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Do Atheists Believe in God After All?

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I recently discovered the results of a new study that reveals something very interesting about atheists. The study took place in Finland and was published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion under the title “Atheists Become Emotionally Aroused When Daring God to Do Terrible Things.”

Researchers connected both religious individuals and self-described atheists to machines that measure perspiration. (Increased sweating is a sign that someone is becoming more anxious and nervous; it is the basis for lie detector tests.) The test subjects were then asked to make statements like “I wish my parents would drown” and “I dare God to drown my parents.” Religious people were more nervous and upset after uttering statements that asked God to do bad things, but researchers were more interested to see the atheists' responses. After all, if there is no God, then wishing for something bad to happen and asking God to do it amounts to the same thing. However, the reactions among atheists differed little from the reactions among religious people:

"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."

Just like religious people, atheists became more distraught and nervous when asking God to do something bad. This is especially surprising because the study was conducted in Finland, where 16 percent of people do not believe in God and organized religion is not very popular.

What can we take away from a study like this? I don’t think it’s fair to say that every atheist secretly believes God exists and just pretends to be an atheist in order to get attention. I do think it’s fair to say that tests like these could show that most atheists do not think God is a delusion, as Richard Dawkins argued in his famous 2005 book The God Delusion. A delusion is “a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary.”

If you think that it is 4:00 p.m. and it is really 3:00 p.m. because of daylight savings time, you’re mistaken. If you think that it is the year A.D. 213 instead of 2013, you are probably deluded, since there is so much evidence to refute that belief. If someone thinks he is God, we say the person is suffering from “delusions of grandeur” (or, as C. S. Lewis would say, they are as crazy as someone who thinks they are a poached egg).

Delusions are patently silly beliefs that are easily refuted by available evidence. If God were a delusion, then no one should really fear him drowning his parents any more than one would fear Santa Claus drowning his parents.

Unfortunately, the authors of the study did not ask the participants to dare a known false belief like Santa Claus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to do something bad to a loved one. Therefore, it’s possible that test subjects would react with anxiety regardless of the kind of being they petitioned. I hope researchers will explore that question in future studies and as a result find empirical evidence that shows God is not considered a delusion by most atheists.
Originally posted at Catholic Answers. Used with permission.
(Image credit: The Telegraph)

Trent Horn

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Trent Horn holds a Master’s degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently an apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers. He specializes in training pro-lifers to intelligently and compassionately engage pro-choice advocates in genuine dialogue. He recently released his first book, titled Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity. Follow Trent at his blog, TrentHorn.com.

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  • Steven Miller

    Is the poached egg reference from C. S. Lewis or G. K. Chesterton? There is a discussion of a man who thinks he's a poached egg in the first few chapters of Orthodoxy, but it may be a shared example.

    • It's from Lewis' Mere Christianity:

      "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

      ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

      • Steven Miller

        That's awesome! I wonder if there was a famous case in England of a man who believed he was a poached egg.

        "The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may well call their law the “chain” of causation. It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a mad-house. You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poached egg he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette. Similarly you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say 'thank you' for the mustard."

        --G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

      • He very well may have been suffering from a mental disorder. He may have been schizophrenic or had temporal lobe epilepsy leading him to believe he was divine, the son of god or some other form of delusion. This is very different from thinking one is a poached egg. CS Lewis can be forgiven for having such a narrow view of mental health.

        • Steven Miller


  • David Nickol

    Does this experiment show that theists believe if they pray to God to cripple their parents, even praying insincerely in the context of an experiment, God really might do it? What kind of faith is that?

  • I have a deep desire for William Briggs to write a response to Trent Horn's article. I can already imagine the sort of things William would say.

    The sample size is very small, and is a different set of people from Study 1 (16 atheists, 13 religious) to Study 2 (19 atheists, no religious), of different religious persuasions and different levels of religiosity, although Study 2 got maximally atheistic participants only (determined by a particular survey).

    The measure of how people reacted to the statements (God statements, offensive statements, neutral statements, wish statements) was measured by skin conductance changes. The bigger the change, the more the statement makes you sweat, and (presumably) the more 'emotionally aroused' the statement makes you.

    Table 2 shows the results.

    Religious people got a skin conductance change of 0.091 (+/- 0.126) for the God statements, 0.068 (+/- 0.069) for the offensive statements and 0.021 (+/- 0.042) for the neutral statements. The values after the '+/-' are the errors; the size of one standard deviation. Atheists in Study 1 got a change of 0.135 (+/- 0.178) for the God statements, 0.070 (+/- 0.071) for the offensive statements and 0.026 (+/- 0.063) for the neutral statements.

    Here are the possible conclusions warranted by the data (they are all correct to within the error bars):

    Saying "Its ok to wear glasses" (neutral statement) makes religious people less nervous than saying "I dare God to make my parents drown" (God statement).

    Saying "It's okay to kill ugly children" bothered none of the participants (0 response is within a single standard deviation for all participants).

