I know many devoutly religious people despite being totally atheist myself. I have occasionally discussed their beliefs and their religion with them, always respectfully. I am able to hypothesise scenarios assuming their beliefs are correct. However, when I ask them to consider my point of view, they seem unable to do so, because to them it doesn't make sense that God doesn't exist, or whatever else is said in their religious texts.

I view it like visiting their home. I can visit them and enjoy their hospitality and they enjoy showing me around their home but I don't want to move in with them (convert to their religion). If I invite them to visit my home (hypothesise a universe without God), they always refuse. I'm not suggesting that they move in with me (become an atheist), and in fact, I don't care whether they do or not, and I don't even have any expectation that they would.

It seems as though atheism is so uncomfortable to them that they reject it without examining it except in a very general and distant way. The strange thing is, that they all view me as a good person despite me not sharing their beliefs.

Why is it so difficult for them to discuss atheist principles when I have no trouble discussing their religion with them? In fact, I find religions fascinating in the same way that I find people living in other countries fascinating.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ If you believe that there is no god then you believe that no god will get angry about you hypothesizing about the existence of a god. If you believe there is a god then you believe that there is a god who might get very annoyed about you hypothesizing about his or her non-existance. So the situation is different. $\endgroup$
    – gnasher729
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 19:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ As gnasher said, the stakes are different for them than for you. Nice observation! You said: "atheism is so uncomfortable to them that..." Yes, so you want to know why? Their ego-based model of reality needs support, and the only possible support is a deity. Remove that, and their understanding of the world collapses. This is in fact a Psychological question. We might wonder if theism is a disease, except that it is necessary for so many people to remain sane. "What is necessary is never unwise." (-- Spock's father) I made this a comment so it could not be downvoted into oblivion. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 1:10
  • $\begingroup$ It is implausible, for me, to imagine DNA code forming without an encoder/organizer/creator. $\endgroup$
    – user11587
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 19:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ahuman : It is plausible, for me, to imagine DNA code forming without an encoder/organizer/creator. $\endgroup$
    – DJG
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 8:12
  • $\begingroup$ In my experience, there are a good many religious people who are willing to go through this exercise, though certainly many fundamentalists are not comfortable with it. Largely, they come to the same conclusion as Nietzsche did, that atheism leads logically to nihilism and hopelessness, which in turn leads to creating gods from other places, such as the state. If you read Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy, you will find religious folks who hypothesized about atheist principles. $\endgroup$ Commented May 27, 2016 at 16:45

4 Answers 4


To quote the great Aldous Huxley :

How shall we define a god? Expressed in psychological terms (which are primary-there is no getting behind them) a god is something that gives us the peculiar kind of feeling which Professor Otto has called “numinous”. Numinous feelings are the original god-stuff from which the theory-making mind extracts the individualised gods of the pantheon.

— Aldous Huxley

Even "the Hitch" acknowledged the Numinous :

I’m a materialist…yet there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic. […] It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work, without this we really would merely be primates. It’s important to appreciate the finesse of that, and religion has done a very good job of enshrining it in music and architecture.

— Christopher Hitchens

However, he also pointed out this :

I think everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter. But I think it’s very important to keep that under control and not to hand it over to be exploited by […] those who think that God has given them instructions.

— Christopher Hitchens

This is the cause of the divide between Theists and Atheists. Both experience the Numinous more or less the same way, but Atheists look for explanations in science whereas Theists look for ancient texts they believe to be divine revelations.

So why do some look for explanations in science whereas others look for explanations in ancient texts? It's a matter of cognitive style. More in particular, in depends on your empathy and systemizing quotients.

Extreme systemizers are not very likely to follow "their gut" (they may even be incapable of experiencing intuition). Because of that, they're also less likely to follow any kind of external authority. Their systemizing nature requires a rigidly consistent logical framework to make sense of things, which they often find only in science.

In contrast, extreme empathizers are more likely to follow "their gut", and also more likely to follow any kind of authority (including ancient religious texts). They tend to feel a lot more comfortable with experiencing cognitive dissonance and logical frameworks lacking consistence, which is common for religion.

Still, I believe the gap between Theism and Atheism largely relies on purely semantic differences with respect to how both approach the Numinous. I address this in greater detail in my article The Atheistic approach to God… or how to bridge the gap between Atheists and Theists.

