Atheists and the Supernatural

There was another interesting post this week from Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education – “Do Atheists Really Believe in God?” It cited a recent study in Finland.

In a forthcoming paper in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, titled “Atheists Become Emotionally Aroused When Daring God to Do Terrible Things,” researchers asked subjects to make the horrible statements mentioned above. Some statements were offensive (puppy kicking), some were malevolent (parents drowning), and some dared God to do awful stuff, to the subjects, their friends, or their families. Of the 29 subjects, 16 were self-described atheists and 13 were religious . . . .

Then subjects were asked to read aloud the statements while hooked up to a skin-conductance meter, which basically measures how much you sweat. The idea is that the more you perspire, the more worked up you are about a particular statement . . . . According to the skin-conductance tests, the atheists found asking God to harm them or others to be just as upsetting as religious folks did. The researchers also compared the reactions of the atheists when making statements like “I wish my parents were paralyzed” and “I dare God to paralyze my parents.” Atheists were, like believers, more bothered by the latter statement, if you believe the skin-conductance tests.

A number of comments responding to the post pointed out that the study may not prove very much. Perhaps the atheists were still affected by things they were taught as children, and so forth. What struck me, though, was Bartlett’s reference to the “supernatural.”

Very few of us would argue that “it’s OK to kick a puppy in the face.” That’s not a nice thing to say. Here’s an even less nice thing to say: “I wish my parents would drown.” . . . Now consider this statement: “I dare God to make my home catch fire.” It’s a little different, right? You’re still imagining a terrible event, but this time you’re invoking the supernatural. If you believe in God, and you believe that he answers your prayers, then you might worry that the Almighty would reduce your bungalow to cinders.

The reference to the “supernatural” comes off as if we’re all supposed to know what Bartlett is referring to, and many of us readers would probably say, “Well, yes, of course, we know what he means.” But do we?

A friend of mine, who was about to convert to Catholicism (from a not terribly popular form of Protestantism), once said to me that, if you remove the supernatural elements from Christianity, then what you end up with is something other than Christianity. I recently re-read a short essay by C. S. Lewis (“Horrid Red Things,” published in God in the Dock, 1970) that makes essentially the same argument. Now, even though I’m a fan of much of what Lewis had to say, I’m not sure that I agree.

In his essay, Lewis points out that critics of Xianity who ridicule us Christians for believing, say, in a sky palace (heaven) or having other ridiculous beliefs don’t understand that we’re simply using metaphors for ideas that we don’t and, for that matter, can’t understand in any sort of exact way. We could throw out the sky-palace metaphor and replace it with something else, but it would still be open to the same criticism — that it doesn’t make sense when taken literally. The best we can do is metaphor, and a sky palace is as good as any other metaphor. I’m generally fine with all this so far, except that I don’t care for the whole sky palace thing. Lewis then says that, no matter how much we might explain the metaphoric nature of our language and try to select metaphors and images more acceptable to our critics, we will still be left with a collection of beliefs that include the supernatural.

What will remain of the Creed after all their [Christians’] explanations and reinterpretations will still be something quite unambiguously supernatural.

This is where I have a problem. Lewis, too, speaks of the “supernatural” as if he and everyone else understand precisely what is meant by it. But how does anyone know that what we’re referring to is really supernatural? Why can’t the statements and descriptions that present themselves in supernatural terms be taken simply as metaphors for things that we don’t understand? In other words, I’m suggesting (and this is not original with me, but, if you think the insight is worth something, then you should definitely credit me with it) that there is nothing authentically supernatural but that, when we find ourselves trying to describe certain things that are very difficult or even nigh impossible to understand, there are times when we can hardly help but use language that appears to be referring to something supernatural.

I suppose a (very) brief example would help. Christians talk about Jesus as being “God incarnate.” We see in Jesus (in light of the stories/traditions about him) such a vivid embodiment of what one might call (unfortunately, this isn’t original with me either) the ethic of solidarity (with the poor, etc.) that we have to describe him as the embodiment of all that is good and right — namely, “God.” And we don’t use a simile and say that Jesus is like the embodiment of God. We come straight out and say he is the embodiment of God in human flesh. Fully divine and fully human. Does it sound supernatural? Of course. Is it really? I’m not so sure.

1 comment
  1. Regardless of belief or non-belief, God is usually at the center of a person’s thoughts. Sometimes atheists say “No God,” more than believers say “Yes God.” What does the obsession with higher beings say about humankind? Are we as a society most afraid of question marks?

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