Creating God in one's own image

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.

i-e75e93e682820e90aa738e5de95728b5-God.jpgPsychological 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

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A lot of people have noted how startlingly close God's opinion seems to the opinion of the human speaking for God at the remarkably different "God's" opinions can be from each other depending on who is speaking...and how the ability to claim a divine origin for an opinion already held makes people much more fervent about said opinion. I seem to remember there are some rather pithy classical quotations out there to that effect, although sadly I don't remember them well enough to repeat them off the top of my head.

It's rather nice to have something quantified to point to, however.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 30 Nov 2009 #permalink

No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means.

-George Bernard Shaw

Great post! Fascinating stuff . . . .

By ctenotrish (not verified) on 30 Nov 2009 #permalink

They say that God created Man
As part of an enormous plan,
And did so in His image, cos he loves us, every one.
When men of God discriminate
And treat their fellow men with hate
They do so with the knowledge itâs what Jesus would have done.
When righteous men, in righteous ways
Hate atheists, or Jews, or gays,
Or Muslims, pagans, redheads, southpaws, foreigners, or Voodoo
I know at first it may seem odd,
But clearly, youâve created God
In your own image, when you find he hates the same folks you do.

I love it when I write a post that warrants a cuttlefish ode.

Luna - there's the quotation I cited in the antepenultimate paragraph. Epley also brilliantly cites Bob Dylan's "With God On Our Side" (The Times They Are A-Changin' is reference No. 8!)

"if triangles had gods, they would have three sides."

By mrcreosote (not verified) on 30 Nov 2009 #permalink

Here's the quote from Xenophanes:

Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealing and adulteries and deceivings on one another. [...] Mortals deem that gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and force, and form [...] yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint forms of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds [...]. The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.

Courtesy of PZ's quote collection.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 30 Nov 2009 #permalink

You know, when I wrote this story, I really didn't expect the comment thread to be people quoting poetry, witticisms and classical verse to each other.

I love my readers.

Oh, don't encourage me, Ed...…

My God is pretty self-assured, and quite convinced Heâs right.
He made me in His image, so Heâs green-eyed, blond, and white;
And Heâs very, very wrathful with the folks who disagree;
Heâll hold a grudge for centuriesâOh, waitâthat might be me.

Heâs insecure enough to want to hear how much you love Him
And He never will forgive you if thereâs someone else above Him;
Heâll jealously react to any threat to His domain
By smiting all His enemiesâOh, waitâthatâs me again.

Heâll make the world a better place for those who think like Him
For those in opposition, well, the situationâs grim;
Heâll call jihad, or else crusadeâsome form of Holy War
Because He knows Heâs always rightâOh, waitâthatâs me once more.

Heâs handsome, bearded, steely-eyed, deep-voiced and somewhat haughty
So wonderful, his naughty bits are never seen as naughty
But perfectly proportioned, grand and firm and never shrinking,
A miracle of awesomenessâOh, waitâthatâs wishful thinking.

I'm a pretty strident atheist and when I post vids on YouTube I invariably get what I term the "God Squad" making asinine comments.

Most of them hold themselves forth as knowing the mind of God. So I can't help but call them on it.

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.

I was following you until this last statement, which I think was a bit of leap as a conclusion.

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.

You seem to imply that Epley's quotation supports your conclusion, but he seems to be saying something very different.

Also, based off of what you said about Eply's study, I would have to say it was lacking considerably considering he didn't account for the character of the deity he was questioning these people about. Any casual study of religion will reveal that people's perceptions of their own deity can contrast greatly from one religion to another.

Also, were these people true followers/believers of their religion? Perhaps they were not very knowledgeable about the character of their deity. In other words, if we were to really hold them accountable and measure them according to the standard of their own religion would they come up short? I think these variables would play a significant role in affecting the data if not considered.

God is such a general term. The god of what? There is a difference between all the deities throughout history.

By Shane Hilde (not verified) on 30 Nov 2009 #permalink

Wonderful article. It sounds like the study shows that religion is never a moral compass--it is always just a mirror. Human beings have to interpret religious messages--which means they can read the part of the Bible that seems to be about homosexuality and ignore the part about loving your neighbor.

