Atheists Get Sweaty When Daring God

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!

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11 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    The dare is not rational. There is no referent for the name ‘God’:

    “…that appealing to God may have been absurd or aversive to atheists, leading to a dissonance-related affect.”

    Get them to ask the Spaghetti Monster to do it. Or Batman. There will be no problem because they are not worried about being misconstrued as thinking that they are referring to something non fictional.

  2. Charles Freeman says:

    A lot more research would have to be done to find the reasons for stress in this context. The author of this piece is obviously quite biased in the direction of his critique. What if the research continued by asking the same group to deny to the existence of god(s) in creation of the universe, or of humans? There are numerous issues and questions arising, including the small sample size. The people at the University of Finland are probably well ahead of Tom Rees, and I hope to see additional exploratory results before coming to any preliminary conclusions.

  3. Thomas Barefield says:

    What should it surprise you that atheists are social creatures? I try to put myself in that place, and even though I don’t believe in God, I would balk at specifically “daring” even a fictional agent to do something horrible to me. Call it a superstition if you like, but I certain don’t think it means that I “really do” believe in God after all.

  4. Dan says:

    This is not surprising. I’ve experienced it myself. I see no reason to believe in any god but the emotional reactions that were implanted at a very early age are not so easily discarded as is actual belief in the basis for them.

    As a bisexual I even experience homophobia at times. More crap that was stuck in me at an early age and is hard to get rid of completely. Heck it took years to get over hating myself for not being straight. All one can do is recognize when these base reactions are irrational and ignore them. They do seem to get weaker with time.

  5. Bjargmundur says:

    “OK, so atheists know that there is no God”
    no we don’t…. we reject the assertion that your (or anyone elses’) god/s exist, that is atheism.
    a/theism are terms used over belief, a/gnostic is for knowledge.

    please get this simple… VERY simple fact right.


  6. oolon says:

    “OK, so atheists know that there is no God” … Nope, atheism is only the rejection of the proposition there exists a god or gods. Most atheists in my experience are agnostic atheists so they don’t assert the opposite only say they don’t know, there is not enough evidence to believe. For me “daring”, “insulting” etc would be meaningless as hardly anyone in my family or friends has ever believed in a god. But I’d imagine for some who escaped religion it is a very emotive thing.

  7. Jeff A says:

    All this proves is that brainwashing can be very effective, which we already knew.

  8. Bela says:

    I liked to share this great video with you. This video made me cry due to his story [Why is there suffering in this life, what is the purpose of life and why are we here alive?

  9. Dave says:

    Could it also be concluded that the Atheists had more emotional reaction to saying horrible things than the Christians?

    I bet those atheists that attend anti-gay or anti-abortion rallies must be absolutely drenched.

  10. Ed says:


    5) Incredulity that anyone could perform such a stupid experiment. Just how extremist are these people? Should I be worried about them?

    Off the top of my head.

  11. David says:

    Hypothesis number two is the most plausible: “that atheists found it stressful because others, possibly their friends and family, do take God seriously.” Extending that hypothesis, atheists are more attuned to the dangers of superstitious beliefs than are believers. Atheists recognize the horrors that have occurred with invocation of the name of God. Believers are more likely to accept the justification of praying for harm to others, and are less stressed because they may have done it themselves.

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