I wonder, and strongly suspect there is, a correlation between a belief in a deity and acceptance of arguament based on emotive statements over argument based on fact and reasoning.
I'm not sure how this could be tested for however, perhaps a set of statements such as 'Pensioners should be given free bus passes because it would be cruel not to' (emotive) and 'Pensioners should be given free bus passes because they sometimes have difficulty in using other forms of transportation" (more factual)
I know it's a crude test but it's just an idea.
One line of thought I find interesting is the overlap between religious thought and 'conspiracy theory' thought. Dr. Andy Thomson, psychiatrist & author, has developed some excellent models for the aspects of human psychology that get applied to religious thought - particularly hyper-active agency detection. I've seen a few of his event lectures on youtube and everything he talks about in terms of psychological processes that get applied to religious thought really seems to apply to conspiracy theory thought as well. Here is one of his event lectures to American Atheists: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iMmvu9eMrg
This may or may not fit into the scheme of thing here but felt the need to reply.
I consider myself quite fortunate that I was raised by a theistic mother and a father whom I believe was agnostic/atheist. I was never forced to go to church but it was an option when my one sister who was Catholic would take me. My dad never to the best of my memory had ever said anything against it, but he would tell me to think first about what I would do in life and come to my own decisions. Very rarely would he let emotion influence his decisions. I guess that is why he was the backbone of my family and highly respected by those outside of my family too. It just took me after all these years of delusion to see you can make choices logically and rationally. I hold no real ill towards most people involved in religion and can understand to a point why they need something to bring them comfort and some sort of meaning to life even though I tend to disagree. I have started learning how to step back and not let myself be controlled by emotion (quite difficult at times) I guess that's why I hold my dad in high regard and myself very fortunate. Where I live churches seem more like a social network and support system because there isn't a whole lot to do in such a small community.
Wow, this topic seems to have attracted some recent attention after a long silence so sorry i have been slow to respond. As an update, after the initial suggestions i pitched a topic to my students involving looking at existential fear of death, religiosity and religious intolerance with a specific focus on atheism. Not one person was even interested! Nor were they keen on any other projects from an atheistic perspective! Very bizarre situation since from personal conversation many of them define themselves as atheists.
Also in terms of the comments here, some great ideas which i will definitely try to find homes for at some point later on. I do know that a new journal was launched which focuses on the neuropsychological basis of religion where many of these ideas may be published. I am also very keen on the relationships between irrational thought and religion and whether this extends beyond religious beliefs, i know that a students was doing something similar here. I will look for the results and feedback if i can remember who it was! :-)
I graduated in 08 (aged 54) and always tried to bring Atheism into my psychology lectures and essays wherever possible but the lack of interest and knowledge on the part of the lecturer didnt help matters or, consequently, my marks lol she didnt even know what memes are..... your students are very lucky - I say dont let a bit of initial disinterest from them put you off.
As for irrational thought, I think the pattern for that is set in childhood when children are encouraged to put their questions and better judgment aside in order to make leaps of faith - imagine the state science and medicine would be in if that was how they conducted their business? well, thats how I see the minds of some of these evangelicals, they will never admit to biblical discrepancies and contradictions because their leaps of faith dont allow their minds to phrase things the way most others would for the simple reason that aversion to doubt is built into the whole process of 'leaping'. They are conditioned to mentally leap away from anything which would threaten the curious way that they were taught to reason.
I was listening to an interview not long ago featuring a regular biologist and a creationist biologist. The regular biologist asked the creationist what happens when his findings conflict with the bible, with no hesitation he asserted that he would go with the bible every time - that kind of thinking is whats drummed into believers from birth and to my mind is a rather dead end way to reason, it most certainly wouldnt come under the heading of thinking for oneself let alone critically so.... but its all ok cos they go to church on sundays and the preacher takes their minds off it all with tales of hellfire and damnation if the prescribed thought patterns arent followed to the letter - they are discouraged from asking questions outside their little groups too so the whole thing is constantly reinforced - just as an aside here, I know somebody with an abusive husband who also utilises similar tactics - the whole thing disgusts me