Do Atheists believe in God and deceive themselves?

Lindeman, M et al (2013) Atheists become emotionally aroused when daring God to do terrible things is available for free from the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. The study measured different people’s emotional arousal by proxy of their skin conductance. The participants were given statements in three categories: neutral, offensive and God. As participants read each one, the investigators read their emotional arousal. Atheists reacted to the God statements! Why would they do that, if they don’t believe in God?

This may well be an example of “bad science”. With that in mind, I invite Fourat J to have a look. Below I have outlined why I think the research was not necessarily bad science, but that the conclusions far overreach the data. Okay, so that may make for bad science. The comment was not left on the article itself, but on reporting of it I found here (take a look at it all and tell me whether it is good science):

I want to see this method repeated, but the variation should not be the inclusion of God, or not. The variation should be the inclusion of any number of fictional characters, real characters and the control group of passive voice statements. An example of these three would be:

I dare God to drown my parents,

I dare Barack Obama to drown my parents,

My parents will be drowned.

This should determine whether any incitement of horrific acts towards family cause these fluctuations in skin-conductance, or whether the conductance in some way represents belief.

Also, in criticism on the conclusions, I feel emotionally different saying “I will kick a puppy” and “it is okay to kick puppies”. I don’t know why I do, but I do. So the control statements are not calibrated properly.

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8 thoughts on “Do Atheists believe in God and deceive themselves?”

  1. Without having time to go through and read the study — breaking a key scientific tenet — but I must sleep in a few minutes for my 6am train.

    I feel I agree with your comment. Seems like a silly study from the outset. Firstly, as you say, the question seems biased. Secondly, it presumes that atheists are devoid of emotion. Nothing, no matter how boring, fails to elicit some kind of a response from a person. Further still, it’s obvious that atheists would feel an emotional response to God. We live in a society that idolizes him, and have chosen to break ourselves free of the conformity, this usually does not occur without some sort of emotional reaction that becomes imprinted on the person, even if they never religious on the onset as the pressure of an ongoing social life may slowly imprint itself onto the atheist. I could say more, but, I have a full day travelling tomorrow.

    It would seem to me that this study was designed to generate a sensationalist conclusion. I wonder what the religious beliefs of the experimenter are, or were. Anyway, like I said, I didn’t have time to go read the study relying on your short summary instead. I wanted to squeeze this comment in because I’ll be out of the loop perhaps for several weeks (moving to Iraq for work) and if I didn’t get to it now, might have forgotten.

    Good comment, good post, and looking forward to more of your posts Allallt. (What does Allallt mean by the way? I’ve always wondered.)

    1. Allallt means nothing. I don’t even know how to say it. My brother set up spotify for me while I was hungover and that is the name I requested — about 6 years ago. Then it became my Youtube name, and ultimately my online name.
      I’m in Europe again next month, and my work seems to move largely to Italy in the summer. So I’ll keep you informed.
      Have a great time in Iraq, and thank you for taking the time to comment on the post. The argument made is a very convincing “prima facie” argument, so I thought it was useful to get under the skin of it. Plus, it has a provocative title!

  2. I don’t think that it is silly at the core of it. The idea that breaking long held social norms for most people will cause a reaction. Not because they don’t believe what they are doing or saying, but because no matter that they consciously believe as they do, culture has imposed some methods of data analysis which never quite go away. We might see this exposed as a sensitive approach to what others might find offensive, or self censorship over such matters. In our conscious mind lay a lot of rules for how to interpret the data from our senses. In this pile of rules are the ‘social order’ rules sets. Only a sociopath could go through this without some involuntary reaction… or someone who has very thoroughly purged the rules sets of their conscious mind from the culturally learned rules regarding the topic.

    Far from proving that they believe in god, it confirms my theory of mind by showing traces of cultural rules sets which do not get erased by personal belief. Interacting with the culture requires special rules in order to get a best outcome. All this proves is that these subjects are not sociopaths.

    1. I feel pretty much that way: I don’t doubt the data–that atheists responded involuntarily and emotionally to asking God to cause harm to their family.
      However, I doubt the conclusion. You do respond out of cultural conditioning: you’re lying; you might get caught out; you’re identifying as an atheist, which is a high pressure thing in todays culture because it is contra social conditioning; you are overriding or ignoring the “God Spot” (if, indeed, such a thing exists); you are wishing harm on your family; you are being asked to acknowledge the existence of a thing you don’t believe in.

      The response may even be due to confusion, as the subjects had to identify as atheists before the study began…

      1. There are a number of movies or stories which explore the problem of conflicting rule sets. We humans are not immune to troubling interpretations of conflicting rules. The first Star Trek movie with VGAR was one, later on Data’s role explored it in depth. 2001: A Space Oddessy explored this also. There are many.

        When you have conflicting rules, you’re essentially guessing and trying not to violate either rule set. Being asked to wish harm on family and friends should be most properly answered with: Go fuck yourself, your test is designed to fail.

    1. Well, if it sounds like a duck and it looks like a duck, call it what it is… silly science.
      I think I may have gotten that confused along the line.

      Thanks for the comment, I’m glad you agree.

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