Thursday, December 5, 2013

Atheism, Openness to Experience and Dogmatism: A Puzzling Relationship
Dogmatism has usually been related in research to low levels of openness to experience, a personality dimension associated with interest in new and non-traditional ideas. Dogmatism has mostly been studied in relation to religious beliefs but some recent research has looked at dogmatism among non-religious people. One surprising finding was that among self-identified atheists, higher levels of openness to experience were actually associated with greater dogmatism, contrary to the usual pattern. This suggests that the personality dimension openness to experience might not be a marker of open-mindedness as such but more of a preference for unconventional and complex ideas. Perhaps there needs to be a distinction made between humble versus arrogant forms of openness to experience.

Some people do not respond well to disagreement. 

Dogmatism refers to rigid certainty about the correctness of one’s views, along with refusal to consider alternatives and a conviction that any intelligent person who has thought things through would agree with one’s own opinions. The opposite of this is the willingness to consider that one’s own views are not the only reasonable way of looking at things and that it is possible that one could be proven wrong. This does not mean that a non-dogmatic person must be wishy-washy, only that they are willing to consider that other people might have good reasons for believing what they do and that it is alright for intelligent people to disagree.

Dogmatism and openness to experience: polar opposites?
People can be dogmatic about any subject, e.g. political and lifestyle views, but dogmatism has mostly been studied among religious believers. Religious beliefs in general tend to be held more dogmatically than other kinds of beliefs, and people with fundamentalist beliefs are generally the most dogmatic of all, virtually by definition. Not surprisingly, religious fundamentalism tends to be associated with low openness to experience (Saroglou, 2010). Openness to experience is a broad and somewhat heterogeneous dimension of personality that refers to the breadth and complexity of a person’s mental life (McCrae & Sutin, 2009). People low in openness to experience tend to prefer rather black-and-white views of the world that are not too complex or intellectually demanding. In contrast, people high in openness prefer more nuanced ways of looking at things, and feel comfortable with complex ideas. Openness to experience encompasses a diverse number of narrower traits, and one of these traits, openness to values, refers to readiness to “re-examine social, political and religious values” and has even been considered to represent “the opposite of dogmatism” (Costa & McCrae, 1992, cited in) (Smith, Johnson, & Hathaway, 2009).

Some atheists can’t stand disagreement
While it seems generally true that people high in openness to experience, particularly in the values facet, are least likely to be dogmatic, there may be some notable exceptions. Re-examining traditional values, for example, does not necessarily guarantee that one will not become tolerant of differences in opinion. Some people might reject traditional values and then become dogmatic adherents of non-traditional ones. One example that I believe fits this description is an online movement called “Atheism Plus”. This movement, which emerged just over a year ago in the atheist blogging community, bills itself as a “positive” approach that aims to combine atheism/scepticism with a variety of left-liberal political causes associated with the term “social justice.” Responses to this movement in the atheist/sceptical community have been less than totally positive. Atheism Plus has been criticised by other atheists as a divisive movement, and a commonly expressed concern is that members of this group have demonstrated intellectual arrogance and intolerance of dissent, even on minor matters.[1] They would seem to be high in openness to values yet appear very dogmatic in their views. A recent research study may sheds some light on when and why high openness to experience and dogmatism sometimes go together.

Parody of Atheism Plus. See here for another good parody.

Dogmatism and openness to experience among the non-religious
Studies on non-religious people have found that they are generally considerably higher in openness to experience than those who are religious (Galen & Kloet, 2011). People who are non-religious vary greatly in how they define their lack of religiosity so it can be useful to make broad distinctions. A recent study did this by comparing people with “no beliefs in particular” (which I will call “nones” for convenience) and those self-identifying as atheists (Gurney, McKeown, Churchyard, & Howlett, 2013). Those who describe themselves as atheists are more likely to identify themselves as members of a specific group, whereas nones have no particular group identity. Membership of a group tends to promote a sense of loyalty to the values of the group along with a sense of separateness from outsiders, and this can foster dogmatism about the beliefs and values of one’s group to some extent. A distinguishing feature of an atheist identity is that qualities associated with openness to experience, such as challenging traditional beliefs and appreciation of intellectual activity, are highly valued. This is in contrast to a religious identity, which is more likely to emphasise conformity to tradition and submission to authority in matters of belief. Individuals atheists vary in how central atheism is to their identity overall. Some regard their atheism as simply an absence of belief in gods, and one attitude among many others they may have. For others though, being an atheist is a more central and defining part of their self-concept tied to their core values, such as a belief in the social importance of scepticism and reason. Gurney et al. therefore argued that insofar as atheists have a social identity that values high openness to experience, dogmatism among them may be positively correlated with openness to experience, as opposed to religious social identities that devalue such openness. They performed a survey to confirm this, so let’s look at what they found.

