Author: Bendik Sparre Hovet
In the West, less and less people are religious. Some define themselves as atheists, some as agnostics, some as humanists, and others as something else entirely. Much research has been done on the psychological differences between believers in a higher power and non-believers, but what is it that distinguishes different non-believers?
Atheism is either the absence of belief in a god, or the active belief that there are no gods. Agnosticism comes from the Greek agnosia meaning lack of knowledge. The agnostic therefore doubts whether it is possible to know whether there is a god. Humanism assumes a doubt about the supernatural, but goes further in that it assumes that humans can live ethically and meaningfully without a god. These are three secular views of life that are not mutually exclusive. Yet recent research suggests that there are clear differences in how atheists, agnostics, and humanists view the world.
In a study by Schnell, de Boer and Alma from 2021, 1.814 non-religious people in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands were asked whether they saw themselves as atheists, agnostics, or humanists. To get a clear picture of their worldview, they were also asked questions ranging from how confident they were about their own beliefs or doubts about God, their views on science, to how often they shared their secular views.
The findings showed that there are clear psychological differences between atheists and agnostics. Atheists were more convinced that there was no God, more dogmatic and less sceptical. The measures used came from philosophical scepticism and dogmatism, meaning that they were more convinced that their views on reality were correct. Scepticism involves doubting the possibility of obtaining certain knowledge. Atheists were also more convinced that science is the best means to reach knowledge (scientism), less existentially seeking, and more likely to share their views on existential topics with others. They also took more personal responsibility for their own lives than agnostics.
On the other hand, agnostics were more doubtful about the existence of a god, more sceptical and less dogmatic. Agnostics had more doubts about science as the source of all knowledge and were also less comfortable sharing their views with others. Between these opposites are the humanists, who are neither as decided as the atheists nor as doubtful as the agnostics. Therefore, it seems that one can distinguish a more decided from a more open secularity, with the most decided atheists mirroring the most decided religious ways of seeing the world. Doubting agnosticism becomes a parallel to spirituality, where people are also more open and less decided.
Atheism seems to be more extreme and dogmatic in more religious countries. Here, Germany and Austria were used as examples of more religious societies based on measures from the Freedom of Thought Report. The Netherlands, which according to the report is the least religious country of all, was used as an example of a secular society. In Germany and Austria, atheists were more decided, less sceptical, had stronger beliefs in science and were more comfortable sharing their opinions than in the more secular Netherlands. This supports the hypothesis that more religious societies in the West create a more robust secular backlash. This is particularly evident in the United States, where atheists have often had a personal confrontation with religion, and thus have more negative attitudes towards religion.
Although the study may seem to present atheists in a negative light, there are benefits to the more decided secularity. A more decided worldview is more coherent and has been shown by previous research to contribute to better mental health and ability to cope with stress. It also means that there is less fear of death in both decided atheists and religious people, as opposed to agnostics, who have more fear of death the more they doubt. Thus, a decided worldview that is protective can be found in both religious and atheists.
Atheism and agnosticism are positions that are often lumped together as secular worldviews. This study shows that on the contrary, they exist in degrees ranging from more decided to more open, especially when it comes to belief in science, scepticism and ontological conviction.
Schnell, T., de Boer, E., & Alma, H. (2023). Worlds apart? Atheist, agnostic, and humanist worldviews in three European countries. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 15(1), 83–93. https://doi.org/10.1037/rel0000446