However, I'd be interested to know if there were outliers? And, even if there weren't outliers, is it possible that there is a bias built into the structure of the questions?

This matters because I wonder whether religion can influence behavior. I wonder if it can speak to our better selves in a way that is less like a mirror.... If not a compass always pointing north, can it be at least a signpost left by someone who walked the path before?

For instance, I find religious teachings about wealth and greed to be very challenging to follow. I want "things" and seek material comfort. At the same time, religious messages challenge my impulses towards greed to such a degree that I live a fairly simple life by American standards. It's not easy, and I do feel this has been the result of allowing myself to be challenged by both scientific (ecological) information and by spiritual information regarding simplicity and happiness.

So over time, my understanding of God's teachings may change, and may, in fact, guide me to new beliefs. Most people don't want to be challenged, but it seems that some people are able to be seekers throughout their life rather than clinging to easy answers.

The description of the affirmative action portion of the experiment doesn't quite get at this, because it sounds like Epley's questions force the respondent to accept the idea that God has opinions on contemporary political issues. Some (very loud) believers do think of God in such literal terms--they may believe that God hates gays or judges people who perform or have an abortion. But others view God as infinitely compassionate towards the complex and even tragic moral choices human beings are faced with.

For those believers, it might be clear that God wants us to be compassionate and loving and humble, but it might be harder to apply those rules to questions about affirmative action or abortion. I personally would be caught off guard by a question like, "what does God think about affirmative action?" After being led through the arguments, I'd get to the end and say, ok, yes, I think God believes affirmative action is good. But a more accurate answer would be "God doesn't work that way. God just wants us to love one another and take care of one another. It's up to us to sort out the details."

If I was inside the MRI, how would my brain light up as I pondered the question? I guess I don't completely understand what these MRIs are showing -- for some people it might be they are unconsciously projecting their beliefs on God; for others, they might be making a conscious extrapolation because they're being forced to answer a question with an artificial premise.

Can an MRI detect the difference between unconscious projection and a more conscious process whereby I consult my own beliefs deliberately to see if they contain clues as to what God might think?

I'm just trying to ask, does this study prove that faith is inherently a projection of human beliefs, or does it merely prove that bad theology is like sock puppetry?

If I accept the premise that I can know what God thinks and that God has a set of easy rules and answers, then yes, God's answers are going to look like mine. But if I think human beings are fallible and that part of being a person of faith is always seeking to be challenged--if I reject easy answers--then I'm not going to be able to answer Epley's questions. I could, however, be tricked into providing an answer that looks a lot like my own beliefs.

Does this question make sense?

I love your blog. The end of longest comment ever. I swear it's a question and I hope to hear your answer. :)

I would suggest that the use of Americans is a more severe issue than presented. They may fall back on their own beliefs because they have never opened the holy book they were supposed to consult.

It would be a more complex study, but it would be enlightening to poll about a polytheistic religion. The modern Christian god is supposed to be benevolent, but other religions have more complex personalities. One might expect that people would attribute moral beliefs to Ganesha and Kali.

By Scott Conger (not verified) on 30 Nov 2009 #permalink

Wow. That is a fascinating study. I can't say I find the results overly surprising though.

*Applause* to Cuttlefish, those rhymes had me chuckling.

By rawnaeris (not verified) on 30 Nov 2009 #permalink

Rosalie said:

I'm just trying to ask, does this study prove that faith is inherently a projection of human beliefs, or does it merely prove that bad theology is like sock puppetry?

I'm inclined to agree with your second question. I know many people who have told me they believe in the Christian God of the Bible; however, I'm well studied in Christianity and it's apparent that in many areas they are either ignorant of their own belief system or consciously negating it. Granted, humans are finite and bound to make mistakes, but an individual who claims one thing and habitually negates it, isn't simply making a mistake.

If I accept the premise that I can know what God thinks and that God has a set of easy rules and answers, then yes, God's answers are going to look like mine. But if I think human beings are fallible and that part of being a person of faith is always seeking to be challenged--if I reject easy answers--then I'm not going to be able to answer Epley's questions. I could, however, be tricked into providing an answer that looks a lot like my own beliefs.

