Do atheists secretly believe in a god?

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.


  1. kenbo says

    It could also be the difference between “wishing” for something versus “daring” someone to do something. Wishes seem a bit more lighthearted…how many people expect a wish to come true? While a “dare” carries a bit harsher overtone which can also carry a heavier emotional state.

  2. says

    I wonder if they would have measured a difference if they had the subjects say, “I wish my parents would be paralyzed in a car crash!”

    Perhaps what they were measuring was the stress the subjects experienced for wishing something bad would happen to someone they cared about? Maybe it has nothing to do with god at all!

    Social science has a long way to go, doesn’t it?

  3. Darryl Pickett says

    I can report that to this day, I have a palpable physiological response to the phrase “let’s join in prayer.” For so many years, I responded to that command not only with the physical action of lowering my head, or sometimes raising my arms, but with an earnest turn of mind, a deliberate effort to mentally “open my heart” to the influence of the Holy Spirit. In particular, prayers given by my father and his charismatic prayer group were meant to be highly participatory. Everyone in the prayer circle was expected to chime in with vocal agreement throughout. So, when moved, I would utter “Yes Lord” and “Yes Jesus!” We were encouraged to have supernatural experiences, and I was sure that I did, at least for a while. So, there is still some part of my brain that has this reflexive response. I notice it on those occasions that I listen to Christian radio programs. At the end of a program full of reprehensible bigotry and heavy-handed indoctrination, to which I am intellectually immune, the host will say “Let’s bow our heads in prayer,” and I find myself having to fight this obedient impulse, for just a moment. It’s irritating and just a little unnerving.

    I know that some would tell me that what I am feeling is, in fact, the Holy Spirit, trying to gently tug me back into a relationship. I’m glad that my brain knows better than that! But, I can certainly see me having a much stronger reaction to the second statement in that test. (if it turns out I do have some secret belief in the deity I was raised to believe in, I have no use for such a horrific friend!)

  4. Darryl Pickett says

    Did they test positive messages? “I wish there was food for all the hungry” vs. “I call on God to feed all the hungry.”

  5. Dunc says

    I’d be extremely wary about drawing any conclusions about this without reading the full paper. The sort of tests involved are notoriously noisy and difficult to interpret robustly, even with fairly large datasets. I’d be particularly keen to know whether whoever interpreted the raw data was adequately blinded to the details of the experiment. After all, these are precisely the sort of tests involved in the notorious “Backster effect“, in which a polygraph operator claimed to prove that plants are concious.

    Now, you would hope that the (presumably) reputable researchers involved in this study would be careful about such matters, but experience shows that it’s unwise to make assumptions.

    I’d also be curious as to exactly how the test was administered. Human beings are remarkably good at subconsciously picking up on subtle cues and altering their behaviour and responses accordingly. Presumably the atheists involved in the test were smart enough to figure out what the objective of the study was (often psychological researchers have to go to great lengths to conceal their actual interests from their test subjects), so it could well be that the extra stress response (assuming that there actually is one) was simply generated by their anxiety about producing the “wrong” result. If you think of yourself as an atheist, it’s possible that you might feel some additional stress when answering a question which you think might reveal that you “really” believe in God… Or it could simply be that invoking an entity you don’t believe in induces some level of cognitive dissonance.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Good point. Once the paper is actually published, I’ll take a look (if I remember).

  7. unbound says

    Even if everything in the test were equal (I’m not fully convinced just from the difference phrasings of the 2 statements…wishing and daring are 2 different concepts), I think I would have a reaction myself with the mention of god. Not because of the fictitious god, but because of what I would fear the believers would do.

    They even have bumper stickers

  8. says

    From what I’m reading here, this study is such a load of pure contrived horseshit that it isn’t even worth writing about. There’s a million possible reasons why someone might (or might not) feel “emotional arousal” (whatever that even means) on hearing statements like those quoted here; and many of those reasons have nothing at all to do with what someone consciously believes. This study does not appear to have tried to control for any of those factors; as you said, the sample size was a joke; and the whole thing sounds like some stupid god-botherer automatically responding to anything you say by smugly saying “You’re just upset ’cause you know I’m telling the Truth! Praise Jesus!”

