Picked up a book, Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers, a nice little survey spun off into a short book. The authors primarily used a sample of respondents (N ~ 350) from some atheist clubs in the San Francisco area. The respondents were older (median ~ 60), well educated (median ~ college completed) and politically liberal (only 3 percent were Republicans). They also drew upon a smaller sample from Idaho and Alabama, as well as previous surveys give to thousands of college students in Manitoba (the authors are Canadian). Not only did they do an analysis of the beliefs of atheists, they compared them to Christian fundamentalists.
It seems that both atheists and Christian fundamentalists are capable of dogmatic opinions. The mean value on a test for dogmatism for the large samples were as followers:
San Francisco atheists: 88
Manitoba atheists: 65
Manitoba fundamentalists: 126
The fundamentalists were by far the most dogmatic, but the San Francisco atheists were rather immune to falsification of their beliefs. In response to a hypothetical archaeological finding which supported the existence and divinity of Jesus the Manitoba atheists were rather willing to reconsider their opinions in light of the new evidence, but the authors found that the San Francisco atheists were generally unmoved (the Manitoba atheists are likely less intense, as they were taken from the general population). The San Francisco samples responses ranged from “This is a ridiculous question” to “Scientific tests can be wrong,” and 64 percent said that their views wouldn’t be changed by such a finding. Among the Christian fundamentalists an inverted question, where an archaeological discovery falsified Jesus’ existence and divinity was posited, 93 percent declared that their beliefs would not be moved. Sample responses included “Jesus is Lord” and “I would know it was just a trick by Satan.” So it is notable that even the most ardent of atheists, those who belong to a club or association in an area (San Francisco) not notable for its hostility toward irreligion, are still rather more open minded than fundamentalists. But one might observe that this is faint praise in indeed when considering the population which we are using as a point of comparison. A general point to take away is that human beliefs are strongly embedded within prior presuppositions rooted in a large base of experience and reason. When scientists encounter anomalous results initially they may discount them as experimental error. So it should not surprise when individuals refuse to allow one datum to falsify their overall paradigm. If one truly was totally convinced of a viewpoint, responses such as “Scientific tests can be wrong” and “I would know it was just a trick by Satan” don’t really seem to be that peculiar to me.
Nevertheless there was one result which implied a sharp difference in the method of thought between the two groups as opposed to an inversion of the sign of the value on the trait. This is in relation to attitudes toward indoctrination. While around 80 percent of San Francisco atheists opposed public schools teaching atheism as correct and theism as false, 80 percent of the fundamentalists favored teaching the truth of theism and falsity of atheism. In response to the question “To what extent would you want your children to have the same religious beliefs that you have?” 22 percent of the San Francisco atheists agreed with the option “I would stress my point of view as they were growing up, trying to get them to adopt my views.” In contrast, 94 percent of the fundamentalists agreed with this. The modal answer for the San Francisco atheists, 56 percent, was “I would want them to make up their own minds, but I would not make religion an important issue. I would not pressure them to believe as I do, nor would I purposely have them exposed to traditional teachings.” It seems reasonable to assume that this attitude is more of an ideal than a reality, even people who aim toward allowing their children’s beliefs to develop without undue pressure can’t but help making clear their own attitudes and stances, and on some characteristics children are quite likely to emulate their parents. That being said, I think these results show why it is false to call atheism “just another religion.” If it is a religion it does a damn bad job at spreading through its own endogenous characteristics. And remember these respondents are members of an atheist club, which tends to select for relatively militant and self-conscious sorts. It seems likely that the atheist sample, members of a small American minority, tend to draw from a subset of individuals who are focused on a particular process of thought as opposed to its end products. Science is much more the emotional equivalent of religion for many atheists than their lack of belief in God (this by the way explains the atheist tendency to conceive of religion as simply a proto-science which is now no longer necessary). In contrast, though religious fundamentalists value faith, it is simply an instrument toward the ends of that faith, a belief in a particular God (Blaise Pascal would be proud).
If the above questions were modified some so that “reason” and “faith” were inserted appropriately I think you would see responses invert in their pattern. The fundamentalists would probably not be hostile toward promoting faith as a process within the school system, but I assume they’d be less enthusiastic than the espousal of their particular faith (they are actively hostile toward the espousal of an alternative faith). Similarly, I suspect that many atheists would actively support a full-throated endorsement by the school system of the process of reason without any specific allusion to implications derived from its use. I doubt they would be indifferent to their children’s attitude toward reason, and allow them to make up their own mind as to whether rationality had any value. This is not to say that atheists are all that reasonable or rational or that their self-perceptions align with reality. It is simply a statement about the values they espouse.