The New Psychology of Atheism

“Do I believe in God?”

This is a question many people will ask themselves this week – even if only to themselves – as they go to church to commemorate Easter.

Religious beliefs and behaviors are changing. According to the most recent Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study, the number of Americans who aren’t affiliated with any religion has grown substantially over the past 7 years, rising from 16% to nearly 23% of the population. Some of these individuals are disconnected from organized religion, while others are atheistic or agnostic.

It often is assumed that belief in God, or lack thereof, is based upon intellectual reasoning. For instance, some atheists argue that God is unlikely to exist because of Occam’s razor, a logical principle basically stating that, all things being equal, the view most likely to be true is the one with the least assumptions. Only in the past couple of years have psychological scientists turned their attention to non-intellectual factors that may influence unbelief.

For example, in research published last week by the American Psychological Association, two studies were conducted on relational and emotional factors that may influence those holding atheistic or agnostic views. In both studies, for instance, research participants rated, on a scale from 0 to 10, the extent to which they were influenced by “experiences of disappointment, anger, hurt, alienation, mistrust, or other negative feelings focused on God; seeing God as cruel, uncaring, or punishing.”

In the first of two studies, 171 American adults were asked about their reasons for nonbelief, as well as emotions they felt toward a god or gods that they hypothetically imagined, and various indicators of negative emotionality. Results showed that 54% of those who self-reported that they were atheists or agnostics indicated some relational and emotional reasons for nonbelief. In the second study, 72% of 429 American adults who expressed some level of atheism or agnosticism endorsed similar reasons. In both studies, the extent to which research participants revealed relational and emotional reasons for nonbelief was associated with various indicators of negative emotionality, such as trait anger, psychological entitlement, and fearful / preoccupied attachment styles.

This new research is consistent with the results of earlier research showing that 44% of atheists self-reported that at least some of their doubts, or at least some of their decision not to believe in God, were due to emotional reasons. These individuals, whom the researchers called “emotionally engaged atheists,” were more characterized by negative emotionality, as well as stronger negative reactions to stressful events, compared with non-emotionally engaged atheists.

This research complements decades of other research on non-intellectual factors influencing those who are religious. Overall, this literature shows that religious beliefs are influenced by a dynamic interplay among biological, psychological, social, and emotional factors. For instance, behavioral genetics research shows that approximately 50% of the individual differences among us in levels of personal religiousness can be explained by a genetic predisposition, perhaps rooted in underlying personality factors. Other research shows that loss of control often results in changes to religious belief and behavior.

None of this says anything about the truthfulness of the existence of God, or lack thereof. However, it does add evidence to the view that non-intellectual factors are implicated in religious beliefs – whether those beliefs affirm or deny the existence of the supernatural.



2 thoughts on “The New Psychology of Atheism

  1. Gladys Tritle and Doug Nicholas

    Thoughtful and insightful, Andy. Thanks! Very helpful during Holy Week! DN

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Pingback: “Done” with Religion? | The Quest for a Good Life

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