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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Monday, March 21, 2016

Atheists Admit Their Disbelief Linked to Emotional Discomfort

Recently, I was on a college campus as a young atheist asked what I thought was the cause behind the growth in the number of people, especially young people, who don't identify as any particular religion. I answered that it is a pretty big question and I think the reasons are varied and diverse as the group to which he was referring. He didn't seem satisfied with that answer.

My young interlocutor may have believed that nonreligious belief is on the increase because human beings are less gullible than in past generations and more willing to believe science can explain the world better than religion. It seems to be a common assumption with those I engage online, even though science cannot banish God. But even if atheists mistakenly assume science can somehow disprove God, this isn't the real basis for their atheism.

Two new studies by the American Psychological Association confirm that disbelief in God for a significant percentage of atheists is not due to dispassionate reasoning, but the effect of emotional or relational discomfort with what they perceived God to be. According to an article in Psychology Today, which summarized the findings, "54% of self-reported atheists 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."1 Those are pretty high percentages of self-described atheists who admit to an emotional or psychological component contributing to their disbelief.

As the article notes, this isn't a new revelation. Previous studies have shown that atheists have negative feelings toward their conception of God2 and those emotions play a part in their being atheists. Dr. Paul C. Vitz in his book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism explored the link between what Vitz calls "interpersonal trauma with attachment insecurity" of atheists in history. He sees a link between disbelief on God and defective fathers in the lives of atheists, along with other factors.

What Atheists Themselves Say 

The interesting thing in these studies is that the findings are not a result of third party inference, but the admission of atheists themselves. It's nearly three quarters of atheists who are admitting an emotional reason as contributing to their atheism. Those numbers may be higher in actuality as self-reporting usually leads to lower than actual results. Some people may not realize certain emotional motivations and others may not want to admit to them. Regardless, the two studies referenced report the majority of atheists who participated do indeed have emotional reasons for not wanting God as they understand him to exist.

The reason all of this is important is a practical one. Just as dispassionate reasoning alone doesn't usually account for one's disbelief, it follows that dispassionate reasoning alone will only go so far in helping one believe in the God of the universe. As human beings, we are relational creatures. That's part of how we reflect God's image. If you're a master at facts and argumentation in defending the faith but you don't bother to get to know the person, you aren't going to be very effective. People are people and all want to feel like individuals who hold worth. That includes nonbelievers. Don't lead off conversations with your best arguments. Get to know one another. Build relationships. Show them real care and you may find a real person who's willing to share real hurts. Only then will they be really ready to listen.


1. Tix, Andy, PhD. "The New Psychology of Atheism." Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 21 Mar. 2016. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
2. Bradley, David F., Julie J. Exline, and Alex Uzdavines. "The God of Nonbelievers: Characteristics of a Hypothetical God." Science, Religion and Culture SRC 2.3 (2015): 120-30. Web.


  1. Anonymous4:45 AM

    Hi, Lenny! I'm curious - how did these figures compare to the proportion of Christians (or people in other religions) who indicated some emotional reasons for their belief?

    1. It's a good question, Sarah. I don't know. Plantinga would call belief in a Creator as properly basic--in other words, its something most people start with, not reason towards. That would explain why all people groups across history were religious in some way.

      However, the idea that emotion plays a part in decision making is not a knock. It's part of the way human beings filter data. My main point was simply to draw attention to the fact that atheists are not really all that different from everyone else in this regard.

  2. Lenny, I read over the article again and I think it's an important topic that really needs to pondered and discussed in more in our day. It does seem that our minds are getting tricked into thinking that humans base most of their decisions on “reason” (or logos) alone when we know at a core level in our being this is not so.

    John Dickson brings up Aristotle’s didactic writing in On Rhetoric. He relates it to persuasion but some of his points fit in well with your article. He says,

    “Pathos, the emotional or psychological dimension, also plays a role. Beliefs are formed not only by rationalisation but also by "attraction". Arguments we "like", whether because they are presented beautifully or because they resonate with our hopes, will usually be more persuasive than ones we find unpleasant. I think this partly explains why, despite having some great minds in the cause, atheism continues to be an important minority viewpoint. Whatever its intellectual credentials, taken seriously it offers a very bleak outlook.
    However, logos and pathos do not fully account for why we believe what we believe. Aristotle reserved a special place in his theory for what he called ethos, the social or ethical dimension. Not only do we tend to believe ideas we like, we also tend to accept the ideas of people we like.
    We now call this the ''sociology of knowledge'' but Aristotle put his finger on it centuries ago: "We believe good-hearted people to a greater extent and more quickly than we do others on all subjects in general and completely so in cases where there is not exact knowledge."
    A half-plausible argument will sound implausible from someone we dislike, and yet the same argument will seem fully plausible from someone we trust. How this works in practice is that our social context - where we grew up, the education we have received, the friends we hang out with and the community we choose to be part of - influence the beliefs we will adopt. Ethos is at the core of how beliefs work.”

  3. Anonymous1:54 PM

    I appreciate you clarifying that, Lenny; unfortunately, the piece didn't really come across that way. Think about it this way - if you saw a piece entitled 'Christians admit their belief is linked to emotional discomfort', would your first reaction be that this must be a piece about how Christians are making decisions in a pretty similar way to everyone else, or would it be that the author was singling out Christians as somehow different from everyone else in this regard?

    1. As I tried to explain in the beginning of the article, I primarily hear the claim that atheists are somehow different in their basis for their (non) belief in theism coming from atheists themselves. The terms "freethinker" and brights" come to mind immediately. My title is meant to catch the eye, certainly. But it is calling out those who wish to claim that non-belief in God is somehow rationally motivated while belief in God is based in fear, or tradition, or ignorance, or whatever else. That's why these studies are so interesting. They are evidence against that narrative.

  4. As a quick side note, though I appreciate the tenor of the article, the notion that the source of the discomfort lies in absent parents or attachment issues is disconcerting. From my own experience, many feel discomfort at the thought of the majority of the world going to hell for eternity (as it must include either Gandhi or MLK), discomfort at a jealous, angry god. Although I respect that many groups do not focus on these elements in monotheistic religion, the issues do tend to reside in them. Just a possible alternative source for the discomfort.


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