pupils at school? by education policy makers? by researchers?). I’ve written a response to a Religious Studies Project interview with Abby exploring some of these questions, and that should be online in the next little while: But I hope my research will address these kinds of wider topics to do not only with the theorisation of ‘religion’, ‘non-religion’ and other concepts used by researchers in the field, but also about religious education, education policy and the lives of young people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s