Agnosticism and atheism are often categorized into one “nonreligious” group in research despite these being distinct belief systems. New research published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality finds that people do have distinct stereotypes that differentiate agnosticism and atheism from each other and from Christianity.

“I was interested in this topic because I noticed that most research on nonreligious groups either focus solely on atheists or group atheists and agnostics together. Because self-identified agnostics are as prevalent in society as atheists, I wondered whether differences would emerge if we studies these groups separately,” explained study author Veronica Bergstrom, a PhD candidate in social psychology at the University of Toronto.

Although research has consistently categorized atheists and agnostics into one nonreligious category, there are some deviations between these groups that could be relevant for stereotyping. For example, atheists and Christians might both be perceived as highly dogmatic as these categorizations take a stand on the existence of a God whereas agnostics do not (referred to as dogmatic recalcitrance).

In study 1...
Researchers recruited a final sample of 118 U.S. adult residents from Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), an online platform. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In one condition, they were provided with definitions of agnostic, atheist, and Christian and asked to list up to 5 stereotypes that most people hold about each religious group.

And here comes the results from study 1...
“Participants indicated that atheists are generally viewed as more evil, immoral, intolerant, pushy, rude, and satanic than agnostics. In contrast, agnostics were thought to be viewed as more confused, indecisive, questioning, cowardly, kind, curious, neutral, and scientific than atheists,” wrote the researchers. Atheists, but not agnostics, were reported to be morally worse, meaner, and colder than Christians. These patterns were demonstrated regardless of whether the participants were provided a definition of the religious groups or if they gave their own.

Moving on to a second study...
Study 2 sought to provide stronger support for the findings of Study 1. The researchers also included a measure of belief in God to examine whether this impacts how people stereotype the different religious groups. They recruited a final sample of 244 adult U.S. residents from MTurk. Participants were presented with and given definitions of three religious groups (agnostics, atheists, and Protestants). They were asked to rate the groups on 10 trait pairs selected from the traits given in Study 1 (i.e., immoral-moral, cowardly-brave, indecisive-decisive) for how representative they were of each religious group.

Results show that atheists were rated less moral, trustworthy, and safe compared to agnostics, who were rated lower on these traits compared to Protestants, supporting the moral deficiency hypothesis. Results also show that agnostics were rated more trustworthy than atheists, but less trustworthy than Protestants, providing support for the symbolic threat hypothesis. Further, Protestants were rated as older, more loyal, more patriotic, and more predictable than both atheists and agnostics. Results also show that agnostics were seen as less decisive than atheists and Protestants, but more tolerant than atheists. Agnostics were rated as equally brave, predictable, and loyal as atheists, which contradicts the dogmatic recalcitrance hypothesis.

“Although atheists and agnostics have stereotypes in common, important differences do exist. For example, agnostics are perceived as less immoral but more indecisive than atheists. These differences in stereotypes might lead to different experiences of discrimination,” Bergstrom told PsyPost.

Belief in God was relevant in some of these ratings. For example, participants with low belief in God rated Protestants and agnostics as equally moral and brave; and participants with high belief in God rated Protestants as more moral and braver than agnostics. Similar patterns to this emerged for several trait ratings including decisiveness, loyalty, safeness, tolerance, and trustworthiness.
The study, “To believe or not to believe Stereotypes about agnostics“, was authored by Veronica N. Z. Bergstrom, Jason E. Plaks, and Alison L. Chasteen.
All of the above excerpts came from the following article,

New research uncovers stereotype differences between agnostics and atheists by Patricia Y. Sanchez

For Discussion:
What's your thoughts on this article?

Do you like the way agnostics are perceived? I don't, although it seems to be better than some of the ways that atheists are perceived.