The survey compared a group of atheists, nones, and Christians on measures of dogmatism and openness to experience. Additionally, atheists and Christians were asked to rate how strongly they identified with their respective groups. (Nones have no clear group membership, so this question would not be meaningful to them.) The number of atheists in the sample (37) was on the small side, so the study should be seen as a preliminary investigation rather than something definitive. The measure of dogmatism (the DOG scale) used is content neutral in that it includes generic statements like “The things I believe in are so completely true, I could never doubt them” and “It is best to be open to all possibilities and ready to evaluate all your beliefs” (the latter indicates low dogmatism). The openness to experience measure provides an overall score and scores on the subscales of inquisitiveness, aesthetic appreciation, creativity, and unconventionality. The three groups scored similarly on overall openness, although atheists scored significantly higher than Christians on inquisitiveness and unconventionality. Considering atheists’ particular interests, this result is as expected. The Inquisitiveness measure refers to intellectual curiosity, such as interest in science, history and political discussion. Items used to measure it also suggest that is particularly associated with intelligence, e.g. “have a rich vocabulary” and “avoid difficult reading material” (the latter indicating the low end of the trait). Unconventionality indicates non-conformity with social expectations. Unconventionality appears somewhat similar to openness to values as it includes items such as “rebel against authority” and “swim against the current” but also includes several items referencing unusual characteristics, e.g. being eccentric and odd, which may not be quite as relevant to dogmatism though.

On the dogmatism measure, atheists did score slightly higher than nones, although they were substantially lower than Christians. The graph below depicts dogmatism scores for the three groups.

Dogmatism levels among atheists, nones and Christians. Error bars represent standard deviations.

Dogmatism was also positively correlated with group identification in both atheists and Christians. That is the more strongly a person identified as either an atheist or a Christian, the more dogmatic they were about their respective beliefs. So atheists who do not attach much significance to their unbelief were less rigid in their views than those who see atheism as more central to their identity. Additionally and as expected, correlations between dogmatism and openness to experience differed among the three groups. Dogmatism was negatively correlated with openness to experience among nones, and to a lesser extent among Christians. In the latter group, inquisitiveness in particular was significantly negatively correlated with dogmatism, indicating that among Christians, the more dogmatic they were, the less interest they had in intellectual pursuits. This pattern was reversed among atheists, as overall openness to experience, and the facets of inquisitiveness, unconventionality, and creativity were positively associated with dogmatism. That is, atheists who considered themselves more intellectual, more non-traditional, and more creative even, were more dogmatically certain about the correctness of their views and presumably less tolerant of dissenting ones.

Open to experience does not always mean open-minded
The association among atheists between higher dogmatism and higher openness to experience, especially the inquisitiveness facet, is in a way rather surprising. As previously noted, people high in inquisitiveness are comfortable with complex concepts so would be expected to have the cognitive flexibility to steer away from black-and-white thinking usually associated with dogmatism. They also tend to express an interest in science, and one of the guiding principles of science is that one should be willing to question one’s preferred theories rather than cling to them rigidly. Nevertheless, even great scientists sometimes become overly attached to their pet theories and may defend them dogmatically. Furthermore, the unconventionality scale refers to being an unusual person with off-beat ideas but says nothing about the flexibility or rigidity of one’s beliefs. Perhaps it would be fair to say that high openness to experience indicates a preference for complex and unusual ideas, but this does not always mean that one will not be receptive to challenges to these ideas.

