To say that modern psychology is ill-suited to studying the religious mind is much like acknowledging that an ape can play the accordion, but that you wouldn’t want him to be the only entertainment at your Bar Mitsvah.
Religion generally involves the search for the transcendent, while most contemporary psychology is searching for an easily diagnosable symptom. The actual thoughts and feelings of believers usually count for nothing in this approach, because what do they know? They’re only subjects.
Normally this means a great deal of stupid research is published about the religious, but bad research mindsets are a two-way street. This week it’s atheists getting run over.
According to research published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, atheists actually don’t know how much they really believe in God. Their thoughts and feelings on the matter, of course, are not considered evidence.
The researchers recruited a group of Finnish people online – which, right there, is something I would like to try sometime. They measured their belief and disbelief in God through self-reporting, and then wired their skin with electrodes while they had them read statements.
Some of the statements were direct dares to a deity (“I dare God to make my parents drown”). Others were similarly disturbing, but did not reference God (“It’s OK to kick a puppy in the face”). Still others were bland and neutral (“I hope it’s not raining today”).
The arousal levels of the believers and non-believers followed precisely the same pattern: Higher for both the God dares and otherwise unpleasant statements, and lower for the neutral ones.
The fact that Athiests (well, Finnish atheists who could be recruited online) had a higher reaction to asking God to kill their loved ones than simply wishing their loved ones die induces headline writers to ask “Do atheists secretly believe in God?”
Which is the epitome of the paradigm that suggests how a person thinks about something is less relevant to whether they believe it than what our best scans indicate.
The results could show that “God” as a concept that is everywhere in our culture (or Finnish culture as lived by the online recruits) still has resonance even for those who disbelieve. I wouldn’t be surprised at all: symbols are like that. But I can be awed by the magic of Gandalf without believing he really exists. And if I grew up in a house where Tolkien was a fixture, I bet my awe would show up as a blip on a my conductance data chart, too. But people respond to symbols for many different reasons: to say I believed in Gandalf would be ludicrous.
Still, make no mistake – this is the direction we’re headed in. “Tommy says he likes pudding, but our best test results disagree. So give him jello.”
He’ s just a person, after all: what does he know?