For most of my life, I’ve teetered between being an atheist and agnostic. Like many other skeptics, I fancy myself a rational person who believes in science. But, 8 years ago when I got sober, I was basically given an ultimatum: believe in a higher power or die from your addiction. As a rational atheist, I put the pieces together and just realized that I had to understand that believing in something other than myself was one of the keys to sobriety, so I saw 12-step meetings, my support group and my sponsor as what some would call a “higher power”.
My beautiful girlfriend Tristin is also an atheist, and we have some interesting talks. Although atheists, we’re firm believers that if people are religious and aren’t hurting anyone, more power to them. Sometimes, we watch atheists on YouTube and see how they depict themselves. Often times, atheists talk down to believers from a pedestal of science and pure rationality.
But, for this piece on supernatural psychology, we’re going to ask the question if atheists would sell their soul.
I’ve been wanting to write this for a long time because through my research, I’ve found that many atheists won’t sell their soul, and it seems quite irrational.
In episode 74 of the Freakonomics Podcast, Stephen Dubner discussed a comment from Skeptic Magazine, which read:
“What is it about the idea of a soul that even people who confess to not have one are hesitant to sell it? I have been trying, for the better part of ten years, to buy a soul. I’ve offered a dollar amount, between $10 and $50, for someone to sign a sheet of paper that says that I own their soul. Despite multiple debates with confessed atheists, no one has signed the contract. I have been able to buy several people’s Sense of Humor and one guy’s Dignity, but no souls. Additionally, will any Freakonomics reader take me up on this? I’m willing to spend $50 on souls.”
Today, we’re going to dive into some psychological studies, but I’m curious to hear from all of you because this is really interesting. Leave a comment, and let me know if you’d sell your soul and for how much. I’m even more curious what your logic is if you’re an atheist.
Souls for Sale
The internet is an interesting place, and it’s made it so people can buy and sell just about whatever they want. During the current pandemic, people have been turning to online storefronts such as Etsy to make some extra money. Then, there are people like myself who have the ability to self-publish my own books. But then, there are the more absurd items people sell online.
In one season of Orange is the New Black, Piper creates a business where female inmates can sell their used underwear, and this is something that there’s a real market for. And in a previous video on essentialism, we discussed how Belle Delphine was able to sell her bathwater.
Although eBay has been the biggest platform for buyers and sellers for over two decades, but one thing you can’t buy or sell on eBay is souls.
For believers, this makes sense, and if you were to ask a believer, they’d most likely be offended by this. We atheists love to chuckle at this because we think we’re so much more rational than others, but when put to the test, we’re even more ridiculous.
The first study I heard about was from the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his assistant Scott Murphy. Much like the man who left the comment on skeptic magazine, they wanted to see who would sell their soul, but they were offering a lot less. For a person’s soul, they were offering the low price of $2.
Why were they doing this study, you ask? This was actually part of a psychological study on political moral foundations (and by the way, if you didn’t watch my video on Shane Dawson through the lens of moral politics, make sure you watch that next). In this study, they tested moral foundations such as harm, fairness, authority and purity.
As part of their purity study, Scott Murphy went to random college students at the University of Virginia and tried to see how many would sell their soul to him.
The piece of paper read as follows:
“I _______ hereby sell my soul after my death to Scott Murphy for the sum of $2.”
Below was their signature as well as a disclaimer that said, “This form is part of a psychology experiment. It is not a legal or binding contract in any way.”
Not only did he put the disclaimer on the piece of paper, but he told the participants that they could rip up the paper immediately after they signed it, and they’d still get the $2.
So, before I tell you the results, do me a favor ask yourself what percentage of people you think agreed to sign this piece of paper.
One would think that 100% of atheists would sign this paper. You don’t have to be an economics major at the University of Virginia to realize that this is a good deal. As an atheist, you’re exchanging something with a value of nothing for monetary gain, so it’s all upside.
And as you learned from the comment from Skeptic Magazine, the man couldn’t even get people to sell their soul for $50.
Well, when Jonathan Haidt and Scott Murphy did this study, they found that only 23% of people would sign the paper agreeing to sell their soul. Think about that for a second. Almost 80% of people wouldn’t sign the paper for $2. In the study, they didn’t say the exact percentage of people in the study were atheists, but we do know that there are more atheists today than ever in history.
In fact, the irrationality of atheists even goes further than that. In the Haidt and Murphy study, they asked people to explain their rationality to better understand their choice, and they found that many people couldn’t think of any logical reason. Especially the atheists.
One debate that’s quite frequent between atheists and believers is that of morality. For example, believers argue that atheists don’t have morals because religion is what provides moral foundations. But this isn’t true at all. There are plenty of moral atheists, but what’s weird is how you can make atheists even more moral by discussing religion.
Dan Ariely is the bestselling author of Predictably Irrational, and he has conducted numerous studies on the irrationality of human behavior. In his book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, they took 450 participants, divided them into 2 groups, and they asked half of the participants to try and recall the 10 commandments. After that, they put the participants in a scenario where they’d have the opportunity to cheat on a test or fight the temptation.
The second group as asked to recall 5 books they read in high school. Of the two groups, cheating rates were typical amongst those asked to recall books, but those asked to recall the 10 commandments didn’t cheat at all. What’s fascinating about this study was that most of the participants couldn’t even remember all 10 commandments, so just the act of trying to recall them made these people more moral. Many of the participants were self-proclaimed atheists, so they tried another experiment.
In this one, they took self-proclaimed atheists and asked them all to swear on a bible that they wouldn’t cheat. And although these people don’t believe in God, cheating was virtually non-existent compared to other variations of the study.
So What Does it All Mean?
On YouTube, there are quite a few YouTubers in the atheist community. I must admit, that for a while, I loved watching them. I enjoyed watching my fellow skeptics dunk on creationists by using good ol’ science and critical thinking, but eventually I had a change of heart.
While I would never judge you or anyone else for watching these channels, personally, it just started to feel toxic to me. This happened around the same time that I started reading books from famous atheists like Michael Shermer, Sam Harris and Peter Boghossian. Although I enjoy listening to how these people form their arguments and use critical thinking, it just seemed like a strange obsession to me to constantly try to prove believers wrong.
I started thinking of the people who write entire books dedicated to disproving those who believe in God or make this the core of the content on their channel. I also learned that there are entire conferences for atheists. I started to ask myself, “Chris, why do you enjoy this type of content?”
When I got honest with myself, it’s because it made me feel better than. Once I reached this self-realization, I felt ashamed that I got any type of pleasure from this. And I know that many people consuming this content are doing it for the same reason.
Now, don’t get me wrong, after consuming a lot of this content, I realize that not everyone is like this. Those who experience the schadenfreude of seeing believers proven wrong may be even be the minority. Some of this content is actually quite helpful. Jimmy Snow, aka Mr. Atheist is a YouTuber who left the Mormon religion and is passionate about the content he makes. He often tries to help people who are on the fence about leaving their own religion.
There are also creators like Rachel Oates who have made videos on toxic parenting books from religious people or about Girl Defined and their anti-LGBTQ videos.
So, yes, there is quite a bit of atheist content out there that is trying to help people or defend certain populations, but I wanted to write this for those who were like me and got their jollies from seeing atheists own believers.
Although many of us atheists present ourselves as the more intellectual, rational, and logical side of the argument, you now know that’s not the case. Many of us atheists wouldn’t sell our soul for $2, and for some reason thinking of the 10 commandments or swearing on a bible makes us act more moral. At the end of the day, we’re all irrational beings just trying to do our best in the world.
And would I sell my soul for $2? Probably just to analyze my own reaction to doing so.
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