Religious people, especially conservative and fundamentalist believers, are often stereotyped as dogmatic and intolerant. Do the facts support this stereotyping? How do other people compare? And what is the cause?
The science of dogmatism and intolerance
Most of us like to feel secure in our choices and beliefs, and prefer to avoid the anxiety of uncertainty. If our important values are threatened by an idea or a group, we may deal with this threat in various ways.
Many studies on the causes of intolerance and prejudice have shown that dogmatic beliefs that are resistant to change and uncertainty can provide people with a sense of certainty, clarity and order. Prejudice and intolerance of groups that threaten beliefs has been shown to be an effective way to protect certainty. “Prejudice may serve as a preventive mechanism against those who challenge one’s certainty” (Ref 1).
Dogmatic religion can provide certainty …
Dogmatic and literal religious belief can work in this way. Beliefs that are held in a rigid and close-minded way will give the believer a greater sense of certainty, and may lead to intolerance of those who threaten the security of this belief.
… but not all religion is dogmatic
People hold religious beliefs in a wide variety of ways. Some believers are more close-minded and dogmatic, and their beliefs are simple and literal. Other believers are more open-minded and liberal, and their beliefs tend to be more complex and symbolic. And of course many are somewhere between the two extremes.
Studies have shown that the more tolerant believers are less likely to be prejudiced against outsiders and more likely to be favourably disposed towards them.
The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic religion seems to be important here. The more personal a belief in God is, the more likely that believer is to be tolerant and altruistic, compared to someone whose belief is more external and social. As one commentator put it: “Religion makes you prejudiced. God doesn’t.“
As an example, a New Zealand study found that religious belief in that country was associated with less prejudice to “outsiders” such as immigrants and Muslims, and that the stronger the religious belief, the less the prejudice. Interestingly, it was those who were most exposed to the news media who tended to be the most prejudiced.
Atheists can be dogmatic too
A 2016 study on dogmatism showed that atheism can be held dogmatically or open-mindedly, just as religious beliefs can be. And just as dogmatic religion tends to lead to intolerance and prejudice, so does dogmatic atheism, and for the same reasons. If certainty is important to us, we will likely feel threatened when our beliefs are challenged.
The study tested believers’ and unbelievers’ attitudes to groups which were seen as threatening to their beliefs. They generally found similar results with both believers and unbelievers:
- Dogmatic believers and atheists alike tended to be intolerant of uncertainty, whereas open-minded believers and atheists were not. Overall, atheists were slightly more tolerant of uncertainty.
- Orthodox believers and dogmatic atheists both tended to be prejudiced against groups that “violated” their value systems – specifically atheists and homosexuals (for the religious) and Catholics and pro-lifers (for the atheists).
- Uncertainty seems to make people more prejudiced against those who violate their value system (homosexuals and pro-lifers) but makes little difference to those who threaten their belief system (atheists and Catholics).
The study concludes that dogmatism and prejudice are not specific to particular religious or anti-religious worldviews, but to the way in which those worldviews are held.
Both dogmatic believers and dogmatic atheists exhibited a strong need for certainty, clear-cut answers, coherence, and meaning in life, even though they are looking for it by following different paths…. Prejudice is not limited only to religious believers …. but rather, as a response to uncertainty it may also occur among dogmatic atheists
Learning from this research
If this research is not contradicted by future studies, it has implications for believers and unbelievers alike.
This study may encourage some believers to continue in their open-minded approach to religion, or even to become more open minded. Prejudice is an ugly thing, and one which a follower of Jesus should try to avoid.
But some believers believe dogmatism and certainty are important to keeping the faith. For them, the challenge is to not allow dogmatism to lead on to prejudice, and to take deliberate steps to be friendly to outsiders – otherwise their dogmatic beliefs may be leading them to not be following the teachings of the leader they believe in!
Many non-believers (most, in my experience) have little interest in religion, and therefore tend to lack dogmatism and prejudice. They should be encouraged that they are contributing to a harmonious society.
However the more anti-theistic atheists face both a practical and a theoretical problem.
- On a practical level, they are clearly in danger of being as dogmatic, intolerant and prejudiced as the more conservative believers they criticise. And if this recent study is to be believed, their cognitive and emotional processes are the same as fundamentalist christians, that is, based on dogmatism and fear of uncertainty. When the rest of us see ugly dogmatic atheism, we can reasonably infer a closed mind and a fear of uncertainty.
- This study throws further doubts on the intellectual credibility of dogmatic atheists who claim that religion is evil, bad for society, and that religious believers are motivated by all sorts of factors other than reason. We already know that only some religious belief is harmful, and more often it is helpful, including beneficial for our brains. Now we can say that dogmatic people, whether atheist or theist, tend to be motivated similarly. Atheists who deny these facts without any scientific studies to support them are denying the rationalism they espouse.
Watch this space!
No doubt more studies will be undertaken on related topics. We’ll see if these conclusions stand up. But this study was buoilt on many others which are referenced in it, so the conclusions appear to be quite robust.
Ref 1: Many faces of dogmatism: Prejudice as a way of protecting certainty against value violators among dogmatic believers and atheists. Kossowska, Czernatowicz-Kukuczka & Sekerdej. British Journal of Psychology, 2016.
Graphic: Flickr, modified by unkleE.