Thursday, 25 April 2013

Atheists as stressed as believers when daring God to do bad things

Why are most people in the world religious? Some say it is because we're naturally predisposed to believe in a god or gods and that religion brought evolutionary advantages to our ancestors. But if that's the case, how come there are over half a billion atheists in the world? One theory is that atheists consciously suppress their instincts for religion, with only varying degrees of success. A new study provides tentative support for this idea. Marjaana Lindeman and her colleagues report that atheists get just as stressed as religious people when they ask God to do nasty things, as in "I dare God to make someone murder my parents cruelly."

The researchers tested 16 atheists and 13 religious people (Finns aged 17 to 45 recruited via a skeptics group and bible group, respectively). The participants were wired up to a skin conductance machine that records the sweatiness of the fingers - a basic marker of stress. Next the participants read aloud 36 sentences - some were requests for God to do something awful; others were offensive statements not involving God (e.g. it's okay to kick a puppy in the face); and the remainder were neutral (e.g. I hope it's not raining today).

The participants' views about this experience differed as you'd expect. The religious folk found the God-related statements more unpleasant than the atheists. However, they were no more likely than the atheists to refuse to utter the God statements, or to retract them later when given the chance. Most importantly, skin conductance was higher for both participant groups when reading the God statements compared with the neutral statements. Moreover, across both groups, skin conductance when reading the God statements did not vary according to a person's level of religious belief. The atheists seemed to get just as stressed as believers when daring God to do awful things.

An obvious flaw in this evidence is that the mention of God was confounded with horrible outcomes. Perhaps the atheists were stressed reading the God statements simply because of the ideas involved, not because of God's role per se. A second study examined this with nineteen more Finnish atheists (aged 20 to 30). The participants were wired up to the skin conductance machine while they uttered unpleasant sentences involving God (e.g. "I dare God to make me die of cancer") or not involving God (e.g. "I wish I would die of cancer"). Signs of stress were higher for the God statements, suggesting the involvement of God brings some extra stress to atheists beyond the unpleasant outcomes involved.

"The results imply that while atheists' and religious individuals' beliefs about God and explicit attitudes towards God statements are different, they become equally emotionally aroused when daring God to do unpleasant things," the researchers said.

The study has its limitations - the participant samples were very small for a start - and the findings are difficult to interpret. Certainly it would be inappropriate to conclude that the results prove atheists believe in God at a subconscious level. Other plausible explanations for the findings include atheists finding the God statements stressful because they know friends or family who do believe in God; or perhaps atheists experience stress reading the God statements because the wording implies God is real, which runs counter to their own beliefs.


Lindeman, M., Heywood, B., Riekki, T., and Makkonen, T. (2013). Atheists become emotionally aroused when daring God to do terrible things. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2013.771991

--Further reading--
The unscientific thinking that forever lingers in the minds of physics professors
Religion causes a chronic biasing of visual attention
The children of securely attached mothers think that God is close
Can God make people more aggressive?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

Having the word god in a statement brings feelings of stress to an athiest because it invokes reminders of all the oppression they suffer by the religious in our society. Opression such as: bishops in the lords, choice of schools, taxes, discrimination in hospital chaplains - paid for by me, school transport - paid for by me, interference in the right to die, ....... I could go on but it is causing stress. ;)

TempleGuard said...

Please don't forget that many students and people less acquainted with the scientific method read this blog. I understand why newspapers report on a lot of studies with tiny sample sizes - that type of research makes good headlines; However this blog is supposed to be more than that.

Anonymous said...

Having to pronounce in the first person a canned sentence with the name of God in it -- of course it should be stressful to atheists, because that's exactly what believers do and they may get mistaken for one.

Christian Jarrett said...

I understand your concerns but I do think atheism is an important topic to research, and I did include caveats in the final paragraph. There is also opportunity for further discussion & criticism via comments.

Paul Murphy said...

It seems to imply that rather than a resounding "I don't believe in God" there may be a certain level of potential amongst some so-called atheists to believe such as, "I don't believe in God but what if...?" which would then class them as agnostics rather than an atheist in the truest sense of the word.

