There is a strong tendency in the current work on supernatural beliefs to suggest that religiosity is natural. Belief in a supernatural is a cognitive default. It’s a by-product of evolutionary adaptations for social cognition that are present in all humans.
In its 2nd issue of Volume 24, the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion has published a research that examined whether atheists exhibit evidence of emotional arousal when they dare god to cause harm to themselves and their intimates.
The participants, 16 atheists and 13 religious individuals, read aloud 36 statements of three different types: God, offensive, and neutral. Then, the researchers included ten new stimulus statements in which a group of 19 atheists wished for negative events to occur.
The atheists didn’t think the God statements were as unpleasant as the religious participants did in their verbal reports.
However, the skin conductance level showed that asking God to do awful things was equally stressful to atheists and theists. Also, atheists were more affected by God statements than by wish or offensive statements.
The results imply that atheists’ attitudes toward God are ambivalent in that their explicit beliefs conflict with their affective response.
Several psychologists have argued that atheism is only skin deep. Whether or not people consider themselves to be atheists, their verbal self-description may have little bearing on their implicit supernatural beliefs.
Of course, no cognitive traits arise in a vacuum, and religiosity would not be possible without social learning as well. People learn about religion by actively assimilating the testimony of other people and discourse in their community.
Thus, religiosity also arises from socio-cultural habitat, not only from default intuitions. In any case, most people have grown up and lived with religious influences.
What Science Says
It is possible that atheists aren’t immune to these influences. Recent studies have shown that reminders of God increase prosocial behavior. Moreover, they reduce career-related effortful behavior and increase temptation resistance among both believers and atheists.
Because behavior is based on emotions and cognitions, it seems strange that atheists would change their behavior unless they have some emotional reactions to reminders of God—the focus of the present studies—or even an implicit belief in the efficacy of the supernatural.
Another similar study was conducted in 2010. An analysis of vocal cues managed to detect whether atheists experienced increased levels of emotional arousal when daring God to do terrible things.
Both atheists and theists spoke with lower levels of intensity on God statements than on offensive statements or statements in which they dared Santa Claus instead of God. This indicated that the God statements were more emotionally arousing.
However, some of the other vocal parameters were difficult to interpret conclusively. Therefore, the psychologists of this study analyzed the atheists’ physiological stress reactions by skin conductance when they read aloud statements in which they asked God to do terrible things to themselves and their loved ones.
The four scientists hypothesized that atheists’ physiological reactions toward the statements should contradict their explicit attitudes towards them.
Meaning that saying the statements loudly should stress the atheists at least as much as saying other offensive statements loudly. Furthermore, saying the statements loudly should stress atheists as much as it would stress religious people.
We first published this article in 2016 and we currently republished it for its uniqueness.