There Is No God-Shaped Hole

In A Shattered Visage, a book-length emotional rant against atheism, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias puts forth the following assertion:

The words of Augustine are most appropriate: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Or, as Pascal put it, “There is a godshaped vacuum in the heart of every man, and only God can fill it.” [p.89]

Although they probably don’t realize it, apologists who say this have committed themselves to a testable prediction: even after controlling for all confounding factors, believers, on average, should be happier than atheists. After all, that’s just a more precise restatement of what they’ve always claimed: that belief in God fills an emotional void that can’t be quenched by other means, that it’s a source of strength and contentment that atheists can never match, etc., etc.

Well, the test has been done. As reported in a recent issue of Free Inquiry, Michigan psychology professor Luke Galen conducted a personality survey of members of the Center for Inquiry Michigan, using members of two local churches as a control group. Some of the findings weren’t too surprising:

One area of identifiable difference was that the churched participants perceived themselves as having a greater degree of social support from their social network relative to the CFI/Michigan members.

The dimension that showed the greatest distinction between religious and nonreligious was the previously mentioned “Openness to experience” [according to the study, this personality trait "involves a high need for cognition, intellectual engagement, and interest in new experiences" —Ebonmuse]… nonreligious individuals reported being more intellectually oriented and unconventional.

Another personality dimension that distinguished the religious from the nonreligious was “agreeableness” (a quality of being amiable or nonconfrontational as opposed to skeptical of others). The church sample was higher in agreeableness.

But the real meat of this study is its findings on life satisfaction and emotional well-being. Prof. Galen makes the point that previous studies, which often found that higher religiosity is correlated with greater life satisfaction, are methodologically flawed. They treated all the nonreligious as a single group, lumping together strong atheists with people who are doubters, who are unsure, even some who are weak believers. This study clearly differentiates among those groups by correlating people’s confidence in their beliefs – from those who are absolutely certain there is no god to those who are absolutely certain there is – with their self-reported levels of happiness and satisfaction in life.

The relationship that emerged from the data is best described as curvilinear. Rather than a straight line of rising satisfaction linked to increased religious belief, the survey found that the highest life satisfaction was found on both ends of the spectrum – the confident atheists and the confident theists. The happiness and emotional stability of these two groups were statistically equivalent, exceeding that of the general population. It was the doubters and the seekers, the people in the middle who weren’t sure either way, who were worse off.

From what we know of human psychology, or from the personal experience of many happy and contented atheists, this is no surprise. But it does provide us with some concrete, rather than anecdotal, data to vanquish the apologists who implausibly claim that, over billions of lives throughout thousands of years of human history, members of their particular sect are the only ones who have the true key to happiness. The truth is that atheists can be, and are, just as happy as the most devoted of religious believers.

Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches
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New on the Guardian: The Peaceful Side of Atheism
Weekend Coffee: March 28
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Timothy Mills

    A delightful finding – though it agrees so strongly with my expectations that I’ll have to be especially careful in how I interpret it.

    For example, although the study seems to have been conducted competently, it doesn’t seem to have been published in a peer-reviewed journal. For all the same reasons that we are suspicious of results reported by (say) cdesign proponentsists in their own publications, we should reserve judgment on this study until it has been vetted by peers who (let’s face it) are more equipped to spot the flaws than most of us are.

    Now, assuming that they accept the study as responsibly carried out and showing what it claims to, the obvious out for folks who don’t want to contradict Augustine and Pascal is that the study isn’t measuring “true” happiness. True happiness(tm) is clearly only experienced by people who accept the One Actual Truth(tm). How do you know if it’s the One Actual Truth(tm)? Because upon accepting it you experience True Happiness(tm).

  • Slater

    Here’s some more evidence to support the same thing:

    - Denmark is currently the “happiest country in the world”, according to a large survey. At the same time, it is one of the least religious. In 1999 24% of Danes believed in a personal god, while 36% more believed in some sort of spiritual power, leaving 40% atheists. That number has reportedly increased to about 50/50 now.
    Source in Danish:

  • Thumpalumpacus

    With Timothy’s caveats in mind, the results here are unsurprising. I find the burden of satisfying my own personal demands that I be moral, contributive, and kind to be more fulfilling than trying to please an immoral and implacable deity. Simply, I’m much happier as an atheist, because I am a better person for it.

