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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Atheists and Dogmatism

Are atheists undogmatic?

"At least in some cultural contexts and for some aspects of closed-mindedness, but not others, irreligious people may be even more dogmatic/inflexible than their religionist peers. As we will explain below,we argue that this may be the case in highly secularized Western countries with regard to two aspects of closed-minded cognition: tolerance and integration of contradictions and readiness to consider and appreciate others' perspective in general—not limited to religious-moral issues. However, as far as certainty in one's own existential and moral beliefs is concerned, religious people may be more dogmatic than their nonreligious peers...

Being certain of one's own beliefs relative to the existential and moral domains, and thus unwilling to change them is one thing; being open to imagine, listen to, consider, understand, and appreciate others' perspective is, to some extent, something different.We argue that, in highly secularized religious contexts, non-believers, compared to their religionist peers, would be less prone to be interested in, consider, understand, and appreciate perspectives that oppose their own. In fact, living in highly secularized societies that socially and/or politically value irreligion, or at least show a societal indifference with regard to religion, contemporary religious believers are faced with opinions, values, norms, and practices in their daily life that may significantly differ from their own. Thus, these individuals may be more prone to imagine and understand these alternative positions, and possibly to integrate them into their own in a complex way. This integration should imply a higher tolerance of contradictions. On the contrary, non-believers, often raised in non-religious families, have been socialized in a predominantly secular culture where indifference to, rather an interest in, religion is the norm. They thus have fewer opportunities to be faced with ideas that challenge their own.

Indirect evidence in favor of these expectations comes from a recent analyses of large international data by Gebauer et al. (2014). These authors found that the somewhat negative association between religiosity and openness to experience decreases, disappears, and may even be slightly reversed, when one shifts from religious to secular countries. They interpret this finding as reflecting the fact that, in the latter societies, religious believers “swim against the stream”, whereas non-believers “swim along the stream”. Additional indirect evidence comes from recent studies showing that those very low in religious fundamentalism, or very high in antireligious sentiments, have their own prejudices with regard to specific targets, that is religious people and moral conservatives (Brandt & Van Tongeren, 2017; Kossowska, Czernatowicz-Kukuczka, & Sekerdej, 2017)...

To measure myside bias as a low propensity to take a different perspective into consideration,we used a version of an arguments-generation task developed by Toplak and Stanovich (2003) and adapted by Van Pachterbeke, Keller, and Saroglou (2012). Participants were first asked to rate their agreement with three different opinion statements: (1) “Child adoption by homosexual couples is a positive advance for society”; (2) “The meaning of life is something entirely personal”; and (3) “In a house, rooms must be painted with light colors” (8-point Likert scales). The order of presentation was counterbalanced. Afterwards, in a separate screen page, participants were asked to generate as many arguments as they could both in support for and in opposition to the statements reflecting the above opinions. The pro and con arguments were to be written in separate boxes of equal size; and their order was counterbalanced. Additionally, for each argument that they generated, participants were asked to report to what extent they found that argument convincing, using a scale from 1 (not convincing at all) to 10 (extremely convincing)

Following Toplak and Stanovich (2003), we considered arguments (pro or contra with regard to each statement) that were in favor of a participant's position as “myside” arguments, and arguments that were in favor of an opposing position as “otherside” arguments. Thus, we computed an index of myside bias in arguments by subtracting the number of otherside arguments from the number of myside arguments. A higher score in this index indicates that a person is less prone to generate disapproving arguments than arguments in favor of their own opinion. We computed an additional index of myside bias in conviction, by subtracting the conviction scores of the otherside arguments from the conviction scores of the myside arguments; a higher score on this index indicates that a person finds arguments opposing their own opinion less convincing than the arguments favoring it.

Intolerance of contradiction

This construct was measured using three pairs of short statements, each pair presenting two seemingly contradictory scientific findings (statements selected from Peng & Nisbett, 1999). Participants were asked to rate, on a 9-point Likert scale, the extent to which they thought each of the six findings was true. The rationale behind this measure is that people who are intolerant of contradiction will have more difficulty in accepting the seemingly contradictory findings as equally true (or false). Thus, if they evaluate one scientific finding of the pair as true, they will tend to judge the other as very false. We computed, for each pair, the absolute difference between the two agreements with the two contradictory statements, and considered the mean of the three absolute differences as the index of intolerance of contradiction...

Gathering and analyzing data from three Western European countries, all with important levels of secularization, and comparing participants who self-identified as agnostic or atheist to those who selfidentified as Christians, we found that Christian participants scored higher on dogmatism, that is they explicitly reported high certainty in their beliefs–even when these beliefs may be questioned by contradicting evidence. This finding is in favor of the idea that holding religious beliefs implies, at least for some, a firm endorsement of ideas that seem implausible or contrary to evidence (e.g., miraculous phenomena, creationism) (e.g., Boyer, 2001; Woolley, 2000)... the religious participants of our study may have been the ones who expressed some certainty in their beliefs, whereas the nonreligious expressed total detachment from all beliefs... reporting low dogmatism may be highly socially desirable among nonbelievers.

Second, to some extent, and seemingly contrary to the above finding at first glance, the direction of the results seemed to change when measuring, through implicit, behavior-like tendencies, (1) the intolerance of contradiction, that is regarding seemingly opposite positions as fully incompatible, and (2) myside bias, that is propensity to imagine many arguments contrary to one's own position and find them somewhat convincing—in fact, a proxy for integrative complexity of thinking. It was non-believers who turned out to show greater, compared to Christians, intolerance of contradiction and myside bias. These two constructs do not parallel dogmatism–note that the three constructs were unrelated, if not even negatively related to each other. However, the results, in line with our rationale in the introduction, seem to question, to some extent, the global idea that rigidity and inflexibility characterize only religious believers but not nonbelievers. The results further suggest that, at least in secularized Western countries, where unbelief has progressively become normative, nonbelievers may be less socialized and less motivated to imagine, understand, and appreciate others' perspectives. (It cannot be excluded that results may differ in societies where mean religiosity is high and religionists do not often interact with the, few, non-believers).

