Ho-hum, another claim that there are no atheists in foxholes

Man, this article is bad.

Perhaps atheism is a luxury of the well-to-do. Put differently, everyone–even the most hardcore atheists, I think–will start believing in God if put under a high amount of stress. Think of the last time you prayed to God, and I will bet that, for many of you (whether you generally classify yourself as an atheist or not), it would have been when you were under stress. For most of us so-called atheists, when things go horribly wrong, we think of God.

PZ raises his hand. Hardcore atheist here. Nope. I’ve experienced stress, even thought I was dying once…no gods came to mind. But I bet that if you repeat that silly claim often enough, if you go up to dying people and tell them they’ll probably think of Bugs Bunny before they die, you’ll find that lots of them will have the words “What’s up, doc” pop into their head when the doctors visit their hospital room.

The last time I prayed was when I was a goddamned child.

Since this is published in Psychology Today, the author just hast to dredge up some weirdly distorted pop-psych to justify his claims. Here’s the story he tells.

Don’t believe me? Consider Philip Zimbardo’s “broken window” theory. In one of his studies, Zimbardo left a car on the streets of Palo Alto for two weeks. During the first week, the car looked like any other car parked on the street: nothing in it was broken. After the first week, Zimbardo deliberately broke one of the car’s windows. Zimbardo was interested in assessing whether, by merely breaking the window, he had enhanced the chances that it would be vandalized. That’s indeed what he had found. This experiment shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the world is not made up of two sets of people: vandals and non-vandals. Rather, the world is made up of people who all have a propensity to vandalize, and whether one of us vandalizes or not may depend more on something as subtle as whether we see a broken window or not–and not necessarily on our personality.

Wait, what? How do you derive that conclusion from that study, as described? It’s not as if vandals vandalize every car they see; isn’t it more likely that vandalism-prone individuals are more likely to target an already damaged car?

Well, if you’ve leapt to one entirely unjustified conclusion, nothing is stopping you from leaping even further. You’ve already abandoned all respect for the evidence.

Extrapolated to the topic of God: This means that no one is a complete atheist or, for that matter, a complete believer in God. Each of us has a propensity to be somewhere on that continuum. And even a hardcore atheist may exhibit belief in God if he feels his life is sufficiently broken.

While there is definitely a continuum of belief, how can a psychologist (oh, wait…the author is a professor of marketing) so blithely disregard the impact of culture? We hammer people with lifelong messages telling them they must really believe in the god their society favors, and what do you know, they go along with it. Don’t think of an elephant! Have you noticed that no one is telling you that Odin is all-knowing or that Asclepius will heal you, and the likelihood of people under stress invoking either of those gods is really, really low?

Besides, if we’re really going to extrapolated from the Zimbardo study to religion, the story really ought to be like this: God has been like a beautiful, pristine car parked on the street. When someone punches a hole in one of its windows, though, God’s vulnerability is revealed, and pretty soon the humanists come along and steal the tires, the agnostics key the paint job, and the atheists set it on fire, and before you know it, all you’ve got left is scorched rubble and an eyesore that the city needs to tow away and junk.

I like that extrapolation much better.