Salon.com has just published an overview of a new Finnish study which purports to provide some evidence for the conclusion that atheists believe in God. In the study a group of atheists and theists were hooked up to electrodes to measure emotional arousal. Then they were asked to utter several statements. Some were emotionally provocative references to God such as “I dare God to make my parents drown”. Other statements included equally provocative emotional content but without reference to God while others were emotionally neutral. Both theists and atheists showed the equivalent emotional arousal when uttering the God-directed emotionally provocative statements. But this begs the question: why become emotionally aroused when addressing an entity that one believes doesn’t exist?
The link between professed belief and measurable behavior is suggestive. Think, by analogy, of a man who breaks out in a cold sweat when he sees a large hairy spider scurry across the floor. And yet he insists “I’m not afraid of spiders.” You’d probably take his visible emotional response as being closer to the truth than his utterance. Could it be that likewise those who say “I don’t believe in God” reveal at a deeper emotional level that in fact they do?
Here’s my first thought. Let’s say you watch a scary movie. Afterward you realize you left the light on in the cellar. Most nights you’d run down to the cellar without a second thought and turn off the light. But now the very thought sends chills down your spine. I don’t think this emotional response provides evidence that you now believe it is more likely that a ghost or axe-wielding serial killer or bogeyman is in the basement. If anything, it reveals that our rational beliefs are often decoupled from our emotional responses.
I would have been interested if the psychologists had asked the atheists to challenge the flying spaghetti monster to drown their parents. Of course this prompts the question of how the flying spaghetti monster would drown a person. Presumably it would not do so by pushing them beneath the surface of the water since spaghetti is much too pliable. Thus, a push would only serve to mush up the fsm’s noodley appendages. So I suspect the fsm would have to get in the water beneath its quarry and drag them underneath the surface. But I digress.
Back to the study. The psychologists recognized that it seemed quite plausible to say simply that the atheists’ emotional response was due to the scenario being proposed (e.g. the drowning of one’s parents) rather than the agent being invoked to carry out the grisly task (i.e. God). The next step in the study sought to address this issue by having atheists utter parallel statements which contain the same provocative emotional content, one including God and the other excluding God. For example:
“I dare God to turn all my friends against me.”
“I wish all of my friends would turn against me.”
Once again, greater emotional arousal resulted from the statements that included God, thereby suggesting to the authors of the study that it was not simply the isolated emotional content which was problematic, but rather the fact that God was being invoked.
However, I have to quibble with the example cited above (which was quoted in the salon.com article) since wishing one’s friends would turn against them does not really parallel invoking an agent to turn one’s friends against them. In short, daring an agent to bring about a state of affairs (e.g. turn my friends against me) is more provocative and emotionally unsettling than simply wishing that a state of affairs would come about (e.g. I wish my friends would turn against me). Consequently, a proper parallel would look like this:
“I dare God to turn all my friends against me.”
“I dare Jones to turn all my friends against me.”
I haven’t looked at the actual study, so the stage-two of their test may include some questions that are more closely parallel like this. However, I have to say that overall the results of this study strike me as muddled at best. Indeed, the salon.com article concludes by listing four possible interpretations of the data (and I can think of a few more).
The study does provide evidence that the word “God” evokes an emotional response in people, but surely we already knew that. This reminds me of one psychological study I read about that had concluded people generally fear death. Um, didn’t we know that already?
Let me make two final observations. The first is already anticipated in what I just said: it is not uncommon for psychological studies to end up providing trivial results that confirm what everybody already knows.
Second, cynical Randal asks: how often do academics fashion studies with at least one end goal including the hope of attracting media attention?