  9. says

    Another control that could be added might be to have both the atheists and the believers call upon entities they don’t believe in:

    (fictional) I dare Voldemort/Sauron/Q to paralyze my parents.
    (mythical but believed in currently by large populations of other people) I dare Yahweh/Shiva/Allah to paralyze my parents.
    (mythical but scary or all-powerful) I dare Loki/Hades/Zeus to paralyze my parents.
    (possible but supremely unlikely) I call upon any aliens/gods who might be listening to paralyze my parents.

    I think it’s just the reptilian, superstitious part of our brains that says: “No! Don’t tempt fate/gods etc.!” with an immediate panicky sensation, quickly dispersed by reason. I don’t think a Christian would be any more comfortable daring Allah to smite their loved ones than an atheist would in the same test conditions. It would also be of interest to compare the never-indoctrinated atheist with the indoctrinated-to-fear-God-but-no longer-believes atheist.

  10. stonyground says

    Even though I know that wishes and dares aimed at God have no actual effect, I think that I would be stressed about expressing such nasty thoughts out loud, simply because they are so nasty. I don’t really see any difference between the two statements, maybe if I took the test it would prove otherwise. Full disclosure, my father is no longer alive and before he died he was pretty much completely paralysed.

  11. grumpyoldfart says

    “I wish my parents were paralyzed”
    “I dare God to paralyze my parents.”

    Replace “God” with “My next door neighbour” in that second question and they’ll probably get the same results. Everybody can truthfully answer the first question about themselves, but when a third party is involved (whether it is god or human) there is a fear that they just might commit the crime.

  12. badgersdaughter says

    I think it’s simple, really. Compare the following two statements:

    “I wish my dog would bite you.”
    “Sic ’em, Bowser.”

    One is a simple statement of something that the speaker wouldn’t express that way if they thought it was likely. The other statement is a prayer. Obviously the atheist doesn’t think the prayer is likely to come to anything, but it’s very disturbing to think about the mindset of the person who thinks it will.

  13. badgersdaughter says

    I wish I had an edit button. I meant to refer to the two sentences used in the study when I wrote the paragraph above.

  14. brucegee1962 says

    Another point — the second sentence has more of an air of “defying cultural taboos.” Cultural taboos still carry weight with people, even people who disagree with them.

    Besides, what does it mean to say someone “secretly believes” in something? It’s possible to prime even a person who completely disbelieves in ghosts into having their hair rise in graveyards or creepy enough circumstances. But that doesn’t prove that they really believe in ghosts — it just proves that people are vulnerable to suggestion.

  15. lanir says

    The details shared so far sound more like a preliminary “is there anything here worth doing a real study on” rather than anything you’d want to draw conclusions from. So that’s how I was reading it.

    To do a real study on this I’d think it would involve a computer reading the questions, a number of unrelated questions, and the positive questions mentioned earlier. I also think it would be a great idea to include something like “I think God will protect my parents from being paralyzed” as well. This could help identify active belief from vestigial remnants.

    I also can see reacting poorly to mentions of imaginary friends mixed with serious issues like bad things happening to loved ones. And personally I’ve had enough trumped up BS thrown my way by supposedly religious people that for quite a number of years I reacted poorly to mentions of specific religions or portrayals of their symbols. To weed that out would take a number of neutral statements including God.

    This is the result of maybe 5 minutes of thought by someone not remotely an expert in this field with a bit of input from other commenters. I should expect something at least this rigorous from anything purporting to be actual science.

  16. Kevin Dugan says

    How about testing with a statement the person would consider blasphemy:

    “I reject God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Mohammad, Allah, (etc.)”
    “I reject Jove, Thor, Isis, Thoth, (etc)”

    Thus comparing the imaginary with the imaginary.

    @#3 Darryl: I hear you. I also have almost visceral reactions to a call to prayer. In some ways it’s a lost sense of tribe. My atheist community experience to date doesn’t use any kind of affirmation language spoken by most purveyor’s of dogma, and honestly, I’d be leary of any starting.

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