Science Suggests Some Atheists Have Some Level of God Belief

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.”

Jacobs continues:

“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.

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10 Responses to Science Suggests Some Atheists Have Some Level of God Belief

  1. callumgroome says:

    Interesting. This test will need to be repeated and to produce consistent results for real conclusions to be drawn, as at the moment 17 Finns is hardly ‘scientific’. It is an interesting test to be continued, but does not warrant the conclusions you extrapolate from it.

    How do you say that number 1 is more likely? That seems like personal manipulation of an initial scientific test to make a wild accusation. The responses would need to be studied thoroughly, possibly by neuroscience and a pattern of previous belief across a range of repeat tests for any real conclusion to be drawn.

    At the moment, all you’ve done is taken a meek test that shows interesting results that should be studied further, and act like its a conclusive devastation to atheism. Which is absurd, because this test raises more questions than it answers and you’re suggesting they pack up and go home because you’ve concluded what’s going on. That’s not how science works. Science is repetition and consistency.

    You may be right or wrong. I do not know. But neither do you. Maybe all atheists do have an unconscious superstition that there is a supernatural influence. More tests are needed and a conclusion cannot be made either way until they are done. Most public atheists admit they cannot be 100% sure of gods existence, because new evidence may become available and you have to be willing to change your mind with evidence as that is the only intellectually responsible position to take, though this does not mean a 50/50 probability. But this test doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of whether a god actually exists. Everyone could believe something, but that doesn’t make it true, it just makes it a common belief. The Sun has always been a nuclear reactor, but at one point everyone thought it was a god or a disc of light. That doesn’t change the fact that it was then and always has been a nuclear reactor.

  2. TFBW says:

    I’ve long been doubtful of Dawkins’ claim to be an atheist. I mean, take any New Atheist, and try to discern (on the basis of their behaviour, rather than their verbal proclamations) whether they believe there is no God, or whether they believe there is a God, and they hate Him.

    The trouble with being a New Atheist is that you’re mad as hell, but all worked up about something that you say doesn’t exist. On the one hand, you’re likely to espouse the old quip about atheism being like not collecting stamps, and on the other hand, your relationship with theism is more like anti-theism than atheism.

    How do you justify all this passion about something that doesn’t exist? By shifting the focus onto “religion”: it’s not God that you hate, but religion — God-belief. And why the fuss about religion? Because it’s so harmful — such a tremendous force for evil in the world, which must be eradicated for the good of mankind. And sure, if you cherry pick your data with enough determination, you can totally rationalise that attitude.

    Humans are crazy.

  3. Michael says:

    Interesting. This test will need to be repeated and to produce consistent results for real conclusions to be drawn, as at the moment 17 Finns is hardly ‘scientific’.

    Sure it is. That’s why it was published in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal. And it surely passes as science according to Harris and Coyne’s dumbed-down definition of science.

    At the moment, all you’ve done is taken a meek test that shows interesting results that should be studied further, and act like its a conclusive devastation to atheism.

    I did? Can you quote me where I did this?

    Which is absurd, because this test raises more questions than it answers and you’re suggesting they pack up and go home because you’ve concluded what’s going on.

    Huh? Again, can you quote where I did this?

  4. DungeonHamster says:

    In reply to callumgroome:

    I agree the matter warrants further study, time and resources permitting, and that 17 Finns is not a terribly large sample size (though that doesn’t make it “unscientific;” just tentative and inconclusive with a lot of room for error, like most psych studies). I’m afraid, however, that such “conclusions” as our host drew from it are in fact entirely warranted, for what they’re worth (not terribly much, but not nothing either).

    First, as regards the claim that #1 is most likely, that is hardly a definitive statement. He indicates that his gut reaction based on the data and given his position is inclined to favor position #1, and that the other three possibilities sound fishy to him. He does not give, or pretend to give, any airtight argument, only an intuitive hypothesis that correlates with a minimal amount of observation (what is generally called an educated guess); further observation could, though not necessarily will, provide contrary evidence. If nothing else, there could be some as yet unconsidered 5th possibility.

