Clay Routledge: About Atheism

Augustine Pamplany CST

A recent study by Clay Routledge and his team at North Dakota University concludes: “People just think of atheism as a very narrow technical definition. ….But even in Pew research survey data, the number of people that say they’re atheist doesn’t map perfectly among the people who say they don’t believe in God. Even among atheists, there’s a difference in uncertainty.” They were devising experiments to see if day-to-day fluctuations in mental outlook would make people more or less open to so-called magical or supernatural thinking. Feelings such as everything happens for a reason, there are supernatural forces at work, alien conspiracy theories are true, etc., are considered as examples of such magical thinking in the experiment.

Atheism is often defined as the absence of faith in God or the negation of the existence of God. Social scientists have embarked on studying the phenomenon of atheism in empirical ways. They come up with many interesting findings. One factor that emerges from these studies is that atheism is a very complex phenomenon with diverse expressions, but many of them still make room for the supernatural.

In the experiment a control group read out a philosophical essay dealing with the littleness of the individual in the universe. It was an intellectually stimulating essay with no spiritual content. After the preparations, the control group and the atheists were surveyed for their openness to the supernatural. The results were surprising. The non-believers who read the essay was more open to entertaining magical beliefs about extraterrestrials than the control group. “We never expected that you can take atheists and have them think about meaning for a few minutes and then all of the sudden they’re going to be like radical believers. But the idea is that just at this basic cognitive level can you crack the door a little bit? Does having people think about meaning make them just a little more open to magical ideas? That’s what we’ve found.” The psychological finding from this experiment is that the level of the “need for meaning” makes the difference between the believers and non-believers. The need for meaning was found to be the most reliable predictor of the level of a person’s belief in the supernatural. According to Routledge, “Some people are clearly oriented to thinking about meaning all the time. Other people just honestly don’t care for the most part. What we found was that individual differences in need for meaning was a very strong predictor of religiosity and related beliefs and practices.”

These finding might annoy hard-core atheists as it implies that their non-belief is not all that rational. Routledge admits that “there’s a dogmatic group that is not open to the idea that they might be seduced.” By examining the differences in the need for meaning between individuals and investigating the various other habits of mind like intuitive thinking, the next phase of this study envisages to show that “theism and atheism might be seen not as full opposites or even enemies, but rather as siblings.”


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