Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

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.

Back to school

January 22nd, 2008 No comments

The first day back to school or work, or in my case university, after a holiday or time-off is always an experience, Today was no different. My first day back to uni after the Christmas vacation went relatively smoothly. Three lectures (well two down one to go) soread out over eight hours, always a nightmare, and a theme throughout this semester’s timetable. I have few consecutive lectures which means that I am stuck in uni all day every day!

Started a new course in philosophy of religion and resumed courses in programming and economics. Same old same old mainly. Philosophy of religion looks like it might be interesting but I think I might get annoyed with the rather large Christian contingent that makes up my tutor group!

Got some feedback on my CR11 mock today, which looks promising. Got an ok 2:1, not as high as I had hoped but pretty good seeing as I struggled with one of the large questions on the paper. Marks for the coursework will be out soon too. It is always exciting to get marks back, unless you know you have done badly!

Pre-examination Stress

January 9th, 2008 1 comment

Well, my first exam of this year starts in a little under seven hours and I am still awake. Don’t get me wrong, I am as prepared as I ever have been for an exam. I actually am convinced that I will get a very high mark regardless of the question that come up even bearing in mind I have not taken an essay based exam paper since my GCSEs in 2001! I am just suffering from pre-exam nerves, or possibly over stimulation from the fact that I have been feeding my brain philosophy and logic for a week solid now…. Who knows?

On a slightly different note, A-Soc had a screening of The Da Vinci Code which was a welcome break from the seemingly endless reading, writing and watching CSI! There was a modest turnout, we managed three, which is not too surprising as it is the first week of exam week and the first real week back to work for most of our adult members. Even though, I was hoping for more – watching a video is not exactly taxing and even at nearly two and half hours long, it doesn’t fill up too much of an evening. We did a new face turning up so not a total watse of time. It’s not a bad film either in all honesty. it doesn’t get the reviews it deserves and most people I know slate it due to the variation from the book. To be totally frank though, the film is good. It is well acted, benefits from the screenplay differences and is a genuinely enthralling conspiracy thriller. Slate it if you dare. Plus Dan Brown is a twit, a profit mongering, semi-talented, sell-out of an author; for whom I have infinite respect. I wish I could churn out that kind of material with little effort or quality and make the kind of money he does!

Revision and Exams

January 7th, 2008 No comments

Well it is that time of year again, the exam period has officially begun!

I have been quite good this year, got most of my coursework out of the way before going home for Christmas so I could take a good week off for the festivities and then got stuck into full time revision on the 2nd January. It means I have had a solid week of 9 – 5 preparing for the two exams that matter and the one that I am actually looking forward to. I have a philosophy exam and a history and philosophy of science exam on Wednesday and Thursday respectively and then my CR11 mock on the following Wednesday.

I think I’m pretty much ready, whcih is the first time I have said that since my GCSE’s (which weren’t exactly taxing..). To be fair, though, only the two philosophy exams actually matter and I don’t need to pass either save for pride and bragging rights.

This time of year always makes me reflect on the sacrifices we make for exams. I have a couple of friends who should be celebrating their birthdays in the coming weeks and I am fairly sure they haven’t managed it effectively for the past ten years! I have been spending little or no time with Liz and even have pared down the amount of time I am spending on the phone or the internet with her.

An interesting time of year, one where you realise just how much assessment we go through these days. I say bring back the days of three years work and a single session of finals!

Atheist Week, Interrupted

November 22nd, 2007 No comments

Today I missed my alarm and ended up sleeping through our lunchtime A-Soc event – God of Emotions, something that I would never normally do. Now I do not want to excuse this by bringing up my sleeping problems, but I must admit that they probably played a part. A lot of people have made comments about my post on not sleeping (check out the Facebook page) and suggested a variety of ways to cope with the sleep pattern disruption. I am touched to see that so many people are concerned about my well being, a feeling that I have not always been privy to, and is on of the reasons that I maintain that the years spent at university are the best of one’s life, not school.

Just as a quick follow up to the last post I would like to say a few things. Firstly, insomnia is a condition that has plagued my teenage years, a condition that I pretty much could write the book on regarding cures and remedies. I think that over the years I have probably tried every known trick in the book to improve the quality and quantity of my sleep. I have come to the conclusion that whatever method you choose you have to accept the fact that it will work some of the time and not at others. I find that when trying say reading, or meditating you can get stressed about the fact you are not falling asleep and then you can’t fall asleep.

Anyway, back on topic, as I want to continue to talk about Atheist Week. Yesterday was the final day of Riley Smith activity and I thought it went OK, but not great. We only got a few people to come to Ask An Atheist (our give it a go session) but we got some realy good discussion going. The same happened at our evening debate on the positive and negative influence that Richard Dawkins has had on atheist thinking and actions. Although we never really came to a conclusion on that topic we delved quite deeply into what is faith and religion and whether we can ever really answer the philosophical questions we raise without them. All in all, I thought that this, along with Gijsbert’s talk yesterday were the highlights so far. Jerry Springer: The Opera is being shown tonight in Roger Stevens (LT23, 1900 if you are interested).

Then its London!

Sun, Sea and Sarann’s

March 30th, 2007 1 comment

As some of you will know and the rest of you are about to find out, I have spent the last few days visiting Sarann at her home in Wigton, Cumbria. I had a really great time and enjoyed the fact that I didn’t go near a computer and barely touched my mobile apart from the odd occasion.

I received a text from Sarann at the weekend just gone asking if I wanted to pop over to Wigton for a few days to visit and then drive her back to Leeds afterwards. After some shuffling and a few telephone calls me and Kat decided we would go up on Tuesday and stay over until Thursday so that we could get some stuff in and be back in time for me to get to Barenaked Ladies .

After picking Kat up on Tuesday lunchtime, we headed over the moors to Cumbria to see Sarann. The thought of free homecooked food keeping us from getting too bored on the three hour trip! Wigton is a fairly small town in Cumbria, about 20 miles from Penrith and the same from the coast. There didn’t seem much there to be honest and the off licence even ID’d Kat for wine! Bear in mind that Kat is 22 going on 23 and doesn’t look like a 15 year old!

We spent the afternoon at the beach, playing in the sand, skimming stones and generally larking about. We also had homemade ice cream from a little local shop, it was delcious! We then stopped by Sarann’s dad’s house to feed the cat and get some ideas for stuff to do on the Wednesday. For dinner that night we had the most amazing Cumberland sausage casserole, one of my all time favourite dishes. A few glasses of wine and a few rounds of Marry, Date or Dump and a failed attempt to watch Moulin Rouge rounded off a very enjoyable day.

Wednesday was spent being touristy in The Lake District. We drove down to Thirlmere, parked up and wandered the 4 or so miles to Grasmere. It was a lovely little walk, if a little tricky in places and the weather managed to stay nice for us until we got to a pub for some lunch. After a ridiculously expensive round of drinks we completed our walk into Grasmere, had a look round some great little shops – including Croft’s Bakery, which sells the finest flapjack I have ever tasted. We then caught the bus back up the car then drove home via Dove Cottage, the home of William Wordsworth.

After a dinner of pizza and pasta and a long philosophical debate we finally got drunk! Which took some doing – eight bottle of wine to be honest. The night (or rather morning) ended with us heading to bed following some more in depth conversations on topics as diverse as abortion, rape, sperm banks and contraception!

Thursday was a lie in, we headed back to Leeds about 3pm and I dropped the girls off and headed home to get ready for my gig.

Thanks to Sarann and her Mum for looking after us and making us feel so welcome!