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What do atheists look like?

August 16th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to 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.

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