You make a good point. I think a good example would be the Ten Commandments from the Christian Bible. They are simple and straightforward; they are universal in their application. With the exception, perhaps, of the first three, even a humanist would find them relevant to his or her life.

There is no question in my mind that our world view drastically influences our judgments. Something as simple as taking something that does not legally belong to you will be approached differently by an individual with a theistic or naturalistic world view.

By Shane Hilde (not verified) on 30 Nov 2009 #permalink

How does this study rule out the simpler explanation that people modify their views to fit those they read in the Bible or those of Jesus? If anything the second study seems to support that - rather than oppose it. The study indicates people do modify their beliefs based on what they think and talk about. So if people think and talk about God, "What would Jesus do?", and their Bibles, surely this study indicates that their own values will change to reflect that.

@Rosalie I think the point that this study brings up is that, in theory, a person will find their beliefs of god's "views" and their own values are matched... and that is all. It doesn't mean that they always live up to their own values or that they are static, or even fully know what their particular faith dictates, but that the "god values" and the regular old human values are inseparable. Saying god is your moral compass is unreliable as to what, if any, values the supposed god has. That is, if all faiths would react similarly to this study as an American Christian of course... but that's for another day right?

I do agree that the sock puppetry line isn't really appropriate in this context.

But here's a quote: "Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." - King Solomon.

So then what of those with no religious affiliation? What would the study say of them?

Well just consider all those pictures of Jesus as a blond blue-eyed Aryan, rather than a dusky North-African Semite. Do God's eyes have the epithantic fold? most humans do . . .

For clarification, Iâm using the word âsockpuppetryâ in the internet sense. It refers to the practice of operating under multiple aliases in order to create the impression of greater support for oneâs argument than actually exists. I think thatâs a fair comparison for the type of thought that Epleyâs study cautions against, i.e. using inferences about Godâs will to substantiate oneâs own beliefs, even though the former may be based on the latter.

Rosalie - I get the question and I donât think the study was making any generalised statements about faith. It was looking at the specific act of inferring the mind of a deity, and its conclusions relate to the use of those guesses for moral decision-making. Judging from your comment, you would regard this as bad theology, which is fair enough. (Btw, I donât know if there were outliers, papers like these donât present the raw data).

Scott â Yes, absolutely, an expansion to other world religions would be fascinating. In the introduction and elsewhere, Iâve tried to make it clear that this study was done with a predominantly American group, and it reflects their take on the Christian God.

Chucky â yes, the second study shows that people modify their beliefs based on what they do and think about, but the critical result is that their estimation of Godâs beliefs change accordingly. That doesnât exclude the fact that people modify their views according to their religion, but it shows that this alone doesnât explain the results in the first study.

a yogi would say the entire universe is self-referential

By gregorylent (not verified) on 30 Nov 2009 #permalink

What a very valuable piece: thank you for it.

I'd like to track down Epsley's paper, and am afraid I don't understand the citation:

Reference: PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.0908374106

Could you expand, please?

PNAS lift the embargoes on their papers on Monday, but they can be published anywhere in the forthcoming week. AFAIK, it's not online yet, but you can expect it before the weekend. It's an annoying system, I don't like it (at the very least because it confuses my readers!), but I can't do anything about it.

When it's published (UPDATE: Epley tells me it will be later today), searching for the DOI number on Google or here on the DOI site should take you to the paper.

Many thanks for the info! I'll go a-googling at the weekend.

here should take you to the paper

This link doesn't seem operative, for some reason.

By John Grant (not verified) on 01 Dec 2009 #permalink

The first study is also explained by the fact that someone who reads something in their Bible- say that it is right to love your neighbour, not bear false witness, and do good to your enemies- changes their understanding of God's will (and their own opinions), to match that. This simple explanation of the correlation would have to be ruled out before jumping to sensationalist conclusions about God not providing a moral compass. If it can't be then, religious agents may well provide a moral compass, but we are simply not particularly good at following it.

