What the Study on “Closed-Minded Atheists” Really Proves

If I say that two plus two equals four, and someone else insists that two plus two equals five, am I closed-minded if I do not find that person’s mathematical arguments persuasive? Am I closed-minded if I reject the idea that two plus two can at the same time equal four and five? A recent study implies that the answer is yes. And that study, along with various media accounts of it, conclude that, by comparable standards, atheists on the whole are more closed-minded in certain ways than are theists. Clearly something has gone wrong.

The paper in question, “Are Atheists Undogmatic?”, is based on the doctoral dissertation of first-author Filip Uzarevic. Uzarevic is a “member of the Centre for Psychology of Religion at the UCL Institute of Psychological Sciences.” UCL is the Université Catholique de Louvain of Belgium. Incidentally, from 2014–15, Uzarevic was a research fellow with the John Templeton Foundation, which has a long history of funding “science” for the purpose of promoting religion.

Uzarevic’s paper is misconceived from the outset. It takes advantage of the ambiguity of the term “closed-minded” to concoct a ridiculous standard for it. As they say, we should strive to be open-minded in certain ways, but not so open-minded that our brains fall out. For example, should we praise the Coloradans who believe that the Earth is flat as open-minded and ridicule those who insist the Earth is not a flat plane as closed-minded?

What matters is that we are reasonable and critical-minded—that we strive to embrace or reject beliefs based on logic and evidence. A rational person does not embrace nonsense, or arbitrary assertions, or logical contradictions, or flagrant irrationalism. To anyone who doubts this, I say that morality demands that you send me one million U.S. dollars (or as many as you have), so what are you waiting for?

Of course, it can be perfectly reasonable to try to get inside the heads of people with false beliefs to try to see where they have gone wrong. It can also be perfectly reasonable to sympathize with people with false beliefs rather than mock or deride them. For example, when I worked as a tutor, none of my students claimed that two plus two equals five, but they did reach all sorts of other false conclusions, and usually I could trace out the source of the error.

We also need to realize that many issues are unresolved and rationally debatable. Consider, for example, all the scientific controversy surrounding diet and health. Academic debate tends to take for granted a large body of knowledge and focus on controversies. Generally it is considered the mark of good academics to be able to convincingly state the arguments of one’s interlocutor. When we strive to understand others’s arguments, we not only become more persuasive, but we help guard ourselves against bias and hasty conclusions. So Uzarevic’s paper points to something important about open-mindedness, but it quickly jumps the rails.

Details of the Study on Dogmatism

We need to set the stage before turning to the study. Atheism is not a positive belief system; it is merely the rejection of supernatural beliefs. So, while religion entails faith as an alleged means to knowledge, atheism entails no particular epistemic orientation. Some atheists, such as Karl Marx, are wildly irrational. We can imagine a world in which all atheists happened to be irrational.

Still, in today’s world, we can expect that most atheists reject religion on rational grounds (or what they regard as rational grounds). So, although there is no reason to think that atheism as such promotes rational thinking, there is some reason to suspect that atheists as a whole tend to be more rational relative to people who embrace religious faith.

Uzarevic recognizes that people with religious beliefs often show irrational thinking (citations and emphasis omitted):

[E]ven common religiosity . . . often reflects closed-minded ways of thinking to some extent. Indeed, religiosity is, to a modest degree, characterized by dogmatism, defined as an inflexibility of ideas, unjustified certainty or denial of evidence contrary to one’s own beliefs. . . . [R]eligiosity, though to a lesser extent and less consistently than fundamentalism, is often found to predict prejudice. This is certainly the case against moral (e.g., gay persons) and religious outgroups and atheists, but also against ethnic or racial outgroups, at least in monotheistic religious contexts. . . .

Uzarevic asks whether “non-believers tend to be undogmatic, flexible, open-minded, and unprejudiced.” A study on the tendencies of thought of self-proclaimed atheists in a given region—Uzarevic draws subjects from the UK, France, and Spain—could be useful as anthropology, so long as we realize there’s no reason to extrapolate the findings to atheists as such. Unfortunately, because of its methodological flaws, Uzarevic’s study offers little of value even as anthropology.

Uzarevic’s study sees three major indicators of mental “rigidity”: “self-reported dogmatism,” “intolerance of contradiction,” and “low readiness” to embrace a perspective “different from one’s own.” But only the first test is even potentially valid. It is not closed-minded to reject nonsense or logical contradictions; doing so is a hallmark of reason. It is, of course, unreasonable to hastily reject new or surprising claims as nonsense or to presume that paradoxical or peculiar results are contradictory. But it is also unreasonable to refuse to recognize nonsense and contradictions for what they are. To return to our opening example, if you take seriously the claim that two plus two equals five or think that the sum can as well be four or five or sixty-seven, you’re not open-minded, you’re just an idiot.