Although the results were somewhat clearer when comparing atheists to religious people, agnostics were similar to atheists when compared to religious believers. Atheists and agnostics scored similarly lower than Christians on dogmatism and higher than them on intolerance of contradiction and myside bias. (The former result is not necessarily in conflict with Silver et al., 2014, since in that study it was the militant antireligious that scored higher on dogmatism than any other type of non-believer.) This suggests that the basic difference in (1) certainty in beliefs and (2) the propensity to consider, appreciate, and integrate different perspectives, even when in opposition to one's own, lies essentially in the distinction between those who believe and those who do not. The only observed difference concerned the attitudes toward religion: whereas atheists and agnostics endorsed equally an understanding of religion from an historical relativism perspective (a main component of the symbolic unbelief measure), atheists endorsed the anti-religious, called “external”, critique, that is disqualifying religion as irrational and outdated, to a greater extent than agnostics.

Finally, the effects are clearly small in size. However, the results seem to show some consistency: they applied to three different countries (UK, France, and Spain). Moreover, and importantly, they did not seem to be an artifact of sociodemographic variables (age, gender, education, and socioeconomic level) when comparisons were made in the total sample as well as across countries...

The current work,modestly but critically, contributes to an ongoing broader debate on whether liberals may parallel conservatives on at least some aspects denoting dogmatic thinking and/or submission to some kind of authority (e.g., Altemeyer, 1996; Conway et al., 2016). Obviously, the link between (ir)religion and rigidity offers a much more complex area of research than had appeared at first glance."


This was reported in The Independent as Atheists are less open-minded than religious people, study claims which, naturally, drew a lot of silly comments.

Most naturally, a lot of poisoning the well - since the authors are from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. Like one saying the study was funded by the Vatican (presumably because of its name), even though the paper reports that "This work is part of the doctoral dissertation of the first author, with a fellowship from the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research". I guess the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research must be linked to the Vatican, then.

Of course no one commenting on this study that I've seen seems to have read the (better) linked article Study finds the nonreligious can be more close-minded than the religious, much less the original paper.

Actually, many might not even have read the article itself, as evidenced by people talking about the tolerance of pedophilia.

They also show a worrying contempt for peer review, which is something that the skeptics would presumably endorse in other contexts.

If a news story came out reporting that a study concluded that fire could be useful in the development of civilisation, there would be people condemning it and talking about how fire killed 10 kids the previous week.

Addendum: All the atheists dismissing or mocking this research without knowing what it's about (one, when I asked what his objections were, even proudly proclaimed that it was trash and he didn't want to read trash) are just helping to make the paper's point.


Comment which displays via Facebook on mobile (but not on the site):

"Yeah, it's a irrelevant little institution which is consistently ranked among the top 100 universities globally and has one of the best medical schools in the world - I guess the doctors there must be divinely inspired..."


The methodology of Peng & Nisbett, 1999 (Culture, Dialectics, and Reasoning About Contradiction, used here to measure intolerance of contradiction) is quite interesting.

It gives participants (seemingly) contradictory statements and asks them if they can be reconciled:

The information was presented in the form of brief descriptions of the findings of scientific studies. The opposing statements were superficially incompatible but were not true contradictions of one another. This left room for a dialectical approach -- for finding some degree of truth to both statements

The statements:

Statement 1A:
A social psychologist studied young adults and asserted that those who feel close to their families have more satisfying social relationships.

Statement 1B:
A developmental psychologist studied adolescent children and asserted that those children who were less dependent on their parents and had weaker family ties were generally more mature.

Statement 2A:
A sociologist who surveyed college students from 100 universities claimed that there is a high correlation among college female students between smoking and being skinny.

Statement 2B:
A biologist who studied nicotine addiction asserted that heavy doses of nicotine often lead to becoming overweight.

Statement 3A:
A health magazine survey found that people who live a long life eat some sorts of white meat, e.g., fish or chicken.

Statement 3B:
A study by a health organization suggests that it is much more healthy to be a strict vegetarian who does not eat meat at all.

Statement 4A:
A survey found that older inmates are more likely to be ones who are serving long sentences because they have committed severely violent crimes. The authors concluded that they should be held in prison even in the case of a prison population crisis.

Statement 4B:
A report on the prison overcrowding issue suggests that older inmates are less likely to commit new crimes. Therefore, if there is a prison population crisis, they should be released first.

Statement 5A:
A group of environmental science undergraduate students examined fuel usage in a large number of developing countries and asserted that recent practices are likely to multiply already worsening environmental problems such as "global warming."

Statement 5B:
A meteorologist studied temperatures in 24 widely separated parts of the world and asserted that temperatures had actually dropped by a fraction of a degree each of the last five years.


Ed: Someone was picking on the effect sizes, so I went to calculate them.

For atheists vs Christians,

Effect size for dogmatism:
-0.23

Effect size for intolerance of contradiction:
0.21

Effect size for myside bias: arguments:
0.21

Effect size for myside bias: conviction:
0.33

As per Jussim et al. in The Unbearable Accuracy of Stereotypes,

"One recent review of more than 300 meta—analyses - which included more than 25,000 studies and over 8 million human participants — found that mean and median effect sizes in social psychological research were both about .2 (Richard et al., 2003). Only 24% of social psychological effects exceeded .3"

Therefore the effect sizes for the first 3 are standard for social psychological research and that for the last is stronger than for most social psychological research.
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