Field of Science

Atheists get sweaty when daring God


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 the 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 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 i a potential mechanism whereby you 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!


ResearchBlogging.org
Marjaana Lindeman, Bethany Heywood, Tapani Riekki, & Tommi Makkonen (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

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

38 comments:

  1. Whether you believe in "God" or not, just thinking of something terrible happening to someone you love ought to be enough to make you sweat. And imputing those things to another, "real" or not, understandably makes it more threatening since you took it out of your own control.

    In any event, the research seems to assume that we are monolithic--we either believe in God or we don't. In fact, some parts of us do, some don't, some parts of us construct one form, others construct other forms, depending on when those tapes were laid down. Just because we grow up and form more complex imaginations of "God" doesn't mean that the younger versions are not still in play somewhere inside us. My guess is that most "atheism" is a reaction to the "theism" we also carry within us. Do we really know enough to be fundamentalist theists or atheists?

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is missing the control condition that I would have expected to be obvious: daring Voldemort. We wouldn't enjoy fiction if it didn't effect us. So the simple fact that atheists are effected by ideas about gods shouldn't be a surprise.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, I agree. It would be interesting to see someone else repeat the study, but with that control.

      Delete
    2. It would also be interesting to see the test done by asking positive things rather than negative....

      Delete
  3. If someone asked me to wish for terrible things, as was done here, I would only be able to do so with complete lack of sincerity because I would never wish such a thing on anyone. That would stress me out a lot.

    ReplyDelete
  4. (shrug) I know if someone asked me to dare the Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny to kill my family, I'd laugh and say "yeah, sure". Because it's funny.

    On the other hand, I wouldn't put it past Santa Claus.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think the notion of "belief" is highly mistaken.

    Our neurons hold many concepts in complex relations. Old patterns (connections, "beliefs") don't die, their weight is lessened (#1, #4 and your thoughts).

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think the fact that the study that people who professed to believe in god stressed less over daring God to do bad things than people professing to be Atheists is the interesting detail that wasn't spoken about.

    As Frank Bellamy said, the study could do with better controls. Then you might be able to start working out what is going on in the respective groups sub-conscious's.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perhaps it has something to do with the idea that a believer "knows" that God is aware that the request is simply for the sake of a test, and that if they are "right" with God, then it's not an issue. An atheist by definition is not "right" with God, and therefore, may believe that out of vengeance, He may actually carry out the deed.

      Delete
    2. It's a possibility, although I should make clear that the difference between atheists and the religious was not statistically significant.- so maybe it was just a fluke.

      Delete
  7. God-fearing atheists. Huh.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Atheists do NOT know there is no God, they simply BELIEVE so.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Atheists do not believe anything.

      Anti-theists believe there is no god(s).

      Atheists simply lack belief in any god(s).

      Yes all anti-theists are atheists. But not all atheists are anti-theist.

      Delete
    2. If a-theism is a religion then 'OFF' is a TV channel.

      Delete
  9. It's interesting that atheists are *more* bothered by it than believers. I could have understood them being roughly the same given that all humans have the same innate cognitive tendencies. But atheists registering higher makes you wonder what's going on.

    One question I would have (thinking of the fourth explanation) is would there be any difference between atheists who were ex-believers versus ones who had never believed?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The researchers speculate as weel - although this being Finland it's likely that most off the atheists were lifelong non-believers. But we don't know.

      Delete
    2. Being atheist and being anti-theistic are entirely different. The term atheist is extremely vague and undefinitive. Atheist can include religious and spiritual people such as Buddhists, it can include people who never have given the existence of god(s) a second thought, it can also include people who deny the possibility of any god(s) existing.
      I'd love to see what types of atheists these were.
      Also would love to know how a study on 16 atheists even remotely reflects upon any other atheist? They may claim they lack belief in a god, but to what degree and what are their actual beliefs?

      Delete
  10. I would like to know the type of theists they tested. My guess is that fundamentalist believers wouldn't agree to be involved in the test whereas more liberal believers might. A person belief in their god's willingness to do cruel things might affect their stress over asking them to do so.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Atheism is predominantly an intellectual state, not much related to our predominately emotional nature. Theism is predominantly an emotional state, gussied up with intellectual trappings.

    This means theists are emotionally comfortable, but intellectually uncomfortable. Atheist are much the opposite intellectually comfortable, but emotionally uncomfortable. This incomplete of course.

    ReplyDelete
  12. The problem with that conclusion is that those who were religious didn't have the same level of anxiety. For me, that would be because I know that God knows I'm just reading something and He's not going to bring it fruition. It still evokes horrible thoughts so I'm sure my stress level would rise. But there has to be an extra fear that pushes the atheists over the edge and that is the nagging fear that God is real.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Would love to see this on a larger scale, with more definitions. You are right, there are a vast variety of types of atheists, just like there are a vast variety of types of theists.

