Wednesday, 29 September 2010

What we are really like - scientifically speaking

Two Canadian academics, James Cheyne of Waterloo University and Frederick Britton of the Centre for Inquiry (CFI), have just published a preliminary analysis of a large web-based survey of non-theists. They got responses from 2,563 people, most of whom were from the US (66%) or Canada (14%). The respondents were disproportionately well-educated, male and young.

The findings are interesting though generally unsurprising.

How people become sceptics
Cheyne and Britton found that nontheists generally came from at least moderately religious families and reached their sceptical views in late adolescence. Some experienced family hostility to their non-belief and, unsurprisingly, hostility was greatest in the most religious countries. However, the degree of family hostility was not correlated with the respondents’ own hostility to religion, ie there was no evidence of either reflex hostility nor of compromise of beliefs for family harmony.

An unrelated 2010 survey of 3,412 Americans by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than religious believers. This pattern remained even after correcting for factors like age and race. It’s reasonable to assume that they formed their views on the basis of their knowledge.

Most humanists, I suspect, think that they reached their views through study and logic and not, for instance, as a result of ignorance or adolescent rebellion. These data support this view.

Politics and morality
Back to Cheyne and Britton.

The nontheists were surprisingly similar in political and moral opinions – and surprisingly radical. Nontheists were politically liberal – except in economic matters. 91% described themselves as “left of centre”. (NB: That’s left of the American, not European, ‘centre’).

Their moral values were fairness, kindness, helpfulness and support for the rights of others. Self-described ‘humanists’ were particularly emphatic on these points.

They were not particularly patriotic, saw little virtue in loyalty per se or respect for traditions and established authority and they rejected the puritanical hostility to ‘carnal pleasure’ that is so common in religion.

Respondents generally followed the humanist ‘line’ on abortion, stem-cell research and euthanasia. These answers, plus support for evolution and concern about overpopulation and global warming, shows that nontheists generally respect science.

Non theists were concerned about religious fundamentalism and terrorism but had quite negative view about military readiness, war, the death penalty and police authority. Clearly they do not see state violence as an appropriate response.

None of this is remarkable to a British humanist like myself but I am pleased to find that these are also the attitudes of north American skeptics.

Attitudes to religion
Most nontheists were hostile to religion. Over 85% held that religious indoctrination of children without offering them a choice of viewpoints was a violation of their rights. The authors describe this as a “rather strong statement” which seems odd as it’s a natural implication of our support for the rights and autonomy of all people.

How ‘Atheists’ differ
The survey invited respondents to describe themselves by one or more of the terms atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker and sceptic. No definitions were offered for these terms. Relative to other non-theists, and especially to self-described agnostics, atheists were more likely to:
* Show hostility to religion
* Be confident in their beliefs
* Reject ‘spiritual beliefs’
* Express a ‘sense of gain’ regarding their views.
* Express anger and disgust at moral violations
* Endorse humanist attitudes to abortion, stem-cell research and euthanasia.

The authors speculate that the decision to label oneself an atheist or agnostic may be due to one’s personality type rather than indicating any significant difference of opinion. Atheists are more confident of their opinions and therefore more certain that religion is wrong and thus more hostile to it.

This research confirms generally humanists’ self-image as well-informed and rational people. The broad agreement on moral and political issues and the value of science suggests that should be a way to mobilize many more nontheists in support of the values they hold but may not know that they share with many others.