Atheists can be dogmatic

By Razib Khan | November 9, 2007 9:37 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion
  • MartinM

    In response to a hypothetical archaeological finding which supported the existence and divinity of Jesus…

    What was the exact question? It sounds like one which, if phrased badly, could leave ‘this is a ridiculous question’ as the only reasonable answer.

  • jklein

    I agree with Martin. It’s hard to imagine what such a finding would be that wouldn’t have some better explanation than “proof of Jesus’ divinity”. What would it be? Fossilized wine that was once water? The entire problem atheists have with the claims of Christianity is they’re so patently absurd you can’t treat them as a legitimate hypothesis.

  • Moopheus

    That does seem like a kind of misleading statement. The existence and divinity of Jesus are two separate issues. One could accept easily archaeological evidence for one and be skeptical about the other. If someone said they had evidence for the divinity of Jesus, you’d have to know what the nature of that evidence was before judging, though I can’t really imagine how that could be demonstrated archaeologically.

  • Dunc

    There’s also the point that a single archaeological finding which supports a given hypothesis is not particularly strong as evidence goes (as I’m sure any real archaeologist would agree – depending of course on the exact nature of the finding). Archaeological evidence can notoriously difficult to interpret, and a single finding generally doesn’t rise to the status of “proof” of anything.
    So yes, it’s a ridiculous question, even setting aside the impossibility of finding archaeological evidence of divinity.
    However, of course atheists can be dogmatic. Atheist != rationalist.

  • Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD

    In response to a hypothetical archaeological finding which supported the existence and divinity of Jesus

    1) Archaelogical evidence purporting to support the existence of Jesus H. Christ has been presented many times already. (Shroud, pieces of the “true cross,” ossuary of some guy named Jesus, etc.) It has always been either of poor quality or does establish what its proponents claim. There is a clear record of non-performance here. Suspicion with such a track record does not prove dogmatism.
    2) Archaelogical evidence for Jesus H. Christ’s divinity? I’m not sure I can imagine what that would be.
    3) The claim that atheists are close-minded to the evidence that theists don’t have is nothing new at all. Yawn.

  • carey

    So many surveys of religious outlook are poorly designed, with badly phrased questions, false dualities, and emotionally loaded adjectives. I have seen some that did not allow me to answer with any precision, which left me with a choice between a bad response and a worse response. For what it is worth, I accept atheism as a good working model, but I am truly agnostic with a deep appreciation of our epistemic limitations (eg, Goedel, Tarski) – and it seems most people who look at relgion and religiosity do not consider such outlooks. Maybe if they expect fundamentalism, their surveys will find fundamentalism.

  • Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD

    Correction: should have written “does not establish”

  • Joseph W.

    [A]round 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…”…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.
    I know it’s a frequent theme of your writings that the nature of a religion is more and less than the sum of its doctrines…but don’t you think this is an area where the content of the belief matters? To a Christian or Islamic fundamentalist, whoever grows up without the right belief is bound for eternal damnation; to an atheist, the right and wrong thinkers all end up the same kind of dead. It might be interesting to give a similar survey to believers in reincarnation – as you know, the Dalai Lama doesn’t believe Westerners should convert to his religion.

  • Russell

    I can imagine archaeological evidence of Jesus’s divinity. Or at least, his ability to perfectly foresee the future. Imagine an archaeological finding that predicts, correctly, that “this will be uncovered on Nov. 10, 2007, and the final digit of the next twenty DOW closings are 5, 1, 0,…” Enough discoveries like that, with their predictions broadcast before their fulfillment, of events that in theory aren’t predictable, that everyone can verify, would convince me there is some higher power pulling on the strings of our world. (I trust everyone here understands why it is easy to predict that the first digit of today’s DOW close will be 1, with a very remote chance of 9, but hard to predict what the final digit will be.)

  • Spaulding

    the atheist tendency to conceive of religion as simply a proto-science which is now no longer necessary

    Religion has many aspects, but that’s definitely one of them. Proto-sciences deserve historical respect, but should be discarded as tool improvement makes new knowlege available. The outdated proto-science aspect of some religions is not the only problem, though.
    Many religions actively oppose reason in favor of blind faith and obedience. That’s a tougher problem than the proto-science.
    Religion also can act as an emotional and moral crutch. Sometimes that’s a problem. Sometimes it’s big enough that people die.
    And religion can also act as a catalyst for introspection, awe, and community bonding. Those things are very nice, actually, but are available outside of the religious package too.