Edit :

With respect to extreme empathizers being more comfortable experiencing cognitive dissonance, I'm refering to cognitive dissonance at the level of belief. It's more important to them that their emotions correspond with their beliefs than that their set of beliefs as a whole is a consistent set.

In contrast, extreme systemizers care mostly about their set of beliefs forming a consistent framework.

  • $\begingroup$ Did you mean capable or incapable of experiencing intuition? If religious people are more comfortable experiencing cognitive dissonance why don't they seem able to hypothesise about God not existing? It's not saying God doesn't exist, it's saying "what if God doesn't exist". $\endgroup$
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ I function empathetically, yet I have no tendency to follow authority. On the matter of theism, no credible authorities exist. I think it is a matter of how long you have been developing spiritually. I would say that systematizers are likely to posit a God because it explains things for them, they would simply come to it on their own instead of following an authority. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 2:27
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, I see, you posted essentially the same answer to my question also. I thought I was having a "split-brain moment". $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ @CJDennis : I meant "incapable". Thank you for pointing out that error. I just corrected it! And with respect to religious people being more comfortable experiencing cognitive dissonance, I'm refering to cognitive dissonance at the level of belief. It's more important to them that their emotions correspond with their beliefs than that their set of beliefs as a whole is a consistent set. -> I'll add this info to my answer $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2016 at 7:45
  • $\begingroup$ i dont think "religious people are more comfortable experiencing cognitive dissonance". more like, religious people experience less cognitive dissonance, or religious people are more likely to exercise doublethink. or all of the above. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 19:58

As a former atheist: I can, for the sake of argument, make a point in the form "If there is no God...". So in that sense, I can easily hypothesize the non-existence of God. However, many religious people, myself included, find the universe without a God to be a mess of contradiction to the point that it is essentially self-refuting and absurd. Therefore it is difficult to actually "hypothesize a universe without a God" because the consequences of such a thing being true would render so many other things nonsensical.

Often my discussions with atheists end up being a bit frustrating on one or both sides because the consequences of the existence or non-existence of God on a worldview are so profound and far-reaching that one could spend years simply working those consequences out. A short list of things that require at least some reassessment: Morality, Free Will, Epistemology, Scientific Philosophy, Logic.

I think for most people they think of God as something that could just as easily exist or not exist, no different from whether a unicorn exists or a black swan exists. But if you look at theology, at least in the Christian sense, you find that the existence of God is so intertwined with everything else that you can't rip it out. Asking a person reasonably well-versed in Christian theology to imagine a universe without a God would be like imagining a world where math doesn't work. Maybe you could do it in a very limited scope, as long as you fudge the details, (In such a world I wouldn't have to learn math in school!) but you can't really extrapolate it to a substantive worldview because the contradictions render the whole thought experiment nonsensical in fairly short order.

This being said, when I was an atheist I did in fact notice some of these nonsensical conclusions and had to live with the cognitive dissonance that my worldview did not match my experience.

Some quick caveats to the above. Not being able to imagine a world without God is not the same as not being able to imagine not believing in God. Also, it doesn't hinder us in imagining certain consequences of that non-existence in isolation. (Like if there is no God, then <fill in the blank>).

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This does not really answer the question. If you have a different question, you can ask it by clicking Ask Question. You can also add a bounty to draw more attention to this question. - From Review $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ The question was "I am able to hypothesise scenarios assuming their beliefs are correct. However, when I ask them to consider my point of view, they seem unable to do so, because to them it doesn't make sense that God doesn't exist... Why is it so difficult for them to discuss atheist principles when I have no trouble discussing their religion with them? " And I explained why it is so difficult for a religious person to hypothesize a universe without a God. How is this not answering the question? $\endgroup$
    – Jason Bray
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ If others also believe this response to be irrelevant I will gladly delete it. $\endgroup$
    – Jason Bray
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 16:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This expression of your personal experience seems to provide a data point in a larger answer to the question, and seems relevant to the question, to me. The question is why religious believers cannot theorize with regard to atheist thought, and you answered why you personally have problems doing that in an effective manner. Interesting. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnYetter, you are indeed correct. However, the answer (and question) would have a better fit on Philosophy.SE, but I just see that it was migrated from that website. I do wonder why. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 8:15

Short answer: Some people just like anthropomorphizing more than others do.