  • Alex Weaver

    Cue quote-mining by exponents of the “atheism is just another religion” conceit in 3, 2, 1…

  • Penguin_Factory

    I’d love to know how these people come to the conclusion that a “god shaped hole” exists. Did they honestly seek out and fairly evaluate the happiness and contentment of non-religious people, or did they simple do a quick mental check of their preconceptions and then spout out the estimated outcome?

  • D

    “Of course the strong disbelievers are as happy as the True Believers, because they’ve filled the God-shaped hole with Satan, drugs, and extramarital sex! That’s their religion! This way they can be just as happy as the believers without needing to adhere to the moral strictures of religion!”

    Ow, ow, ow! Cognitive dissonance hurts!

    I think this is an illuminating study and an interesting article (bearing in mind the concerns voiced and seconded above), but I have to say, this isn’t quite what I think of as the “God-shaped hole.” Going by Augustine’s and Pascal’s words, that’s clearly what they meant, though, so I won’t dispute that; I’ll just pose it as its own issue: the “god-spot.”

    Looking around, it seems that the “god-spot” can be taken by pretty much anything: political leaders, celebrities, statist ideas, etc. Maybe it should be called an “authority-shaped hole,” but that’s not quite what I’m after. “Idol-shaped hole,” perhaps? Point is, a whole lot of people seem to have something which they take very seriously, and whenever someone questions/insults/dismisses that thing, the person in question just loses their shit. For many believers, it’s their idea of a god. For many Americans, it was former President Dubya the Lionhearted. For that one crying emo kid on YouTube, it was Britney Spears (this guy was bawling because people were making fun of Britney; can’t find the video from work, not that important).

    For me, it’s the idea that “there is such a thing as reality, at some level or other.” I don’t know why, but whenever someone tries to seriously argue that nothing at all is real in any sense of the term at all, I can’t stay calm – it truly upsets me that a person could consider that they are not actually having any experiences and there is no such thing as reality at any level. I actually struck a friend over this once (and almost twice, when he insisted that the first blow had never happened – I had to be restrained) – it’s one of the things I’m most ashamed of in my life, to find out that I can still be driven to violence over mere ideas. At any rate, that was my “god-spot,” and it seems like just about everybody has one. Or is that just a process of me moving my threshold for violence to more and more esoteric matters?

  • Polly

    There Is No God-Shaped Hole

    And we’re not entirely sure about the other G-spot, either.
    Nevertheless, we have men on the job, searching 24/7. (sometimes, even a few scientists, though currently “lay”-people have the run of this vital field of research)

    Rest assured, if it’s there, we’ll (eventually) find stumble clumsily upon it.

  • the chaplain

    Rest assured, if it’s [the G-spot] there, we’ll (eventually) find stumble clumsily upon it.

    And what a blessed night that will be . :)

  • Alex, FCD

    (sometimes, even a few scientists, though currently “lay”-people have the run of this vital field of research)

    The problem with this field of research is that it’s difficult to convince people to have sex in a laboratory.

  • Mark C.

    Ravi came to my university last year to talk. I wrote down several pages of his bullshit and may yet make a YouTube video refuting him.

  • Danikajaye

    I have no God-shaped hole. If I ever accepted god it would create a bible shaped chasm that used to be filled my self respect, my feelings of worth as a female, my thirst for scientific knowledge and my love for my gay friends.

  • Spanish Inquisitor

    And what a blessed night that will be . :)

    And what makes you think it will be nighttime?

  • Von

    Since I’ve stopped believing in an afterlife, I cherish every moment of this one. I have prioritised differently and I am a lot more happy because of it.

    Incidentally, since I now spend a lot more time with the missus a lot more ‘G spot’ experimentation is being done. When I find the empirical evidence, sorry, I’m keeping it to myself.

