Field of Science

Atheists are disagreeable and unconscientious

A new analysis comparing the personalities of religious and less religious people has found that religiosity is generally linked to agreeableness and conscientiousness. Well, that's the headline. To understand why this might be, you need to dig into the details of the study.

Vassilis Saroglou, a leading expert in personality and religious psychology research, has done what's called a meta-analysis - statistically combing the results of dozens of older studies to discern the average. He looked at 63 studies from around the world looking the five-factor model of personality.

The five-factor model is the most widely used measure of personality. According to this model, individuals can be defined according to where they lie on one of five scales: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.

One consistent finding stood out: across all measures of religion, cultural areas, and age groups, people who scored higher on agreeableness and conscientiousness also reported being more religious.

There were important cultural differences. As you can see in the figure, religious people in Europe are less agreeable compared with those in America. Unlike the American religious, those in Europe are more closed-minded than the non-religious.

I believe the reason for this lies in the fact that religion is less popular in Europe. Agreeableness is the "tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others" (Wikipedia). It's characteristic of social people - the joiners. In the US, where religion is so common, it would take a disagreeable person to reject the social norm.

In Europe, however, it's easier to declare yourself non-religious and yet still be part of the mainstream. Some of the people who in the US would be 'social religious' are social non-religious in Europe.

As a result, those people who retain religion in Europe tend to be in it for more hardcore reasons. I suspect this also explains why the religious in Europe are more closed-minded - which is a characteristic of fundamentalist religion.

It's because the motivation to be religious is different in Europe compared with the USA. The move from religion to non-religion has occurred mostly among the social religious. As a result, although as a proportion of the whole population the USA has more fundamentalists than in Europe, as a proportion of religious people Europe is relatively stronger in fundamentalists.

What about conscientiousness? Well, this factor is all about planning and dutifulness, versus a more hedonistic style of living for the moment. Religion is, by it's nature, attractive to the sort of people who are willing to make sacrifices now (going to church) for benefits in the distant future (rewards in heaven).

So I think that the personality differences between the religious and less religious are broadly understandable in terms of the cultural factors that are associated with religion. In other words, it's less about what kind of personality is likely to have supernatural thoughts, still less about the effects that atheism or religion might have on personality. It's more about what kind of person would be attracted by the social environment provided by religion in their particular neck of the woods.

As Saroglou says: argument is not that religiousness simply reflects personality traits. On the contrary, I argue that religiousness is best predicted by the interaction between personality traits and contextual factors. Personality traits predict an outcome better when they are examined in interaction with social contexts rather than alone.

Most of these studies were done in the USA (many in US students). It would be very interesting to see a more formal analysis of the personality types that are associated with religion in places where religion is now a minority pursuit.

And there is one important caveat you need to bear in mind. These studies for the most part treat religion as a continuum. Although some did look at fundamentalism, none actually looked at atheism. We can suppose that the personalities of the low-religious are shared by atheists, but until the studies are done, we can't really be sure.

ResearchBlogging.orgSaroglou, V. (2009). Religiousness as a Cultural Adaptation of Basic Traits: A Five-Factor Model Perspective Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14 (1), 108-125 DOI: 10.1177/1088868309352322

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I would also be interested in seeing the working definitions (not the dictionary definitions, the ones used in the outlines of the studies) for agreeableness and contentiousness. The obvious correlation between fundamentalism and contentiousness in these studies makes me question whether or not it's unbiased. That might be because I'm an atheist or it might be because from my (admittedly limited) sample size of a 100 or so atheists I don't see that much hedonism.

  2. Now I am utterly confused. The statement that religious people score higher on agreeableness and conscientiousness than non-religious people seems to directly contradict Luke Galens findings. I seem to remember a doubtcast in which he states that the only strong distinction between beliefers and non-beliefers was the score in the character trait openess (where non-beliefers scored significantly higher). Could you commment on this?

  3. FYI to other readers:

    Author: Vassilis Saraoglou
    Institution: Universite Catholique de Louvain (Belgium)
    Position: Director of the Centre for Psychology of Religion
    Journal: Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 2010 Actual Article: prepub version here!

  4. Neno: the best primer I've found on the web for the Five-factor model of personality is actually wikipedia (here).

  5. Verquer: Actually, Galen also found that atheists are less agreeable and less conscientious (I blogged his study here). And Saroglou also found that the religious are less open.

    But there is an important difference between Galen's work and Saroglou's.

    A meta-analysis (what Saroglou has done) is statistically powerful, but because it combines a number of studies with different definitions of religion/non-religion, it can be difficult to work out what the findings actually mean. Just as there is a difference between the normal religious and the fundamentalists, so there is also a difference between the 'non-religious' and the self-declared atheists.

    Galen was looking specifically at members of the Center for Inquiry, Michigan (he's done some follow-up work looking at a wider group, but still members of atheist organisations).

  6. The lack of distinction between non-believers in general vs. atheists in particular cannot be emphasized enough when interpreting this information. Is it any surprise that someone with a low conscientiousness score might also not be particularly concerned with the truth/falsity of religious claims?

    Not that I want to dismiss this too much. I consider it an open question whether moderate religion is "good for" people (my gut feeling is that it's not, but I have little more than intuition and frail slippery slope-style arguments to back this up). While that obviously doesn't affect the truth value of religious claims, it's a really good question to ask and I'm open to the idea that there may be some distinct positive effects. (Not that I could reap the benefits of them in any case, because even if I found out that religious people were ten times as healthy and twenty times as happy, it's not like I could just make myself believe something that I knew wasn't true...)

    Anyway, I'm proud to be disagreeable, personally ;D

  7. I appreciate your open disagreeableness and pleasant ego very much James. David Mc

  8. Self-reported questionnaires like the ones used for assessing personality traits always contain some biases. Perhaps religious people perceive themselves as agreeable and conscientious but really aren't. Maybe less religious people and atheists view themselves more realistically without self-righteousness?

  9. That's a good point, and in fact Saroglou has himself written about how self-reported pro-social differences seem to mostly disappear when tested in a blinded fashion (i.e. in experiments). It's certainly hard to explain how the non-religious could be less conscientious, when they tend to be better educated and higher earners - both of which are concrete, real-world examples of conscientiousness.

  10. Its possible to speculate much about this. So its possible to say anything. Maybe the non-religious are more realists, maybe the religious. Its hard to study because we dont have common views about truth(realism) at all in psychology. I think we shouldnt see these studies very scientific and argue for religious or for non-religious. There are better studies which are more strics. See for example brainstudies by Newberg.

  11. I have mostly met atheists online and I have to say that they have been the most rudest, heartless, brutal people I have ever met. Very ill tempered. It has been a rare moment that I have me a kind atheists.


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