Researching Belief without Asking Religious Questions


  • Abby Day University of Sussex



belief, belonging, fieldwork, qualitative, religion, UK


A unique research method was designed to answer the question “What do people believe in nowadays and how do we find out?” This approach was intended to research belief by asking non-religious questions of apparently non-religious people. The qualitative method, detailed here, produced data that led me to conclude that statements of religious affiliation are often expres-sions of “believing in belonging,” where people associate with religion to reinforce ethnic, familial or other social identities. Fieldwork issues such as informant selection, interviews and data interpretation are discussed in detail.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Abby Day, University of Sussex

Abby Day is Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex where she is Principal Investigator on an ESRC-funded project: A Longitudinal Qualitative Study of Belief and Identity. She is Co-Convenor, with Professor Gordon Lynch, Birkbeck, University of London, of an AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society network: Young People and the Cultural Performance of Belief. Her books include Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World: Believing in Belonging (Oxford University Press, 2011) and an edited volume, Religion and the Individual (Ashgate, 2008).


Abercrombie, N., J. Baker, S. Brett and J. Foster. 1970. “Superstition and Religion: The God of the Gaps,” in D. Martin and M. Hill eds. A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain. London: SCM Press, 93–129.

Asad, T. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

—2003. Formations of the Secular. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bailey, E. 1990. “Implicit Religion: A Bibliographical Introduction,” Social Compass, 37.4, 499–509. doi:10.1177/003776890037004007

Barker, J., and S. Weller. 2003. “Is It Fun?: Developing Participatory Children Centred Research Methods,” in A. Day and P. Lugosi eds. “Methods in Practice,” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 23.1–2, 33–58.

Barth, F. 1969. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget.

Borhek, J. T., and R. F. Curtis. 1975. A Sociology of Belief. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Brierley, P. 2006. Pulling Out of the Nose Dive: A Contemporary Picture of Churchgoing; What The 2005 English Church Census Reveals. London: Christian Research.

Brown, C. 2001. The Death of Christian Britain. London: Routledge.

Bruce, S. 1995. Religion in Modern Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

—2001. “Christianity in Britain, R.I.P.,” Sociology of Religion, 62.2, 191–203. doi:10.2307/3712455

—2002. God is Dead. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bruce, S., and T. Glendinning. 2003. “Religious Beliefs and Differences,” in C. Bromley, J. Curtice, K. Hinds and A. Park eds. Devolution—Scottish Answers to Scottish Questions. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 86–115.

Burns, R. B. 2000. Introduction to Research Methods. London: Sage.

Davie, G. 1990. “An Ordinary God: The Paradox of Religion in Contemporary Britain,” The British Journal of Sociology, 41.3, 395–421. doi:10.2307/590965

—1994. Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell.

—2002. Europe: The Exceptional Case. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

Day, A. 2005. “Doing Theodicy: An Empirical Study of a Women’s Prayer Group,” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 20.3, 343–56. doi:10.1080/13537900500249889

—2006. “Believing in Belonging: A Case Study from Yorkshire.” Unpublished PhD thesis, Lancaster University, UK.

—2008. “Wilfully Disempowered: A Gendered Response to a ‘Fallen World’,” European Journal of Women’s Studies, 15.3, 261–76. doi:10.1177/1350506808091507

Field C. F. 2001. “The Haemorrhage of Faith? Opinion Polls as Sources for Religious Practices, Beliefs and Attitudes in Scotland since the 1970s,” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 16.2, 157–75. doi:10.1080/13537900120040645

Flick, U. 2002. An Introduction to Qualitative Research. London: Sage.

Foucault, M. 1972. The Archeology of Knowledge. London: Tavistock.

Francis, L. 2003. “The Flaw in the 2001 Census in England and Wales,” in P. Avis ed. The State of Religious Practice in Britain. London: SCM Press, 45–64.

Gill, R. 2001. “Future of Religious Participation and Belief,” in R. K. Fenn ed. The Blackwell Companion to Sociology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell, 279–91.

Gill, R., C. K. Hadaway and P. L. Marler. 1998. “Is Religious Belief Declining in Britain?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37.3, 507–16. doi:10.2307/1388057

Good, B. J. 1994. Medicine, Rationality, and Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hardy, A. C. 1979. The Spiritual Nature of Man: A Study of Religious Experience. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hay, D. 1982. Exploring Inner Space: Scientists and Experience. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Hill, P. C., and R. W. Hood. 1999. Measures of Religiosity. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.

Jenkins, R. 1997. Rethinking Ethnicity. London: Sage.

Luckmann, T. 1967. The Invisible Religion. London: Collier-Macmillan.

Needham, R. 1972. Belief, Language and Experience. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Percy, M. 2004. “Losing our Space, Finding our Place,” in S. Coleman and P. Collins eds. Religion, Identity and Change. Aldershot: Ashgate, 26–41.

Reinharz, S. 1992. Feminist Methods in Social Research. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robbins, J. 2007. “Continuity Thinking and the Problem of Christian Culture,” Current Anthropology, 48.1, 5–17.

Ruel, M. 1982. “Christians as Believers,” in J. Davis ed., Religious Organization and Religious Experience. London and New York: ASA Monograph, 21, 9–32.

Savage, S., S. Collins-Mayo, B. Mayo, with G. Cray. 2006. Making Sense of Generation Y: The Worldview of 15–25-Year-Olds. London: Church House Publishing.

Skeggs, B. ed. 1995. Feminist Cultural Theory: Process and Production. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Smith, W. C. 1967. Problems of Religious Truth. New York: Scribner’s.

—1977. Belief and History. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

—1978. The Meaning and End of Religion. London: SPCK.

—1979. Faith and Belief. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Southworth, J. R. 2005. “Religion in the 2001 Census for England and Wales,” Population, Space and Place, 11, 75–88. doi:10.1002/psp.361

Speer, S. A., and I. Hutchby. 2003. “From Ethics to Analytics: Aspects of Participants’ Orientations to the Presence and Relevance of Recording Devices,” Sociology, 37.2, 315– 38. doi:10.1177/0038038503037002006

Voas, D., and S. Bruce. 2004. “The 2001 Census and Christian Identification in Britain,” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 19.1, 23–28. doi:10.1080/1353790032000165087

Voas, D., and A. Crockett. 2005. “Religion in Britain,” Sociology, 39.1, 11–28. doi:10.1177/ 0038038505048998

Voas, D., and A. Day. 2007. “Secularity in Great Britain,” in B. A. Kosmin and A. Keysar eds. Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives. Hartford, CT: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, 95–112.

Weber, M. 1922. The Sociology of Religion. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

—1978. Economy and Society. Eds. G. Roth and C. Wittich. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Weller, P. 2004. “Identity, Politics and the Future(s) of Religion in the UK: The Case of the Religion Questions in the 2001 Decennial Census,” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 19.1, 3–21.

Yin, R. K. 2003. Case Study Research Design and Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA and London: Sage.



How to Cite

Day, A. (2010). Researching Belief without Asking Religious Questions. Fieldwork in Religion, 4(1), 86–104.