Researchers in Finland decided to examine “whether atheists exhibit evidence of emotional arousal when they dare God to cause harm to themselves and their intimates.” I’m not sure how much can be concluded definitively from this study, but it’s certainly interesting. From Pacific Standard:
Some of the statements were direct dares to a deity (“I dare God to make my parents drown”). Others were similarly disturbing, but did not reference God (“It’s OK to kick a puppy in the face”). Still others were bland and neutral (“I hope it’s not raining today”).
The arousal levels of the believers and non-believers followed precisely the same pattern: Higher for both the God dares and otherwise unpleasant statements, and lower for the neutral ones.
Compared to the atheists, the believers reported feeling more uncomfortable reciting the God dares. But skin conductance data revealed the underlying emotional reactions of the two groups were essentially the same. This suggests that taunting God made the atheists more upset than they were letting on (even to themselves).
Of course, perhaps it wasn’t the presence of God, but rather the subject matter of the statements (such as the death of their parents) that caused the atheists’ emotional arousal. The second experiment was designed to test that hypothesis. It featured 19 Finnish atheists, who participated in an expanded version of the first experiment. It included 10 additional statements—variations on the God dares which excluded any mention of supernatural forces. For example, in addition to “I dare God to turn all my friends against me,” they read out loud the statement: “I wish all of my friends would turn against me.”
The results: The atheists showed greater emotional arousal when reading the God-related statements than while reading the otherwise nearly identical sentences that omitted the almighty. To the researchers, this indicates that “even atheists have difficulty daring God to harm themselves and their loved ones.”
The researchers offer a few different possible explanations for this, and of course I favor the one that matches Romans 1: we can suppress our knowledge of God’s existence, but we can never completely escape it.
But there’s one possibility the researchers don’t seem to have considered (also suggested here). Since persons have the ability to act, I do think there could be something about daring a person to do evil, or speaking to a person whom one thinks is evil (as many atheists believe the Christian God is), that causes distress, even if the dared individual doesn’t currently have the power to carry it out or never existed at all. I wish they would have controlled for this by also having people dare someone like Voldemort or Hitler to do something evil. My suspicion is that neither of these dares would cause the distress of daring God, but I’d love to see that tested.
Incidentally, I’m surprised Christians agreed to take part in this (assuming at least some of the “believers” studied were Christians). I don’t think their agreement shows they don’t truly believe in God (I’m sure they assumed God would not take their coerced dares seriously), but I fear it might show they think lightly of God’s holiness, being willing to use His Name in this manner. Or perhaps it just reveals an unwillingness to refuse the instructions of men in white coats. Neither possibility is a good one.