    Religious people are more comfortable saying offensive things than atheists.

    Or really any other result you would like. All of the error bars overlap so much that any possible conclusion about God statements, wish statements, offensive statements and neutral statements, between religious people and atheists, would be consistent with the data. Saying "no one was emotionally aroused by any of the statements" would be consistent with the data.

    Anyway, these are the sorts of things I'd imagine William Briggs would say, because these are the exact sorts of studies William's criticized here before.

    • Caravelle

      What? How does something with those error bars even get published?

      Or was it published as "here's our inconclusive study we didn't get significant results in" and the rest is the media?

      • I don't know how something like this gets published. I don't know how the article that William Briggs criticized got published either (see https://strangenotions.com/orwellian-analytics-christians-atheists-and-bad-statistics/ ) That's quite possibly because I'm not part of the field. I'm not competent to say what quality the results in this paper are for the field of the Psychology of Religion.

        It makes no sense to me. I don't see how these sorts of studies show anything at all. But if you can believe Lindeman et al (2014), that atheists are emotionally aroused by God statements, then I don't see why you shouldn't also believe Laurin et al (2012), that beliefs in divine control result in greater extremes of punishment (whether more than typical or less than typical).

        I don't believe either. But what do I know? I'm not a psychologist.

        • Ignatius Reilly

          I don't know how something like this gets published. I don't know how the article that William Briggs criticized got published either (see https://strangenotions.com/... ) That's quite possibly because I'm not part of the field. I'm not competent to say what quality the results in this paper are for the field of the Psychology of Religion.

          I don't want to get off track here, but I can't help but note that Briggs failed to make a substantial criticism of the study, which would include a thoughtful analysis of the design and implementation and the statistical methods employed. The article he "criticized" had a p-value of .04 for one of its trials. So, unless the statistical method was poorly chosen (not a peep from Briggs), or was designed poorly, we can conclude that there is evidence of the trial which yielded a p-value of .04. This is a little bit of a rant here, but it really annoys me when a supposed expert, uses his expertise to mislead instead of apply substantial criticisms. Does Briggs actually have a PhD is Stats?

          The problem with comparing psychology with Physics is that everyday experimental design is much easier in Physics. There are many physicists laboring away at problems with trivial experimental design. It is easier to design a physics experiment than a psychology experiment, because the later has far more confounding variables. The experiment in question could definitely be improved, but that does not meant that the initial experiment was a complete waste of time.
          Just because the results are inconclusive or show a need for further research, does not mean that the results should not be published. Sometimes we can learn from inconclusive data. However, this study suggests that atheists have a greater reaction to a "god dare" than a neutral or offensive statement. This is not something that I am particularly surprised with, given the cultural significance of religion. These studies tested for several things - not all of them have the same degree of certainty.

          • According to his website, William Briggs has a PhD in statistics from Cornell. He'd be more competent than I am to criticize this article. But William doesn't do psychological statistics (as far as I know), and so when he criticises these sorts of papers, he risks misunderstanding how they do their analysis, and how confident they expect to be in their results.

            The point of my comments is not so much to provide a genuine criticism to the study here, but to criticize how the results of the study are used here.

            In the past, William Briggs wrote an article https://strangenotions.com/orwellian-analytics-christians-atheists-and-bad-statistics/ , where he criticizes a psychology of religion paper (however accurately) for small sample size, large errors and possible hidden correlations.

            Brandon didn't object to this article, and neither did Trent Horn, although they are busy people.

            Now, Trent's written an article, here, based on a study with the same problems (if they really are problems) that Briggs raised in the earlier article. Without reference to Briggs's article.

            So why don't I simply apply the method of the William Briggs article to this one? Kill two birds with one stone.

            To conclude, I'm not saying that this study has no value. I'm just saying that I, as an outsider, don't understand what the value is. There's a good reason I don't peer review the papers for the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. I don't have a clue what the expectations of the field are.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I see where you are coming from. I misunderstood. However, I am enjoying our conversation here.

          • Caravelle

            Studies can be published with inconclusive data, but people shouldn't proceed to talk about those studies as though they were strong evidence for anything. And the results being a priori plausible doesn't change that. I'd even say that one should be particularly careful when the conclusion matches what we already believe or find reasonable, because we might subconsciously weigh the evidence in a circular way - this study is inconclusive, but its results are a priori likely so they're probably correct -> these results are confirmed by at least one study, so they're more likely.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I don't think I was holding this study up as conclusive. It is an interesting question, and I think it would be interesting to have further studies to try and hammer out the truth of the matter. I think the strongest claim that this study can make, is that we have research that suggests that atheists are not completely ambivalent about God.

          • David Nickol

            I think the strongest claim that this study can make, is that we have research that suggests that atheists are not completely ambivalent about God.

