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Scientific explanations for why atheists and Christians are so hostile

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It is undeniably the case that the atheist/theist argument sparks more emotional exchanges than rational ones.

While one Atheist opinion blog states:

“We should boisterously and unashamedly make fun of people who invoke religion or mythical beings at every opportunity. We should make them embarrassed that they even opened their mouths.”

An analogous theist opinion blog states:

“I hate Atheists more than any group of people, because they claim to be pure and unbiased and that everyone else is living ‘under rules’ and it makes me angry …[Atheists make] the rest of us feel inferior. I've had so many … like them try to tell me what's right and what's wrong. They think that not having a religion is going to make them the fittest candidates for any roles in government, opinions, etc. Ugh, I despise them.”

This is not, of course, to say that either side presents their opinions entirely devoid of rational arguments, but rather that such arguments are overwhelmingly accompanied with – or overridden by – emotional shouting matches unbecoming of either side.

This is, of course, somewhat understandable on the side of the religious. They are not only defending their own eternal fate, but the fate of those they are trying to convince.

Moreover, the rules, mandates, and codes they seek to defend are backed by an eternal, all powerful judge; as opposed to atheism, whose rules can only really be imposed and advanced by fellow human beings.

One aspect of religion is the love, devotion, and worship of the object they seek to defend, whilst Atheism simply opposes an object in which they do not believe. Why, then, the hatred?

“Hate” may seem a strong word, but still an accurate one according to some studies.

One such study from the January 2011 edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when Atheists and Agnostics were prompted with measures related to past experiences, or with images of a hypothetical God, they responded with feelings of anger and bitterness.

In an ideal world, arguments and worldviews would be judged in a cold, rational way based on the supporting facts and logic. The conclusions thusly reached would then guide the actions and decisions of the person.

Do the conclusions of either Christianity or Atheism warrant the polarization and hatred?

Well, in the case of Christianity, presumably they do not. If Christianity is true, then the believer is compelled to follow the teachings and example of Christ who said such things as:

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” (Luke 6:27)

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

“…forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)

Do the conclusions of Atheism warrant hatred and strong emotions against the religious?

This is a little more difficult to say. Atheism, as a worldview, simply says that God does not exist. There is no atheist Bible, no “teachings” that atheists are compelled to follow, no moral, judicial, or political doctrines that can be drawn from disbelief, and no object of love or devotion inspired by such disbelief except, perhaps, one’s self.

However, since Atheism – in its purest form – is simply the opposition of a particular kind of belief, this may serve as a partial explanation of the negative emotions that accompany it.

Perhaps the sometimes fanatical opposition adopted by both sides of the argument can be partially explained by the work of Psychologist Dr David Lewis-Hodgson, director of research at Mindlab International.

In his recent book, The Brainsell, he explains the radical polarization that occurs in society over branding. It turns out that some of the shallow reasons that people adopt to defend a particular brand such as Coke ™ over Pepsi ™, or Mac over PC, are surprisingly similar to the vitriolic behavior of Christians and Atheists toward one another.

This list contains a number of reasons why religious and irreligious zealots behave so rudely toward one another.

This list is modified from a similar list in the article “Why Fanboys Act Like Jerks” written by Keza MacDonald, and published April 15th, 2014 on the Kotaku website. All quotes from Dr. Lewis are taken from this article.

The human mind will interpret the world in a way that supports our existing beliefs
The human mind will interpret the world in a way that supports our existing beliefs Getty Images

The human mind will interpret the world in a way that supports our existing beliefs

Known in popular psychology as “Cognitive Dissonance” this phenomena was first noted by psychologist Leon Festinger in his book When Prophecy Fails which followed the plight of a UFO cult who failed to meet their alien overlords on the predicted date, but bounced right back with an explanation as to why their predictions didn’t come true.

In branding, this was demonstrated in a blind-test study where people were asked to taste two sodas and mark the one that they liked best.

The subjects overwhelmingly chose Pepsi ™ when they didn’t know which soda they were drinking, but when they did, they nearly all preferred Coke ™.

This wasn’t just something they said, either. Studies of their brain activity showed that the preference registered in their brain was actually different when the brand name was known – their brain actually liked the label on the bottle better than it liked the taste of the beverage!

