Wednesday, December 02, 2009


I am God’s co-pilot

A new study gives us an unsurprising result: that when believers are asked to characterize God’s political, social, and moral views, what the respondents say God thinks closely matches their own opinions. I can’t find the paper on the web site of the author nor that of the journal, but according to New Scientist:

“Intuiting God’s beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one’s own beliefs,” writes a team led by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The first thing that comes to mind, here, is that it’s obvious, but backward: that it’s not that we attribute our views to God, but that we derive our views from our parents and our religious training, so it’s natural that our own moral and socio-political opinions match what we think God wants.

Of course, the researchers looked into that, and that’s the part that makes this study interesting:

Next, the team asked another group of volunteers to undertake tasks designed to soften their existing views, such as preparing speeches on the death penalty in which they had to take the opposite view to their own. They found that this led to shifts in the beliefs attributed to God, but not in those attributed to other people.
Play that back: when people were steered toward softening their own views, they correspondingly softened what they thought God’s views were. That looks like people are using God to support what they, themselves think, and that’s much less obvious (if still unsurprising to some of us). The researchers also used brain scans to collect more (and less subjective) evidence of this effect.

Of course, we see this taken to extremes all the time, when preachers and other leaders with strong religious leanings claim that God supports whatever it is that they’re trying to push. We see that, and we often recognize it for the manipulation that it is. But do we really understand that people are doing that all the time, every day, without even knowing it themselves?

The majority of the subjects of this study were Christian, and all “professed beliefs in an Abrahamic God.” I’d like to see whether there’s any difference with Hindus, Buddhists, and followers of other religions and philosophies. I suspect so: we’re very strongly inclined to imagine that what we, ourselves believe is closely tied to the “correctness” of the universe around us. It seems a form of self-validation that likely keeps us emotionally centered.

This also appears to be related to what researchers have seen from people who believe in reincarnation: the past lives they describe closely match what they already believe about past lives. Those who believe, for example, that your past lives can only be as non-human animals only remember past lives as non-human animals. Those who believe otherwise remember past lives as humans. It’s all spiritual confirmation bias.

1 comment:

Marvinlee said...

Thanks for a very good post. Perhaps all of the estimated 2200 gods have been creatures of imagination. I've noticed that opposing sides in war tend to assign god to their side of the conflict.