Atheists & Agnostics Also Frequently Believe in the Supernatural, a New Study Shows

To be a non-believ­er in some parts of the world, and in much of Europe for many cen­turies, means to com­mit a crime against the state. Even where unbe­lief goes unpun­ished by the law, “athe­ists, agnos­tics, and oth­er non-believ­ers,” writes Scot­ty Hen­dricks at Big Think, “are among the most dis­liked, untrust­ed, and mis­un­der­stood peo­ple.” Iden­ti­fied with Satanists (who are equal­ly mis­un­der­stood), non-believ­ers are pre­sumed to be anti-the­ists, hell bent on destroy­ing, or at least maim­ing, reli­gion with their know-it-all dog­ma­tism and hatred of dif­fer­ent beliefs.

There may be some pro­jec­tion going on here, and maybe it goes both ways at times, though the bal­ance of pow­er, at least in the U.S., decid­ed­ly tips in favor of cer­tain dog­mat­ic reli­gions. But as a new whitepa­per from the UK group Under­stand­ing Unbe­lief found, in a wide-rang­ing sur­vey of non-believ­ers in six coun­tries around the world, “pop­u­lar assump­tions about ‘con­vinced, dog­mat­ic athe­ists’ do not stand up to scruti­ny.” The out­lier here is the reli­gious­ly inflamed U.S. “Although Amer­i­can athe­ists are typ­i­cal­ly fair­ly con­fi­dent in their views about God, impor­tant­ly, so too are Amer­i­cans in gen­er­al.”

The paper’s authors are pro­fes­sors in the­ol­o­gy, psy­chol­o­gy, anthro­pol­o­gy, and reli­gious stud­ies from four major U.K. Uni­ver­si­ties. They out­line their eight key find­ings at the out­set, then get into specifics about what the data says and how it was obtained, with large, full-col­or charts and graphs. The study shows more agree­ment than most of us might assume between the reli­gious and non-reli­gious on “the val­ues most impor­tant for ‘find­ing mean­ing in the world and your own life.’”

“Fam­i­ly” and “Free­dom” ranked high­ly. “Less unan­i­mous­ly so,” did “’Com­pas­sion,’ ‘Truth,’ ‘Nature,’ and ‘Sci­ence,’” which may come as lit­tle sur­prise. The social and polit­i­cal iden­ti­fi­ca­tions of non-believ­ers fluc­tu­ate wide­ly between the six countries—Brazil, Den­mark, Japan, Chi­na, the U.S., and the U.K.—but, “with only a few excep­tions, athe­ists and agnos­tics endorse the real­i­ties of objec­tive moral val­ues, human dig­ni­ty, and atten­dant rights, and the ‘deep val­ue’ of nature.”

These con­clu­sions should inter­est non-believ­ers and believ­ers alike in the six coun­tries sur­veyed, but the most sen­sa­tion­al research find­ing states that “despite reject­ing or at least ques­tion­ing the notion of gods, unbe­liev­ers aren’t whol­ly divorced from super­sti­tious belief,” writes Hen­dricks. The study’s authors put things in a more mea­sured way: “only minori­ties of athe­ists or agnos­tics in each of our coun­tries appear to be thor­ough­go­ing nat­u­ral­ists,” rul­ing out the super­nat­ur­al entire­ly.

Hen­dricks lists some exam­ples:

Up to third of self-declared athe­ists in Chi­na believe in astrol­o­gy. A quar­ter of Brazil­ian athe­ists believe in rein­car­na­tion, and a sim­i­lar num­ber of their Dan­ish coun­ter­parts think some peo­ple have mag­i­cal pow­ers.

These find­ings might be con­sis­tent with the study’s method­ol­o­gy, which sur­veyed peo­ple who agreed with either 1. I don’t believe in God [or oth­er divin­i­ty or spir­it] or 2. I don’t know whether there is a God, and I don’t believe there is any way to find out. Nei­ther of these mutu­al­ly excludes the à la carte spir­i­tu­al­ism of astrol­o­gy, rein­car­na­tion, or mag­ic, a fact that many reli­gious believ­ers can­not wrap their heads around.

In the 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies, for exam­ple, belief in seances, tarot, mes­merism, and oth­er seem­ing­ly super­nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na flour­ished, quite often inde­pen­dent­ly of par­tic­u­lar reli­gious belief sys­tems. One of the most ratio­nal minds of the time, or the cre­ator of the most ratio­nal mind of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed in fairies. Pierre Curie “was an athe­ist who had an endur­ing, some­what sci­en­tif­ic, inter­est in spir­i­tu­al­ism.”

The study’s find­ings are “in line,” Hen­dricks points out, “with pre­vi­ous stud­ies that show non-believ­ers are just as prone to irra­tional think­ing as their reli­gious coun­ter­parts.” Sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­ages of athe­ists and agnos­tics express some belief in astrol­o­gy, kar­ma, “a uni­ver­sal spir­it or life force,” and oth­er super­nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na. Hen­dricks quotes Michio Kaku’s sug­ges­tion that there may be “a gene for super­sti­tion, a gene for hearsay, a gene for mag­ic.” I don’t believe geneti­cists have found such a thing. But cul­ture, at any rate, is not reducible to biol­o­gy.

The fact that humans see, hear, feel, and believe things that may not actu­al­ly exist seems to be an evo­lu­tion­ary trait. What may be equal­ly, if not more, inter­est­ing is the way those super­nat­ur­al things, what­ev­er they are, both resem­ble and vast­ly dif­fer from each oth­er, their cul­tur­al speci­fici­ties woven inex­tri­ca­bly into the tex­ture of lan­guage and cus­tom. What and how we think can­not be ful­ly sep­a­rat­ed either from our genes or from the con­cep­tu­al appa­ra­tus we inher­it, and that forms our pic­ture of the world. Read the full Under­stand­ing Unbe­lief study here.

via Big­Think

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Visu­al Map of the World’s Major Reli­gions (and Non-Reli­gions)

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the World’s Five Major Reli­gions: Hin­duism, Judaism, Bud­dhism, Chris­tian­i­ty & Islam

Chris­tian­i­ty Through Its Scrip­tures: A Free Course from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • David Kaminski says:

    This is why I’ve adopt­ed the worst apis­te­vist instead of athe­ist.

  • Lonnie says:

    I always thought it was hyp­o­crit­i­cal of an athe­ist for mak­ing fun of me for believ­ing in a god and then go and read the horo­scopes

  • Randy Weiss says:

    The per­cent­ages do NOT match my knowl­edge of athe­ist friends, cor­re­spon­dents — not even close. It may depend on exact word­ing of ques­tions. Astrol­o­gy for exam­ple: if ques­tion was, ‘do the posi­tions of the plan­ets at the moment of your birth have any effect on your per­son­al­i­ty?’ every athe­ist I’ve ever encoun­tered would say NO. If ques­tion was, ‘do you ever look at your horo­scope?’ the per­cent­age will be much high­er due to the ‘enter­tain­ment’ and ‘social’ aspects of horo­scopes.

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