            I am not quite sure what you mean by ambivalent, but it seems to me that what the study is dealing with is superstition, not religious belief. As I implied earlier, if religious people believe there is a chance that God will actually cripple their parents if they ask him to (in the context of an experiment, of all things), they have a very strange belief about God. What this experiment is actually about—it seems to me, is magical thinking.

            Perhaps some devout Catholics or others who believe in the power of prayer could tell us what they think the odds are that God would cripple a person's parents if he or she sincerely prayed for it to happen. Is this the kind of thing God would do? In my opinion, if the God of Catholicism exists and is the kind of being he is claimed to be, the odds that he would answer prayers to cripple a person's parents are zero.

            So what does it say about a person who experiences some inner chagrin when praying for something bad to happen to a loved one? It says they are superstitious. Surely they don't honestly and truly believe their prayers will be answered, whether they are theists or atheists. They are the victims of magical thinking (superstition).

          • Caravelle

            Oh, I didn't think you were ! I was talking about posting about it on this site, with that title, to begin with. I think I may have misinterpreted you slightly, because I'd forgotten this subthread started with my asking "how did it get published".

    • Ignatius Reilly

      The sample size is very small, and is a different set of people from Study 1 (16 atheists, 13 religious) to Study 2 (19 atheists, no religious), of different religious persuasions and different levels of religiosity, although Study 2 got maximally atheistic participants only (determined by a particular survey).

      Not necessarily a problem. There are tests designed for small sample sizes.

      Religious people got a skin conductance change of 0.091 (+/- 0.126) for the God statements, 0.068 (+/- 0.069) for the offensive statements and 0.021 (+/- 0.042) for the neutral statements. The values after the '+/-' are the errors; the size of one standard deviation. Atheists in Study 1 got a change of 0.135 (+/- 0.178) for the God statements, 0.070 (+/- 0.071) for the offensive statements and 0.026 (+/- 0.063) for the neutral statements.

      I believe the variance is so high, because skin conductance has a different baseline for each individual participant. If the baselines have a great deal of variance among the participants, then we shouldn't be surprised if the mean difference also shows variance.

      Here are the possible conclusions warranted by the data (they are all correct to within the error bars):

      Depends on the pvalues. It is not unusual for different parts of the study to have vastly different p-values.

      • It's a fun sort of problem, and I decided to spend an hour on it to see what I could make sense of. Feel free to ignore my analysis, if you wish. I'd be grateful for any mistakes or potential mistakes you see. But this is my understanding of the study results.

        All the things I listed are warranted by the study to within the error bars, as far as I can tell (from the errors, there's a greater than 5% chance that each is true). I don't know how p-values can be very low, if I understand p-values properly. I may not understand them properly. They are not really used in astrophysics. I may not understand how they are using the term "standard deviation", but I assume that they mean this in the context of normal distributions.

        I think that a p-value is the chance that a result at least as extreme as the measured result would have happened by chance. So, I take two examples: God statements and neutral statements. I want to find out what the chances are that, say, God statements and neutral statements produced no change in conductivity, or that God statements produced more change or less change. I assume that there's no correlation between conductivity for God statements and neutral statements, that the variables are independent. Maybe this is where I'm going wrong. But we can put other correlations in.

        So I can use a bivariate normal distribution to get a probability density, p(x,y), where x is the change in conductivity for God questions and y is the change in conductivity for neutral questions. The quantity p(x,y) dx dy is the probability of getting a conductivity change between x and x+dx for the God question and a conductivity change between y and y+dy for the neutral question. I want to ask, what are the chances that I have found a conductance change greater than some value, X, for the God questions, and less than some value, Y, for the neutral question?

        So I can integrate p(x,y) dx dy, from the range X to infinity for dx and -infinity to Y for dy. Since there's no correlation, the integral is easy to carry out, you get something that looks like 1/4*(1 + erf)*(1 + erf), where erf is the error function.

        http://star-www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~pr33/atheist-correlation/density.png for the probability density, p(x,y)

        http://star-www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~pr33/atheist-correlation/cumulative.png for the cumulative probability that the conductivity change for a God statement is greater than the value X and that the conductivity change for the neutral statement is less than the value Y.

        So this shows the results 'at least as extreme as' X, Y for each point. I don't know if that's how p-values are defined here, so I won't attach that name, but we can talk about probabilities. The probability that neutral statements cause at least as much emotional arousal as God statements is around 40%, and the probability that neutral statements and God statements cause no emotional arousal is around 20%.

        The sanity checks work out as well. There's virtually 100% probability that neutral statements cause a conductivity change less than 0.2 and that God statements cause a conductivity change more than 0.

        You can see that the most likely case is that people react more strongly to God statements than neutral statements. But the large variance in the conductivity does not lend a great deal of confidence to this result. But maybe it's enough confidence for the field. Maybe you just can't do better with these sorts of studies.

        If I'm interpreting the standard deviation properly, the study itself would suggest only about a 60% chance that the result "God statements arouse atheists more than neutral statements" will be replicated in an identical study.