  • http://toddshammer.wordpress.com Todd O.

    Just a side note: I’ve lived in the Bay Area for going on eight years, now, and I think Bay Area culture in general is more dogmatic than average. I moved here from Kansas, and was disappointed that the liberalism here is as unthinking and knee-jerk as the conservatism was in Kansas. I don’t know if this is true of other areas, but I’ve been accused of being a Republican on more than one occasion (an absurd notion, if you know anything about my politics) merely because I’m willing to examine issues and consider the possibility that I may be wrong about something. Because I’m an academic, I really strive for that openness to new evidence and/or new ideas. It doesn’t play well socially in San Francisco.

  • Jason Malloy

    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.
    And yet it’s much easier to transmit nonbelief to children than belief:
    “The study, based on a 14 years of data from 10,500 households, found that parents played a powerful role in the transmission of religious belief. But even if both parents held strong beliefs, there was only a 50-50 chance that their children would carry on believing… On the other hand, two non-religious parents had no trouble passing on their lack of faith.”
    The more bizarre the belief, the more the parents need to intervene to make it stick.

  • Taxorgian

    It is somewhat surprising to me that no one has yet asked what the norms of this test actually are. If the population mean were 100, for example, then it could mean that atheists are generally less “dogmatic” than the public at large!

  • jeffk

    Russel:
    Perhaps, but in that event, it’s still more likely that the data is falsified.

  • Russell

    jeffk:

    Perhaps, but in that event, it’s still more likely that the data is falsified.

    It’s conceivable that the DOW closes in the near future could be gamed. But there are a wide variety of future events that are widely observable, and theoretically hard to predict. e.g., how many inches of rain falls at every major airport in the US next January. Or heck, the numerical scores of all the major sports games for the next few months. That last prediction doesn’t have to tell which team wins, or even which teams play. That would too obviously cause people to change their behavior. A perfect match up of numerical scores, for a series of dates and a variety of sports, would be pretty hard to game. Keep in mind that these predictions can be combined, both to reduce the probability that prediction was correct by chance, and to eliminate the possibility that the results or their reporting were somehow controlled. A god wouldn’t be limited to just the few I have described, but could do make all those predictions and more. If no amount of such prophecy would convince you that you were dealing with a being who could predict the future, then I think you are pretty stubborn on that point. ;-)

  • John Emerson

    Fundamentalist “belief” is an identity, a commitment, and a way of life, whereas atheism is merely the belief that there is no God. Two different definitions of “belief”. By choosing from an atheist club, the researchers found the nearest thing there is to an atheist church, but most atheists don’t belong to atheist clubs.
    If a different variable had been chosen, the results would be more valid. E.g., secularism, positivism, or progressivism can function as a total world view, and a thoughtless adherent to one of these points of view might be as dogmatic as a fundamentalist. (For example, the idea that “Without religion there would be no wars” is either false or meaningless.) I think that there are few for whom atheism per se has this function, though.
    And what everyone else said about “evidence” that Jesus is God.

  • Pender

    Russell: your hypothetical finding of a prophetic scroll from Jesus does not by any means establish Jesus’s divinity. I’ll concede that it establishes that there is more on heaven and earth — or at least on earth — than is dreamt of in my philosophy, but it’s a far leap from that kind of uncanny fortune-telling to the existence of a god, his son, a virgin birth, a heaven and hell, the garden of eden, and so on. I suppose that’s one explanation for the data. Another explanation is that some kind of accumulation of market history found its way into the past, via some wormhole or time travel device that we haven’t yet invented. Maybe Jesus himself was a time-traveller.
    But to put it simply that “archeological evidence demonstrates Jesus’s divinity” — ha. Would you reject geometry if archeological evidence demonstrates that circles are in fact square? Reject mathematics if archeological evidence demonstrates that 0=1? Reject aesthetics if archeological evidence demonstrates that there is no such thing as beauty? These questions make no sense, and the original question seems more like an attempted gotcha by a bitter theist than a legitimate pursuit of discovery.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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