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Clay Routledge

Dr. Clay Routledge is a leading expert in existential psychology. His work examines how the human need for meaning in life influences and is influenced by different cognitive processes, self-regulation,[…]

Atheism is typically thought of as being binary: You either believe in God or you don’t. 

In reality, atheism is a much more complex belief system. Some atheists are spiritual, while others are “angry” at the divine — both of which imply some level of belief in something. 

Many atheists engage in teleological thinking, which is the notion that there is a hidden design or meaning to our lives.

CLAY ROUTLEDGE: Atheism is typically thought of as being a binary idea: you're either a believer or you're a non-believer. To be an atheist is to entirely reject belief in the supernatural, or belief in a God or a deity. But I actually think that it's a much more complex, and much more interesting story. Even among atheists, there's lots of different ways of conceptualizing this idea. 

For instance, some atheists say that it just means that they're not religious, and it doesn't even necessarily mean that they have no interest in spiritual ideas or practices, but that they just reject traditional religious dogmas. Other atheists actually can be thought of as being, what's referred to, as 'Emotional atheist.' They actually have a very negative feeling towards the divine, which is interesting because it suggests to be angry at something means, at some level, to have a concept of its existence. Other atheists are, what you might refer to, as, perhaps, 'Social atheists,' in that they feel like there's no reason to have a public religious tradition, or they have no interest in the cultural religious practices, but are themselves interested in spiritual questions and even questions of the divine. So there's lots of different ways that atheists think about themselves, think about each other. 

There's lots of different ways that believers think about atheists. It's often a very abstract concept, even though it seems so simple. Teleological thinking is really any type of thought process that involves assuming that there's purpose or design. And so it turns out that, even though this really is a form of supernatural thinking, right- to assume there's some sort of grander purpose to things- that atheists aren't immune from this type of thinking. For instance, in studies of atheists who are asked to describe certain life events, they frequently use teleological language in their written description of those events. So for instance, they might say, "I didn't get this job, and it wasn't meant to be," as if there's a part of human nature, even if people consciously reject the supernatural, that pulls them to these ideas. In some instances, our own conscious awareness of something or our own conscious beliefs may not tell the whole story of the way our brains work. 

There is some research focused on atheists and their lack of belief, and the implications of that. They asked atheists to say things that shouldn't bother them because they don't believe in God, such as wishing God would do harm to their friends. Now, believers don't like saying this stuff, and indeed, in these studies when believers were asked to say that, if they complied, they immediately expressed that that made them very uncomfortable. When atheists were asked to say these things, they reported immediately that it didn't bother them at all. But what's interesting about these studies is the researchers didn't just rely on people's self-report. They actually hooked them up to equipment that measures a physiological response. If you start to look a little bit deeper beyond self-report, a lot of times the body tells a different story than what we consciously report ourselves. When it came to measuring their physiological response, atheists looked indistinguishable from theists. 

One of the biggest challenges that I think creates conflict between hardcore religious believers and hardcore atheists is a misunderstanding not just of each other, but of themselves. Hardcore atheists think that they're not at all guided by supernatural ideas and concepts, but we know from research that they do have a tendency to engage in teleological thinking, to see things in terms of design and purpose. Likewise, on the other side, hardcore believers often think that most of their life decisions are guided by their spiritual nature, when in fact, like atheists, they also rely on evidence and science, they often have the same struggles, religious questions and uncertainties that other people have. It's easy to divide people into groups over something that seems so powerfully different about people, such as whether or not they believe in a God or particular religious tradition, but if we take a step back and try to look beyond these surface-level differences that seem like they should divide us and turn us against each other, we'll see a deeper part of the human condition that really is a story of commonality- and a story about what it means to be a complete human trying to live a flourishing life.