        • Ignatius Reilly

          I am going to have to think about what you just wrote, I am not a statistician, and I haven't used stats in a few years now, so I am a little rusty.

          My initial reaction is that I do not think we can use the normal distribution. The data is skewed, so I think we have to use a different distribution. I though initially that the researchers used an F-distribution, but I don't think that is right either. I'll think about what you wrote and post again.

          It would be interesting to see if any of our statistician posters know what statistical method should be used with this data. I think the data is non-normal.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I have pretty limited exposure to the experimental psychology literature per se, but for several years I did work on similar problems in experimental (mostly pre-clinical / non-human) drug development. They have similar practical constraints (small sample sizes), and similar experimental designs. I contributed to several papers in that capacity. I am trying to say that I'm at least a somewhat qualified judge in this context.

            If I had been asked to referee this paper, I would have, at the very least, required revisions before accepting. (Unfortunately, statisticians are rarely included as referees on these sorts of papers. As a result, this type of write-up is maddeningly common.) The statistical methodology is very unclear, probably inappropriate, and probably unnecessary. Additionally, some of the conclusions cannot possibly be justified based on the type of statistical inferences presented.

            I say the methodology is unclear because, while we know that F-tests were used, that really doesn't narrow it down enough: there are a several types of linear fixed effects and linear mixed effects models one might consider fitting to data with this sort of structure, and one is left to guess based on the denominator degrees of freedom of the F-tests which models were actually used. It would have made sense to use some sort of mixed model since each subject was tested on multiple questions, but again we can only guess. I say the methodology is probably inappropriate because, as you have pointed out, the authors indicate that the data were highly skewed and/or kurtotic. The F-test, on which they rely extensively, is a very poor choice in that context. (They go on to offer some alternatives, but why present the F-test results at all in this case? At a minimum they might have simply gone with isolated T-tests rather than attempting a comprehensive model, since two-sample T-tests are at least fairly robust to non-Normality). I say the methodology is unnecessary because it seems to me that it would have sufficed for such exploratory work, especially with such small sample sizes, to simply plot the individual data points, or to at least provide boxplots for each group and for each paired comparison.

            I say that the statistical inferences cannot possibly support the conclusions because some of these are what we might call conclusions of "practical inequality" (e.g., "the atheists found thus and such be just as upsetting as religious folks did"). As any Stats 101 graduate should know, a non-significant p-value cannot be used to support that sort of conclusion. You would need to show that confidence intervals for differences were sufficiently tight around zero, and this paper provides no confidence intervals.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            The statistical methodology is very unclear, probably inappropriate, and probably unnecessary.

            I chuckled.

  • If the study is identifying an effect here I think it is worthy of further study. Here are some possible confounders.

    The "atheists" are not really atheists. If these people believe in a spiritual force or fate or gnomes (it is Iceland after all). The daring of god might have triggered these beliefs.

    This is a psychological relic of previously being a theist. These people developed neural networks in which prayer was meaningful and asking god to do things was a profound thing. These pathways are unlikely to just disappear. We see this a lot in people who previously believed in a literal hell. Though they no longer hold the belief they often report a fear of hell for years.

    It simply reflects the fact that most atheists do not claim certainty with the non existence of god. I don't believe in god, nor do I believe that bad luck follows after breaking a mirror. But if you asked me to break a mirror and a pane of glass I think I might score a little more apprehension on the mirror.

    Trent is correct, the tests did not properly control for this last.

    But as for the conclusion that proclaimed atheists who genuinely do not think they believe in anything like a god but unconsciously know he exists, I think this would present some problems for Christians. If this were the case, why are these atheists not aware?If it is not the atheist exercising free will to dismiss the knowledge, then what is, it must be God. Why would god keep such knowledge from us?

    • Caravelle

      If the study is identifying an actual effect here

      It isn't, not if PBR is right about the error bars; those results don't look like they even approach statistical significance.

      I'm not saying this to disagree with the rest of your comment, I just don't think it can be emphasized enough that the "results" of this study are no such thing.

  • Loreen Lee

    I think we can make distinction here between whether the emotion is based on a belief in God, or whether the idea of doing harm to others, and self, independent of belief in a God, is the prime motivator explanation for the 'sweat'. This distinction could I believe, actually be included in an argument which had the premise: "God is not a necessary factor in developing a personal or systematic morality".

    • I think the study did properly control for that, it studied the apprehension when subjects were asked to both wish for harm to others and wish that god harm others. It found that atheists had more apprehension when they invoked God.

    • Gray Striker

      I am sorry...I don't understand....can you clarify?

      • Loreen Lee

        Read Brian Green Adams.

        • Gray Striker

          Ok....thanks....just wanted to understand what you were saying since you seemed to be going about things in such a "scholalry" manner in your previous comments. BGA seems clear...I understand him...I just don't know where you are coming from when you are speaking of presocratic philosopers and platonic forms etc.

