Religiosity and dogmatism

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We’ve all seen it: religious extremists with signs protesting a seemingly innocuous event. Or perhaps hardcore believers dogmatically arguing with someone about religion. But are these diehards really more dogmatic and less open-minded than others? Does this common perception have any basis? In fact, the answer appears to be a qualified yes – research conducted more than thirty years ago suggests that the indiscriminately antireligious are, indeed, more open-minded than the religious.

To test dogmatism and religious orientation, researcher Andrew D. Thompson in 1974 surveyed Catholics with the classic religious orientation scale of intrinsic and extrinsic religion (see " Measuring religion: where do you fall?") and the indiscriminately antireligious orientation. Rather than seeing intrinsic and extrinsic orientations as polar opposites, Thompson measured them independently. With two measures (intrinsic and extrinsic), four combinations resulted: (1) if someone was high on both intrinsic and extrinsic orientations, that respondent would be considered "indiscriminately proreligious," (2) if low on both orientations, then "indiscriminately antireligious," (3) if high on intrinsic but not extrinsic, he or she would simply be considered "intrinsic," and (4) vice-versa.

Sure enough, those who scored as indiscriminately proreligious also had the highest dogmatism scores, and those who scored as indiscriminately antireligious had the lowest dogmatism scores. It would appear, as expected, that the most religious are indeed close-minded and the least religious are the most open-minded.

However, the findings are not that simple. First, they do not establish a causal relation between religiosity and open-mindedness. There is certainly a correlation, but one cannot conclude that religiosity causes closed-mindedness or vice-versa.

Second, Thompson suggests that the label "indiscriminate" is misleading. He prefers the term "discerning." In other words, the indiscriminately antireligious are not blindly or adamantly opposed to religion, but rather openly and cautiously approach religion. So the antireligious are actually in some sense religious, just not in an overly intrinsic or extrinsic way – similar to, for example, those who score highly on the "quest" orientation toward religion (discussed in the linked article above).

Furthermore, as Thompson readily admits, it is questionable whether the intrinsic/extrinsic scale even applies to Catholics, let alone moderate Protestants, liberals, or believers from other religions. The intrinsic/extrinsic scale was initially applied to Protestant evangelicals, and its validity outside of that group remains uncertain. This in no way nullifies Thompson’s findings, but it is important to bear this in mind.

What is to be made of Thompson’s research? At the very least, it should be a warning to certain branches of Christianity that they correlate with closed-mindedness (again, it’s unclear whether this applies to religion in general). More positively, it also indicates that the antireligious may not be truly antireligious but simply reject the categories of intrinsic and extrinsic. Hopefully, to more fully address the question of religiosity and open-mindedness, scales will be developed that work across the religious spectrum. That would, after all, seem to be the most open-minded solution.