    Second, in no way does our host claim that this one little inconclusive study “devastates atheism.” If you look at his actual words, you will instead see he claims merely that “there is scientific evidence that SUGGESTS that MANY atheists harbor some level of God BELIEF, even if only at an unconscious level” (emphasis added). First, suggests means that this test is an indicator; it is not proof, but it meshes rather well with the given possibility. Second, belief means that even if this hypothesis were conclusively proved, it would not in fact demonstrate God’s existence, merely that a large portion (not all, or even most, or even a majority, hence the word many in front of atheists rather than all or most or a majority of) of self-described atheists have some level of doubt that there is no God.

    The rest of your comment seems to consist largely of erecting a straw man, assigning positions to our host that he not only did not take, but, by nature of the actual meanings of the words he actually used (see above) rather than either what you apparently thought those words meant or the words you thought he used or both, mostly explicitly contradicted, and then saying that those positions are wrong.

    I would suggest a more thorough reading of the text, possibly with the aid of a dictionary. From your comment I see no conclusions but that you only skimmed the article, that you do not have an adequate command of the English language, or that you are being deliberately disingenuous. Or, I suppose, some combination of them. For your sake I pray it’s not the third.

  5. Dhay says:

    17 Finns is hardly ‘scientific’

    If not, then Sam Harris’ 2007 PhD thesis paper, “Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty”, with its mere 14 Americans is also hardly ‘scientific’.

    The TIME report of the experiment says “Harris tested how the brain responded to assertions in seven categories: mathematical, geographic, semantic, factual, autobiographical, ethical and religious. All seven provided some useful data, but only the ones relating to math and ethics produced results clear enough to give a vivid picture of the way the simple and the complex, the subjective and the objective intertwine.” — which means that mostly Harris’ results were unclear results, so plainly this test will need to be repeated and to produce consistent results for real conclusions to be drawn.

    This test will need to be repeated and to produce consistent results for real conclusions to be drawn… …That’s not how science works. Science is repetition and consistency.

    Actually, if you read the “Trouble at the Lab — Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not” article (and also read the “The Truth Wears Off — Is there something wrong with the scientific method?” article), you will find that repetition is rare, and that consistency is rarely achieved, and that it is very common for both confirmatory results of repetitions and contradictory results of repetitions to end up not published.

  6. Dhay says:

    Another way to look at this is in the light of Sam Harris’ book, ‘The Moral Landscape’, the wholly unsubtle subtitle of which is “How Science Can Determine Human Values”. (My emphases.)

    Anyone who thinks that science can and should determine human values should reflect on this paper and ask themselves: do we really want scientists like these (or like Stenger or Harris, come to that) telling us what our values should be?

    The paper itself, “Atheists Become Emotionally Aroused When Daring God to Do Terrible Things“, does not choose between the four possible explanations listed above, stating instead, “On the basis of the present data, it is not possible to determine which explanation is more satisfactory”; it also — as it should, to be properly scientific — suggests flaws in its methodology (so it declares itself not unflawed) and ways to improve future experiments that are needed to resolve the flaws. Using this paper as an example, should our choice of values — or scientists’ determination of our values — wait paralysed until the scientists can sort themselves out and eventually reach, not a choice of four possibilities, but a single definitive conclusion?

    The general discussion ends up with “… the results suggest that atheists’ explicitly stated beliefs and affective reactions regarding God are of opposite valence”, one interpretation of which is that the atheists tested were not simply disinterested God-deniers but New Atheist type vehement God-rejecters — the Heywood paper referenced in the introduction reports atheists don’t have such vehement reactions to substituting Santa Claus for God. So I would go for #3 — the atheists tested found the idea of God aversive.

  7. eveysolara says:

    “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, as 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.”

    I am not sure how you have got this impression as ca 70% of Finnish people believe in some kind of God or spiritual life force:

    Eurobarometer, S. (2005). Europeans, Science and Technology (Vol. 224): European Comission.

    The Church Research Institute (2012). Haastettu kirkko. Suomen evankelis-luterilainen kirkko vuosina 2008–2011 [The challenged church. The Finnish Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland in 2008-2011] (Vol. 15). Porvoo: Bookwell

    I would definitely say that #1 (Atheists intellectually deny the existence of God, but unconsciously believe/suspect He exists.) would be a strong over-interpretation of the results also for other reasons, as the results cannot show that.