          • Loreen Lee

            Gee, I apologize if I have been rude, or sarcastic. I understand the difficulty. I feel the same way on comments which refer to cosmology, and other scientific endeavors. Sometimes I Google. Sometimes I let it pass. All the best. Thanks for your interest.

          • Gray Striker

            Sometimes I let it pass. All the best.

            Good practice...let it pass....you have not been rude...no apology necessary....just a misunderstaning on my part.

  • Loreen Lee

    To take another approach to the question, I refer to Kant's book Prolegomenon to any Future Metaphysics, in which he suggests that it is 'merely human' to have a quest to know, and perhaps understand a 'higher order'. Whether that be the quest for unity in the Presocratic philosophers, the idea of Platonic forms, and even the idea of a spirit within nature held by aboriginals, among others, this quest remains, even in the belief held in the 'God' of the cosmologists of today in the search for example of a 'Unified' theory of what? (excuse my ignorance) fields or something. This quest may actually stem from even a psychological need, a feeling that we as individuals 'need' to find a unity within our self, and/or our experience of the world.

  • Gray Striker

    The simple explanation for the results are as alluded to by B.G.A. in this thread.

    It simply reflects the fact that most atheists do not claim certainty with the non existence of god.

    Not to mention the fact that most persons, theist, atheist, agnostic would find the questions creepy and would automatically register a "negative" galvanic skin response to the more "evil" questions in any case.This is far from an exact science.

    Most atheists I think would support the observation of B.G.A. and see this as obvious, but theists seem to glom on to any survey or study that seems in the slightest way to support the god hypothesis.

  • Mike

    Finnish atheists are maybe not as anti-God or as agnostic about God as NA/American atheists are bc Finland is still probably very very steeped in its Christian past, after all that is a cross on its flag and it still hasn't redefined marriage and it is still almost exclusively ethnically Finish; that and the study proves nothing but that some ppl seem to sweat when thinking about bad things.

    • Gray Striker

      the study proves nothing but that some ppl seem to sweat when thinking about bad things.

      That is one of the most astute comments pertaining to this so called study thus far. Sometimes you surprise me Mike.

    • Be careful not to conflate atheists in general with atheist activists, counter-apologists, or atheists who tend to comment on the internet. I think most atheists just ignore theist issues and are not "anti-God".

      In many ways I am pro-god. I would love it if a god existed who ensured an afterlife. I would even like there to be a god like Thor, who, while being intellectually impotent, is mighty and just.

      It is dogma and the suspension of critical thinking and reason that I find objectionable. I find theism and religion rife with this.

      In this article there is nothing particularly objectionable directly stated. However I can't help but think that Trent is suggesting between the lines that the results are evidence that the existence of a god is more likely. I think that would be a failure to reason properly and in fact, if the study is accurate it makes the existence of the typical Christian God, less likely.

      • Mike

        Yes you're right that most atheists are indifferent i'd say about all things religious not anti-god; functional atheists would be a good descriptor but that would also include many theists who "go through the motions" only.

        I think it's just one of those articles they pump out bc they know it will get picked up and squabbled over and in the mean time generate attention and hopefully revenue; having said that i think it raises just generally the argument from desire i think it might be in that it's really hard to actually live as if god didn't exist i think; i guess what i mean is that it comes very very naturally to us humans to believe in higher order beings.

        Have you ever considered one of the liberal protestant branches? Some don't even care if you believe in god; i think dawkins has even said he considers himself a "cultural" christian; kinda like most secular jews.

        • I have, indeed there are varieties of atheist churches I could attend. We have an atheist Unitarian church and a Sunday Assembly in my town. Not my thing.

          I did recently begin an atheist group and the number one thing people want is community. Not so much to replace religion but to have a place and a framework for community that is not theistic. But again these are the people seeking out the community.

          Most of my friends and family are atheists and they could not be more bored by the whole issue of god etc. as long as it stays out of their faces.

          • Mike

            Interesting thanks.

  • Darren

    "Biggie Smalls, Biggie Smalls, Biggie Smalls!"

  • David Nickol

    It's an interesting notion that measuring skin conductance can reveal what a person "really" believes. I'm usually not too troubled by movie violence, but there have been a few instances where I have reacted very strongly to it. Now, first of all, in those instances, I knew I was watching a movie. I understood that what I was seeing on the theater screen was a succession of still images being projected on a two-dimensional screen at the rate of 24 frames per second. Nothing real was happening on the screen. Second, I knew that no heads, arms, or legs had actually been chopped off in the making of the film, and that the spurting red liquid was not actually blood, but a concoction made with ingredients like corn syrup, chocolate syrup, and red dye. So I knew for a fact that what I was seeing was an illusion of an illusion, but I am quite sure in the few instance I am remembering that my skin conductance (not to mention heart rate and breathing) would have registered strong departures from a calm, normal state.

  • Mike O’Leary

    One psychological experiment I've wanted to see for some time now is when people pray for the miraculous versus praying for the mundane. For example I'd want to have a group of believers imagine a scenario where they are driving alone at night in a secluded area and hit a fallen tree branch totaling the car. There is no cell phone reception.

