When all around us feels like chaos, it’s human instinct to cling to the rocks of dogma, and woe betide anyone who tries to loosen our grip. Previous studies, usually involving strong religious believers, have shown how dogmatic beliefs allay the anxiety brought on by feelings of uncertainty. In turn, any groups with opposing views are treated with suspicion and prejudice. A new study in the British Journal of Psychology broadens this out, showing these processes aren’t unique to religious believers. Dogmatic atheists too seem to be motivated by the need to cope with uncertainty, and they too are prejudiced towards threatening groups, especially during times of uncertainty. The researchers at Jagiellonian University, led by Małgorzata Kossowska, suggest their findings have interesting implications for understanding political orientations and prejudices. The world feels especially unpredictable right now. Are we all, whatever our politics, clinging to our rocks more strongly than ever?
Kossowska and her colleagues tested levels of dogmatic belief, whether religious or atheist, and intolerance of uncertainty, among 201 participants. They found that an inability to cope with uncertainty (as measured with the Need for Closure scale) correlated with dogmatic belief among religious people – Christians in this cultural context – but also with dogmatic belief among atheists. The researchers said this pattern suggests that, whatever your own religious or non-religious orientation, “dogmatic beliefs offer a global worldview full or rules and explanations and thereby reduce the complexity of life and create a psychologically safe and predictable environment.”
Next, the researchers tested the religious and atheistic beliefs and intolerance of 116 more participants, but this time they also manipulated some of them to experience feelings of uncertainty (participants rated their agreement with statements about times they’d felt uncertain, under the guise of it being a personality test). The researchers also tested their prejudice towards different social groups.
As before, a dislike of uncertainty correlated with dogmatic beliefs, both religious and atheist. More dogma also correlated with greater prejudice towards out-groups and seeing them as more threatening. Moreover, dogmatic believers of both stripes showed increased prejudice when primed to experience feelings of uncertainty. For the orthodox Christian believers, this manifested in increased prejudice towards homosexual people; for the dogmatic atheists, it was increased prejudice towards pro-life supporters.
The defence mechanism of dogmatic belief has in the past been seen as a feature of the religious and politically conservative. Kossowska and her team argue their findings suggest that uncertainty-fuelled dogma, and prejudice towards those who threaten that dogma, is a more universal phenomenon. “Prejudice is not limited only to religious believers or to those on the political right, but rather, as a response to uncertainty it may also occur among dogmatic atheists and the otherwise politically and socially liberal,” the researchers said.
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