A new study suggests that people who believe in God tend to respond better to psychological therapy than those who do not.
To this, I cannot help but respond: So what?
Here’s what happened: In an experiment involving 159 men and women undergoing various forms of counseling, researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., asked the participants about the degree to which they believe, or do not believe, in some sort of God.
As the therapy sessions progressed, the researchers observed that those who professed a belief in the supernatural were faring quite well, while those who denied (or highly doubted) God’s existence were not, relatively speaking.
As well, the study found that participants who expected to be helped by the counseling found the hope to be self-fulfilling, and that the reverse was also true, with skeptics of the sessions’ promise finding them to be of limited assistance in alleviating their various psychological maladies.
Data points such as these raise all sorts of questions regarding causality and the possibility that God has nothing to do with it. After all, once we have established (as this study apparently has) that simply wishing for a positive outcome from therapy will nearly always produce one, has the “mystery” not already been solved?
Nonetheless, I view the results and conclusions of this research as a sparkling opportunity to examine another inevitable question that it raises: What does it mean to be an atheist?
As a nonbeliever, I find myself possessing a particular stake in the answer to this question. What is more, in light of the uncommonly high saturation of press coverage the cause of atheism has accrued in recent years, I feel compelled to address and, in some cases, correct a series of assumptions the godly community has about us heathens, some of which (in their defense) the above study has seemingly confirmed.
Stephen Fry, the polymathic British actor, recently affirmed his own godlessness on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, only to then add, “Being an atheist doesn’t mean anything to me.” By means of explanation, he continued thusly:
If there was a word to describe someone who doesn’t believe in the Tooth Fairy—a ‘flimpist,’ for example—I’d have to say I’m a flimpist. But being a flimpist is meaningless. It just means I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. It doesn’t involve a set of values.
My thoughts exactly. So far as I am concerned, to not believe in God means precisely that. By definition, all those who fashion themselves atheists share the view that there is no reason to think the universe we inhabit was designed, and is lorded over, by a singular, intelligent being that sees us when we’re sleeping and knows when we’re awake.
However, that is all that we have in common. To take this single shared conviction and infer a laundry list of additional characteristics—well, it would be as silly as for me to say that all religious folk think the Earth is flat and that men and dinosaurs once lived side by side.
Beware the hazards of painting with a broad brush.
Probably the most damning charge against the atheist community—were it to be true—is that not to believe in God is not to believe in objective morality. That without God, life is cold and meaningless.
Are there people who believe such things to be true? Of course there are. In fact, we have ready-made terms for them, such as “nihilist,” “sociopath” and “party pooper.”
What this has to do with atheism, I cannot say.
One can, if one desires, extrapolate the view that the universe contains no divine father figure to mean there is no reason to treat others with dignity and respect. Equally, one can surmise (as many do) that God’s eternal presence and grace licenses one to strap on a vest, totter into a crowded marketplace and blow up a few hundred innocent men, women and children.
However, neither of these trains of thought is inevitable, universal or (most importantly) the slightest bit rational. They are non sequiturs of the most profound sort. That they are sometimes true matters not one whit.
That is why I am skeptical that the correlation the McLean Hospital study appears to have drawn between belief in God and susceptibility to psychological counseling has any real meaning.
Sometimes therapy works, and sometimes it does not. Does the wiring in one’s brain that leads one to doubt the existence of the supernatural make one impervious to therapy? Perhaps it does. Let us investigate further.
However, I would humbly advise that one take care not to infer more than one possibly could about what these findings truly say about what it means to not believe in God.