    IMO, a person who prays in this situation could pray in three ways. One is a general prayer for help (e.g. "Lord, please protect me and guide me home safely.") Two is a prayer for mundane help (e.g. "Lord, please send a policeman or someone who can find me and help me."). Three is a prayer for miraculous help (e.g. "Lord, please put me directly in my home right now. ") I can only speculate, but based on people I know and have seen the ratio between option two and option three would be very high -- despite the fact that God being limitless could do either 2 or 3 equally. In other words, people are more likely to pray for a mundane solution to a problem than a truly miraculous one if the mundane solution is feasible.

    Now I'm not a psycholgist and I'm working off of several assumptions, but if I were correct then various less-than-solid conclusions could be drawn from the results. The idea that people are more prone to ask for things that could have readily happened without divine intervention might suggest a subconscious doubt among believers. The issue is the brain works on many levels. It's complex and to take a single study and try to assess a person's true psyche can be a fool's errand. I don't want to outright dismiss this study, but let's not take this one very small study as gospel without doing much more work.

    • Ignatius Reilly

      Praying for the mundane could be conditioned. It is the only type of prayer that is answered. Also, people probably don't expect the miraculous to actually occur, although I do not think this is necessarily indicative of subconsciously doubt.

      Interestingly, many believers that I have been acquainted with experience conscious doubt. I am not sure if they are a majority - some believers seem very certain.

      • Mike O’Leary

        Exactly! There could be a number of reasons why my made-up experiment could give the results that it would. As you noted, it could be a conditioned response. I also figured that people might assume that God wouldn't do anything (nowadays) that would prove his existence. Another reason may be that while people may believe the miraculous is absolutely quite possible, they may feel odd saying it out loud.

        In short, drawing a definitive conclusion based on the real study above, my faux-study, or any vague individual study won't necessarily lead us to the truth.

  • Jim (hillclimber)

    Sorry that this is off-topic in this context, but I think this is relevant for this community and I don't know where else to post it.

    A very interesting man passed away yesterday. He spent a lot of his life speaking and writing on topics that would interest people here. His name is Lorenzo Albacete.

    If you are interested, there is a nice written tribute to him here:


    And if you have the time, this is a really great interview of him by Robert Wright:


    @bvogt1:disqus, perhaps there are some short passages from Lorenzo's writings that would make for a good SN post at some point?

  • David Nickol

    There is an article about "magical thinking" in today's New York Times that is very relevant to this thread. Here is a brief excerpt:

    Several streams of research in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy are converging on an uncomfortable truth: We’re more susceptible to magical thinking than we’d like to admit. Consider the quandary facing college students in a clever demonstration of magical thinking. An experimenter hands you several darts and instructs you to throw them at different pictures. Some depict likable objects (for example, a baby), others are neutral (for example, a face-shaped circle). Would your performance differ if you lobbed darts at a baby?

    It would. Performance plummeted when people threw the darts at the baby. Laura A. King, the psychologist at the University of Missouri who led this investigation, notes that research participants have a “baseless concern that a picture of an object shares an essential relationship with the object itself.” . . .

  • Doug Shaver

    I'm neither a statistician nor a psychologist, but I know that until this study is replicated, the only scientific conclusion to be drawn is, "That's interesting."

    Assuming the results are validated, I think the most parsimonious explanation would be that atheists are as human as everyone else. We are social animals, and as such we get stressed when we violate significant social norms, even in a laboratory setting, and it doesn't matter a lot if we don't accept the norms ourselves. The mere knowledge that my behavior would be strongly condemned by my social peers is going to bother me to some extent.

  • Sandro Palmyra

    Atheists have open minds. They are willing to give serious consideration to anything that might prove to be possible. Fundamental religionists, not so much.

  • Rakesh Parikh
  • The important thing point out getting exceptional could be taking a look at numerous documents as it can be that have been published by means of students in the past. Nonetheless, students will not have an outstanding using of before front door documents...

  • Luke Cooper

    I think that a more simple and telling experiment would have been to ask the participants to say something out loud like, "Under punishment of eternal damnation, I profess that God does not exist." For Christians, this would surely be quite uncomfortable for them, and would likely cause a large response. In fact, I'm pretty sure that some Christians would not even agree to say that aloud. On the other hand, I hypothesize that atheists who have never believed in God at any point of their lives (I'll add why I think the second part is important if anyone is interested), would have little trouble saying this and thus show little to no response.

  • Martin Thomas

    The experimenters did not distinguish between atheists who were originally brought up in a religion and atheists who were not. They therefore missed the obvious explanation: that they were just detecting the result of childhood conditioning, effects that do not necessarily disappear when the religion is rejected.

    I have first hand experience here. I was brought up believing that a bad tempered supernatural entity was reading my mind and keeping a record of every sexual thought I had, with the intention of punishing me for every single such 'evil' thought as soon as i died.

