What personality is atheist?
The likely atheists
The question: What can science say about atheism?
What can we say about individuals who are atheists or agnostics, those who do not share the common tendency to believe in the world of the spirits and in some spirits that are greater than others and control our destiny? A century of research can guide us.
Those with no religious affiliation have been found to be younger, mostly male, with higher levels of education and income, more liberal, but also more unhappy and more alienatedfrom wider society. Such findings have been reported in the US, Australia, and Canada.
Some atheists have been raised without any religious teaching; others have chosen to reject what they have been taught as children. Those who have come from religious homes and given up religion have had more distant relations with their parents, and a commitment to intellectualism.
Irreligiosity is tied to greater political liberalism, and to being less prejudiced.
Radical students who were members of the students’ Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964 (which started the 1960s upheavals on American campuses), were more likely to come from families that were identified as Jewish, agnostic, or atheist.
The claim that atheists are somehow likely to be immoral or dishonest has long been debunked. Studies that looked at readiness to help or honesty showed atheists standing out, not the religious. When it comes to the more serious matter of violence and crime, ever since the field of criminology got started, and data collected of the religious affiliation of criminal offenders, the fact that the unaffiliated and the non-religious had the lowest crime rates has been noted.
Starting in 1925, LM Terman and his colleagues studied 1,528 gifted youth from California with IQ levels higher than 140 who were about 12 years old. Members of this group were followed up throughout life, and were found to be consistently irreligious. Studies on the religiosity of scientists and academics have shown consistently low levels of religiosity, and the prevalence of atheism. Moreover, the more eminent scientists were less religious than others.
In the 1990s surveys of working scientists and eminent scientists from 1914 and 1933 were exactly replicated. First, a random sample taken from American Men and Women of Science in 1996 showed that 60% were non-believers. Then a questionnaire was sent to 517 members of the United States National Academy of Sciences from the biological and physical sciences (that is, mathematicians, physicists and astronomers). Many members of the National Academy are Nobel laureates. The return rate was slightly over 50%.
The results showed that the percentage of believers in a personal God among those more eminent scientists in the US was 27.7% in 1914, 15% in 1933, and 7% in 1998. Belief in personal immortality was slightly higher: 35.2% in 1914, 18% in 1933, and 7.9% in 1998.
The findings demonstrate first, that the process of turning away from religion among the most eminent scientists has been continuing, and, second, that in the US, eminent scientists, with only 7% believing in a personal God, are at odds with the general population, where the corresponding percentage hovers around 90% in various studies.
What we are able to conclude about the typical atheist in western society today is that person is more likely to be a male and of higher education.
Can we speak about an atheist personality? A tentative psychological profile can be offered. We can say that atheists show themselves to be less authoritarian and suggestible, less dogmatic, less prejudiced, more tolerant of others, law-abiding, compassionate, conscientious, and well-educated. They are of high intelligence, and many are committed to the intellectual and scholarly life.
Atheism: a personality profile
For half a decade, the cognitive science of religion has sought the evolutionary origins of religious belief. This burgeoning field has some deep and convincing explanations, but it may also stigmatize atheists as aberrations of evolution. Now, psychologists are countering this stigma by tracking the personality traits that naturally facilitate atheism. Their work gives us a personality profile that neutralizes atheism as one of many expected worldviews in any healthy, diverse community.
One explanation for the origin of religious belief is the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device hypothesis, or simply HADD. The argument is that our high-strung ancestors who assumed there was a predator behind snapping twigs or rustling bushes were more likely to survive than their laidback, if more often right, cousins. So attributing agency to events is adaptive. Therefore as a byproduct, or spandrel, of this tendency, when we look at a starry night or storm clouds we assume that there must be some powerful agency behind these natural phenomenon. Our tendency to believe there’s a tiger in the rustling bushes translated into believing there’s a supernatural God, or gods. But does this mean non-belief is unnatural?
Many psychologists have argued yes. Jesse Bering and Justin L. Barrett, psychologists working in the cognitive science of religion, are two of the more vocal advocates. They each argue that our brains have been programmed by evolution to believe in supernatural entities. In other words, our cognitive defaults are set to religious belief in a supernatural über-mind (or minds) guiding the world. Which means that atheists are constantly working against the mind’s tendency to believe that coincidences are meaningful or that there is indeed a tiger in the bush. Their argument adds “unnatural” to the atheist’s already prodigious list of defamations.
For a long time sociologists have held a more favorable, or at least neutral, view of atheists. What is natural depends entirely on the culture you find yourself in. So non-belief may be completely natural in some cultures but not others. What makes a conducive culture for non-belief can vary widely. A thoroughly secular culture may foster non-belief, but a culture where religion is expressed in a hateful way may also lead to atheism. Predicting how a culture will guide personalities is incredibly complex.
But in a recent article for the journal Religion, Brain, & Behavior, Catherine Caldwell-Harris, a psychologist at Boston University, offers a helpful first step. Past research has linked agreeableness and conscientiousness with belief. In her work, Caldwell-Harris has gathered the personality traits that facilitate non-belief. Given a conducive culture, someone with these traits is likely to be an atheist. The added benefit of this understanding is that it explains away the nasty assumption that atheists are unnatural.
