Are Nonbelievers More Imaginative? A New Study Suggests They Might Be

We humanists pride ourselves on being rational. This focus on reason seems especially prominent amongst humanists who were previously entrenched in religious communities. In defiance of their religious upbringings, they espouse a worldview based on scientific evidence, sound logic, and critical thinking. But what if their imaginations, not their rationality, led them to leave religion?

A recent study published in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion explores the link between imagination and irreligiosity. The study examined five groups of people: (1) the lifelong religious who have maintained the same religious identity throughout their lives, (2) the lifelong nonreligious who have never identified with religion, (3) converts who were not brought up to be religious but who later identify with a religious tradition, (4) switchers who grew up with one religious identity and then switched to another, and (5) apostates who grew up religious but who now identify as nonreligious, agnostic, or atheist.

The study assessed the role of “pretend play”—creating and acting out imaginary scenarios in made-up worlds—in the childhoods of individuals from each of these groups and found that individuals who did not change their religious or nonreligious identification were less likely to have engaged in pretend play. Converts and switchers, however, were more likely to have played pretend, and apostates were the most likely to have often engaged in pretend play.

Charles Burris, the study’s author, told Deseret News in an interview that he wasn’t surprised that people who were more imaginative as children were more likely to change their religious identity as they grew older. Since childhood imaginative play is a way of trying out different answers to the question “What if…?” Burris had expected children who engage in this type of behavior to carry it into their adult lives. However, Burris didn’t have quite as complete an explanation as to why apostates, out of all of the groups, most frequently played pretend. He postulates that children who play pretend prefer unstructured environments, so as adults they’re more likely to avoid the structure of religion.

There is probably some truth to this explanation. However, as someone who fits into the study’s apostate group and who frequently played pretend as a child, I find it inadequate. It fails to take into account people who leave their religion but seek structure in secular communities such as local humanist groups or Sunday Assemblies. I would posit instead that imagination’s connection to empathy may also have a role in making people more likely to eschew religion.

Putting oneself in another’s position in an effort to understand their experience is inherently imaginative. I can’t actually know what it feels like to be someone else, but by using my imagination, I can try to adopt that person’s point of view to experience his or her emotions and thought processes. I might even disagree with a particular individual, but I can begin to grasp why that person might think and feel a certain way. Through my imagination, I can empathize.

Despite the many logical inconsistencies and irrationalities of religion, the refrain that frequently appears in people’s explanations of why they left their religion is religion’s lack of empathy. Instead of fostering understanding of different people and their circumstances, conservative religious traditions far too often adhere to broad behavioral prescriptions that reflect outdated morals and fail to account for nuance. What first caused me to question Christianity wasn’t its many fallacies. It was watching a gay classmate tear up as he recounted how his parents had thrown him out of their home after he came out to them. In that moment, I felt his loneliness and sadness, and I started to wonder how I could follow a religion that not only condoned but applauded such cruel treatment by parents. Since becoming a humanist I’ve heard countless similar stories from my fellow apostates, who began to doubt their faith after seeing how their supposedly moral religion actually harmed people. Most of us, I would venture to guess, started to question and ultimately discarded our religious upbringing because we could not reconcile its morality with our own empathy.

Of course, more data is needed to understand what this link between an imaginative childhood and apostasy might mean. My thought that imagination’s link to empathy makes people more likely to leave religion is only a guess, but it’s a conjecture that I hope future research pursues. Burris’s finding that people who leave religion were more imaginative in childhood contradicts the stereotype of atheists as uncreative automatons. I would be curious to see if further exploration might also finally abolish the stereotype of atheists as unsympathetic and unfeeling.