Thanks to reader Tim, I learned of this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that highlights research done in Finland that used skin conductance measurements that tell you how much you sweat and thus is believed to be a measure of emotional arousal, to compare the reactions of atheists and religious people to having to utter pairs of statements of the form “I wish my parents were paralyzed” and “I dare God to paralyze my parents.”
The hypothesis was that atheists would have similar responses to both while religious people would find the latter statements more disturbing to utter. The researchers found, however, that both groups found the latter statements more disturbing. What to make of this?
One word of caution is that the study had only 29 people, 16 atheists and 13 religious. But taking the result at face value, what might it mean? Could it be that atheists secretly believe god exists?
Those findings dont 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 find that a plausible explanation. We have to remember that many of our strongest emotional reactions (such as fear of the dark and of ghosts and evil spirits) arise from the most primitive parts of our brain, those that were formed early in our evolutionary history and were shaped by the conditions and beliefs that existed then. The more cerebral parts of the brain developed later and have to constantly fight those irrational feelings. But it is the emotional brain that responds very quickly and thus tends to win the early rounds until our cerebral brain gets going.
This why our immediate reactions to events and people have to be treated cautiously. If at all possible, we should defer conclusions and actions until we have had time to overcome our emotional response.