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Atheists still believe in the supernatural, new report finds

Just because you don't believe in God doesn't mean you aren't superstitious.

Photo credit: Anastasia Dulgier on Unsplash
  • A new report indicates atheists and agnostics still believe in supernatural phenomena despite not believing in gods.
  • They tend to hold these beliefs at lower rates than the general population.
  • This is in line with previous studies that show non-believers are just as prone to irrational thinking as their religious counterparts.

Atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers are among the most disliked, untrusted, and misunderstood people in our society. Most Americans wouldn't vote for a qualified atheist if they ran for president. Many parents hope their child doesn't marry one. Most atheists in the United States have a story about coming out to somebody who then either accused them of being a Satanist or was utterly unable to comprehend what an atheist was.

To get a better idea of what non-believers of all stripes are actually like and to try to correct for the above facts, the U.K.-based Understanding Unbelief Project has released the Understanding Unbelief white sheet. A study of "unbelievers" in six countries on four continents, the report covers topics such as how confident people are in their beliefs compared to theists in the same country, how they choose to identify themselves, and what they value.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is the section of the completed report that indicates, despite their skepticism on the subject of God, many unbelievers still hold superstitious beliefs.

What!?!

Despite rejecting or at least questioning the notion of gods, unbelievers aren't wholly divorced from superstitious belief.

Image source: Understanding Unbelief (2019)

As you can see in the above graph, up to a 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.

Agnostics were more likely to believe in supernatural phenomena than atheists across the board. Notice how the graphs have similar patterns but with different point values.

Understanding Unbelief (2019)

The general population, however, continues to believe in these phenomena at a much higher rate than non-believers.

Image source: Understanding Unbelief (2019)

The study also found that non-believers are not all nihilistic, moral relativists, or unable to appreciate the inherent value of the world around them. While this isn't news to atheists, it will be news to many people who think them incapable of having a robust moral system, an appreciation for nature, or a sense of meaning in life.

Why is this? Are they just hypocrites?

Physicist Michio Kaku suggested in his Big Think interview that a tendency toward magical thinking could be inherent to the human mind:

"We still have Flat Earthers, we have people that don't believe in vaccinations, and what do we do about it? Well, first of all, I think there's a gene. I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking. And I think that, when we were in the forest, that gene actually helped us. Because 9 times out of 10, that gene was wrong. Superstition didn't work. But 1 time out of 10, it saved your butt. That's why the gene is still here, the gene for superstition and magic. Now, there's no gene for science. Science is based on things that are reproducible, testable -- it's a long process, the scientific method. It's not part of our natural thinking. It's an acquired taste, just like broccoli."

If Kaku is correct, then non-believers would be just as pre-disposed to superstitious thought as everybody else.

The data suggests this is the case. Despite their claims to the contrary, non-believers — many, at least — are not any more rational or scientific than the rest of the population, and can easily fall for the same logical fallacies everybody else does. Given this, it makes sense that somebody who is sure there is no invisible man in the sky is still somewhat convinced by the idea of Karma; anybody can use the post hoc fallacy.

The study also hasn't really found anything new. Plenty of famous critics of religion haven't been entirely above religious sentiment themselves. For example, Pierre Curie, the husband of the more famous Marie Curie, was an atheist who had an enduring, somewhat scientific, interest in spiritualism.

So everybody chill out — across the spectrum, we all tend to believe in the uncanny.

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