Posts Tagged ‘Humanist’

What do atheists look like?

August 16th, 2009 No comments

There has long been speculation as to what traits atheists share with each other. I have mentioned it several times in this blog, particularly when writing about branding and marketing. Whilst I have made some claims about the personal and political similarities between atheists, there has never been any real study on the personality of self identifying atheists. That is until now.

Professor Luke Galen, an associate professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, has just published a report on this very subject. He sampled over 5000 thousand people across the USA, Canada, UK and Australia who fitted into the general category of being irreligious. The report focussed on the self-labelling of the respondents as well as their socio-economic background and their main personality traits.

The results made for interesting, if not particularly surprising, reading. Some of the key findings of the study have been included below, but the full report can be found here.

The first major finding of the report was the differences between multiple and single labels, i.e. respondents were asked to choose all that apply from a list and then select one to best describe them. See fig.1 for the results.


Professor Galen summarised these findings thus:

Interesting distinctions appear when examining the difference
between an inclusive selection (which is to say, when
respondents were allowed to select more than one label) versus
when they were asked to set all others aside to choose the
most descriptive single label. For example, although 9 percent
of the sample chose “spiritual” among multiple labels,
when asked to pick a single self-identification, only 2 percent
chose “spiritual.” This large proportional reduction indicates
that far fewer chose spiritual as their sole label than were willing
to include it among other labels. The label “agnostic” was
similarly “jettisoned” by a relatively high proportion of individuals.
In fact, many respondents appear to use “agnostic”
and “atheist” interchangeably; among those who selected
“agnostic” as one of their multiple labels, they evenly split
between “atheist” and “agnostic” when choosing a sole identification
label. It therefore appears that “agnostic” is used
alongside other labels but frequently discarded when push
comes to shove. “Humanist” seems to be a popular secondary
label and contrasts in that regard to “atheist.” For example,
around two-thirds of self-described humanists also consider
themselves atheists; half of both atheists and agnostics also
consider themselves humanists. However, the “supplemental”
nature of humanism is evident in that, whereas two-thirds of
the sample included “humanist” among their multiple selfidentifications,
only a quarter chose that as their sole label.

I think Galen has hit the nail on the head when it comes to which labels people jettison when it boils down to selecting one label. It has long been my experience that if you push someone who is generally irreligious to give you a single term to describe their philosophy on life they will usually revert back to the atheist label. This conclusion, whilst never demonstrated in detail before this study, was actually the main reason why Leeds Atheist Society chose their name over the many others they could have gone for.

The socio-economic make up of the sample was also interesting with 41% having a masters degree or higher, nearly a third claiming to earn over $100,000 p.a. (circa £60,000 p.a. as of today’s exchange rate) and 74% being male. All three statistics are all higher than the equivalent statistics for religious followers. More interestingly, those that describe themselves as atheist also felt more actively involved in their philosophy than those that did not self-identify as atheists (bearing in mind that the sample was taken from readers of Free Inquiry and members of related bodies).


The final major finding of the study was the personality make up of the sample. The table above shows how the sample broke down based on a variety of psychological personality markers.

Galen concluded that:

[R]elative to the religious or churched segment of
the population, the nonreligious are distinguished both demographically
(more likely to be male, highly educated, never
married or cohabiting) and by their personality (more open to
new experience and intellectually oriented, less agreeable).
Although overall life satisfaction and social contact in our nonreligious
sample was equivalent to the religious comparison
group, the latter perceived a higher level of social support,
possibly provided by their religious organizations. Among our
large survey of the nonreligious, there was a range of philosophical
beliefs: respondents included self-labeled atheists,
agnostics, humanists, and spirituals. The label “atheist”
appears to be becoming more common among younger individuals,
suggesting that fewer nonreligious young people are
choosing more tentative labels relative to older cohorts.
Finally, in contrast to many general population studies that
lump together those who are confident in their nonbelief with
those who may be weakly religious, the present study allows
the ability to distinguish degrees of nonbelief, yielding interesting
results. Confident nonbelievers such as atheists were
more emotionally well-adjusted relative to tentative nonbelievers;
the latter, though, appear to place a greater emphasis on
being agreeable to, and trusting of, others. The present study
indicates that the common assumption of greater religiosity
relating to greater happiness and satisfaction is overly simplistic.
Many of the nonreligious, particularly those involved
with an increasingly visible movement or community characterized
by stronger varieties of nonbelief, are actually as welladjusted
and satisfied as the highly religious, with those
uncertain of their beliefs showing more distress.
More research remains to be done, for example regarding
the factors that differentiate individuals who are raised in a
religious context who remain religious versus those who
become nonreligious. Those with high openness to experience
and lower agreeableness may not be satisfied with “tradition”
and may seek out experiences that further reinforce irreligious
tendencies. A less agreeable, more individualistic style may
lead one to assert confidently a disbelief in socially required
spiritual platitudes, with a resulting trade-off between greater
emphasis on personal integrity but lower social acceptance.
Many nonreligious individuals with such personality traits likely
select life experiences throughout their educational and
social development that result in further skepticism and
increased certainty of nonbelief. These various pathways to
irreligion will become increasingly relevant as the nonreligious
continue to grow as a proportion of the population.

