God, atheism, and emotions

Earlier today on FriendFeed, Dr. Ganata shared an article from Pacific Standard magazine: “Emotional Reactions of Atheists May Reveal Echoes of Belief”.

header of article

I found myself having my own emotional response to the article and the corresponding study, and I wanted to set down my thoughts.

First of all, there’s no widespread agreement on labels. To some, an atheist is anyone who does not believe faithfully in the existence of God. By that definition: People who are unsure or neutral or agnostic on whether or not God exists? All atheists. But to others, an atheist is someone who is convinced that God definitely does not exist — and may spend energy trying to convince the faithful that they are wrong. Even among the faithful, there is a spectrum of how strongly and completely one believes in God. So there is a wide range of possible beliefs among individuals.

The study organizers recruited from a skeptics organization, from a bible group, and from students. They don’t break down how many applicants they got from each source. They divided participants between “atheists” and “religious people” (those are their labels, not mine), based on their answers to a 19-question survey. While there was a sharp difference between the scores of the two groups, they don’t make a distinction between atheists who once were faithful, or if the atheists are “weak atheists” (those who simply are not sure in the certainty of the existence of God) versus “strong atheists” (those who are positively, 100% convinced that there is no God).

Second, the study design is garbage. The overall approach is measuring skin conductance (“SC”) while participants read statements and then say them aloud. There’s no data on what SC means, no proof of what it measures, no theory about what emotions it’s tied to, and the study doesn’t bother to provide the raw data to back up any statistical claims.

In study 1, the participants each were given three sets of statements:

  1. “God statements”: Statements where one dares God to do something awful, such as “I dare God to make me die of cancer” or “I dare God to make someone murder my parents.”
  2. “Offensive statements”: Random offensive things, such as “It’s okay to kill ugly children” or “It’s okay to kick a puppy in the face.”
  3. “Neutral statements”: Random inoffensive things, such as “I hope it’s not raining today” or “It’s okay to wear glasses.”

In study 2, they add a fourth category:

  1. “Wish statements”: Repeats of God statements but restated as a wish, such as “I wish that I would die of cancer” or “I wish someone would murder my parents.”

However, study 2 is very poorly thought out. The phrasing of the statements is not at all equivalent. Worse, they’re having the same person react to the same statement both from category 1 and category 4 — but the emotional response will be much greater the first time you read it than the second, whichever way it’s phrased. And most disastrously, study 2 is only of atheists, so for cateogry 4, you can’t compare the SC of atheists to the SC of religious people.

Third, the study lacks sufficiently documented controls. The two groups of study 1, atheists and religious people, were selected based on their responses to survey questions. How many people applied? How many were rejected? Why are there no participants with middling responses?

A much better study design would have three groups: Atheists, religious people, and a random group used as a control with unknown belief status. If the study’s central thesis is true (that both atheists and religious people will have a strong emotional reaction to category 1 statements), all three groups should have same result.

And I would design the questions with much more diversity of control statements. “I wish that I would die of cancer” is just outright much less controversial than saying “I dare God to make me die of cancer.” Add in “I dare Zeus to make me die of cancer” and “I dare my best friend to make me die of cancer.”

My final objection to the study is that the statistical results of study 2, with only atheists participating, shows a huge change in the responses to categories 1 through 3 when compared with the results of study 1. Their SC went down for categories 1 and 2, and up for category 3. That’s ridiculous! The study designers could not even reproduce their own results from study 1 with the exact same methodology. That shows their candidate screening or test administration or SC measurement is fatally flawed. How much variance would we see again if they conducted a study 3 or a study 4?

Set aside all that. Let’s say the test is valid and the results are genuine. What does it mean?

The article and study do take pains to point out several possible explanations for the result why both atheists and religious people have a similar emotional response to reading the God statements:

  1. “Atheists’ explicit beliefs may differ from the implicit reactions that exist outside of conscious awareness.”
  2. Atheists “may have found using the word God stressful because others, possibly their friends and family, do take God seriously.”
  3. Atheists “may have found the idea of God ‘absurd or aversive,’ leading to the heightened emotional response.”
  4. “Although atheists did not currently believe in God, they may have been influenced by their own previous beliefs.” (A reference is made to 2006 research that found three-quarters of American atheists were once believers.)

At heart, I had to think about why I had an emotional response to reading the article and the study. Because I self-identify as an atheist, the first conclusion was offensive to me: Hey, you, you atheist you, you’re deluding yourself — you may say you don’t believe in God, but your emotions betray you, ha ha. You really do believe in God. Sucker.

It was hard for me to be objective about that.

But why?

We all delude ourselves all the time. We’re full of self-delusions that affect us constantly, without us even being aware of it most of the time. I know this and accept it. So why would it upset me for me to feel that I might have an emotional belief in God?

I have to admit if I were to take the test, I’m sure I would have a hard time being unemotional in reading aloud a statement that said I dared God to kill my parents or give me cancer. Again: But why? Is it because I secretly do believe in God? I don’t think there’s a chance that that’s true. I think actions and expressed beliefs are actually more significant than emotional responses.

No matter what, the thought of having you or your parents die is going to provoke an emotional response, whether or not God is involved in that thought.

I don’t pray. I don’t ascribe supernatural explanations to events that take place. I don’t go to church. I wouldn’t turn to any holy book for answers. And while I respect my friends who do believe in God, I don’t feel that their religious beliefs give them any power or morality that I don’t also have.

Bottom line, I don’t think this study proves anything. The whole point of atheism is to separate one’s emotional beliefs and irrational human nature from our actions and logical thoughts.

I think most atheists would agree that they don’t KNOW that God doesn’t exist. The way I feel about it is this: I assume God doesn’t exist until the moment I see some evidence that God does exist.

I can’t prove God doesn’t exist. I wouldn’t even try. Similarly, I can’t prove that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. So, since I can’t prove the opposite, I’m happy to concede that God MIGHT exist. (So might the Loch Ness Monster.) I just don’t see any evidence for it, so I don’t personally think it’s at all likely.

Despite that, why would I take the risk in daring an all-powerful God who MIGHT exist to kill me or my parents? On a rational basis, there’s no point in tempting fate, even if the risk is minute. My emotional side knows that better than my rational side.

I’d like to see the study redesigned with a big twist: Per the study, there were some religious people who refused to say some of the God statements. But there were no atheists who refused to say any of them. But what if you paid people to say the statements? If you move the study from the emotional realm of skin response into the rational realm of getting paid, would you see the opposite result, where even religious people are willing to say the same statements as the atheists? Or is it offensive to even ask?

Maybe emotionally we’re all believers to some extent, but when money is on the line, some of those who identify themselves as religious people might be willing to act a little bit like an atheist.

This is too long already, but I want to conclude with an apology: If you were offended by any of what I wrote, I am sorry. I don’t mean to challenge anyone or offend anyone. Your beliefs are yours, and I don’t have any intention to try to change them. My whole intention is to explain myself, mostly so I can better understand myself.

Recently, Barry paid me a high compliment on FriendFeed: He called me a damn fine Christian. That makes me damn happy to hear. Because even though I’m a heathen, I strive to be a moral, helpful, useful, good person. In other words, a Christian. Or a Catholic. Or a Buddhist. Or a Muslim. Or an atheist. Theist or atheist, emotional or unemotional: We’re all here to try to make the world a better place. Right?

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