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Do Atheists Really Believe in God?

iStock_000006536153SM (1)Very few of us would argue that “it’s OK to kick a puppy in the face.” That’s not a nice thing to say. Here’s an even less nice thing to say: “I wish my parents would drown.” Maybe they never got you the sweet BMX bike you begged for, sticking you instead with that banana-seat Schwinn, but desiring their terminal submersion is a bit much. If there are advocates for kicking puppies and drowning parents, they (wisely) tend to keep those foul opinions to themselves.

Now consider this statement: “I dare God to make my home catch fire.”

It’s a little different, right? You’re still imagining a terrible event, but this time you’re invoking the supernatural. If you believe in God, and you believe that he answers your prayers, then you might worry that the Almighty would reduce your bungalow to cinders. But what if you don’t believe in God? You wouldn’t give it a second thought, right? Bring it on, Fictional Deity!

In a forthcoming paper in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, titled “Atheists Become Emotionally Aroused When Daring God to Do Terrible Things,” researchers asked subjects to make the horrible statements mentioned above. Some statements were offensive (puppy kicking), some were malevolent (parents drowning), and some dared God to do awful stuff, to the subjects, their friends, or their families. Of the 29 subjects, 16 were self-described atheists and 13 were religious. It’s important to note that the study took place in Finland, which has a much higher proportion of atheists and agnostics than the United States has. According to one estimate, most Finns don’t believe in God; contrast that with the United States, where less than 10 percent of us are heathens.

In the study, subjects were first asked to rate the unpleasantness of those statements. Not surprisingly, believers said they were more bothered than atheists were by the thought of daring God to burn down their houses or afflict them with cancer. Then subjects were asked to read aloud the statements while hooked up to a skin-conductance meter, which basically measures how much you sweat. The idea is that the more you perspire, the more worked up you are about a particular statement. (Such tests have been around for a long time. Here’s more about them if you’re curious.)

This is where it gets interesting.

According to the skin-conductance tests, the atheists found asking God to harm them or others to be just as upsetting as religious folks did. The researchers also compared the reactions of the atheists when making statements like “I wish my parents were paralyzed” and “I dare God to paralyze my parents.” Atheists were, like believers, more bothered by the latter statement, if you believe the skin-conductance tests, even though both declarations would be, in theory, equally empty if there were no heavenly overseer.

Those findings don’t prove that atheists believe in God, though the study does seem to suggest that the idea of God is extremely powerful, even in a relatively secular society like Finland. The authors float several theories for why atheists might be bothered by requesting terror from on high. One guess is that most atheists used to be religious and so they’re recalling their prior fear. Maybe once the notion of God lodges deep in your brain, you can’t ever fully extract it.

I’m curious about the results if, instead of God, subjects beseeched an obviously false deity, like the Golden Magic Squirrel. Though I haven’t done an exhaustive search, I don’t think anyone believes in the Golden Magic Squirrel. Would they still sweat at the prospect? In the paper, the authors write that “inclusion of sentences that dare God to do good things and sentences that dare other agents to do good and bad things would inform us if it is sentences that include God that create arousal, and is the arousal linked only with daring God to do bad things.”

In an e-mail, one of the authors, Marjaana Lindeman, an adjunct professor of cognitive psychology and neuropsychology at the University of Helsinki, refrained from mocking the idea of the Golden Magic Squirrel. “Unfortunately we did not include [the] statements you mentioned,” she wrote. “This would indeed be an important question for future studies.”

In the last few years, the cognitive science of religion has begun to take off. Researchers explore questions like: Does religion make you kinder and more cooperative? More ethical? Less tolerant? Is it adaptive—that is, does it confer some evolutionary benefit?—or is it just a byproduct of other adaptations? What is this thing that occupies so much of our time and energy, that lies at the root of so much good and so much evil?

Atheists have gotten some attention, though not nearly as much. A 2010 study primed both atheists and Christians with God-related words like “spirit” and “divine,” then had them complete a stress-inducing task. Those primed with the godly words were more persistent but also more anxious, whether they believed or not. Similarly, a 2007 study found that, using the same priming method, both atheists and believers were more generous toward strangers after being reminded of God.*

In an issue last year of the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior, several researchers grappled with the dilemma “What are atheists for?”—evolutionarily speaking, that is. One researcher, Dominic Johnson of Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, concluded, tongue perhaps somewhat in cheek, that atheists might exist for the “promotion of the solidarity of the religious communities that they berate.” In other words, maybe they exist to be hated.

* This kind of priming has raised some eyebrows as famous priming experiments have failed to replicate in other scientists’ labs. Here’s more on that.

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