New research reveals stereotypical differences between agnostics and atheists

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Agnosticism and atheism are often categorized as a “non-religious” group in research, although they are separate belief systems. New research published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality finds that people have distinct stereotypes that differentiate agnosticism and atheism from each other and from Christianity.

“I became interested in this subject because I noticed that most research on non-religious groups focuses only on atheists or lumps atheists and agnostics together. Because self-identified agnostics are as prevalent in society as atheists, I wondered if any differences would emerge if we study these groups separately,” the study author explained. Veronica BergstromPhD candidate in social psychology at the University of Toronto.

Bias against non-religious people can exist for many reasons. One explanation is the “moral deficiency” hypothesis, whereby religious people stereotypically assume that non-religious people are more likely to act immorally. Another explanation is symbolic threat, where religious people view atheism and agnosticism as a threat to the American societal norm of religiosity.

Although research has always categorized atheists and agnostics into a single non-religious category, there are discrepancies between these groups that might be relevant to stereotyping. For example, atheists and Christians can both be perceived as highly dogmatic because these categorisations take a position on the existence of a God while agnostics do not (this is called dogmatic recalcitrance).

In Study 1, researchers looked at how Americans stereotype agnostics, atheists, and Christians differently (because they make up the religious majority in the United States). The researchers recruited a final sample of 118 US adult residents on Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), an online platform. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In one condition, they were provided with the definitions of agnostic, atheist and Christian and asked to list up to 5 stereotypes that most people have about each religious group. In the other condition, participants did the same but were asked to give their own definitions of each religious group. Researchers have focused on comparisons between atheists and agnostics.

Only 56% of participants in the definition-generated condition correctly defined agnosticism. “Participants reported that atheists are generally seen as more evil, immoral, intolerant, pushy, rude, and satanic than agnostics. In contrast, agnostics were seen as more confused, indecisive, questioning, cowardly, kind, curious, neutral, and scientific than atheists,” the researchers wrote. Atheists, but not agnostics, would be morally worse, meaner and colder than Christians. These patterns were demonstrated regardless of whether participants were given a definition of religious groups or provided their own.

Study 2 aimed to provide stronger support for the findings of Study 1. The researchers also included a measure of belief in God to examine whether this impacts how people stereotype different religious groups. They recruited a final sample of 244 adult US residents of MTurk. Participants received and received definitions from three religious groups (Agnostics, Atheists, and Protestants). They were asked to rate the groups on 10 trait pairs selected from the traits given in Study 1 (i.e., immoral-moral, cowardly-courageous, indecisive-decisive) for their representativeness of each religious group. Participants also completed a measure of their level of belief in God.

The results show that atheists were rated less moral, trustworthy, and less secure than agnostics, who were rated lower on these traits than Protestants, supporting the moral deficiency hypothesis. The results also show that agnostics were rated as more trustworthy than atheists, but less trustworthy than Protestants, supporting the symbolic threat hypothesis. Additionally, Protestants were seen as older, more loyal, more patriotic, and more predictable than atheists and agnostics. The results also show that agnostics were considered less decisive than atheists and Protestants, but more tolerant than atheists. Agnostics have been found to be as brave, predictable, and loyal as atheists, which contradicts the dogmatic assumption of recalcitrance.

“Although atheists and agnostics have some stereotypes in common, important differences exist. For example, agnostics are seen as less immoral but more indecisive than atheists. These differences in stereotypes could lead to different experiences of discrimination,” Bergstrom told PsyPost.

Belief in God was relevant in some of these assessments. For example, participants with low belief in God rated Protestants and agnostics as equally moral and courageous; and participants with a strong belief in God rated Protestants as more moral and courageous than agnostics. Patterns similar to this emerged for several trait ratings, including decisiveness, loyalty, security, tolerance, and dependability.

Overall, the results support both the moral deficiency and symbolic threat hypotheses of prejudice against non-religious people. Support for the dogmatic recalcitrance hypothesis was mixed in these two studies. “Future work should explore the extent to which context influences when agnostics are seen as more indecisive than atheists. For example, are agnostics seen as indecisive both about inconsequential choices (e.g., what detergent to buy) and important life decisions (e.g. having children)?”

The researchers cite some limitations to this work. “Agnostics are an extremely difficult group to study because being agnostic is not mutually exclusive with atheism or theism. In other words, it is possible to be an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist,” said Bergstrom: “Also, a lot of people don’t know what it means to be agnostic.”

“In our study, stereotyped content did not seem to differ depending on whether the perceiver could accurately define agnosticism. However, future work should replicate this result with a larger sample. In addition, future studies should assess whether differences in the content of stereotypes lead to different experiences of discrimination.

The study, “To Believe or Not to Believe Stereotypes About Agnostics“, was authored by Veronica NZ Bergstrom, Jason E. Plaks and Alison L. Chasteen.

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