Asking atheists: five social experiments

Are atheists less prone to pareidolia? What drives partisanship among nonreligious voters? What’s the link between tolerance, religiosity, and religious literacy? Thinking about the social research of atheists I’d be most interested in.

1. Are atheists less prone to pareidolia?

Pareidolia is the tendency to see familiar objects, for example faces or patterns, in otherwise random or unrelated images. It plays a big role in evolutionary explanations for theistic belief. We are evolved to be agency detectors but have a tendency to see agency where it doesn’t necessarily exist. The same tendency to attribute the results of natural or complex social systems to the conscious actions of powerful agents, may be a strong driver of conspiracist thinking as well.

There are various online pareidolia test, and I found a research article from 2012 entitled: “Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers”. But I’d be interested in a large-scale study specifically testing the link.

The way I’d set this up would be to ask three opening questions, participants would be given three statements and asked to rank on a score from 1 to 5, how strongly they agree. These would be used as a measure of religious, theistic and conspiracist thinking.

Each participant would be given 7 pictures of natural environments, 2 would contain hidden figures and 5 would contain natural objects that could appear to be a hidden face. They could be shown the pictures quickly and either click a button if they saw a face, or be asked to describe the image.

My assumption would be there would be little correlation between the worldview questions and the likelihood of spotting the two genuine examples of hidden figures. But that there would be a strong correlation between religious, theistic, conspiracist and pareidolic thinking. I’d also predict that the correlation would be that theistic, rather than generally religious thinking would be most highly correlated.

To be fair, theists may argue that the problem is not them seeing agency where it doesn’t exist, but atheists failing to recognise agency where it does exist. If the test could measure both we could see if atheists had an anti-agency bias.

2. How does existential dread influence atheism?

I believe that existential dread provides fascinating insights into theistic and atheistic thinking, specifically the aspect of existential dread caused by the realisation that we are the ones controlling our actions. For me this is an inversion of the idea of there being no atheists in foxholes. On some level, I believe that we all understand that we are in control of our actions, and that we have no cosmic parent looking over our shoulder. An atheist or a theist standing atop a cliff both understand that that no god will stop them throwing themselves off.

This may partially explain why casually religious people tend to become more strongly religious around the time where they have children or when their own parents mortality becomes more immediate. Before this stage, most of us have real world parental figure above us in the hierarchy of responsibility and experience, lessening the need for a heavenly parental figure.

I wonder if there could be some way of testing how atheists and theists respond differently to this form of existential dread. Might atheists experience less such dread because they have come to terms with the lack of a supernatural overseer, or more because they feel that absence more keenly?

What would be the best way to test this, comparing self-evaluation questions designed to measure such dread directly, or coupling this with taking participants though scenarios, perhaps using videos of different situations and asking them to assess their own feelings of dread?

3. Does societal progress lead to secularisation or vice versa?

Many in atheist and wider AHS+ communities tend to be resistant to sociological explanations for their beliefs. We tend to paint atheism and humanism as arrived at through reason, and contrast this with religion as ‘just’ being something you are born into. Pointing out that atheism and humanism are also worldviews people can be socialised into, is seen by some as undermining this distinction. It would be flattering to our movement if secularisation was shown to be the driving force, and societal progress the outcome, rather than vice versa. In reality, the relationship is likely to be more complicated. I’m not sure what the beset way of teasing out the correlation and causation would be.

4. How does atheism influence partisanship?

This is a larger project that I’d like to undertake and I hinted at in my piece on why the atheist and wider AHS+ movement should support proportional representation. There is clear evidence that atheist and other nonreligious voters tend towards socially and economically left-wing partisanship. But different studies and settings show the trend to be more ore less pronounced. What is the driver, do atheists tend to be more left wing, or is there something about left wing politics that encourages atheism? Is an atheist tendency towards left wing politics driven by or a driver of religious conservatism? Should we expect the trend to be stronger in more religious countries or in countries where religious conservatism is more politically powerful? Would the link be stronger in countries with a background of high partisanship? Could we use MPR polling or other demographic data to see where atheist and nonreligious voters have the most impact, or what the impact would be of different parties better appealing to them?

5. More about religious literacy?

A supposed lack of religious literacy is a regular topic of moral panic in the UK. Atheists are often accused of religious ignorance, though repeated research shows atheists tend to know more about a majority religion than those religions’ average followers, perhaps as atheism tends to be a result of a more active process of considering the issues. Anti-religious views which may be a product of either prejudice or consideration, are often presumed to be the former. Religious literacy is often conflated with a positive view of religion. Indeed, most religious education teachers in British schools view it as their job to promote a positive view of religion.

I’d like to know if positive or negative views of religion are more likely to be either products of ignorance or knowledge, and more or less driven by personal religiosity. Does religiosity drive deference to, and a positivity bias in the assessment of, religion, or is this unrelated?

In my imagined experiment I would set up two screening questions: ranking participants on a 5-point scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” whether they are personally religious and whether religion is a force for good. They would then be asked to rate a set of 24 or more statements about religion as being true of false.

The statements would be in twelve groups:

 Shows morally positive aspect of religion.Shows morally neutral aspect of religion.Shows morally negative aspect of religion.
Unambiguously true statement.   
Ambiguous, but generally agreed to be true statement.   
Ambiguous, but generally agreed to be false statement.   
Unambiguously false statement.   

Based on their answers, participant’s religious literacy would be classified in one of six ways:

Well informed: Tends to correctly identify whether statements about religion are true or false, across all sets of statements.

Poorly informed: Vice versa.

Negative view, poorly informed: Bias towards believing negative statements (and disbelieving positive statements) about religion, coupled with poor identification of true/false statements when they give neutral view of religion. Suggests that negative view of religion is influenced by poor religious knowledge.

Positive view, poorly informed: Vice versa.

Negative view, motivated: Bias towards believing negative statements (and disbelieving positive statements) about religion, coupled with good identification of true/false statements when they give neutral view of religion. Suggests that negative view of religion is result of motivated bias, not poor religious knowledge.

Positive view, motivated: Vice versa.

I’m not sure I could predict what the results would be. Of course, you would get a higher degree of detail if you could ask more questions, and it would be interesting if there were differences between views of different religions.

Thanks for reading

Has anyone already done this research? Could you think of a better way to test these ideas? Do you agree with my predictions? What social experiments would you like to explore the impact of atheist beliefs further?

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Photo information: Photo of People Engaged on their Phones, cottonbro

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