Sometimes the rhetoric of the New Atheists can be so dogmatic, so smug, and so vitriolic that I am reminded of the line from Shakespeare, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” It’s almost as if some part of the Gnu atheist’s brain does indeed believe or suspect God exists, but others parts of the brain are working overtime trying to shut it down by shouting it down. Well, it turns out there is some scientific evidence to support this possibility.
In an article entitled, “Do atheists secretly believe in God?” on salon.com, Tom Jacobs summarizes a scientific paper that appeared in the peer-reviewed literature by noting, “The heads and hearts of atheists may not be on precisely the same page. That’s the implication of recently published research from Finland, which finds avowed non-believers become emotionally aroused when daring God to do terrible things.”
“The results imply that atheists’ attitudes toward God are ambivalent, in that their explicit beliefs conflict with their affective response,” concludes a research team led by University of Helsinki psychologist Marjaana Lindeman. Its study is published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.
Lindeman and her colleagues describe two small-scale experiments. The first featured 17 Finns, recruited online, who expressed high levels of belief, or disbelief, in God. They read out loud a series of statements while skin conductance data was collected via electrodes placed on two of their fingers.
Some of the statements were direct dares to a deity (“I dare God to make my parents drown”). Others were similarly disturbing, but did not reference God (“It’s OK to kick a puppy in the face”). Still others were bland and neutral (“I hope it’s not raining today”).
The arousal levels of the believers and non-believers followed precisely the same pattern: Higher for both the God dares and otherwise unpleasant statements, and lower for the neutral ones.
Compared to the atheists, the believers reported feeling more uncomfortable reciting the God dares. But skin conductance data revealed the underlying emotional reactions of the two groups were essentially the same. This suggests that taunting God made the atheists more upset than they were letting on (even to themselves).
Very interesting. Drawing from the researcher’s discussion, Jacobs then summarizes the possible ways to interpret these data:
1. Atheists intellectually deny the existence of God, but unconsciously believe/suspect He exists.
2. Atheists “may have found using the word God stressful because others, possibly their friends and family, do take God seriously.”
3. Atheists find the idea of God “absurd or aversive,” leading to the heightened emotional response.
4. The researchers note, “although atheists did not currently believe in God, they may have been influenced by their own previous beliefs.” They point to research from 2006 that found three-quarters of American atheists were once believers.
I’d say #1 is most likely to be correct, for not only is it the most parsimonious, but this study took place in Finland, which is one of the tiny countries that New Atheists hold up as a Gnutopia because most people are agnostics or atheists. I’m not sure how living in such a secular culture and being surrounded by so many fellow agnostics and atheists is supposed to correlate with explanations 2-4.
Nevertheless, this is what we can say: There is scientific evidence that suggests many atheists harbor some level of God belief, even if only at an unconscious level.
Of course, the New Atheists, who posture as if they are willing to follow the scientific evidence wherever it leads, will deny this and insist that their first person experience trumps any scientific study.