Study finds the nonreligious can be more close-minded than the religious

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New research indicates that religious believers can be better at perceiving and integrating different perspectives than atheists in Western Europe.

“The main message of the study is that closed-mindedness is not necessarily found only among the religious,” the study’s corresponding author, Filip Uzarevic of the Catholic University of Louvain, told PsyPost.

The research was published April 27, 2017, in the peer-reviewed journal Personality and Individual Differences.

“The idea started through noticing that, in public discourse, despite both the conservative/religious groups and liberal/secular groups showing strong animosity towards the opposite ideological side, somehow it was mostly the former who were often labeled as ‘closed-minded’,” Uzarevic explained. “Moreover, such view of the secular being more tolerant and open seemed to be dominant in the psychological literature. Being interested in this topic, we started to discuss whether this is necessarily and always the case: Are the religious indeed generally more closed-minded, or would it perhaps be worthy of investigating the different aspects of closed-mindedness and their relationship with (non)religion. ”

The researchers found that Christian participants scored higher on a measure of dogmatism than nonreligious participants. The Christian participants, for instance, were more likely to disagree with statements such as “There are so many things we have not discovered yet, nobody should be absolutely certain his beliefs are right.”

But two other measures of closed-mindedness told a different story.

Atheists tended to show greater intolerance of contradiction, meaning when they were presented with two seemingly contradictory statements they rated one as very true and the other as very false. They also showed less propensity to be able to imagine arguments contrary to their own position and find them somewhat convincing.

“In our study, the relationship between religion and closed-mindedness depended on the specific aspect of closed-mindedness,” Uzarevic told PsyPost. “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.”

The study was based on 788 adults from the United Kingdom, Spain, and France. The majority of participants reported being atheist (302) or agnostic (143). The remaining participants were Christian (255), Muslim (17), Buddhist (17), Jewish (3), or identified as “other” (51).

“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,” Uzarevic said.

“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 (e.g. possible non-representativeness of the sample, impossibility to fully control the structure and the quality of the sample). However, despite these limitations, the study did offer relatively consistent results, and a good starting point for future research.”

The study, “Are atheists undogmatic?“, was also co-authored by Vassilis Saroglou and Magali Clobert.