Atheists are less open-minded than religious people, study claims; Some doubts & Problems

Jonathan brought this article in the Independent to my attention.

My commentary is going to be in part on the problems of scientific reporting, as exemplified by the Independent’s piece, but mostly on the article that was the target of that piece: Uzarevic, Saroglou, and Clobert ‘Are atheists undogmatic?’ (2017). (Unfortunately, I can’t find a publicly available version of this paper, yet.)

Close-minded

This image was captured from QualiaSoup’s excellent video ‘Openmindedness‘, which is worth watching.

My knee-jerk reaction, upon seeing that Saroglou was a co-author I was disappointed as I have cited him frequently, and admire his work. I looked at the paper, and then back at the Independent’s article. I’m still disappointed, but not to the degree I would have been had I taken the Independent’s analysis as accurate. So let’s start with the Independent…

The headline reads, “Atheists are less open-minded than religious people, study claims.” Well, no, that’s not what the study claims, it’s more complex than that. For example, from the results section, “Religiosity correlated positively with dogmatism, but negatively with intolerance of contradiction and myside bias measures…” Myside bias being, “a low propensity to take a different perspective into consideration.” And from the conclusion, “It can also been [sic] argued that the present work does not unambiguously show nonbelievers’ rigidity in holding exclusively their own positions, but suggest religious believers’ defensive incorporation of opinions contradicting their own ones, and subordination to, their own “belief system” (to use Rokeach’s, 1960, terminology), thus denying the contradiction itself.”

The last line of the Independent article reads, “The findings also said that the strength of a person’s belief in either atheism or religion is directly correlated to how intolerant they are.” This is incorrect. What was being measured was ‘intolerance of contradiction’. Atheists were more intolerant of contradiction, the religious were less so… as you would expect, given the mass of contradictions present in the Bible, and the mental gymnastics that some apologists (professional or otherwise) will go through to excuse them. This point is particularly interesting because previous findings put the politically conservative (who tend to be more religious) as intolerant of ambiguity, which seems very similar to intolerance of contradiction.

This apparent, um, contradiction, can be resolved fairly easily. The intolerance of contradiction is the preference for someone’s actions to match their words – I have spoken of divergent positions on integrity before. The intolerance of contradiction is underpinned by logical concepts such as the law of non-contradiction (duh), the law of excluded middle, and the like. The ambiguity that conservatives tend to be intolerant of are the ambiguities generated by their own worldview.

David Cameron notoriously claimed that England is a Christian nation, and that it is Christianity, along with British values, that enable tolerance. The histories of both Christianity and Britain do not bear this out, but that’s another matter. According to Cameron:

The values I’m talking about – a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law – are the things we should try to live by every day. To me they’re as British as the Union Flag, as football, as fish and chips.

These are humanist values – they are also broadly Western and Democratic values – and whilst that doesn’t exclude them from being Christian or British values, the fact that the UK is more than 50% non-believer, and with a sizable chunk of believers in non-Christian faiths, it’s a questionable claim. The claim seems more likely to be an attempt to internalise the values as relevant to a British Christian. However, in so doing, it otherizes British non-Christians, i.e. the majority.

Similarly, a true American patriot is a WASP, and therefore anyone that is not White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, is not a “true” American Patriot. The less dogmatic the conservatism, the less strongly these definitional traits are required. This is illustrated in the 2012 Presidential race, wherein dogmatic conservatives would vote for a White Christian ahead of a black man. That black man will be further otherised by being made out to be Muslim and even more African than an African-American (i.e. actually born in Kenya, rather than being born in America, of Kenyan descent), and so on. This, I suspect, is to make allowances for the relative non-Protestantism of a Mormon candidate – making him the lesser of two evils. By reducing the ambiguity and thereby “maintaining” the definition of true American patriot, a great many contradictions arose; contradictions that many Conservatives were fine with, but that left many liberals flabbergasted.

Are atheists undogmatic?