To create this profile, she’s pulled from research in sociology and psychology and condensed the findings into three categories: atheists are likely to be highly individualistic, systematic thinkers, with a penchant for pragmatism. Of course this profile is no guarantee of non-belief, but it’s a good predictor.
Individualism is not just the tendency to dislike family picnics (although research confirms that atheists are less enthusiastic about such gatherings!). This category also involves an internal locus of control and tendency towards non-conformity. On “Big Five” personality questionnaires, atheists rank more open to new experience than believers which often translates into individualism. All that is very glowing, but the downside of individualism is that non-believers report receiving less social support than believers.
If you ask atheists why they don’t believe in God, their systematic thinking will shine. In their 2006 groundbreaking study of nonbelievers, Hunsberger and Altemeyer, two Canadian psychologists, recorded the responses: “How is it possible that people who had just crossed the Red Sea and eaten manna from heaven built a golden calf just because their leader was a few hours late returning from his appointment with the Almighty? Why was genocide OK for King Saul but not for Hitler?” This response is exceptionally feisty, but it highlights the common use of rationality that most atheists appeal to when dismissing belief. This fondness for logic and skepticism also helps explain the over-representation of atheists in academia and scientific fields.
Being drawn to science is all the more likely given what Caldwell-Harris describes as a focus on “pragmatic here-and-now problem solving.” This trait is especially important for reversing the stereotype that non-believers are not concerned with the meaning of life. Instead of finding meaning by investing the everyday with a sense of the sacred, atheists tend to find meaning in the here-and-now, in this world. This characterization is supported by previous research arguing that secular people are more concerned about social justice, environmentalism and a more inclusive altruism. Humanists won’t be surprised by this category.
In fact, none of these traits are particularly surprising. They certainly don’t guarantee non-belief, but these strands of personality give a fair characterization of the vocal atheists in our culture and their less vocal counterparts living right next door.
Most importantly, this profile helps argue that atheism is an expectable worldview. In other words, it is just as natural as belief. Certain traits may have had an evolutionary advantage in the past, but diversity is the fodder of evolution. The diversity of personalities in our communities is not only adaptive – this diversity gives our social fabric its beauty. Caldwell-Harris makes the convincing case that atheists are one expected, natural strand in the fabric of a community. Perhaps the health of a community can be judged by how freely these personalities are able to express themselves.
New psychology research identifies a robust predictor of atheism in adulthood
People who grew up in a home with relatively little credible displays of faith are more likely to be atheists, according to new research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. The study indicates that cultural transmission — or the lack thereof — is a stronger predictor of religious disbelief than other factors, such as heightened analytic thinking.
“Researchers have proposed a bunch of different theories about how religion works, why we have it, and such. I think that atheism is an ideal way to evaluate these theories. They tend to predict really different things about what ought to relate to atheism,” explained Will Gervais, a senior lecturer in psychology at Brunel University London.
For the study, Gervais and his colleagues surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,417 U.S. residents. The survey included the Supernatural Beliefs Scale, which assesses the degree to which people hold supernatural beliefs and asked the participants to simply indicate whether they believed in God. The participants also completed psychological assessments of perspective-taking ability, feelings of existential security, exposure to credible cues of religiosity, and reflective versus intuitive cognitive style.
The researchers found evidence that a lack of exposure to credibility-enhancing displays of religious faith was a key predictor of atheism. In other words, those with caregivers who faithfully modeled their religious beliefs, such as going to religious services or acting fairly to others because their religion taught them so, were less likely to be atheists.
“The importance of transmitted culture and context-biased cultural learning as a predictor of belief and disbelief cannot be overstated. Combined, this work suggests that if you are guessing whether or not individuals are believers or atheists, you are better-off knowing how their parents behaved,” the researchers wrote in their article.
Participants with a reflective cognitive style were only slightly more prone to religious disbelief, while those with better perspective-taking abilities were slightly more prone to religious belief. The researchers found no significant relationship between existential security and religious disbelief.
“A lot of people (atheists in particular) like to talk about how atheism comes from rational, effortful thought. This work joins other recent surveys in finding that this isn’t too accurate,” Gervais told PsyPost.
“Our best estimate is that atheism mostly comes down to cultural learning — specific cues we’re exposed to growing up about how sincerely those around us believe in God. Once those cultural inputs are accounted for, individual differences in more analytic cognitive reflection predict a little bit of surface variation, but it’s a pretty small piece of the puzzle.”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“Our work only looked at folks in the United States, which in a lot of ways is a peculiar place. And although our results are quite similar to results from places like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how religion and atheism work outside of the Western bubble that makes up most social science research,” Gervais explained.
“Doing this research and also talking to atheist groups, I’m always struck at the mismatch between people’s narratives about their atheism and the research. So many people seem really convinced that they’re atheists because they’re super rational and science minded. But large-scale quantitative research basically never shows that to be a major predictor of atheism. So what’s up here? Are the narratives off, or are our surveys just poorly calibrated wo what’s going on? I mentally chew on this puzzle a lot, and am never all that satisfied by it.”
The study, “The Origins of Religious Disbelief: A Dual Inheritance Approach“, was authored by Will M. Gervais, Maxine B. Najle, and Nava Caluori.