No, a New Study Doesn’t Show Atheists Are More Closed-Minded Than Believers

A recent study is being touted as proof that atheists are more closed-minded than their theistic counterparts, but a cursory glance at the study and interviews with its authors show a more accurate picture.

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Conservative website The Daily Caller said yesterday that “science finally” realized what “many conservatives have argued for years,” namely that “religious believers are more tolerant of differing viewpoints than atheists.” But the authors of the study, an online survey of 788 people in Western Europe, say something very different.

The study itself outlines the scientific evidence supporting the notion that, in general, religious people tend to be more dogmatic in their beliefs than non-believers in order to set the scene.

religiosity is, to a modest degree, characterized by dogmatism, defined as an inflexibility of ideas, unjustified certainty or denial of evidence contrary to one’s own beliefs… the need for closure, i.e. the need for structure, order, and answers… Not surprisingly thus, religiosity, though to a lesser extent and less consistently than fundamentalism, is often found to predict prejudice. This is certainly the case against moral (e.g., gay persons) and religious outgroups and atheists, but also against ethnic or racial outgroups, at least in monotheistic religious context.

The study’s authors go on to say it is “premature” to conclude that atheists are “undogmatic and flexible,” which is fair since we all know fellow non-believers who believe irrational things and nothing, it seems, can change their minds.

But is all of that really true? That’s what the researchers wanted to know. And from the looks of it, the preliminary findings only suggest that religious people may not always be more closed-minded (in every sense) than non-religious people.

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.

That nuanced explanation makes more sense than the conservative headlines, doesn’t it? I’m sure, in some cultures where atheism and non-religiosity are the norm, many atheists don’t think about or consider opposing views as often as others might. That’s all the study is suggesting. But even still, there are some other reasons we should look at this as a preliminary finding and not as a settled scientific conclusion.

Filip Uzarevic of the Catholic University of Louvain, one of the authors of the controversial study, has said the “main message” of the survey is that “closed-mindedness is not necessarily found only among the religious.” He also told PsyPost that atheists only scored higher on certain aspects of closed-mindedness, and not when it came to closed-mindedness as a whole.

The nonreligious compared to the religious seemed to be less closed minded when it came to explicitly measured certainty in one’s beliefs. However, and somewhat surprisingly, when it came to subtly measured inclination to integrate views that were diverging and contrary to one’s own perspectives, it was the religious who showed more openness. In sum, closed-mindedness (or at least some aspects of it) may not be reserved only for the religious. Moreover, in some aspects, the nonreligious may even ‘outperform’ the religious.

Uzarevic went on to lower expectations for anyone expecting this study to provide confirmation for their suspicions that all atheists are closed-minded assholes.

There are, of course, some limitations to this study. They are especially important to keep in mind since the psychological study of nonreligion is still in its infancy, and the findings should be approached tentatively… Firstly, we do not know whether the findings are typical only for the Western European (secularized) context in which the study was conducted, or it reflects more global tendencies… With that in mind, and the fact that the effect sizes found in our study were quite small, a replication would be due to confirm the stability of the findings. Again highlighting the importance of replication, one possible limitation is that the study was done online, which naturally opens several questions.

All in all, this study doesn’t live up to the hype from some conservatives. It doesn’t provide evidence that atheists are generally more closed-minded than believers and it doesn’t prove anything at all.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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