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The difference between how often atheists and religious people ascribed an inherent reason to major life events was “statistically negligible.”
In her unpublished doctoral dissertation, one of my PhD students, Bethany Heywood, found similar evidence of atheists’ covert believing tendencies when they were asked to think about the major turning points in their own lives. Throughout 2009, Heywood conducted a series of online interviews using Instant Messenger with thirty-four atheists and thirty-four believers, including American and British samples. To prevent them from answering dishonestly (because many atheists bristle at even the insinuation that they’re irrationally minded and superstitious), the participants were given the impression that the study was about their memory of personal life events, otherwise known as “autobiographical memory.” In fact, Heywood wasn’t so much interested in the respondents’ memory skills as in their subjective interpretations of why these particular things had happened to them. In her careful analysis of their responses to her questions— such as, “Did you learn any lessons from this experience?” “How has this event changed your life?” “Looking back, are you better able to understand why this event happened to you than you were at the time?”— Heywood found that about two-thirds of the atheists had made at least one response betraying their implicit view that “everything happens for a reason.” As expected, more believers gave such responses— often noting the suspicion that their most trying times were actually God’s creative handiwork. But the overall difference in ascribing some inherent reason or purpose to momentous, life-altering events was, curiously, statistically negligible between the two groups.
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