Intellectual arrogance versus intellectual humility
Another possibility is that there are different varieties of openness to experience that might be relevant to whether or not a person is dogmatic. Openness to experience comprises a broad array of traits, some of which combine features of openness with traits from other distinctive personality dimensions (Johnson, 1994). For example, openness combined with introversion defines the trait of introspectiveness, whereas openness combined with extraversion defines a preference for variety and originality. Dogmatism implies a lack of humility about the rightness of one’s views, an arrogant assumption that one cannot possibly wrong and that anyone who disagrees is either stupid or evil. There does not appear to be any research that has explored what a combination of high openness to experience with low humility might be, but it sounds like this combination of traits would describe intellectual arrogance. Perhaps openness to experience in atheists who are also dogmatic involves a blend of unconventionality and lack of humility that facilitates an unusual form of dogmatism.

Well, I can think of much more arrogant beliefs...

A limitation of the Gurney et al. study was that it did not address whether identity strength (how strongly a person identified as an atheist) and openness to experience were equally important as predictors of dogmatism or whether one was more crucial than the other. That is, does openness to experience still predict dogmatism in atheists when taking into account identity strength or does it become non-significant? Or conversely, does identity strength still predict dogmatism when taking openness to experience into account? This could be tested statistically with a larger sample of atheists. A more difficult question to answer is why some people have a stronger atheist identity than others. There was a positive correlation between identity strength and openness to experience. Do people identify more strongly as atheists because they are high in openness to experience or does having a strong identity increase openness to experience? And what is the relationship, if any between low humility and identity strength? Does adopting a strong identity lead to an arrogant dismissive attitude towards people who disagree (which I believe to be a problem with Atheism Plus)? Or is it the case that arrogant people are drawn to a polarizing identity? Perhaps it is a combination of both, where adopting such an identity reinforces pre-existing tendencies towards arrogance? Longitudinal research studies would be needed to answer these questions.

I want to make it clear that I have no problem with people having a strong atheist identity, or even people combining atheism with particular political views or an interest in social justice. What I am concerned about is when people hold their views in a dogmatic and arrogant manner. One Atheism Plus blogger claimed that atheism implies not just disbelief in gods but a view of reality in which highly specific political and economic beliefs are to be regarded as certain and inconvertible truths. Even in the hard sciences, theories are open to debate, so I find it incredible he would claim to have certain knowledge in highly complex and soft disciplines where experts disagree. I think it is definitely possible for people to have strong well-defined views about things and yet also realise that their own beliefs are ultimately provisional and subject to change according to new evidence. Finally I want to acknowledge that I am aware of many good examples of atheist bloggers[2] who do acknowledge that people who disagree with them are not necessarily stupid or evil and who do understand the meaning of being reasonable. 

[1] Well known blogger PZ Myers stated for example that critics of Atheism Plus should call themselves “asshole atheists.” He is also notorious for banning dissenting commenters from his blog, among other things
[2] For example, Triangulations, Atheist Revolution, and The A-Unicornist have all been non-dogmatic in my experience. 

Note on layout: Please accept my apologies for any inconsistencies in the appearance of the text. Blogger does strange and unpredictable things to text copied from Word. 

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Other posts about the psychology of (non-)belief

Image credits
Snarling dog image care of The Daily Telegraph
Poster created at
The creator of the A+ parody is currently unknown.
Atheism galaxy poster from Atheist Pictures.

Galen, L. W., & Kloet, J. (2011). Personality and Social Integration Factors Distinguishing Nonreligious from Religious Groups: The Importance of Controlling for Attendance and Demographics. Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 33(2), 205-228. doi: 10.1163/157361211x570047
Gurney, D. J., McKeown, S., Churchyard, J., & Howlett, N. (2013). Believe it or not: Exploring the relationship between dogmatism and openness within non-religious samples Personality and Individual Differences DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2013.07.471
Johnson, J. A. (1994). Clarification of Factor Five with the help of the AB5C Model. European Journal of Personality, 8(4), 311-334. doi: 10.1002/per.2410080408
McCrae, R., & Sutin, A. R. (2009). Openness to Experience. In R. H. H. Mark R. Leary (Ed.), Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior (pp. 257-273). New York/London: The Guildford Press.
Saroglou, V. (2010). Religiousness as a Cultural Adaptation of Basic Traits: A Five-Factor Model Perspective. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 108-125. doi: 10.1177/1088868309352322
Smith, C. L., Johnson, J. L., & Hathaway, W. (2009). Personality Contributions to Belief in Paranormal Phenomena. Individual Differences Research, 7(2), 85-96.

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