For many religious people, the popular question “What would Jesus do?” is essentially the same as “What would I do?” That’s the message from an intriguing and controversial new study by Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago. Through a combination of surveys, psychological manipulation and brain-scanning, he has found that when religious Americans try to infer the will of God, they mainly draw on their own personal beliefs.
Psychological studies have found that people are always a tad egocentric when considering other people’s mindsets. They use their own beliefs as a starting point, which colours their final conclusions. Epley found that the same process happens, and then some, when people try and divine the mind of God. Their opinions on God’s attitudes on important social issues closely mirror their own beliefs. If their own attitudes change, so do their perceptions of what God thinks. They even use the same parts of their brain when considering God’s will and their own opinions.
Religion provides a moral compass for many people around the world, colouring their views on everything from martyrdom to abortion to homosexuality. But Epley’s research calls the worth of this counsel into question, for it suggests that inferring the will of God sets the moral compass to whatever direction we ourselves are facing. He says, “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.“
Epley asked different groups of volunteers to rate their own beliefs about important issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, affirmative action, the death penalty, the Iraq War, and the legalisation of marijuana. The volunteers also had to speculate about God’s take on these issues, as well as the stances of an “average American”, Bill Gates (a celebrity with relatively unknown beliefs) and George Bush (a celebrity whose positions are well-known).
Epley surveyed commuters at a Boston train station, university undergraduates, and 1,000 adults from a nationally representative database. In every case, he found that people’s own attitudes and beliefs matched those they suggested for God more precisely than those they suggested for the other humans.
Of course, correlation doesn’t imply causation – rather than people imprinting their beliefs onto God, it could be that people were using God’s beliefs as a guide to their own. Epley tried to control for that by asking his recruits to talk about their own beliefs first, and then presenting God and the others in a random order. And as better evidence of causality, Epley showed that he could change people’s views on God’s will by manipulating their own beliefs.
He showed some 145 volunteers a strong argument in favour of affirmative action (it counters workplace biases) and a weak argument opposing it (it raises uncomfortable issues). Others heard a strong argument against (reverse discrimination) and a weak argument for (Britney and Paris agree!). The recruits did concur that the allegedly stronger argument was indeed stronger. Those who read the overall positive propaganda were not only more supportive of affirmative action but more likely to think that God would be in the pro-camp too.
In another study, Epley got people to manipulate themselves. He asked 59 people to write and perform a speech about the death penalty, which either matched their own beliefs or argued against them. The task shifted people’s attitudes towards the position in their speech, either strengthening or moderating their original views. And as in the other experiments, their shifting attitudes coincided with altered estimates of God’s attitudes (but not those of other people).
For his final trick, Epley looked at the brains of recruits as they in turn attempted to peer into the mind of God. While sitting in an fMRI scanner, 17 people had to state how they, God or an average American would feel on a list of social issues, including universal health care, stem cell research, euthanasia, abortion, sex education and more. As before, their answers revealed a closer match between their beliefs and those they ascribed to God, than those they credited to the average Joe or Jill.
The brain scans found the same thing, particularly in a region called the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) that’s been linked to self-referential thinking. The mPFC is more active when we think about our own mindsets than those of others. Epley found that it was similarly abuzz when the recruits thought about their own attitude or God’s, but lower when they considered the average American. The three images below show the differences in brain activity between the three tasks and you can see that the ‘God’ and ‘self’ scans had little to distinguish them.
The results suggest that similar parts of the brain are involved when we consider our own beliefs and those of God – Epley thinks this is why we end up inferring a deity’s attitudes based on those we hold ourselves.
Epley notes that his volunteers were almost entirely American Christians, and it’s not clear whether the results can be generalised to people of other faiths. But he suspects that the underlying processed would be similar. When it comes to predicting what someone else would do, we have a bevy of available information, including stereotypes, the person’s deeds and words, and the opinions of others. It stands to reason that Barack Obama has liberal beliefs because he is a Democrat, because he expresses liberal beliefs and because his colleagues say he’s liberal. We could even confirm this by asking the man himself.
Things are altogether harder when it comes to predicting the will of a deity. Religious people could try to consult with their deity through prayer, interpret sacred texts like the Bible or Koran, or consult with experts like priests of imams. But the fact that different denominations have such diverse views of God’s attitudes shows that these sources of information are inconsistent at best. As Epley says, “Religious agents don’t lend themselves to public polling”.
He thinks that these uncertainties make it more likely that people will increasingly look to their own beliefs when inferring those of their God. That’s made easier by the fact that we often think of deities in very human terms, despite their omnipotence and abstract nature.
Of course, many philosophers got there first. The very word “anthropomorphism”, now mainly used in the context of animals, was coined by Xenophenes in the sixth century BC to describe the fact that the pantheons of different cultures tended to share their physical characteristics. And many people, from Rousseau to Twain to Voltaire, are credited with the line: “God created man in his own image and man, being a gentleman, returned the favour.”
Epley’s results are sure to spark controversy, but their most important lesson is that relying on a deity to guide one’s decisions and judgments is little more than spiritual sockpuppetry. To quote Epley himself:
“People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God’s beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.”
Reference: PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.0908374106
More on religion:
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- Lacking control drives false conclusions, conspiracy theories and superstitions