Existential Comfort Without God

COSMIC PERSPECTIVE: People are able to readily construct “natural” explanations that offer some measure of existential comfort. “Stars have grown and life has started,” one participant observed. “As someone else said, ‘We are the universe experiencing itself,’ which is beautiful and should be treasured.”luboffke / Shutterstock

Can natural explanations to life’s big questions be as consoling as religious ones?


Last month, Harvard University named a new Chief Chaplain: Greg Epstein, an atheist. As reported in The New York Times,1 Epstein, the campus humanist chaplain, was unanimously elected to “coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and other religious communities on campus.” Perusing the hundreds of reader comments generated by the Times article revealed broad support. While some questioned whether an atheist could be a “real” chaplain, others suggested that appointing a humanist was a clever move—a way to have a neutral figure in a position of power.

Yet, across a chasm of difference, both reactions share a problematic assumption: that humanist commitments—by virtue of omitting belief in God(s)—involve no basis for religious authority, indeed no commitments at all. In stark contrast, the Harvard students interviewed about Epstein praised his ability to support an authentic quest for meaning without belief in God. “Being able to find values and rituals but not having to believe in magic,” A.J. Kumar, former president of a Harvard humanist group, was quoted as saying, “that’s a powerful thing.” But is it really possible to have meaning (the values and sense of purpose) without magic (the supernatural beings and metaphysics)? Are the commentators right to treat humanism as an absence of meaningful commitments, versus a commitment to humanistic sources of value and meaning?

This is partly a question for philosophers and theologians. (Epstein himself is the author of a book titled Good Without God.) But it’s also a question about the human mind. In the language of psychology: Can people get the benefits of canonically religious beliefs from naturalistic alternatives? (Call this “the humanist’s path” to meaning without magic.) Can people “believe” in God—and get the benefits of doing so—without taking the supernatural elements of their belief to be true? (Call this “the theist’s path” to meaning without magic.)

Research in psychology and the cognitive science of religion offers some answers, but they’re not without nuance. For example, there’s evidence that scientific beliefs can deliver some of the benefits of religion,2 but there’s also evidence that some scientific beliefs—such as human evolution—are widely seen as a threat to human values.3 There’s evidence that people use language differently when reporting religious beliefs versus other commitments about the world4 (e.g., people believe in God, but think there are atoms, with analogs in other languages5), but there’s also evidence that religious and scientific beliefs reflect common psychological mechanisms.6

In a set of studies forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Telli Davoodi and I offer a fresh take on these questions with evidence from a novel source: the psychology of existential curiosity.

Across three studies, we asked participants to consider the kinds of existential questions that typically elicit a range of both religious and non-religious responses. How did the universe come to exist? Why is there suffering in the world? What happens after we die? Answers to these questions can differ in a variety of ways—offering comfort or eliciting anxiety; fostering meaning or prompting despair; offering evidence or merely wishful thinking. We were interested in the characteristics of religious versus non-religious answers to such questions, including whether participants could find ways to offer existential comfort without appeal to God(s).

At least when it comes to satisfying existential anxiety, value and meaning can come without a commitment to supernatural metaphysics and magic.

In one study, 494 participants recruited online within the United States were presented with one of our three existential questions, and they were asked to offer their best answer. Critically, though, we asked some participants to ground their answer in logic and evidence, and others to offer comfort and peace of mind. As a baseline for comparison, we asked a third group to write answers that were clear and grammatical—instructions intended to be neutral with respect to evidence or peace of mind.

The first notable result was that asking participants to ground their answers in logic and evidence made them less likely to offer religious explanations: The rate went from around 34 percent in the baseline condition to 23 percent in the condition emphasizing logic and evidence. By contrast, the percentage of scientific explanations increased, from 53 percent to 71 percent.

But the most striking results emerged when participants were asked to generate existential explanations that offered comfort and peace of mind. These instructions made participants most likely to generate explicitly religious or spiritual explanations—the proportion of such explanations jumped from 34 percent in the baseline condition to over 56 percent in the comfort condition…



F. Kaskais Web Guru

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