Long answer:

The comment made by user "a human" on the original question inspired the following train of thought:

Take two people, Alfred and Zack. Alfred is a "people person". Zack is a mathematician. Your satisfaction with this answer will likely depend on your tendency to support the following intuitions about Alfred and Zack.

Alfred likes to think of the world in terms of what people intend and want. Key word: people. So when confronted with more abstract concepts, like chemistry, Alfred handles things better when he can assign them names and talk about their behavior in terms of human behavior. This is called Anthropomorphizing. When dealing with people, it works really well. When dealing with abstractions, it's kind of a hack; it gets him by, but doesn't provide him a platform with which to excel at, say, vector calculus.

Zack is less socially apt than Alfred. Maybe a little nerdy, withdrawn. Maybe he has Asperger's. But, he's very good at abstract thought. He doesn't "get" people like Alfred does, but he can do proofs like a boss. Calculus? No sweat. Physics? Easy.

(If you're Zack, you might wish I had just talked about "people person" and "not-people person" in the abstract, rather than creating concrete examples and giving them names.)

I'm going to venture a guess that Alfred finds it harder to believe in a Godless universe than Zack. And that these perspectives aren't likely to change much with time.

So, what makes Alfred and Zack different? Is it neurostructural, neurochemical, or simply habitual? If it's neurostructural, they're doomed to disagree, but maybe their kids aren't. If it's neurochemical, then maybe one or the other will go on Prozac (or something stronger) and temporarily come to Jesus (or run away from him), then go off Prozac and revert back to his old self. If it's habitual, then maybe they'll switch places down the line due to some personal experiences.

EDIT: In light of the above post (about empathizers and systemizers:) the Alfred I described is an extreme empathizer, while the Zack I described is an extreme systemizer.

In the field of neural networks, the number of layers in a network is sometimes said to have to do with the "amount of abstraction." To me, this suggests that different human brains might also have different network depth. So, a 'deep' human brain might be more abstraction-focused and, perhaps, systematic (Zack) while a 'shallow' one might be more feeling-focused and empathetic (Alfred.) (I apologize for the slightly stigmatic nature of the words "deep" and "shallow" -- maybe someone can suggest alternative terms.)

That would be the "neurostructural" explanation. But it seems clear that neurochemistry also plays a role in empathy (we're starting to think that even Tylenol might have an effect on empathy, not to mention stronger substances like cocaine) so clearly the issue is more complex than the above duality would like to suggest.

  • $\begingroup$ I am a people-person and do not think that God is necessary, and many famous scientists talk about God a lot. I think it has more to do with how much time you have put in to developing spiritually. The more time, the less theistic one is. The evidence, such as it is, simply does not hold up, so the hypo"thesis" must be abandoned. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 2:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't have used the word "hypothesis" to describe my above meanderings, myself. Doesn't a hypothesis have to be testable? In an issue this complex, no single duality (ha, ha) is going to paint the complete picture. I know it's unsatisfying, but I'm thinking of this as one possible piece in a larger puzzle. $\endgroup$
    – DJG
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 5:01
  • $\begingroup$ I do agree with your Answer, I was just adding a small point to it. I strongly think that there are basic thought-orientations and some people, as you say, are more analytical. My "theory" as I mentioned in another question is that cognitive development is accompanied by a change in how people think of theistic ideas. Concrete people look for definite answers, more abstract thinkers look for more abstract ways of conceiving. Put that way, it hardly seems surprising at all. I was using "hypothesis" to mean a concept someone strongly holds to and which they measure their experience against. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 12:35
  • $\begingroup$ I support your theory that ideas change as cognitive development occurs. For me, theism made more sense as I began to take it less literally. Sometimes, breakthrough experiences occur under the influence of psychoactives, which suggest that brain chemistry is the foundation on which that cognitive development happens. (If the neurochemical state is the generator of ideas, then it seems plausible for new ideas to be generated in the absence of new "experience" if the generator of the ideas changes.) $\endgroup$
    – DJG
    Commented Jun 4, 2016 at 23:57

While it is true that some denominations are more attractive for some personality styles, Christianity is a broad movement encompassing all kinds of personalities.

We live in a mostly secular culture now, so most Christians already know in great detail what atheists believe. Many have at least pondered the atheistic worldview - or have been atheists or agnostics themselves. So it's hard to learn something new from a random atheist.

Also, not that many people are really interested in exploring different worldviews in great detail. That's true for atheists and religious peolpe alike. You yourself are an exception. So keep looking.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.