Field of Science

Does Dawkins work?

It seems that cracks are opening in the religious veneer of the US - demographic data are showing that people are increasingly likely to tell pollsters that they are atheists or agnostics (see previous two posts). This much seems clear. The question then is: why?

The shift really seems to have happened in the current decade, and it's a decade that's seen some pretty seismic political events. There was 9/11 and subsequent media frenzy about religious violence. Then there was the plummeting popularity of Bush, whose administration was closely aligned to the religious evangelicals.

And then there's the Dawkins phenomenon.

Has the enormous popularity of Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, contributed to the shifting beliefs of the American people? That's certainly what Dawkins hoped for:
If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. (The God Delusion)
On the other hand, critics of Dawkins have argued that his strident, take-no-prisoners style has done more harm than good. Madeleine Bunting, writing in the Guardian, goes so far as to demand proof that anyone at all has been converted.

Well, proof is hard to come by but there is good evidence that Dawkins' prose really can change beliefs, at least in the short term. This evidence comes from a study published last year by psychologist Azim Shariff and colleagues at the University of British Columbia (Shariff is the guy who co-wrote the review last year on the pro-social effects of religion).

What they did was give some students a couple of paragraphs from an essay that Dawkins wrote way back in 1994 that succinctly made his case. They don't quote the passage directly, but I've tracked it down and this is it (it was published in the electronic newsletter Nullifidian):
The great beauty of Darwin's theory of evolution is that it explains how complex, difficult to understand things could have arisen step by plausible step, from simple, easy to understand beginnings. We start our explanation from almost infinitely simple beginnings: pure hydrogen and a huge amount of energy. Our scientific, Darwinian explanations carry us through a series of well-understood gradual steps to all the spectacular beauty and complexity of life.

The alternative hypothesis, that it was all started by a supernatural creator, is not only superfluous, it is also highly improbable. It falls foul of the very argument that was originally put forward in its favour. This is because any God worthy of the name must have been a being of colossal intelligence, a supermind, an entity of extremely low probability - a very improbable being indeed.
Afterwards they were asked to summarize their feelings about Dawkins' argument. A control group was asked to write about their favourite food.

Then they did a distraction task, and then filled in a number of questionnaires, including one about their religiosity. According to this survey, their religiosity dropped by a small, but significant amount. Score 1 point to Dawkins.

But hang on, there's a number of reasons that people might change what they put in a questionnaire that have nothing to do with their actual opinions. It might simply be that they were inhibited from answering truthfully before. Or it might be that they are now inhibited. In other words, people are affected by what they judge to be the questioners' expectations.

So an objective test is needed. What Shariff & co used was a version of the Implicit Association Test. The gist of this is that images (or, in this case, words) are flashed up on the screen, and you have to sort them according to whether they are true or false. The cunning bit is that you are told whether to answer true or false. The test comes not in which ones you get right, but in how fast you react.

The theory is that if the instructions on how to sort into 'true' or 'false' go against your implicit beliefs, then you'll need more time to sort them. If they fit with your prejudice, you'll fly through. It's an objective measure of your real 'gut feelings'.

Anyway, here are the results. The left hand pair of bars show the results from the questionnaire. The right hand pair of bars show the results from the implicit association test.

Both show a decrease in religiosity in those who read the piece by Dawkins, but the implicit test shows a rather striking drop. It seems that Dawkins really can change deeply held beliefs.

OK so this was only a short term study. Once these people got back out into the real world, with the constant barrage of pro-religious sentiments, they no doubt rapidly lapsed. But what happens if the Dawkins message is louder and more regular? Could that really change attitudes in the long-term?

I would like to think so!
____________________________________________________________________ Azim F. A Shariff, Adam B. Cohen, Ara ANorenzayan (2008). The Devil's Advocate: Secular Arguments Diminish both Implicit and Explicit Religious Belief Journal of Cognition and Culture, 8 (3), 417-423 DOI: 10.1163/156853708X358245


  1. This really wasn't a very good study. Proper controls would have included pro-religion and non-Dawkins-anti-religion passages. It also doesn't tell us anything about long-term belief patterns. Dawkins is an ass and if he is really representative of atheism, that would almost certainly count as a proof for the existence of God.

  2. Dawkins (the public persona, at least) is not an ass. He does speak his mind and if someone is muddle headed, he will say they are muddle headed. Speaking clearly, intelligently and forthrightly does not make one an ass.

    Some call him strident but really he only appears that way because so many others are just mealy-mouth. Frankly, compared to the ballyhoo that comes from his critics (or more accurately - attackers), he is the quintessence of calm reasonableness.

    But don't take my word for it. Just go to his site and read what he has written or view some of his videos. They speak for themselves.

  3. I remember some study from a few years ago, that claimed to show that it was not the logic or the truthfulness of an argument that made it persuasive (in changing an opinion) but the frequency of repetition and the number of other people making the same argument. If this is true and it is true that the drop in religiosity is due to the books and articles written, then the credit has to be shared not only with Dawkins but with Harris, Hitchchens, Dennett, Pinker and many others.

  4. This doesn't appear to be a badly designed study from the information presented, to me (a layman) at least.

    The objective of the study (does exposure to Dawkins' writing decrease religiosity in the time between exposure and measurement) is made quite clear; no attempt is made to compare the effect of Dawkins versus other atheists and again this is quite clear.

    Though adding more atheist writings into the mix would have been interesting, at least to see who had the most effect, providing a 'baseline atheist' (like an established drug in a drug trial) or a 'fake atheist' (like a placebo) passage seems like it would be impossible given the subject matter!

    I'd like to see a trial with a longer duration myself. Maybe someone can find one?

  5. It could just be a case of the "last book syndrome", where people tend to agree with the last book (or in this case, an essay) they read. Maybe after reading Dawkins' piece, the subjects should've been given another essay from a contrary position (Francis Collins, John Haught). Then we'll see if Dawkins' influence is more than skin deep.

  6. This really wasn't a very good study. Proper controls would have included pro-religion and non-Dawkins-anti-religion passages. It also doesn't tell us anything about long-term belief patterns. Dawkins is an ass and if he is really representative of atheism, that would almost certainly count as a proof for the existence of God.

    A comment like this is so confusing to me. The first half seems to seriously evaluate the study, but the second half is an ad hominem attack and a false argument.

    How is anyone to respond to such nonsense? When attacking someone, calling them an ass doesn't add anything. Why not be specific, or just say "I don't like him."


  7. I agree with the various comments above - it almost certainly is a case of who shouts loudest and most insistently that wins the case.

    As to whether arguments like this can have any long term effect, there isn't any evidence that I know of - although there is evidence that certain kinds of 'propaganda' can have a persistent effect. There's an interesting study just out showing that labelling carrots 'x-ray carrots' has a persistent effect on carrot consumption by toddlers. But I digress....

    As far as religion goes, there is evidence that education in general reduces religious beliefs but increases religious attendance. A curious result - one that's on my list of papers to blog about!

  8. "Time wins more converts than reason."

    Tom Paine.


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