In religious studies this is evident as well. On the April 6th, 2014 episode of Atheist broadcast “Reasonable Doubts,” speaker Jeremy Beahan outlined a study he had participated in wherein he spoke to an audience about charity work he had done wearing a Christian fish symbol on his t-shirt, and then gave the same talk to an audience wearing the Darwin fish. The reactions of the audience were generally more positive to the first talk, whereas the audience questioned his sincerity and motivations in the second talk.

--Neither side is immune to this uncritical approach to those arguments and persons that happen to agree with them.

This can be partially explained by the Coke/Pepsi study mentioned above. Once a belief is embraced, the mind invents reasons to continue to agree with it, and tends to be emotionally unable to handle criticism of this belief system, as the over-ride in brain chemistry kicks in.

In order to rationally and critically consider one’s own beliefs, a person has to consciously fight against their own brain chemistry.

Dr. Lewis puts it this way:

"I've never thought that intelligence had anything to do with being smart. You get an idea fixed about things, almost an illusion, and it can seem real, and you seek out people who will support your view. And no matter how weird you view is, there are going to be people out there who share it, and thanks to the internet they are easier to find than ever before."

The human mind tends toward tribal instinct
The human mind tends toward tribal instinct Getty Images

The human mind tends toward tribal instinct

In the study of “heuristics” – the rules adopted by the human mind in its functions and calculations – identity is most often found in the “groups” to which people belong.

No one person has a single group identity. The same person might identify themselves as a Marvel Comics person, a Coke lover, a Republican, an American, and a Christian.

The feelings of belonging that these invoke tend to cause a person to adopt a charitable view of anyone belonging to their “tribe” and a generally distrustful and hostile attitude toward anyone who they see as belonging to an out-group.

In his studies on branding, Dr Lewis says that:

"We like to belong to tribes, we like to belong to groups, and however much young people may feel that they are unique and individual, their individuality is often as part of a group - nobody really likes to be all by him or herself. We like the support and positive affirmation from others."

While religious tribal behavior can be easily seen in the types of gatherings and international cooperation in which people of the same religion participate, such tribal behaviors are increasingly evident in atheists as well.

Despite the fact that atheism is a disbelief, and therefore has no teachings or ideas around which its adherents may gather, atheists seem to be strongly drawn to community.

The recent “Reason Rally” in Washington DC attempted to draw atheists from all over the nation to participate in their shared objection to religion, and similar events have been seen throughout the world.

More than this, a recent trend in both America and Europe is for Atheists to gather weekly in “Churches” to foster a sense of community and belonging; something that makes far more sense in a shared belief than in a shared disbelief.

Devotion to a particular idea mirrors the brain chemistry of a person in love
Devotion to a particular idea mirrors the brain chemistry of a person in love Getty Images

Devotion to a particular idea mirrors the brain chemistry of a person in love

In the human brain, love tends to follow two stages. The first is almost purely chemical. This is seen in the feelings of euphoria felt in infatuation and the physical touch and interactions with this person.

The next stage, once the dopamine stops flowing, is to look for reasons to justify continued devotion to the object of affection.

It turns out that devotion to products and ideas can invoke a surprisingly similar response in brain chemistry.

Says Dr Lewis:

"It's like falling in love - what happens then is that you get a tsunami of a neurotransmitter called dopamine into the brain, which gives you a huge buzz. This happens with products, they can do exactly the same thing - in fact when we look at addictive behaviour, we find that people become addicted to products. That's how people become obsessive collectors of things like Barbies. The sight, feel, taste, touch of the product will evoke these huge responses in the brain, like getting a high."

Similar responses can be seen in religious behavior. People who “see the light” often describe an experience of similar intensity to falling in love. Some of the more extreme behaviors of Christian worship that involve intense physical responses to supposedly spiritual inspiration look very similar to fanhood, and the desire to continue to get the chemical “high” that comes with the association with the object of affection.

Nor are religious people the only ones who are victims to the purely chemical side of inspiration. This can frequently be seen in the words and behaviors of atheists who devote themselves to the freedom they feel from any kind of spiritual attachment.