Anonymous said...

Could not the believers subconciously not believe? Then might it cancel out leaving the oddity of raised anxiety caused by the word God?

Christian Jarrett said...

you've still got the fact that in the second study the atheists were more stressed when the sentences referred to God vs no mention.

Lindsay said...

That's really interesting; I wouldn't have expected that!

What I wonder, though, is whether the feeling of stress when making the "I wish God would [do some horrible thing]" statements is the same for people who were never brought up in a religion? It seems to me that the kind of atheists who care enough to join an atheist or skeptics' organization are those who grew up in a religious tradition and rejected it, as opposed to those born and raised in secular homes. But because the former *were* taught as children to believe God was real, and that he heard everything you say, I think it's possible that they might still react, emotionally, as if they believed. I think the best evidence for "suppressing the religious instinct" would come from showing that a group of atheists with wholly secular upbringings reacted the same way.

Lindsay said...

Ha! Good point.

I remember that when I was a child, I felt stress over the "under God" line in the Pledge of Allegiance --- to the point that I would leave it out most of the time.

I felt stress because I felt like I was being asked to lie, and I also had a sense that the word "God" was not mine to say, because I didn't believe in him or even know much about him.

Lindsay said...


Isn't there something about this in psychological literature? Something about, when you remind a person that they are Other, they sort of switch off or put themselves on guard or otherwise react emotionally to being told they don't belong?

It seems to me that having an atheist read a statement about God would function the same way that, say, reading a statement about how girls suck at math functions in studies of gender-related stereotype threat: it would switch on one's social-threat radar.

Urbane Gorilla said...

May the blood thirsty Christian God rain hellfire down on Lindeman,Heywood,Riekki and Makkonen and curse their progeny to the 10th generation with Valley speak!

Hmm...I don't get it..I feel fine.

Anonymous said...

As I understand the study both groups reacted the same with higher stress when involving the concept of God. I'm still thinking if subconcious belief in the disbeleivers is a consideration as to the reason then so could subconciuos disbelief in the believers? Really interesting though.

Lighstagazi said...

I would suggest that the theistic deconverts turning atheists is more of a numbers game than a meaningful stat. With ~10% of the population (as a growing number), there just isn't the population to draw from for secular children, rather than deconverts.

I was raised what I'll call "secularly". Of the "four horsemen of atheism", Sam Harris was also not raised religiously. Ideally, that means we are free of mental baggage, and don't have to worry about threats of friends and family (or ourselves!) enduring eternal torture.

I would also be very interested in the deconverts vs secular results. Especially in the Nordic regions, where atheism is reaching such large levels.

I'd expect secularists to have a lower stress level. But so much of it has to do with the setting - any priming at all, especially for this topic, could seriously tweak the results.

Lighstagazi said...

Nice juxtaposition, thank you for suggesting it. I like this idea ^^

Anonymous said...

As far as understanding that goes, it seems like it would be interesting to see how each group responds when both are referring to a god they do not believe in. For example, the same statements used in the study but asked of Zeus or Horus or the like.

(different anonymous, ftr)

jaketherat said...

GSR is used in polygraph testing, so increased skin conductivity could be considered an indicator of stress as caused by cognitive dissonance (as e.g. caused by saying something known by the speaker to be untrue). This is an equally good argument that 'believers' subconsciously know they are kidding themselves as that 'unbelievers' do the same. It could also equally well be stressful for another reason entirely.

What we actually know from this data (as much as anything can be said to be 'known' given the sample size, poorly designed controls and impossibility of effective blinding) is that mentioning God in a negative context creates stress in believers and atheists at similar levels. Whether or not the mechanism by which that stress is caused is the same for both groups, or indeed even relates to belief - subconscious or otherwise - is pure speculation and misses the point of this experiment.

jaketherat said...

Sorry, I retract that last sentence (because it seems plausible that *was* the (misguided in my view) aim of this experiment). Instead I'd say " pure speculation and cannot be addressed by this experiment".

rona mendoza said...

Nice,, That's really interesting; I wouldn't have expected that!

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