  • Lyndi

    I recall a study I read years ago about who had a greater fear of death, the religious or the non-religious. The findings were much the same as this one: those who firmly believed in heaven (and assumed they were going to end up there) and those who firmly believed that they would be left as nothing but a rotting corpse both had a lesser fear of death than those who were uncertain or wavering in their beliefs. Seems that personal certainty gives a person a feeling of confidence that leaves them more satisfied, happy. I find it to be a bit of a shame that our brains seem to be wired this way… I’d like to see more humans prefer to question everything rather than assuming one way or another is absolutely correct.

  • Mary

    I agree with Lyndi – it’s a shame that we are wired to be happier with more certainty. That seems like a simplistic happiness. Learning to be happy with the unknown (not relying on “certain” beliefs that can actually change or expand at any time as the foundation of our happiness) seems like a worthy goal to me. Perhaps those who have this rare quality find greater happiness than those on either “certain” side of the God question.

  • Von


    Good point. The question always comes up in my mind whether or not my current perspective is correct and this can cause me a fair bit a grief if I allow it to.

    I’ve learnt to focus on family to forget about the God question for at least the time being. Without going into the religious part of the practice, I also find buddhist meditation quite helpful to focus my thought.

  • bbk

    It’s a nice correlation, but I’m not sure what it really says about us. What do both groups have in common? It could be that people who have high levels of confidence are happier and confidence may be a factor in how firmly we believe in anything. But then how do you explain what Slater said about Denmark? If a country has 50% atheists and they are the happiest in the world, why are most countries that are full of fanatical religious extremists the unhappiest? What would explain that? Education? But then what makes uneducated fanatics happy in the first place? There has to be another causal factor that the study didn’t look at.

  • Wednesday

    Maybe it should be called an “authority-shaped hole,” but that’s not quite what I’m after.

    I like how Terry Pratchett puts it, in Feet of Clay:

    It seemed to be a chronic disease. It was as if even the most intelligent person had this little blank spot in their heads where someone had written: “Kings. What a good idea.” Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw. It was its tendency to bend at the knees.

    Commander Vimes is ostensibly musing about kings and royalty, but after rereading the book a few times I’m convinced that Pratchett is also referring to other sorts of authority here.

  • bbk

    I’m thinking it’s a puppet hole. Shaped just right for the “Right Hand Of God”,

  • D

    “Kings. What a good idea.”

    Yeah, exactly! It’s so freakin’ frustrating! But c’est la vie, I guess. (BBK – I like your comment, I wanna just take it and run with it!)

  • mikespeir

    It’s not a God-shaped hole, it’s a security-shaped hole. What we’re all yearning to find is absolute security. And we’re always inventing things in the quest to make us more secure. The tribe next across the hollow has clubs, so we invent spears. We feel more secure–at least until they invent bows and arrows. Now not only are we not more secure, we’re less secure because we can kill each other in greater numbers. And the lions and bears and volcanoes and earthquakes and floods and hurricanes, etc. are still too much for us. So we come up with another invention: gods, beings who are greater than anything Man or Nature can throw at us. They’ll protect us. Then we feel secure for real. At least we do until it dawns on us that now we have more to fear from the gods than we ever did from Man and Nature. We’ve created the ultimate security blanket that just coincidentally can smother us more surely than anything else ever could.

    Imagination is a wunnerful thing, but gods are one invention we would’ve been better off without.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Happiness is seriously overrated. As are security, stability, and safety. It’s easy to be happy. It’s much harder to live a life worth living, as a real participant, aware, present, engaged. I’ll take Truth over Happiness any day. I think it’s pretty much impossible to be both cognizant of the state of the world and happy at the same time. I prefer fulfilled, satisfied, or accomplished.

  • UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 9/20/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • Alex Weaver

    Heh. I’ve thought of a good rejoinder. “If a god-shaped hole exists it is not in my heart, but rather in your cerebrum.”

  • mikespeir

    Here’s another thought. The origin of this “God-shaped hole” stuff is Pascal’s Pensee #425. There, he says this about it: “…the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.”

    Does the apologist who cites Pascal and William Lane Craig note the contradiction? Pascal says the “hole” is an infinite abyss–which he must, because he already has a Plug in mind: God, who is also, he says, infinite. WLC, on the other hand, in Kalam insists there’s no such thing as an actual infinite–not even God.

