In theory, if an atheist asked God to do something horrible, it would be meaningless to that person and not generate much anxiety.
But, in practice, atheists and religious people reacted the same when daring God to do terrible things, according to a study out of Finland.
The study, which is to be published in International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, asked 16 self-described atheists and 13 religious people how they felt about statements such as “I wish my parents would drown” and “I dare God to drown my parents.”
Predictably, the religious folks said they felt more uncomfortable about invoking God to do horrible things than the atheists. But when researchers hooked all the subjects up skin conductance meters, they found something different.
"The skin test, which measures stress by sensing how much people sweat, revealed that the non-believers were just as bothered as the believers, even though an atheist ought to regard any statement calling on God to do something as meaningless," wrote Daniel Akst for the Wall Street Journal.
No one is saying the test proves the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes.
But the "study does seem to suggest that the idea of God is extremely powerful, even in a relatively secular society like Finland," wrote Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
"I do think it’s fair to say that tests like these could show that most atheists do not think God is a delusion, as Richard Dawkins argued in his famous 2005 book 'The God Delusion,’ ” wrote Trent Horn at Catholic Answers.
The researchers offer a few theories as to why atheists showed stress, including a past belief in deity that can't be shaken.
Both Bartlett and Horn wondered what the results would have been if they had asked the subjects the same questions using a clearly false diety such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Golden Magic Squirrel.
"In an e-mail, one of the authors, Marjaana Lindeman, an adjunct professor of cognitive psychology and neuropsychology at the University of Helsinki, refrained from mocking the idea of the Golden Magic Squirrel," Bartlett wrote. “ ‘Unfortunately we did not include (the) statements you mentioned,' (Lindeman) wrote. 'This would indeed be an important question for future studies.’ ”