Do even atheists see a purpose behind random life events?

Do even atheists see a purpose behind random life events? November 5, 2013

Teleological thinking – confusing effects and purpose – has often been suggested to be linked to religious beliefs. Examples include the belief that the sun is hot in order to keep us warm, or that a tragedy that has befallen you actually happened to give you an opportunity to re-evaluate your life.

Previous research has indicated that everyone is susceptible to this kind of thinking. If so, that would suggest that culture, rather than predisposition, explains why some people are more religious than others. Bethany Heywood and Jesse M. Bering, at Ashford University in Iowa , USA, wanted to know if that was true.

They interviewed 68 atheists and theists from the UK and the USA, asking them about significant life events that had happened to them, and why they thought they had happened.

What they found that theists were much more likely than atheists to give teleological explanations for life events (see graphic) However: “Half of the atheists in the present study gave Teleological responses, although they did so significantly less than theists when the volume of responses from each group was examined.”

True the atheist responses did not mention god or any kind of cosmic cause, but nonetheless they did sometimes betray a teleological urge. here’s an example:

Q. Did this [failing an important course] deserve to happen to you?
Atheist: I don’t know, maybe it happened for a reason
Q. What reason do you think that might be?
Atheist: so that I could see that even if I failed a course, my life wouldn’t actually end

What is going on here? Heywood and Bering suggest two possibilities.

Perhaps everyone has teleological predispositions, but atheists are better at over-riding them (although sometimes they slip up).

On the other hand, perhaps atheists really have fewer teleological biases. Remarkably, they link this to poor social skills:

Since social cognitive skills underlie this ability to perceive purpose and meaning behind events in one’s life, could it also be that atheists have deficits in social cognitive capabilities compared with their religious counterparts?

I think that’s a bit of a stretch. I think that the main reason why atheists are more sceptical about these kinds of ‘hidden meanings’ is that they are much more accepting of coincidences. They’re much more relaxed about the idea that things just happen, and aren’t so driven to find causal connections between apparently random events.
Bethany T. Heywood, & Jesse M. Bering (2013). “Meant to be”: how religious beliefs and cultural religiosity affect the implicit bias to think teleologically Religion, Brain & Behavior DOI: 10.1080/2153599X.2013.782888

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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