    I am now certain that no such entity exists. If an experiment showed the psychological scars of my upbringing that would not be evidence that I still believed.

  • Lars Mårten Rikard Nilsson

    Of course we're psychologically affected, no matter if a god exists or not the very fact that you are wishing harm on someone you love even if it's in word only is kinda disturbing...

  • ddd

    two things to include that would make this more interesting:
    ask atheists to ask a fictional character to hurt their families. "I dare batman to drown my parents." I suspect this would also cause some arousal due to the strong language, but I would doubt that atheists have a latent belief in batman.

    • ddd

      the other being the strong statements themselves: "I dare ____ to drown puppies."

  • ddd

    You could rearrange this to have theists say "I dare beelzebub, the one true god, to drown my parents" I imagine they would have a strong reaction to such a statement, but I don't think it would prove a latent belief in them that beelzebub is god.

  • Chad Murphy

    Logic by emotion....how stupid...

  • The creators of the study did not request that the members set out a known false conviction like Santa Claus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to accomplish something terrible to a friend or family member. In this way, it's conceivable that guineas pig would respond with nervousness paying little mind to the sort of being they appealed.

  • fozoid

    hmm, claiming putting thoughts in ppls heads of them or their parents being caused harm and getting an emotional response means they believe in god.. I am agnostic and don't know if any deity exists, and I'm not scared of some invisible man who has never done anything I have witnessed or heard of to intervene in human life (in any reliable documentation) that couldn't scientifically be explained as natural.
    so, might as well have said "think about your parents dying" "think about someone killing your parents", or children, or whoever you love, anyone would be more upset about the action of murder over an accident, you could have said john Johnson instead of god it would arouse the same anxiety. they just put images in someones head, first they see their parents lying there paralyzed, then they see a figure pile driving their parents to the concrete and causing paralysis. I think anyone would be more upset by the latter. also atheists seem bothered by the word god, some don't even say it like it's profanity. I don't know a single atheist that says "god bless you" or even "bless you" it seems like any religious term bothers them.
    there are too many variables for this test to be looked at as anything but "people get distressed thinking about loved ones getting hurt, and get more distressed thinking about love ones being caused harm by others"

    • fozoid

      one more thing, atheism is not a belief you bestow upon yourself, it is a definition of actual beliefs in ones own consciousness, so to claim you are atheist (deny the existence of god) but be scared of god because he could exist, is a misunderstanding. I know many atheists who are actually agnostic and just don't know the difference between the two (agnostics don't deny the belief in god just the idea that anyone could know his existence as fact, atheists outright deny the existence of any deity) therefore if this study showed "some atheists believe in god" I would have to question the intelligence of whoever made such a claim. it'd be like me saying "some triangles have 4 corners" or "some bachelors are married"

  • neil_pogi

    yes, atheists really believe in God. they believe that God is responsible for the pain and suffering we are experiencing, that God is responsible for the so-called vestigial organs in our body, that God is the 'flying spaghetti monster'

  • De Ha

    "Unfortunately, the authors of the study did not ask the participants to dare a known false belief like Santa Claus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to do something bad to a loved one. Therefore, it’s possible that test subjects would react with anxiety regardless of the kind of being they petitioned."

    I was going to write a long angry analysis of this article, but that bit pretty much covered my objections. Thank you.

    Also, lie detector tests? Really? Those things are only slightly better than flipping a coin. They're based on the hypothesis that "if you've done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear", a hypothesis that completely ignores both psychiatry and history. "fear of cops" and "lying" have similar symptoms but oposite causes and effects, whereas socopathy allows one to pass lie detector tests while doing absolutely horrible things. Sociopaths are real life monsters.

  • Rob CB

    Believe everything about God, but do not believe everything in the Bible.

  • humanfamily

    I believe that many people have been taught falsely that God is a controlling, vengeful, punishing, giant and unpredictable father. If you're a child and you're taught this wrong version of God, it may very well overlap with your real controlling, vengeful, punishing, giant and unpredictable father. With this kind of mix-up embedded in your brain circuits forever, you may very well choose to refute the existence of "God." So, atheists might actually be saying they don't believe in the commodity that has been packaged in the God label. That's not that same thing as God. It's like someone repeatedly punching you and saying each time "This is love." Well, you may end up not believing that love exists or that it is a good thing because you don't actually know what the word means. That does not mean you don't experience love, but rather the definition of love you have been given does not match with the actual reality and experience of love.

    • Sample1

      Maybe? Hasn’t been my experience though, and I’ve been to atheist conferences on secular values, education and charitable giving. Can’t say I’ve ever seen what you’re describing, not even when I was a Catholic. Additionally the Clergy Project, which is approaching a thousand members, consists of current and ex-believers who need/needed help leaving the communities they once spiritually led because they don’t believe in the supernatural anymore. All of them thought God was a controlling, vengeful, punishing, giant and unpredictable father? Not likely, though as atheists they may view those traits as being true from a literature point of view. At any rate, it’s hard for them to translate divinity degrees into new lines of non-clerical work so the Clergy Project is there to help.