This report is an excellent starting point to really understanding the make up of the non-religious community at large. However, as Galen himself wrote, far more research needs to be done to really drill down into the psyche of the non-believer and only then can we gain full insight into what these people want and need from their involvement with organisations such as those I have mentioned before on this website.

I would be interested in seeing some research done on a younger demographic (the average age of the sample used above was over 50) as it is this groups (along with the over 80s surprisingly) that make up the largest group of politically and publicly active atheists. I would also like to see a better sample from the UK, as Galen only received around 2% of his respondents from here.

As always, your comments and thoughts are most welcome.

A bit of a catch up.

February 25th, 2009 1 comment

Regular readers will have noticed a common theme running through my posts recently, namely that of the AHS. Posts on the press launch and the general publicity surrounding the build up have dominated my blog. This is for the veyr good reason that it has been pretty much all I have been thinking about. Sure, I have been involved in a lot of A-Soc stuff like Galileo Day and starting up Perspective but most of my work has been focussed on the AHS.

I have no doubt that the time spent was worth it, you only have to read the coverage the launch got to see how successful everything is proving to be. Check out a few of the pieces here, here and here. The upcoming xchallenge is to ensure that my work with the AHS doesn’t detract too much from my current commitments. I mean I am currently a student, hold down a (not so) part-time job, am president of Leeds Atheist Society and president of the AHS. All of these commitments could and maybe should be full time commitments, but I am sharing my time between them. Thankfully, I have the support of friends and family (big thanks to Liz et al) and a wonderful team working with me both at A-Soc and the AHS.

In other news, it is now only 7 weeks until Rationalist Week 2009!

The AHS Launches in London!

February 19th, 2009 No comments

The AHS is finally going public! Today in London, me and several high profile supporters will be officially launching the AHS as a pulic, national organisation.

Watch us live here!

Below is a copy of the press release we put out, if you come across any article etc whilst roaming the web, just drop me a line or leave a comment with the URL.

The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) launches today in central London with addresses of support from Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor A C Grayling and Polly Toynbee.

The AHS will support established and newly-forming atheist, Humanist and secular student groups and give them a national voice. It will provide a network, resources and a joint platform for these societies and make sure that their needs and views are being considered on the national and international level. The AHS is affiliated with the British Humanist Association (BHA).

In the wake of the successful ‘atheist bus campaign’, the 2009 Darwin celebrations and an increased prominence for non-religious campaigns, the launch of the AHS marks the new mobilisation of the UK’s non-religious student majority and is the start of several nationwide events and campaigns.

Supporting the launch of the AHS, Richard Dawkins said, ‘Public statements of non-belief are treated as threatening, an affront to the religious, while the reverse is not true. More concerning is the enduring assumption that religious belief does not have to earn respect like any other view, an approach that has caused politicians and public figures across the UK to withdraw from asking the vital question: why is religion given such special status in government, culture and the media? Why is belief in a higher power an indication of greater moral fortitude, character and acumen? The AHS says publicly that it isn’t; on the contrary, beliefs that are unsupported, bigoted or demand special privileges should always be challenged. No opinion should be protected from criticism simply by virtue of being religiously held.’

A C Grayling said, ‘As well as making the case for reason and science, it is great to know that the AHS will be standing up against religious privilege and discrimination. All people are entitled to their beliefs but we secularists (whether religious or humanist) are right in arguing that the state must be entirely neutral in these matters. A situation where the religious beliefs of a few may dictate the personal choices of everyone – in abortion, for example, or assisted suicide – is quite wrong. Yet some religious groups defend and even aim to expand their considerable privileges – public money for their “faith-based” schools, seats in the House of Lords, exemption from laws inconvenient to their prejudices. The AHS shows that increasing numbers of young people are unwilling to put up with it.’

Chloë Clifford-Frith, press officer for the AHS, said, ‘We live in a world where religious governments execute adulterers and homosexuals, deny women and minority groups basic freedoms, circulate fraudulent claims about contraception and scientific research and create laws that protect them from criticism. We are privileged, in such a world, to live in a country where we can even have this debate, and as such we have a duty to bring it into our universities and beyond.’

Norman Ralph, President of the AHS, emphasised that, in addition to challenging organised religion in the UK, the AHS also presents a positive message of community and understanding. Bringing together diverse student societies from across the country, it will support students who wish to establish a safe space for discussion of atheist, Humanist and secular issues and defend their right to express themselves without censure. Further campaigns will promote the public understanding of science, and the importance of ethical values derived from a rational approach to reality. ‘We want to celebrate knowledge and human endeavour’, he added, ‘Humanity should take responsibility for its flaws, and also take credit for its successes, not abscond responsibility to an imaginary father figure. We’re about celebrating, learning and making the most of the one life we have.’

Polly Toynbee said, ‘I am honoured to be present at the birth of this new movement. We need to oppose zealotry and fanaticism of all sorts by promoting the positive and liberating case for believing that life on earth is precious because the here and now is all there is and that our destiny is in our own hands. The Humanist view of life is progressive and optimistic, in awe of human potential, living without fear of judgement and death, finding enough purpose and meaning in life, love and leaving a good legacy. It is great to see these values being taken up by today’s students. I’m sure the AHS will go from strength to strength and keep the rational and ethical humanist tradition alive both on- and off-campus’