The late atheist Douglas Adams says in his book The Salmon of Doubt:

“It {Darwin's theory of evolution] was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.” 

Atheist Aldous Huxley is quoted as saying:

“I had motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning … the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.”

And Christian-turned-atheist Rachael Slick, in her article “The Atheist Daughter of a Notable Christian Apologist Shares Her Story,” states:

“Someone once asked me if I would trade in my childhood for another, if I had the chance, and my answer was no, not for anything.
 My reason is that, without that childhood, I wouldn’t understand what freedom truly is — freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful. 



“Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.”

Since at least one of the motivating forces of Atheism is the opposition to religious ideas, it is worth noting that the brain chemistry of hatred is surprisingly similar to the brain chemistry of love.

In his article “Scientists prove it really is a thin line between love and hate,” Steve Connor, Science Editor of The Independent, states:

“A study using a brain scanner to investigate the neural circuits that become active when people look at a photograph of someone they say they hate has found that the ‘hate circuit’  shares something in common with the love circuit.”

This study was published in the online journal PloS ONE, and was led by Professor Semir Zeki,; who stated:

"Like love, [hatred] is often seemingly irrational and can lead individual to heroic and evil deeds.”

In the study, it was shown that, upon viewing photographs of someone the subjects claimed to hate, portions of the brain’s sub-cortex, identified as the putamen and the insula, lit up.

Says Professor Zeki:

"Significantly, the putamen and the insula are also both activated by romantic love. This is not surprising. The putamen could also be involved in the preparation of aggressive acts in a romantic context, as in situations when a rival presents a danger.

"Previous studies have suggested that the insula may be involved in responses to distressing stimuli, and the viewing of both a loved and a hated face may constitute such a distressing signal."

This is significant because if studies show that devotion to an idea or brand mimics romantic love, and romantic love is but a stone’s throw away from the chemical hatred of the human brain, this would explain both the fanatical defense of one’s cherished ideas; and the equally fanatical attacks towards ideas with which a person strongly disagrees.

Upon this subject, Professor Zeki states:

“Hate can …be an all-consuming passion like love. But whereas in romantic love, the lover is often less critical and judgmental regarding the loved person, it is more likely that in the context of hate the hater may want to exercise judgment in calculating moves to harm, injure or otherwise exact revenge.”

In the internet age, hateful behavior becomes far more prominent.
In the internet age, hateful behavior becomes far more prominent. Getty Images

In the internet age, hateful behavior becomes far more prominent.

Dr Lewis says this:
"Whenever you set up a view, one way of getting yourself noticed is to put up a contrarian view: say the opposite as loudly and offensively as possible, and you will be noticed.
"I think a lot of people want to be noticed. They want to rise above the huddled masses. They don't care how offensive their views may be or how they are expressed; indeed that can be a source of pride. They put themselves in a mental state that excuses and explains their behavior to themselves. Very often, people who feel inadequate in other aspects of their lives will try to make themselves 'big men' online."
Quite simply put, the more of an audience a person has, the more satisfaction they get from voicing their opinion and participating in controversy.

Possible solution
Possible solution Getty Images

Possible solution

As popularly stated by G.I. Joe, knowing is half the battle.

The brain chemistry involved in fanatical behaviors does nothing to prove either side right or wrong. These facts can frequently be seen in attacks leveled at the other side, as in “You can’t believe anything those people say – they only believe because their brain chemistry tells them to.”

This may, in fact, be the case. Consequently, if truth is really important, it is incumbent upon the seeker to fight against their natural inclinations to defend the side they’ve already chosen, and to openly and rationally weigh the arguments for and against their preconceptions.

Moreso, it is important to understand that the kinds of ignorant and aggressive behaviors of which both sides are guilty tend to further repel rather than persuade the other side. In short, it is far more conducive to rational discussion to persuade rather than to attack.

There is no shame in admitting that you do not have enough facts to form a conclusion – or to abandon your current beliefs – however if the facts in support of the other side are compelling, the intellectually honest person must admit these facts.

One may choose to adopt a worldview based entirely upon emotion; but they should at least be honest enough to accept that they are being irrational. 

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