      Delete
  13. I'm an atheist, and I do get a bit antsy when daring God, but the Tooth Fairy? Scares the crap outta me!

    ReplyDelete
  14. A few thoughts, first as Frank Bellamy said, there don't appear to be proper controls. Second, in addition to Dan W's question about the type of theists, I'd be curious the type of atheists tested. It can mean a lot of different things to different people including "I hate church and have stopped going, I'm an atheist now"

    But most importantly, the sample size seems way too low
    "16 atheists and 13 religious people"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very small, like too many psychology studies.

      Delete
  15. Atheism is an extremely arrogant belief systems - definitively claiming that god does not exist.

    As with anyone who makes a confident absolute proclamation, the burden of proof is on them, yet they are powerless to prove their assertion.

    It's an unprovable belief system, no different than any other.

    Likewise, those who are "believers" have no way to prove their point of view either. I've found that most aren't as nasty about their perspective compared to the atheists.

    It seems quite clear that the only fair and honest perspective is to simply admit "I don't know". No statement could be more truthful.

    By and large, I consider myself an agnostic, but my experiences in life have created room for belief in a greater power than myself - though I am unable to define the shape and nature of that power. I get the "sense" that it is benevolent, and often "helpful" - but I freely admit this sense could also be my imagination or wishful thinking.

    For now, I have no way to tell, and neither do you. At least I admit my limitations.

    It sucks not having the answers to all of life's questions, but this has been mans problem from day one. Smarter people than me have devoted a lifetime towards resolving the questions, and have failed.

    We have the choice to live our lives with firm belief in something that is unprovable, or gracefully accept the simple truth that we are limited in our ability to know and possibly even understand the deeper realities of our universe and our existence.

    I hope that there is existence after this life. I hope "the answers" will become clear - once my life energy leaves this body and moves on. Equally possible is nonexistence, a concept that I find unpalatable, but cannot dismiss.



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You obviously have no idea what atheism is.

      Atheism is a lack of belief in a god. It is not as you claim, the anti-theistic claim that god(s) do not exist.

      Agnosticism, is not incompatible with either theism or atheism. Agnosticism is the belief that man cannot know whether god(s) exist. Thus, agnosticism is a belief regarding the limitations of man's knowledge.

      Do you have defined belief in any god(s)? If yes, then you are theistic. If no then you are atheistic. There is no middle ground.

      Atheism is not even a belief, let alone a 'belief system'. If you think it is a belief system, please tell us what specific beliefs the system is comprised of.

      Atheism is not an arrogant anything. It is the individual itself that gives off the aura of arrogance. Your post makes you out to be no different than them.

      I am agnostic atheist.

      Delete
  16. Or - the concept of death or murder is stressful, even if not realistic. Or - atheists know that people who hear them speak of their disbelief sometimes have negative reactions. Or - The emotion aroused was not anxiety, but something else . . . etc. More controls in the study are necessary to mean anything.

    ReplyDelete
  17. And the control was...? This doesn't sound very scientific. All properly conceived studies involve double blinds and controls. The study means nothing..It just measured a reaction to a dare.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A double blind study doesn't make sense in this case. The whole point is to study cognition ad emotion. They have to be aware of the intervention.

      There were controls, of course. different groups and different interventions.

      Delete
  18. Conversely, ask religious people who believe in the "power of prayer" that with prayer a person can grow an appendage back like an arm or a leg. I bet the sweaty meter will go off the chart. I guess we can ask these and other questions, but I am not sure what we are attempting to prove.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I'm sure that an experiment daring Santa Claus would also elicit anxiety in both believers and nonbelievers. I was forbidden as a child to whistle at night because of a Japanese superstition that it would awake ghosts. I never bought into that, but I still don't whistle at night.

    ReplyDelete
  20. How were the particupants selected? Did they know what the test would be before they agreed? Did anyone refuse to participate? If so, were they theists or atheists?

    ReplyDelete
  21. The barplot graph is very misleading; should have used boxplots, or at the very least add the error bars.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Interesting that according to the implications of this article, the religious people didn't get sweaty and uncomfortable when directly sinning in their god's face by testing him? The Bible says not to test the Lord your God. Kind of odd...

    ReplyDelete
  23. The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools. (Romans 1:18-22)

    ReplyDelete
  24. I can think of at least one more reason. I split the dare sentence to
    A: I dare god
    B: To make someone murder my parents cruelly.

    I couldn't care less about A:"daring god"

    However, just the mere idea/thought/saying "make someone murder my parents cruelly" deeply disturbs me. It hits my emotions and empathetic nerve so much that I think I'm sweating just writing this.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I dare god to get this experiment done properly.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Very interesting blog. You might find this video about The New Atheism interesting! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mRPZ_O9bUU

    ReplyDelete

Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="http://www.fieldofscience.com/">FoS</a> = FoS