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When The Going Gets Tough, The Atheists Go Praying

Atheism is a luxury of the well-to-do and the comfortable.

In India Vs. Pakistan Cricket Matches, Flags--and Passion--Fly High

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Those of us who watched the recent Cricket game between arch-rivals India and Pakistan were treated to a fascinating, but not at all rare, spectacle: as the game grew tense, both Indian and Pakistani fans started praying to their respective Gods. Pakistanis, who are mostly Muslim, closed their eyes, raised their palms above their head, and swayed back and forth as they chanted. Indians, mostly Hindu, lit incense sticks to propitiate the elephant God, Ganesh, and recited Sanskrit hymns.

"Do you think these fans believe in God?"

Many people may well answer: "Of course!"

But, here's an intriguing thought: Is it possible that some of these fans would have classified themselves as atheists before the game began? I think so. Perhaps atheism is a luxury of the well-to-do. Put differently, everyone--even the most hardcore atheists, I think--will start believing in God if put under a high amount of stress. Think of the last time you prayed to God, and I will bet that, for many of you (whether you generally classify yourself as an atheist or not), it would have been when you were under stress. For most of us so-called atheists, when things go horribly wrong, we think of God.

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It is well known that smart and educated people are more likely to be atheists. But it's also true that smart and educated people are more likely to do well in life. As studies have shown, there is a significant relationship between both IQ and education and income levels. Therefore, smart and educated people have less to worry about in life. So, isn't it possible that there is a greater representation of atheists among the smart and educated because they have fewer worries to contend with?

Hindu Elephant God, Ganesh
This theory makes all the more sense if one considers the role that belief in God serves. As several scholars of religion, including Richard Dawkins (of The God Delusion fame), have argued, people believe in God because it gives them a sense of security and comfort. We live in a world full of uncertainties. None of us--and this is especially true for those who are educated and smart--can claim that we know what the future holds. Further, we don't know why we are here on this earth. Indeed, stop and think about it: the fact that there is such a thing called life, and that we are on a piece of rock called Earth rotating at an incredible speed around a ball of fire called the Sun seems ridiculous and bizarre. And then there is the mother of all uncertainties: What happens after death? As researchers like Pyszinski, Greenberg and Solomon have argued, the thought of death terrorizes us and is an important reason for believing in God.

What this theory suggests, then, is that whether you believe in God is not as much a matter of how smart or educated you are, but rather, a matter of whether life has worked out in a way that makes you feel comfortable enough to be an atheist. The smart just happen to be lucky enough to lead a comfortable life, and this comfort affords the luxury of atheism.

The idea that even hardcore atheists will, beyond a threshold level of stress, believe in God may sound unlikely to the die-hard atheist. But, perhaps that's because you haven't been put under a sufficiently high level of stress. And it's also because you have faulty intuitions about human nature: You believe that your identity (as an atheist) is set in stone, and can't be changed. However, findings show, for most traits, there is no such thing as a stable personality. Instead, we have propensities. For instance, we all have the propensity to be both a saint and a sinner, and whether we exhibit saintly or sinful behavior at a particular point in time depends on the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Don't believe me? Consider Philip Zimbardo's "broken window" theory. In one of his studies, Zimbardo left a car on the streets of Palo Alto for two weeks. During the first week, the car looked like any other car parked on the street: nothing in it was broken. After the first week, Zimbardo deliberately broke one of the car's windows. Zimbardo was interested in assessing whether, by merely breaking the window, he had enhanced the chances that it would be vandalized. That's indeed what he had found. This experiment shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the world is not made up of two sets of people: vandals and non-vandals. Rather, the world is made up of people who all have a propensity to vandalize, and whether one of us vandalizes or not may depend more on something as subtle as whether we see a broken window or not--and not necessarily on our personality. This is one reason why the same person can exhibit seemingly contradictory behaviors in different contexts: like littering when in India, but not doing so when in the U.S.

Extrapolated to the topic of God: This means that no one is a complete atheist or, for that matter, a complete believer in God. Each of us has a propensity to be somewhere on that continuum. And even a hardcore atheist may exhibit belief in God if he feels his life is sufficiently broken.

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor affiliated with the Department of Marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.

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