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Many atheists also believe in the supernatural

Pentecost is approaching - and with it the festival with which Catholics celebrate the sending of the Holy Spirit on the 50th day of Easter. Members of Catholicism are still the largest group of believers in Austria. Behind it, however, are now a good million people without confession, i.e. atheists and agnostics who do not know what to do with celebrations like Pentecost - apart from the additional public holiday.

Despite the large and growing group of non-believers, Austria is rather "conservative" when it comes to secularization. For comparison: In China, according to a study from 2015, no less than 61 percent of the population said they were atheists. What exactly is to be understood by this remains unclear, of course. The only thing that is largely clear is the difference between atheists and agnostics, who are not quite as radical as atheists in denying the existence of a god.

Surveys in six countries

A British research group from the Global Understanding Unbelief program wanted to know more precisely what atheists and agnostics believe in, and therefore carried out surveys in six countries: Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, Great Britain and the USA. What came out of it, the researchers around the sociologist Lois Lee (University of Kent) recently presented in the Vatican in Rome of all places. In addition, the most important study results are available in a publicly accessible publication - and some of these results are quite surprising.

It was shown that, particularly in Christian countries, it seems possible to combine atheism and religion, at least in terms of self-perception: in Denmark, for example, 28 percent of atheists and agnostics stated that they were Christians. In Brazil it was 18 percent. It is not entirely surprising that in each of the four Christian countries more than half of the "unbelievers" were brought up as Christians.

Bad image of the atheists

What is more astonishing, however, is that very few non-believers would describe themselves as atheists or agnostics: in the USA that is only 38 percent of atheists, in Denmark only 19 percent. This reluctance may be due to the fact that atheists also have a bad image among atheists. So showed an investigation, which appeared almost two years ago in the journal "Nature Human Behavior" that not only the average population, but also atheists would be far more likely to trust another atheist to do a terrible bloody act than a religious person.

The results of the recently published study underline that such a prejudice lacks any empirical basis: the vast majority of "infidels" share a belief in objective moral values, human dignity and the rights associated with it, as well as the "deep value" of nature. In this they hardly differ from the average population in their respective countries. In addition, the search for meaning in the world and the meaning of their own life is also very important for agnostics and atheists.

Belief in the supernatural

In the context of the investigation, however, questions were also asked about belief in supernatural phenomena such as life after death, reincarnation, astrology, objects with mystical powers, the universal spirit or karma. On the one hand, considerable cultural differences emerged again between the six countries, but also between agnostics and atheists. On the other hand, it is astonishing how high the approval of some manifestations of the supernatural was.

Chinese agnostics are particularly susceptible to supernatural phenomena of any kind, more than half of whom believe in astrology, in good and bad forces and a universal spirit of life force:

The values ​​of atheists are generally lower than those of agnostics, but here too - especially in China and Brazil - there are approval rates of ten to over 30 percent. Incidentally, Japanese atheists have the slightest sense of the supernatural.

Misconceptions about atheism

For Lois Lee, whose previous work on atheistism already presented in the STANDARD In any case, these results make it clear "that the usual public perceptions of atheists are at best a simplification and at worst a crude caricature." Her co-author Jonathon Lanman adds that non-believers are often assumed to have a lack of a sense of objective morality or a sense of purpose in life and that they have a very different value system than the rest of the population. "Our representative data from six different countries show that none of this is true." (Klaus Taschwer, June 8th, 2019)

PDF of the original study

More about atheism in the STANDARD: