The Big Questions

Life, death and free will.

Do Atheists Implicitly Believe in God and Life After Death?

Atheism and implicit belief in the Supernatural

Are atheists actually theists on an implicit, subconscious level?

In my research, atheists (not shockingly) report extremely low levels of afterlife belief and belief in God (Means around 1.3 on a 1-5 scale, with 5 the highest). But, do atheists really not believe in these concepts, and can certain situations make them more open to these beliefs?

To answer this, it is important to bring up that people have both explicit, conscious attitudes and implicit, subconscious, and more automatic, attidudes. Jonathan Haidt, a leading social psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia, compares these two systems to a rider (the conscious part) and an elephant (the implicit part). We think the rider is in control, but really, it is just in a constant struggle to contain the elephant, and it often fails. He has also used the analogy of an emotional dog with a rational tail (the tail being the conscious mind and the emotional dog being the implicit sytem). Point is that these more implicit feelings and attitudes are important.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

So, implicitly, do atheists believe in the Supernatural? Research suggests at least one instance in which this might be the case: when thinking of their own death.

In this study, atheists were randomly assigned to read either supposed evidence from near death experience reports that life after death is real or an essay arguing that these experiences do not prove that there is an afterlife. Then they were randomly assigned to write about death or a control topic. So, roughly 1/4 of the people were in one of four conditions: afterlife yes/death; afterlife yes/control; afterlife no/death; afterlife no/control.

Then after a delay and distraction (to make the thoughts of death implicit and outside of conscious awareness), participants (American) rated their agreement with an anti-American essay. Past research has found that when people are concerned with death, they agree less with this essay.

This study found that when atheists read an essay arguing against life after death, they responded to thinking about their own death (relative to the control topic) with increased pro-American attitudes. However, when they first read the essay arguing for life after death, they did not respond with increased pro-American attitudes.

This suggests that atheists were protected from mortality concerns by reading evidence that there is life after death, but not by reading the opposite. It is difficult (impossible?) to think of an argument for these findings that does include atheists accepting life after death evidence when thinking about their own death. On some (implicit) level, they had to for these effects to occur.

Other lines of research have found that priming people to think about God leads them to do more pro-social behaviors (like helping, although I could see such a prime doing the opposite in some cases). Interestingly, in most of these studies (though not all) there is no effect of religious belief on this effect. In other words, just like highly religious people, the God prime leads atheists (or at least no religiously affiliated people) to behave more pro-socially. Again, especially when these primes are not conscious, it is difficult to imagine why these primes would have these effects if atheists did not hold some sort of theism.

Psychologist Jesse Bering and others have found evidence that children natually perceive themselves as inmaterial (spiritual) beings. They also perceive other people this way. For instance, they think dead beings maintain psychological states, but not biological states, and do not react with shock when it appears that someone has gone through a physical object.

It seems reasonable that these early traces of theism in children never entirely go away, even for adults who explicitly deny these beliefs. Of course, this is speculation. But, it does seem to make sense.

So, if you asked atheists, they wouldn't say that they believe in life after death or God (I have and they don't). But, if the study taps into more implicit, subconscious attitudes, then atheists show atittudinal and behavioral responses that are very suggestive of them believing in God and life after death.

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

more...

Subscribe to The Big Questions

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.