Last modified on 11 August 2019, at 03:35

New Atheism, dogmatism and Jonathon Haidt's study

Jonathon Haidt, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia

Research indicates that atheists are less open-minded (see: Atheism and open-mindedness).

New Atheism is a contemporary form of militant atheism. The new atheist Richard Dawkins said about New Atheism, "[O]ur struggle is not so much an intellectual struggle, as a political one: What are we going to do about it?”.[1]

Using special text analysis software, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt found that new atheists very often wrote in dogmatic terms in their major works using words such as “always,” “never,” “certainly,” “every,” and “undeniable.”[2] Of the 75,000 words in new atheist Sam Harris' The End of Faith, 2.24% of them connote or are associated with certainty.[3]

Jonathon Haidt wrote in his article Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change his Mind which was posted at the Evolution Institute website:

In the 1980s and 1990s, social psychologists began documenting the awesome power of “motivated reasoning” and the “confirmation bias.” People deploy their reasoning powers to find support for what they want to believe. Nobody has yet found a way to “debias” people—to train people to look for evidence on the other side—once emotions or self-interest are activated. Also in the 1990s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio showed that reasoning depends on emotional reactions. When emotional areas of the brain are damaged, people don’t become more rational; instead, they lose the ability to evaluate propositions intuitively and their reasoning gets bogged down in minutiae.

In the 2000s, in my own area of research—moral judgment—it became clear that people make judgments of right and wrong almost instantly, and then make up supporting reasons later. The intuitive dog wags its rational tail, which explains why it is so difficult to change anyone’s mind on a moral issue by refuting every reason they offer. To sum it all up, David Hume was right in 1739 when he wrote that reason was “the slave of the passions,” rather than the divine master, or charioteer, as Plato had believed.

...I read the New Atheist books carefully, and I noticed that several of them sounded angry. I also noticed that they used rhetorical structures suggesting certainty far more often than I was used to in scientific writing – words such as “always” and “never,” as well as phrases such as “there is no doubt that…” and “clearly we must…”

To check my hunch, I took the full text of the three most important New Atheist books—Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and I ran the files through a widely used text analysis program that counts words that have been shown to indicate certainty, including “always,” “never,” “certainly,” “every,” and “undeniable.” To provide a close standard of comparison, I also analyzed three recent books by other scientists who write about religion but are not considered New Atheists: Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods, and my own book The Righteous Mind. (More details about the analysis can be found here.)

To provide an additional standard of comparison, I also analyzed books by three right wing radio and television stars whose reasoning style is not generally regarded as scientific. I analyzed Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil, and Anne Coulter’s Treason. (I chose the book for each author that had received the most comments on Amazon.) The graph below shows the results. Harris appears to be the outlier.** Of the 75,000 words in The End of Faith, 2.24% of them connote or are associated with certainty. I also analyzed The Moral Landscape—it came out at 2.34%. (The graph shows no error bars because each bar represents an exact count of certainty-related words, divided by the total word count. There is no variance.)

...I am opposed to dogmatism. I am skeptical of each person’s individual powers of reasoning, and I’m even more skeptical of the reasoning of groups of activists, hyper-partisans, and other righteous reformers who would remake society according to their own reasoned (or revealed) vision."[4][5]

Richard Dawkins
According to Jonathon Haidt's study Richard Dawkins was found to be more dogmatic than Glenn Beck.[6]

Commenting on Jonathon Haidt's work the article New Study Exposes Atheist Dogma states:

A new study released by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt compared Atheists with popular conservative pundits like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Anne Coulter. Here’s why Dr. Haidt did the study, “When I was doing the research for The Righteous Mind, I read the New Atheist books carefully, and I noticed that several of them sounded angry. I also noticed that they used rhetorical structures suggesting certainty far more often than I was used to in scientific writing, words such as ‘always’ and ‘never,’ as well as phrases such as ‘there is no doubt that’ and ‘clearly we must’.”(emphasis mine)

Because of this change in presentation Dr. Haidt compared the writings of the new atheists to people like Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck who are known for their dogmatic positions. The study analyzed the entire text of each of their newest books for words and phrases that denote dogmatic opinions. Phrases like: “always” “never,” “certainly,” “every,” and “undeniable.” and in atheist Sam Harris’s book these dogmatic phrases represented over 2.5% of every word in the book. That’s five dogmatic words for every 200 words in the book!

By looking at this graph you can see how every one of these new atheists, including Richard Dawkins, were more extreme in their presentations than even Glenn Beck.

In essence, this study proved the opposite of what atheists claim. The new atheists aren’t scientists trying to present every side of the truth and allow their audience to come to their own conclusions but rather they are pushing people to believe a predetermined conclusion.[7]

Atheism and dogmatism

See also

Notes

  1. Faithless: The politics of new atheism by Steven Kettell
  2. Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change his Mind by JONATHAN HAIDT, February 3, 2014 8:36 pm
  3. Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change his Mind by JONATHAN HAIDT, February 3, 2014 8:36 pm
  4. Why Sam Harris is unlikely to change his mind by Jonathon Haidt, Evolution Institute website, archive
  5. Sam Harris is unlikely to change his mind by Jonathon Haidt, Evolution Institute website
  6. Study Exposes Atheist Dogma by Eric Hovind
  7. Study Exposes Atheist Dogma by Eric Hovind