What is it about?

There are many different religions, and even within them, people differ in their understandings of the world. Non-religious people, too, are far from having uniform attitudes and beliefs. This is already evident in how they describe themselves. Many secular people see themselves as atheists, agnostics or humanists. Are these simply arbitrary labels, or do they reflect different positions? We investigated this by surveying over 1800 secular people from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. The results suggest that atheists differ very clearly from agnostics - in many areas, they even have contrary attitudes. Atheists were very convinced that neither gods nor higher powers exist. They assumed that this world can be understood rationally and trusted in science and technology, and they were more willing than others to communicate their worldview openly. On the other hand, agnostics were not nearly so sure about the non-existence of a God or higher powers. They were also sceptical about what we can know at all. Accordingly, they were more open in their worldview, and they mainly kept it private. Humanists occupied a middle position, between atheists and agnostics. For the record, men more often described themselves as atheists and women as agnostics. Moreover, the open attitude was more common in secular Holland, while non-religious people in Germany and Austria were more likely to be decided atheists! This supports the hypothesis that societies, where religion is prevalent, evoke more decided secular attitudes.

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Why is it important?

This study shows that secular attitudes can be based on entirely different premises: Agnosticism is not just another, "softer," term for atheism. This is an important clarification when it comes to basic research on worldviews.


Interestingly, the difference in decided and open secular worldviews is also mirrored in transcendent worldviews: Religious people tend to be more decided and certain in their stance, while spiritual people lean more toward being open and searching. And here’s another thought-provoking finding, replicated by several studies: Whether believers or not, people with decided worldviews seem to differ from those with open worldviews in their mental health. It is easier to live with a decided worldview: It gives support, direction and structure. It is harder to live with an open worldview: It requires that we keep questioning ourselves; it acknowledges that the world is not simply black and white, which demands so-called “tolerance of ambiguity”. A large part of humankind wants to live in open, democratic and tolerant societies. Looks like we need some more practice in handling the possibilities and vulnerability this entails. This also applies to communication: It seems easier to communicate decided than open worldviews. What elements of open worldviews do we perceive as crucial, as worth communicating - and even standing up for, in a decided way?

Tatjana Schnell
MF Specialized University

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This page is a summary of: Worlds apart? Atheist, agnostic, and humanist worldviews in three European countries., Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, October 2021, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/rel0000446.
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