  8. Dhay says:

    I suspect that the fact that this survey took place in Finland, and the level of religiosity or otherwise of the typical Finn, are red herrings. The experiment most clearly demonstrates the psychology of the researchers — of all researchers — and their need to find and present a clear and vivid picture, which is best achieved by turning up the contrast.

    The selection procedure for Study 1, says the paper, was: “The participants were recruited through an electronic invitation posted to the Finnish association of skeptics (Skepsis), People’s Bible Society, and several student mailing lists.” — ie they approached, hence selected, not the man and woman in the street but only people at the far ends of the spectrum, strong atheists and strong Christians (including one strong New Age person); they selected people from groups of people who might be expected to have the maximum response (one way or the other) to the read-out statements.

    This apparently wasn’t maximal enough, for the test subjects were further selected for extremes: “The invitation called for individuals who either strongly agreed or strongly disagreed with four statements that were included in the invitation and were derived from the Fetzer Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality questionnaire (FBMMR, Neff, 2006), such as “I feel God’s presence.”” — well, that’s me out, I’m obviously an atheist!

    For Study 2, involving atheists only (and only atheist students, at that), the selection of the extreme was even more obvious: “Only participants who received the lowest possible score (M = 1) in the Fetzer Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality questionnaire were included in the study.” Since it doesn’t say otherwise, I take it that has to be the full questionnaire (not a subset of four questions), which means the researchers selected the cream of the atheistic extreme for Study 2.

    So the experiment contrasted the reactions of untypically strong atheists with those of untypically strong religious people (nearly all of them Christians). It’s all there in the paper if you look carefully, but I do wish the researchers had spelled it out clearly in the introduction/aims and the conclusion.

    A criticism of scientific researchers in general: while I am sure that it is nice to have a clear and vivid picture and striking conclusions emerge from your experiment — conclusions applicable to people at the tested extremes, but which might well tell us nothing at about the ordinary person who lies between those extremes — I am sure it is just as scientific, and definitely rather more true to actuality, to have an unclear and muddy picture emerge. But nobody wants that, do they.

    Sorry to spoil the clear and vivid picture of atheists “really” believing in God, but I really do hate sheep in wolves’ clothing.

  9. Dhay says:

    Sorry, the (broken) FBMMR link should reach “www.gem-beta.org/public/DownloadMeasure.aspx?mid=1155‎”.

  10. Dhay says:

    — conclusions applicable to people at the tested extremes, but which might well tell us nothing at about the ordinary person who lies between those extremes —

    Even badly-designed experiments tell us something, even if it is not what the experimenters (or subsequent interpreters of the results) claim it is: this particular experiment tells us nothing about the ordinary Christian and the ordinary atheist, because it selects carefully for the two extremes and does not test any moderates.

    But because the experiment compares two groups, one being or approaching religious fundamentalism, the other being or approaching New Atheism, we can probably take this experiment as scientific proof of what the ‘Shadow to Light’ blog has, in effect, said many, many times already: when you perform a scientific experiment that compares Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists, you find that, contrary to the claims of the New Atheists, they are very similar.

    I do wish experimenters would get away from the mind-set of testing only the unrepresentative extremes; but badly-designed experiments like this, which only tell us only about the unrepresentative extremes, do at least tell us something about the unrepresentative extremes; this experiment establishes the similarities between them. Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists appear very similar for a very good reason – because they are very similar.

    I see that Sam Harris’ paper, ”The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief”, which seems to be claimed by New Atheists to be an important proof or disproof of something or other – I am not sure what (he set out to demonstrate that”belief is belief is belief”, and presumably (and, if so, unsurprisingly) did so) – that paper suffers from the same extreme selection bias (see the references to “culling” in Part 1 and Part 2 of WM Briggs’ seven-part criticism of Harris’ paper, but also see the Part 3 reference to throwing away results on finding on post test debrief that some of the test subjects were not extreme enough – heck, read all seven, and then see if you can still take Harris’ paper seriously!) – that paper suffers from the same extreme selection bias as the Finnish paper, hence it too can be adduced as scientific proof of what Michael has presumably long expected: when you perform a scientific experiment that compares Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists, you find that they are very similar.

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