Do Atheists Reason Implicitly in Theistic Terms?

Since many people argue that they are immune to any form of supernatural reasoning, recent theoretical claims regarding the universality or “default” cognitive bases of religious belief are justifiably met with skepticism by non-religious individuals. Indeed, atheists pose a special problem for such cognitive accounts of religion because they appear to contradict the assumption that human beings intuitively reason in supernatural terms. Although religious belief is increasingly the subject of empirical attention by cognitive scientists, the phenomenon of disbelief has been a comparatively neglected topic of investigation. Either atheists are qualitatively different types of thinkers from religious individuals (lacking so-called supernatural intuitions) or they somehow manage to suppress or executively override their supernatural intuitions. In the present study, a sample of US and UK self-professed theists (n=34) and atheists (n=34) were told that they were participating in an online study of autobiographical memories. Although theists gave significantly more teleological (i.e., inherent purpose-based) explanations regarding their major life events, the majority of atheists also reasoned about their major life events in such terms—things happened to them “because they needed to learn a lesson” or were “meant to be at that time.” These data suggest that reasoning in teleo-functional terms about one’s own major life events may be a sort of “explanatory default” operating even in the narrative styles of those who explicitly reject supernatural explanations.

Jesse Bering + Bethany Heywood
DO ATHEISTS REASON IMPLICITLY IN THEISTIC TERMS? EVIDENCE OF TELEO-FUNCTIONAL BIASES IN THE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NARRATIVES OF NONBELIEVERS.
Abstract: 11th Annual meeting of Society of Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). Las Vegas, 2010.

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