In the study, subjects were first asked to rate the unpleasantness of those statements. Not surprisingly, believers said they were more bothered than atheists were by the thought of daring God to burn down their houses or afflict them with cancer. Then subjects were asked to read aloud the statements while hooked up to a skin-conductance meter, which basically measures how much you sweat. The idea is that the more you perspire, the more worked up you are about a particular statement. (Such tests have been around for a long time. Here’s more about them if you’re curious.)
This is where it gets interesting.
According to the skin-conductance tests, the atheists found asking God to harm them or others to be just as upsetting as religious folks did. The researchers also compared the reactions of the atheists when making statements like “I wish my parents were paralyzed” and “I dare God to paralyze my parents.” Atheists were, like believers, more bothered by the latter statement, if you believe the skin-conductance tests, even though both declarations would be, in theory, equally empty if there were no heavenly overseer.
Those findings don’t prove that atheists believe in God, though the study does seem to suggest that the idea of God is extremely powerful, even in a relatively secular society like Finland.