Atheists may lack essence
Just listened o Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, on a podcast (mp3). He notes that the chain of possession of items impacts how much pleasure we gain out of ownership, or at least our attachment to them. As an example, it is not unknown for people to be attached to the clothes and other personal items of a loved one who has passed away. The attachment may not derive from any sensory empirical rationale; rather, it is knowing the chain of possession and a sentiment that an essence of the loved one has been imparted (yes, I know that clothes may sometimes retain distinctive scents, but discount those details. The example holds true for objects such as pens which retain no sensory trace).
The strength of this sentiment varies from person to person. Bloom observes that there are individuals who have no sentimental attachment to objects at all. That is, individuals for whom objects are simply means to a bundle of ends, pure utility. So long as the bundle of elements remains invariant objects can be substituted at will. Bloom contends two demographic variables seem to common among this set of individuals who lack any sentiment toward objects:
1) Overwhelmingly male
2) Invariably atheist
(note that this does not entail that most males or atheists are circumscribed by this set!)
As someone who believes that the deep neurobiological root of theism is rooted in sentiment I find this eminently plausible. Perhaps one reason that atheists are unpopular in American society is that atheists are often so psychologically abnormal, and lacking in conventional sentiment and emotional response.
For what it’s worth, I probably lean toward the set who lack sentiment toward objects. In fact, I have difficulty keeping track of the objects which I notionally possess as my private property excluding my books. And even in the case of my books I keep only technical references. Fiction, popular science nonfiction, and nonfiction out of my domain of primary focus (e.g., this scholarly book I reviewed) I have no compunction with throwing away or selling to the used book store, because I never re-read such works.
But, I understand that other humans are imbued with much more sentiment in general. And this understanding has not only given me a better descriptive understanding of modal human psychology, but has somewhat reshaped my prescriptive politics. My conservatism, believe it or not, is rooted in an acknowledgment of the moral sentiments of the majority of humankind which lay outside of the a priori deductions of political philosophers, and the thin individualist ethical framework of libertarians and liberals.