Let’s dig into some of the details. Uzarevic’s study describes the “myside bias as a low propensity to take a different perspective into consideration.” Well, obviously we often should take a different perspective into consideration, but context is key. Given today’s context, how much do I really need to take seriously “different perspectives” regarding the sum of two and two, the non-flatness of the Earth, the historical reality of the Nazi Holocaust, the immorality of executing homosexuals, or the twaddle of phrenology? A reasonable person does not treat nonsense or flagrant irrationality as if it were on par with well-reasoned, evidence-based beliefs.

The study presented subjects with three opinion statements, then “asked [participants] to generate as many arguments as they could both in support for and in opposition to the statements,” then “asked [participants] to report to what extent they found [each] argument convincing.”

Consider the three statements: “Child adoption by homosexual couples is a positive advance for society”; “The meaning of life is something entirely personal”; and “In a house, rooms must be painted with light colors.”

To begin with the mundane, if we take the statement about paint literally, there is no argument for it; it is obviously false, as demonstrated conclusively by the fact that several rooms of my house used to be painted a grotesque dark red. If you think rooms literally “must” be painted with light colors, you either don’t understand the question or you are a dunce, and convincing yourself that obvious falsehoods are true does not make you open-minded by any sensible standard. If we interpret “must” as “should” here, then the statement is merely pointless (I don’t care what color you paint the interior of your house) rather than stupid. Either way, what we can learn from people coming up with “arguments” about this is precisely nothing.

The statement about the meaning of life is ambiguous to the point of meaninglessness. The statement about child adoption turns on the ambiguous phrase “advance for society.” Nevertheless, we should expect the explicit statements against homosexuality in the Judeo-Christian Bible and in Islamic texts to impact some religious people’s beliefs on the matter. I’d be interested to see the raw data regarding this particular statement, as they might show something useful about how atheists and theists (and different sorts of theists) think about a religiously charged controversy.

If we wanted to test people’s capacity to creatively interpret ambiguous statements and to creatively offer arguments for and against them, we could design a test to do that. But the study at hand conflates people’s argumentative creativity with their propensity to concoct arguments and to find concocted arguments convincing.

Another methodological flaw with the study is that it compares the number of pro and con arguments generated, when there is no good reason to think the raw numbers matter. Some arguments are more fundamental and persuasive than others. So, if I listed one knock-down argument in favor of a position and ten silly arguments against it, the sheer number of arguments listed would demonstrate nothing about my beliefs or about potential bias in my thinking. Also, arguments can be restated and multiplied into simpler arguments, so, again, just counting the number of listed arguments reveals nothing of interest.

Regarding “intolerance of contradiction,” the paper states, “The rationale behind this measure is that people who are intolerant of contradiction will have more difficulty in accepting the seemingly contradictory findings as equally true (or false).” Intolerance of contradiction is a virtue, not a vice; it is an indication of rationality, not of being closed-minded. The fudge word here is “seemingly”; the difficulty is distinguishing actual contradictions from mere paradoxes, conclusions that superficially seem to be at odds but that are actually compatible.

For his pairs of supposedly “contradictory” statements, Uzarevic draws on examples from a 1999 paper by Kaiping Peng and Richard E. Nisbett. But none of the statement pairs shows a true contradiction. Consider one of the five examples:

A sociologist who surveyed college students from 100 universities claimed that there is a high correlation among college female students between smoking and being skinny.

A biologist who studied nicotine addiction asserted that heavy doses of nicotine often lead to becoming overweight.

The first problem is deciding what we’re evaluating. Am I to judge whether a sociologist, in fact, “claimed” the results indicated? Well, how the hell am I supposed to know, given that no citation for the study is given? For all I know the entire bit is fabricated. But apparently I am supposed to judge whether the correlation mentioned actually exists. Given how shoddily many “scientific” studies are conducted, that is again hard to judge without access to the original work. But it certainly is plausible that lots of college students who smoke also are slender. This says nothing about whether “heavy doses of nicotine often lead to becoming overweight.” Presumably, lots of skinny college students who smoke later become fat.

The upshot is that the paper by Peng and Nisbett is based on a misconception of “contradiction”—it confuses contradiction with paradox or oddity—a misconception that carries over to Uzarevic’s paper.

According to Uzarevic, atheists had a slightly greater propensity than theists, “if they evaluate one scientific finding of the pair as true, [to] tend to judge the other as very false.” What are we to make of this? If you read and critically analyze the allegedly “contradictory findings,” you will find no good reason, based solely on the given text, to conclude that any of the statement pairs is contradictory and no strong reason to believe or disbelieve any of the statements.

So what is Uzarevic actually finding? Maybe he’s finding that atheists are slightly more likely to take a position on the statements, perhaps because some of the atheists have (or think they have) more background knowledge that bears on them. Perhaps Uzarevic is finding that theists are slightly more likely to uncritically read the statements and just presume that any of them might be true. Being uncritical is hardly the same thing as being open-minded.

