My colleague Matt Fradd recently showed me the results of a new study that reveals something very interesting about atheists. The study took place in Finland and will be published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion under the title “Atheists Become Emotionally Aroused When Daring God to Do Terrible Things.”
Researchers connected both religious individuals and self-described atheists to machines that measure perspiration. (Increased sweating is a sign that someone is becoming more anxious and nervous; it is the basis for lie detector tests.) The test subjects were then asked to make statements like “I wish my parents would drown” and “I dare God to drown my parents.” Religious people were more nervous and upset after uttering statements that asked God to do bad things, but researchers were more interested to see the atheists' responses. After all, if there is no God, then wishing for something bad to happen and asking God to do it amounts to the same thing. However, the reactions among atheists differed little from the reactions among religious people:
According to the skin-conductance tests, the atheists found asking God to harm them or others to be just as upsetting as religious folks did. The researchers also compared the reactions of the atheists when making statements like “I wish my parents were paralyzed” and “I dare God to paralyze my parents.” Atheists were, like believers, more bothered by the latter statement, if you believe the skin-conductance tests, even though both declarations would be, in theory, equally empty if there were no heavenly overseer.
Just like religious people, atheists became more distraught and nervous when asking God to do something bad. This is especially surprising because the study was conducted in Finland, where 16 percent of people do not believe in God and organized religion is not very popular.
What can we take away from a study like this? I don’t think it’s fair to say that every atheist secretly believes God exists and just pretends to be an atheist in order to get attention. I do think it’s fair to say that tests like these could show that most atheists do not think God is a delusion, as Richard Dawkins argued in his famous 2005 book The God Delusion. A delusion is “a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary.”
If you think that it is 4 p.m. and it is really 3 p.m. because of daylight savings time, you’re mistaken. If you think that it is the year A.D. 213 instead of 2013, you are probably deluded, since there is so much evidence to refute that belief. If someone thinks he is God, we say the person is suffering from “delusions of grandeur” (or, as C. S. Lewis would say, they are as crazy as someone who thinks they are a poached egg).
Delusions are patently silly beliefs that are easily refuted by available evidence. If God were a delusion, then no one should really fear him drowning his parents any more than one would fear Santa Claus drowning his parents.
Unfortunately, the authors of the study did not ask the participants to dare a known false belief like Santa Claus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to do something bad to a loved one. Therefore, it’s possible that test subjects would react with anxiety regardless of the kind of being they petitioned. I hope researchers will explore that question in future studies and as a result find empirical evidence that shows God is not considered a delusion by most atheists.