Dec 4, 2013
From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:
When you get anxious or emotionally aroused, you sweat. Not a lot, but enough to be detected using electrodes on the finger tips. And it turns out that if you take a bunch of atheists, and get them to dare God to do horrible things, they get sweaty.
A team from the University of Finland got 16 atheists and 13 religious people to read aloud statements like “I dare God to make someone murder my parents cruelly” and “I dare God to make me die of cancer.” Perhaps surprisingly, both atheists and the religious got emotionally aroused when daring God to do terrible things. In fact, if anything, the atheists were even more het up.
They went on to do another test, in which they got the atheists to simply wish for terrible things to happen. But that didn’t cause nearly the same reaction as asking God to do it.
But why? The researchers offer four explanations:
• that atheists implicitly believe in God, even if they don’t explicitly believe
• that atheists found it stressful because others, possibly their friends and family, do take God seriously
• that appealing to God may have been absurd or aversive to atheists, leading to a dissonance-related affect
• although the atheists do not currently believe in God, they may have done so previously and that may have influenced their reactions.
I like the first and fourth ones, which are related. Especially given that atheists may have a nagging fear that God is angry with them already—which may help explain the even higher response they give.
But I’d like to offer another potential explanation. I suspect that the mental act of asking someone to do something is different from simply wishing it to happen. When you ask another agent to do it, there is a potential mechanism whereby your request might actually happen.
OK, so atheists know that there is no God, but they are social creatures and the form of the statement is something that might trigger subsconscious anxieties despite their conscious dismissal. In fact, whatever the explanation, to me this seem like evidence that the social cognitive skills of atheists are perfectly intact!