  • Alex, FCD

    Does the apologist who cites Pascal and William Lane Craig note the contradiction? Pascal says the “hole” is an infinite abyss–which he must, because he already has a Plug in mind: God, who is also, he says, infinite. WLC, on the other hand, in Kalam insists there’s no such thing as an actual infinite–not even God.

    The contradiction can be wriggled out of by claiming that Pascal was employing a rhetorical device, much in the same way that somebody might claim “Michael Owen is and infinitely better striker than Didier Drogba” (if they had never seen either of them play and were fuzzy on what sport we’re talking about). Pascal, being a mathematician, would have known quite well that you can’t really have an infinite amount of mental hole.

  • mikespeir

    They can always wiggle, Alex. They always will. I could counter that Pascal, being one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, would not have used “infinite” so carelessly. And besides, if you’ll note my snippet of quote, he wasn’t only talking about a “mental hole” (I suspect he would have objected to calling it that, anyway), he was also calling God “an infinite and immutable object,” something that would fill this “infinite abyss.” Now, WLC might protest that God isn’t actually infinite, but I sure doubt he would say God is not immutable. But why would Pascal have used “infinite” figuratively but “immutable” literally? That’s very poor form. WLC and Pascal would have to fight this one out, I think.

  • Alex, FCD

    WLC and Pascal would have to fight this one out, I think.

    Round. One. Fight!

    Anyhow, one might plausibly object that the infinitude of the abyss was rhetorical (the abyss itself is a metaphor), while Pascal actually thought that God was infinite. That would be an acceptable, if unusual, bit of parallel construction.

    And even if WLC and Pascal do contradict each other in terms of infinity denial, is there really a problem in citing both of them in support of an argument? I, for one, have no problem quoting both Werner “Uncertainty” Heisenberg and Albert “No Dice” Einstein in the same sentence.

  • mikespeir

    I would be interested to know what Craig thinks of the Pascal argument. Sadly, not enough to spend a lot of time researching it.

  • Slater

    It’s not a God-shaped hole, it’s a security-shaped hole.

    That’s actually an interesting point. Denmark, as I mentioned earlier, is a socialist country. You always know that if you get sick, you can see a doctor, get operations, pacemakers, etc. for free, no matter who you are. You know that if you lose your job or your home, the government will give you a place to live and money to live off. You know if you CAN’T work any more, due to any physical or mental disability, the government will help you get an easy job or a pension. As a kid or parent you know almost all schools and higher educations are completely free, so no need to worry about social heritage etc.
    Same thing in Sweden and Norway, which are also very high on atheism.

    - This is pure speculation, but is it possible that a high level of social security at least partly eliminates the need for security through God?

  • EdSG

    This is pure speculation, but is it possible that a high level of social security at least partly eliminates the need for security through God?

    In the September 19th episode of Freethought Radio Gregory S. Paul argues that that is the case: lack of social safety nets correlated with religiosity.

  • mikespeir

    All this is basic Maslow, of course. (Why didn’t his parents name him Lazlo? What an opportunity missed!)

  • Slater

    Thanks for the link, EdSG.

  • Jessica Sideways

    Sure, there’s a God shaped hole, where do you think the theists have their head stuck up?

  • Kennypo65

    When I’m blue I sit back and think about my family and friends, what they mean to me, how much I love them, and how they enrich my life. I’m feeling better in no time. No god stuff, just human stuff.

  • John Nernoff

    The claim of a “God” shaped hole is a trick of inventive worthsmithing, a poetic metaphor, a bit of circular reasoning and begging the question which ASSUMES some human need (loneliness, worry about mortality, meaning of life) and handily “finds” the answer just lying around nearby which ASSUMES the characteristics needed to exactly neutralize the needs and anxieties just mentioned.

    Nobody ever describes the “God” in specific terms that anyone can observe and confirm. Nobody says how the “God” operates, what’s it made of, how it creates entire solar systems and galaxies. It’s never explicated. We never SEE the God before neutral observers; it’s always some ancient mystic or somebody on Times Square holding a brown paper bag, or some cartoon character in a really big rich mansion wearing a mitre that tells us ABOUT the God, but we never get to see any part of it. Now they resort to calling it a hole. an empty hole. This is actually as close to what God has been all along then any thing they have produced so far.