      Mike, excommunicated
      Edit done.

      • David Nickol

        I think humanfamily has made a reasonable point. On the simplest of all levels, for those who haven't had good relationships with their fathers, or for those many people who have grown up without a father or father figure, the image of God as a loving father may not (consciously or unconsciously) do much to engender a positive image of God.

        And of course atheists (and I myself) often point out the problems with the God of the Old Testament. He gets angry a lot and commands things that make one wonder about people who say "God is love."

        All of them thought God was a controlling, vengeful, punishing, giant and unpredictable father?

        I don't believe humanfamily was generalizing about all atheists.

        It may be the case, also, that people who have had poor relationships with their fathers may have a tendency toward atheism and atheism is true.

        I think both believers and nonbelievers are not pleased when social scientists search for "causes" of belief and nonbelief, but whatever causes they may find neither prove nor disprove the existence of God.

        • Michael Murray

          It could also be that the only reason people believe in Gods at all is because of the fact that we are raised in families with parents and that early experience leads us to look for the similar patterns in reality even after we are grown up.

          • David Nickol

            I'd agree if you had said "one reason," but saying "the only reason" is going too far. It seems to me that some peoples' gods are more likely based on forces of nature than on family structures.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            I think the following quote comes from some major atheist:

            "God is nothing but the father image projected in the sky."

            Was it Nietzsche?

      • Mark

        If you're a clergyman or woman having a crisis of faith, the people who have faith in your faith should not be deceived. So I can see the moral good of the Clergy Project, even though Richard Dawkins, the inspiration behind the project, is a philosophical goldbrick (that's as kind as I can get). I'd think clergy experiencing a crisis of faith, however, deserve a crack at good theistic philosophy first. For those seeking truth and certainty, theistic personalism is aphilosophical and as such is vulnerable to crisis. Putting the shoe on the other foot, I want an atheist to come to know the God of philosophy like Anthony Flew and not leave atheism non-belief out of fear of wrath. Leave a (non)belief system for right reason.

        • Sample1

          The Clergy Project is simply a counterpoint to her claim that many atheists simply don’t believe in the God label commodity. Maybe, (though I’m skeptical about “many” and it didn’t apply to me). But what is to be said of ex-clergy who didn’t believe in her mere commodity description but had faith instead?

          I’m sensing an inference to the informal fallacy called the No True Scotsman and was hoping some further discussion would clarify humanfamily’s beliefs.

          Mike, excommunicated

          • Mark

            Agree on the No true Scotsman. It was a cryptic message. Richard Dawkins is still a philosophical aneurysm

          • Sample1

            I’d rather have a philosophical aneurysm than a physical aneurysm.

            And yet, in a sense, atheists are being warned that some philosophical aneurysms exist. :-p


        • David Nickol

          For those seeking truth and certainty, theistic personalism is aphilosophical and as such is vulnerable to crisis.

          Could we get from you, or @dennisbonnette:disqus, or @Jimthescott, or anybody else, a clear definition of theistic personalism? Is it a clearly defined term, and is it used widely rather than just in discussions of Brian Davies' work?

          • David Nickol

            Also, what is aphilosophical, and is it accurate or fair to say theistic personalism is aphilosophical? If nothing else, my spell checker objects to it!

          • David Nickol

            Here's one other question that I will throw in for lack of anything else to tie it to. Is it correct to say, "God is a spirit"? Doesn't that imply that God can be classified as one thing (spirit) among others? Even if he did create the others, doesn't call him a spirit raise the same problem as calling him a person?

          • Ficino

            Ι have the impression that theistic personalism is the position that holds that God is a person. On this view, God is a subject Who possesses every necessary attribute of a person to a maximal degree; God is maximally wise, His will is minimally constrained and thus maximally able to make choices, etc. On this thesis, there is a natural kind, if you will, "person," and God is the supreme instance or member of the kind. God and other persons thus are members of a common genus.

            Thomists and others reject theistic personalism (If I have characterized it right) because they deny that God is a member of any kind. They hold that personal attributes can be said of God - although the referent of all of those is identical, i.e. God's essence which is identical with His existence, and there is no real subject-attribute distinction in God. For Thomists, God is not a member of any genus or kind. So God is not "a" anything.

            I have read Wm. Lane Craig asserting that God is "a" person, but I don't have a citation to hand.

        • David Nickol

          I suspect that for most people who lose their faith, there is a large element of feeling involved, and a course in classical theism probably won't help that. And it probably shouldn't (if I dar say so). As I understand the Catholic view of the concept of


          it is what comes after belief in the existence of God, not along with it. It is something more like trust than belief, and I don't think one can be argued into it. And while Flew when from being an atheist to a theist, he did not become a Christian or affiliate with any other religion. Wikipedia says he identified as a deist.