Why are most people in the world religious? Some say it is because we’re naturally predisposed to believe in a god or gods and that religion brought evolutionary advantages to our ancestors. But if that’s the case, how come there are over half a billion atheists in the world? One theory is that atheists consciously suppress their instincts for religion, with only varying degrees of success. A new study provides tentative support for this idea. Marjaana Lindeman and her colleagues report that atheists get just as stressed as religious people when they ask God to do nasty things, as in “I dare God to make someone murder my parents cruelly.”
The researchers tested 16 atheists and 13 religious people (Finns aged 17 to 45 recruited via a skeptics group and bible group, respectively). The participants were wired up to a skin conductance machine that records the sweatiness of the fingers – a basic marker of stress. Next the participants read aloud 36 sentences – some were requests for God to do something awful; others were offensive statements not involving God (e.g. it’s okay to kick a puppy in the face); and the remainder were neutral (e.g. I hope it’s not raining today).
The participants’ views about this experience differed as you’d expect. The religious folk found the God-related statements more unpleasant than the atheists. However, they were no more likely than the atheists to refuse to utter the God statements, or to retract them later when given the chance. Most importantly, skin conductance was higher for both participant groups when reading the God statements compared with the neutral statements. Moreover, across both groups, skin conductance when reading the God statements did not vary according to a person’s level of religious belief. The atheists seemed to get just as stressed as believers when daring God to do awful things.
An obvious flaw in this evidence is that the mention of God was confounded with horrible outcomes. Perhaps the atheists were stressed reading the God statements simply because of the ideas involved, not because of God’s role per se. A second study examined this with nineteen more Finnish atheists (aged 20 to 30). The participants were wired up to the skin conductance machine while they uttered unpleasant sentences involving God (e.g. “I dare God to make me die of cancer”) or not involving God (e.g. “I wish I would die of cancer”). Signs of stress were higher for the God statements, suggesting the involvement of God brings some extra stress to atheists beyond the unpleasant outcomes involved.
“The results imply that while atheists’ and religious individuals’ beliefs about God and explicit attitudes towards God statements are different, they become equally emotionally aroused when daring God to do unpleasant things,” the researchers said.
The study has its limitations – the participant samples were very small for a start – and the findings are difficult to interpret. Certainly it would be inappropriate to conclude that the results prove atheists believe in God at a subconscious level. Other plausible explanations for the findings include atheists finding the God statements stressful because they know friends or family who do believe in God; or perhaps atheists experience stress reading the God statements because the wording implies God is real, which runs counter to their own beliefs.
Lindeman, M., Heywood, B., Riekki, T., and Makkonen, T. (2013). Atheists become emotionally aroused when daring God to do terrible things. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2013.771991
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