I certainly would not be surprised if some atheists in Uzarevic’s study were too hasty in rejecting some of the claims, nor if some theists were too hasty in accepting some of them. But Uzarevic’s study reveals nothing about people’s tolerance of actual contradictions. Nor does the study demonstrate anything about the degree of rationality of the participants. Certainly it does not show that “intolerance of contradiction” somehow makes a person dogmatic or unreasonable.

The test about dogmatism at least makes some sense. But it too has serious problems as executed. The study mentions only one “sample item” to which participants were asked to respond: “There are so many things we have not discovered yet, nobody should be absolutely certain his beliefs are right.” Are we supposed to read this as “all of his beliefs” or “any of his beliefs?” Nobody should be absolutely certain that all of his beliefs are right; we all believe many things provisionally as likely true given what we know. None but the most nihilistic skeptic would claim that all of a person’s beliefs are subject to overthrow. To claim that some of one’s beliefs are not subject to overthrow is to be not dogmatic but reasonable.

As a practical matter, barring pointless Matrix-style paranoia, I am as certain as a person can be (for example) that life evolved on earth and that new discoveries might affect only details of the theory, not its essential claims. Whether people call that “absolute certainly” is a philosophic dispute with no bearing on the reasonableness of the belief.

Incidentally, the paper found that religious people tend to be more “dogmatic.” My guess is that some of the religious participants interpreted the statements non-literally and tried to indicate that they’ll still believe in God whatever scientists claim, whereas some of the atheists tried to indicate that they’re pro-science. So the study might actually reveal different attitudes among some theists and atheists about the significance of scientific discoveries, but if so it does so in a messy and unreliable way. Alternately, perhaps the “sample item” provided is especially ambiguous and other statements were clearer and more revealing of dogmatism. It would be pleasant if researchers published their raw questions and results so that readers could check such details.

The upshot is that Uzarevic’s paper is fundamentally misconceived, and the tests do not show (or, at best, ambiguously show) what the paper claims.

The Media Response

PsyPost published a decent summary of the study on June 23 and noted the limitations of the paper in terms of sample size and geographic distribution. Although PsyPost doesn’t critically dig into the details of the study, it offers a basically responsible (if superficial) journalistic take.

Daily Caller published a June 28 piece that “borrows” PsyPost’s interview material and adds a religious-conservative spin.

Patheos published a June 29 article that highlights the paper’s limitations and caveats. It’s a helpful corrective to the Daily Caller spin, but it does not offer a critique of the study’s details.

The only substantive critique of the paper that I’ve seen (other than my own) came, ironically, from Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News. Carlson himself didn’t critique the study, but his guest Amy Peikoff did. To his credit, Carlson let her. It’s a remarkably informative and amiable television sequence. Peikoff, a philosopher and law professor (and an acquaintance of mine), briefly made the points that I make above that rejecting contradictory and irrational claims is not “closed-minded.” Her discussion made me aware of the study at hand and prompted me to write about it.

Carlson asked Peikoff whether she can reject the findings of a scientific study. Peikoff replies:

Certainly I’m allowed to disagree if I think the fundamental approach was flawed. And I think there’s one question that can show you what’s wrong with the fundamental approach to the study, and it’s this: Are you closed-minded if you refuse to seriously entertain or to spread fake news? And by that I mean a media driven narrative for which nobody has provided any evidence. I would say no, and yet the notion of closed-mindedness at the foundation of this study is essentially the same at that.

One of the things that the study classifies as closed-mindedness is a reluctance to come up with arguments against your particular position. . . . So in order to be not closed-minded according to this study, you have to come up with a bunch of arguments against your view, and you need to say that you find those arguments persuasive. It’s not a situation in which you’re presented [with] evidence against your view, and you’ve refused to consider that evidence, and that therefore you’re closed-minded.

Carlson pushed back a bit on this last bit, but Peikoff effectively drove home the point, clarifying the distinction between thinking critically and embracing as persuasive arguments unsupported by evidence. A bit later, Peikoff added:

The second [major] issue is that [the study] evaluates you according to your willingness to entertain contradictions, to integrate contradictions into your own thinking. And the refusal to integrate contradictions into your own thinking is part of the basic laws of logic.

Yes, Fox haters, Tucker Carlson hosted a philosophically informed and pleasant exchange about a psychology study on Fox News. (Maybe Peng and Nisbett can misidentify that as a contradiction in a future paper.) And Peikoff did a great job avoiding Tucker’s baited hook and staying on topic. Carlson even granted, “I have to admit you seem like a pretty logical atheist.” Indeed. Kudos to Carlson for letting her show it.

What broad conclusions should we draw from all of this? First, we should critically read “scientific” studies to see if their premises make sense and if their tests prove what they purport to prove. Second, we should critically read news accounts of scientific studies, because such reports are usually superficial, rarely substantively critical, and sometimes misleading. Third, we should applaud researchers, journalists, and critics when they skillfully seek to get to the bottom of things.

In other words, when reading scientific studies and news reports about them, we should be open-minded—but not so open-minded that our brains fall out.

Image: National Archive via Wikimedia