The paper itself sets out to measure three aspects of dogmatism:

(1) self-reported dogmatism, defined as unjustified certainty vs. not standing for any beliefs,

(2) intolerance of contradiction, measured through (low) endorsement of contradictory statements

(3) low readiness to take a different from one’s own perspective

So let’s look at these…

Dogmatism

Dogmatism is measured using Altemeyer’s (2002[1]) Dogmatism scale, the operationalized definition of which is “unjustified certainty, specifically in one’s own beliefs”. Immediately we strike a problem. Who is the arbiter of the unjustifiability of the belief? Christians rely on the Bible to prove their God (a circular argument, as the Bible is also the source of the claim), and all of the other arguments mooted for any god at all do not get the believer to the Christian God in particular, just some god, in general. Materialists and/or naturalists (and thus most atheists) can justify their beliefs at least to the extent that they explain the universe that we live in. The Christian God does not unambiguously give rise to the universe we find ourselves in (ironically).

A sample item given is the reverse-scored “There are so many things we have not discovered yet, nobody should be absolutely certain his beliefs are right”. This ignores the cumulative nature of scientific discovery and Bayesian reasoning. The cumulative case for evolution, gravity, and heliocentrism are such that the priors are all but insurmountable. Yes, appropriate scientific circumspection says we are only mostly certain, but pragmatism says that the kind of fact required to overturn these is so unlikely as to be effectively zero. Conversely, belief in any given god is overturned regularly, be it from conversion to another religion, to outright apostasy. Additionally, it has rightly been said that physics is the same anywhere, chemistry and biology, too, whereas your take on monotheism depends very much on the location of your birth. Religion is not universal, science is.

Intolerance of Contradiction

For this measure three pairs of scientific statements were presented. The statements were contradictory, so the degree to which one indicated agreement with one should be equal to the level of disagreement for the other. As expected, the atheists were the most intolerant of contradiction. However, as these items were on a scale, it was possible for the atheist to assign a degree of cautious support for both statements that summed to 100% certainty, or less. Amusingly, this is in fact another way of measuring “unjustified certainty”, specifically in one’s own beliefs. If the sum of the two items in each pair was greater than 100%, the individual was indicating an illogical level of certainty in their own beliefs, or their ability to determine reality. If the total was less than 100%, then the individual was indicating a very strong lack of certainty (i.e. an appropriate level of skepticism). The write-up suggests a significant difference between atheists and Christians, but it was the least significant of all of the results.

Myside bias

Myside bias is, “a low propensity to take a different perspective into consideration,” as mentioned above. This is, of course, an important bias to be clear on. This was measured by participants’ agreement with the following probes:

(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”

The first probe is itself biased, primarily against religious believers, as they are more likely to be biased against homosexual couples. However, this does tend to depend on the specifics of the religious belief. There is not a probe that is similarly biased against atheists. The second probe seems to be open to almost no interpretation – what the meaning of life is, might be, but the facts that it’s personal seems obvious. The second part of the Myside bias condition was, having rated agreement with the probe, to generate arguments both for and against the probe. Given that the third probe is a matter of aesthetic preference, not rational argument (though interior designers and colour psychologists could probably develop rational arguments), it’s not really a matter of bias against a rational standard, but a matter of personal taste.

In combination, these seem like exceedingly poor probes, and the results, therefore have questionable validity. Additionally, given that the measure in the second part of the probe is the number of arguments developed rather than the quality of those arguments, this really tells us nothing about the individuals being “measured”.

Conclusion

This is an exceedingly poor study that was then poorly reported on. As detailed above, the three measures used were next to useless, and the results not especially conclusive, which the paper itself, in its primary saving grace, actually comes close to stating, “…alternative measures and constructs denoting various aspects of closed-mindedness and inflexibility should be used in other studies in order to solidify the present conclusions.”

If you happen to encounter someone attempting to use this paper to support the idea that atheists can be as dogmatic as believers, there are two things to point out:

  • There is a huge difference between the unjustified certainty of religious belief and the cumulative certainty of science on certain aspects of reality, this paper does nothing to differentiate these, and does nothing to rate the types of arguments generated in support of a position, instead relying on the number of arguments, effectively legitimizing the Gish Gallop.
  • From the paper itself, page 169: “…in this study the Christian samples may not have been fully representative of a highly religious population. These samples scored overall moderately on religiosity and were particularly “liberal”…”

(Uzarevic, F., Saroglou, V., & Clobert, M. (2017). Are atheists undogmatic?. Personality and Individual Differences, 116, 164-170.)

[1] Altemeyer, B. (2002). Dogmatic behavior among students: Testing a new measure of dogmatism. The Journal of Social Psychology, 142; 713–721.

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