I was just shown an interesting study done by The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. The study “examined whether atheists exhibit evidence of emotional arousal when they dare God to cause harm to themselves and their intimates.” Using a sample size of 29 people (16 atheists and 13 religious folk), the researchers determined that “the skin conductance level showed that asking God to do awful things was equally stressful to atheists as it was to religious people and that atheists were more affected by God statements than by wish or offensive statements.”
Now, this is fascinating. And of course, internet apologists are having a field day. This must mean that atheists do believe in God after all, they declare, in a sudden fit of praise for the science they so regularly demonize. But is that what this study means? Certainly it adds complexity to the question of belief and disbelief, but it isn’t the windfall these theists think it is. Here are four reasons why.
1. The Study Itself Is Not Very Well Done
Anyone who has any research experience will tell you that a sample size of 29 individuals is not enough to make any kind of broad claim. This sample size also includes the control group (religious people), so the actual sample size is down to 16. So to draw a conclusion about all atheists (or any other group) based on the observed experiences of 16 individuals is not great science.
Additionally, the galvactivator used to measure skin conductance is a dubious test of specific emotional thoughts. While this method can show a level of arousal based on the eccrine sweat gland activity, it isn’t exactly a finely tuned scientific instrument. The most it can measure is a physical response, not the reason for the response. According to MIT’s website:
Arousal level tends to below when a person is sleeping, and high in activated states such as rage or mental workload. When you engage in a mental workload task, such as solving a bunch of math problems (even if not particularly hard), the level willtend to shoot up and then gradually decline. Because many different kinds of events can elevate your skin conductance (strong emotion, a startling event, a demanding task, etc.) it is impossible for an outsider to tell what made your galvactivator glow unless you participate in a highly controlled experiment.
So for all we know, it could simply be that atheists were trying a lot harder to imagine a God during the test questions, and the increased mental workload triggered the arousal response. Or perhaps they were simply angry at the mental image of a God inflicting pain or suffering on their loved ones. Am I saying that’s the case? No, but this highlights how little we can know about what thoughts or emotions cause the galvactivator to light up.
If an individual causes any kind of significant or intense reaction in you, either good or bad, it can cause your galvactivator to glow. Some people’s lights may glow when they think about or see someone who is especially attractive, famous, or important… The galvanic skin response is triggered by many different kinds of events. Simply holding your breath or thinking about something embarrassing or exciting can make it glow. If yours is glowing, you are in the best position to know why, and others can only speculate. Scientific experiments that use skin conductance have to control a situation very carefully, and even then, they cannot control for a person’s thoughts.
In other words, arousal =/= a specific thought. While the initial study doesn’t claim to be able to infer individuals’ thoughts about God based on the study, some more biased publications are attempting to make claims about what the study participants “think,” which is overstepping the boundaries of the test:
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.”
Finally, the language used in the study is quite vague. “God” is a broad term, possibly the broadest possible term in modern language. Invoking “God” will mean a different thing for each person, so to equate the God imagined by these atheists with your personal or religious representation of God (which many of these theists are trying to do) is faulty. As an example, it’s like hearing someone discuss plants, and infer they are talking about Audrey Jr. from The Little Shop of Horrors.
In the same way, “atheist” is far too nonspecific a term. Were these atheists from birth? Were these deconverts or apostates who had renounced belief? This is an important distinction to make, and that it wasn’t addressed makes me question the value of this study to begin with. An athiest who was raised in a religious household is fighting against a childhood of indoctrination and old neurological patterns, and an aroused state when contemplating God’s destruction is no different than an aroused state when reacting to familiar patterns or vocalizations of former abuse. It’s a scar that is healing.
2. Superstition & Magical Thinking Are Natural Traits
Superstition is not exclusive to theists. In fact, magical thinking is inherent in everyone, and it can be a really difficult habit to break even when not connected to religion. For example, in a 2005 study entitled “Testing Magical Thinking on Perceived and Imaginary Realities,” it was found that, “although almost all participants claimed that they did not believe in magic, in test trials they were not prepared to rule out the possibility that their future lives could be affected by a magical curse.”
The persistence of magical thinking and superstition can be traced back to our evolutionary beginnings. According to a 2009 study done by Kevin Foster and Hanna Kokko, “natural selection will favour assigning causality between two events.” In other words:
“A prehistoric human might associate rustling grass with the approach of a predator and hide. Most of the time, the wind will have caused the sound, but if a group of lions is coming there’s a huge benefit to not being around.”
Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine, has a similar approach:
“Our brains are pattern-recognition machines, connecting the dots and creating meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B, and sometimes it is not,” he says. “When it isn’t, we err in thinking that it is, but for the most part this process isn’t likely to remove us from the gene pool, and thus magical thinking will always be a part of the human condition.”
Religion is, at its core, a structured rationalization of this inherent superstition, but it certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on it. Superstition and magical thinking are natural traits (even shared with some animals!), and so reacting to a deeply superstitious premise — the calling down of a curse on someone you care about — is going to elicit a response. That’s just how we’re wired. Atheists aren’t denying this, they simply acknowledge it to be a byproduct of evolution and don’t allow it to govern their lives.
What would have been interesting is if the study had compared the arousal to “God” invocations and the arousal to similarly powerful and arcane invocations using black magic or hexes, for instance. I’d be willing to bet people would get the same level of arousal summoning an ancient dark spell as they did for the idea of a God.
3. The Brain Reacts Physically To Concepts It Knows Are Fiction
If you’re an avid bookworm like me, you might know this article published by the New York Times in 2012, called “Your Brain On Fiction.” In this astonishing article, author Annie Murphy Paul discusses several studies done on the brain using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. The gist of the study goes like this:
Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells. [….] The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica.
Our brains are so complex and powerful, that even when we know a concept is fictional — e.g. we are not actually smelling lavendar — the body reacts as though it were real. A powerful imagination, divorced from any kind of personal conviction or belief, is enough to create a measurable physical sensation in response. Understanding this, is it any wonder that asking people to imagine something specific and horrible happening to their family members at the hands of an all-powerful being makes them react?
4. Most Atheists Are Agnostic, So The Study Doesn’t “Contradict” Much
Here’s a fact that a lot of theists don’t seem to understand: there’s a difference between the assertion that “There is no God” and “I don’t believe in a God.” One is a statement of knowledge, one is a statement of belief. I’d wager about 90% of atheists out there only make claims about their belief in God, not in the absolute existence or nonexistence of such an entity. This makes them agnostic atheists, who are sure in their belief (or lack thereof) but do not make absolute, positive claims about reality. (I go over this in more detail in this post).
I am an agnostic atheist. I don’t find any reason to believe in a God, but I admit that as a limited human on a tiny planet existing in an expansive universe, I could be wrong. Granted, no theist has yet to make a compelling enough argument to convince me I’m wrong, but I’m open to the possibility.
I’m willing to admit that evolutionary superstition plays a role in my world. I just choose not to let it control me. I’m willing to admit that my indoctrination as a child makes me more likely to succumb to magical thinking. I just choose not to lapse into those old neural pathways. I’m willing to admit that my brain shapes my perception of reality even if I know an experience is fictional. I just choose not to trust my experience alone. I’m even willing to admit that I don’t know everything and somewhere, out there, a God in some form could exist. I just don’t choose to believe in one. None of this makes me less of an atheist. It just makes me more honest.