Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers

Psychologist Bob Altemeyer is known for his work on right-wing authoritarianism (free online book here), and I've also cited his statistics on sexual behavior.  He also wrote a book called Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers, coauthored with Bruce Hunsberger.  I was pleased to find a copy in the library.

Who is the study about?

The book mainly focuses on a 2002 survey of 253 "active" atheists in Bay Area atheist groups.  The authors recognize, and make much of the fact that this is a very exceptional subset of atheists.  They make some attempt to correct for this by adding a study of their psychology students' parents at the University of Manitoba.  But while the Manitoba atheists provide a picture of "ordinary" atheists, this is confounded with a dozen other differences between the Manitoba atheists and Bay Area atheists.

But that's all fine by me.  I'm interested in statistics of "ordinary" atheists and "active" atheists, especially since I'm an active atheist myself.  But there was a major problem with me identifying with the Bay Area atheists.  Their median age was 60.

Altemeyer and Hunsberger describe it as a "first" study, to be followed by many more.  But it may be one of the few studies that will ever be done on active atheists of the baby boomer generation.  I have a lot of reason to believe that this older generation is demographically very different from the newer generation of active atheists that have appeared in the last decade.  Older atheists are just... just... --some of them are among my readers, so I'll say they're absolutely amazing in every way and that's all there is to say on the matter (more on this later).

The results, good and bad

Part of the appeal of the book was to have some impartial and meticulous psychologists study atheists, revealing the good and the bad.  I certainly can't get an impartial account from anywhere else.

I felt the most meaningful results came from the parents of Manitoba students, since the atheist parents could be compared to religious parents.  In all the measures they studied, there were two kinds of trends.  Some measures increased from atheists to agnostics to inactive believers, all the way to fundamentalists.  For example, atheists were the least hostile to homosexuals, had the lowest right-wing authoritarian scores, scored the lowest in religious ethnocentrism, were the least likely to favor teaching their own beliefs in school, and had the least emphasis on religion while growing up.

Other measures reached their minimum for agnostics.  For example, agnostics were least likely to try to persuade a questioning teen to their beliefs, most equitable when rating their attitude to different religious groups, least likely to say that nothing could change their beliefs, and least "dogmatic" (as defined by the DOG scale).  But this is not to say that the atheists and religious people were symmetric.  In fact, atheists tended to score lower than even the inactive religious people (ie those who don't attend services).

So far, that's all rather flattering.  It shows that people who compare atheists to fundamentalists are making it out to be more symmetric than it really is... which is what we've been saying all along!

Keeping in mind that the Bay Area atheists are hard to compare, they scored worse than the "ordinary" atheists on many measures (but almost always still better than the fundamentalists).  They were more dogmatic*, more zealous**, and had higher religious ethnocentrism***.  So that's not so flattering.

*Dogmatism tells you how certain people are about their beliefs, and unwilling to change their minds.
**Zealousness tells you how much they try to persuade others.  It's measured by questions such as what they would say to a questioning teen, and how they would raise their own children.  Though the active atheists score high on some of these measures, the authors think that they are very low on an absolute scale.
***When asked to rate their attitudes towards different religious groups from 0 to 100, atheists had greater disparities than even the fundamentalists did.  Atheists were rated 90, and muslim fundamentalists were rated 0.

This was only a brief summary of the biggest results, but there was a lot of other stuff and more details.  I was particularly interested in the "hidden observer" question.  People are asked to imagine a hidden observer inside their head, and say whether this observer would see that they had secret doubts.  In past studies of high-right-wing-authoritarian students, one third said they had secret doubts, as opposed to 4% of the active atheist sample.  I guess atheist dogmatism is at least the honest sort of dogmatism.

Rationalizing away the bad

Let's be honest, the first place our mind goes is to interpreting the unflattering results in a flattering way.  Did atheists score high on dogmatism because the measures were invalid?  Is it because "dogmatism" as defined in the measures is actually a good thing?  Is it because other atheists are dogmatic (but not me)?  And if that weren't enough, I have an additional excuse: perhaps it's the older atheists who are dogmatic, but not my generation.

The last thing that occurs to us is that the measure is valid, and does in fact reflect negatively on ourselves.  (I'm not saying that this is the correct interpretation, but it should at least be considered.)

The last chapter in the book had responses from atheist groups to the survey results.  Not every response made excuses, but several of them did.  And... their excuses weren't wrong, not all of them.  There's some legitimate criticism to be made of the dogmatism measures.

And then there were some... weird responses.  One person went on about his philosophy of writing his own meaning into the book called "My life", even though this had nothing to do with the survey.  Another person felt the most lamentable result was that atheists did not find joy in logic and science, and concluded this was the result of internalized religious influence.  One person said he couldn't respond to the survey because he took issue with defining atheism by "belief".  I'm rolling my eyes at these responses and chalking them up to generational differences.

In summary, it was an interesting read, but the study was very limited, and it's too easy to reject the findings we don't like.


Anonymous said...

...and the ugly

I had read the book on right-wing authoritarianism and I had noticed a serious misconception by psychologists, which throughout the years only has been reinforced by information obtained via my psychology student friend. And that is that psychologists really have a hard time distinguishing between the semantics of study data (+ model) and the semantics of natural language discribing their preexisting view of human thought and behaviour. This is demonstrated by their ridiculously suggestive naming of variables which even fools themselves, and by their extrapolation of questionnaire answers to human behaviour without blinking an eye.

It inevitably leads to discussions such as yours, where one (implicitely) tries to benchmark oneself, or the group with which one identifies, with suggestively formulated study results. One would like to be confirmed in ones prejudices and, if possible, feel morally superior, as is human nature. Of course, psychology studies would not be so "interesting" if not for this. But I feel that psychology as a field is not making any progress as long as its studies only try to be "interesting" and not stonepieces of a common greater structure.

So I actually think that psychological studies like this (even if with rare good quality statistics) are in this age completely useless, unless you want to win a semantic discussion with "scientific" support. Blegh.

Kudos to your prudence in this blog entry, but with skepticism I think the chance of encountering a meaningful psychological study based on questionnaires is nil.

miller said...

Anonymous, I agree with you about the dangers of ridiculously suggestive names. In fact, I had criticized the Five Factor Model of personality on similar grounds: Most of the personality dimensions have needlessly normative names. The same criticism certainly applies here as well.

However, I hesitate to say that surveys like this are completely worthless. Even if the different measures had no names (ie "measure 153", "measure 218"), I think I would still be interested by looking at the questions themselves and seeing all the cross-correlations.

Anonymous said...

And on my turn I agree with you good Sir. However, I fear that psychologists are not enough mathematically inclined to show interest in the mere structure of their data and shy from abstraction in favour of cheap pseudo-results with "meaning". I don't say that there is no meaning in their data, just that they should be trying to find out what it is instead of presuming to know a priori.

And the most significant part of that meaning is to find out how answers to questions on paper relate to actual human behaviour. I suspect in a highly nontrivial manner, so I am quite confident in my assessment of "worthless".