I don't think this is simply a matter of projection. If you take a step back before the specific question, people apply attributes to God, for example God is just. So when they are persuaded via arguments that a particular position (or its opposite) is fairer, then of course they'd think yes God, being just, would also take that position. Why should they consider other people's opinions more valid than their own simply because they're someone else's opinion? The fact that people can be persuaded by argument is in itself interesting and perhaps hopeful if people can learn to be more thoughtful and take in more information than sound bites. It means you don't have to change people's religious beliefs to create a more compassionate and tolerant society, you only have to persuade people of its merits.

Great article! This is extremely important work. Religion and belief is a function of the brain, and we need as much evidence of the details of the various processes involved as we can possibly get. I'll also take this opportunity to recommend psychologist Julian Jaynes' seminal 1976 work The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. From Wiki:

"Julian Jaynes (February 27, 1920 â November 21, 1997) was an American psychologist, best known for his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), in which he argued that ancient peoples did not access consciousness (did not possess an introspective mind-space), but instead had their behavior directed by auditory hallucinations, which they interpreted as the voice of their chief, king, or the gods. Jaynes argued that the change from this mode of thinking (which he called the bicameral mind) to consciousness (construed as self-identification of interior mental states) occurred over a period of centuries about three thousand years ago and was based on the development of metaphorical language and the emergence of writing."

That's right: One part of your brain speaks to the other and can even be internally audible. This voice can then be misinterpreted as being external, when in fact it is internal.

I wonder if once you ascribe your beliefs to God, they become more resistant to change?

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 01 Dec 2009 #permalink

Wow ! That's amazing ! And the article is also well written.

Congrats Ed! you've just got a new weekly visitor!

#11 wants a study that controls for TrueTM belief.

"I wonder if once you ascribe your beliefs to God, they become more resistant to change?"

That would be a really great question for a follow-up study.

Really good article about a very interesting study.

The compass quote is very enlightening.

The link to the Science Direct article is broken. Please repost. I'm an academic and have access to online journals and would like to read this one. Thanks.

We sit outside and argue all night long
About a god we've never seen
But never fails to side with me

-- Primitive Radio Gods

By Fred Garvin (not verified) on 01 Dec 2009 #permalink

@25, chucky:

The first study is also explained by the fact that someone who reads something in their Bible- say that it is right to love your neighbour, not bear false witness, and do good to your enemies- changes their understanding of God's will (and their own opinions), to match that.

But you can take two people who both call themselves Christians, are both students of the bible, any yet they can find completely different conceptions of God's will in that same bible. A liberal might tell you that they value caring for the poor because the bible has told them that this is what God wants. A conservative might tell you that they want to let people stand on their own two feet and learn to help themselves because this is what God wants.

I think the study presents a good explanation for how people choose between the many conflicting messages about the will of God. What made you choose the traits you mentioned instead of the stoning of adulterers and slaughtering and enslaving neighboring tribes?

For many religious people, the popular question "What would Jesus do?" is essentially the same as "What would I do?"

This is the best and funniest one-line summary of the article I can imagine. Well-said!

"I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."
-- Susan B Anthony

How do I get an actual copy of the article? I can't find the name on the site so I'm not sure which article this is on his site. Help!

By engywook21 (not verified) on 01 Dec 2009 #permalink

Hi to everyone else by the way, and a hearty welcome to any new visitors.

Erin â Epley excluded ânon-believersâ in all studies except the survey of 1,000 adults and their results were analysed independently of the others. He found that the match between their attitudes and Godâs was not significant (as youâd expect) and werenât very different to their guesses for average Americans. Epley notes that âIt is difficult to interpret these results for nonbelievers, but the relatively weaker egocentric correlations at least demonstrate that they are not an invariant product of inferring Godâs beliefsâ

Lilian â the authors touch on the point you raise in the paper, when they write: âIndeed, it may seem particularly logical to use egocentric information when reasoning about God, because religious agents are generally presumed to hold true beliefs, and people generally presume that their own beliefs are true as well.

And as I said in #23, the paper's not published yet. Epley tells me it'll be today.

I have some difficulties understanding the fMRI scans. If Self-American differs from God-American (and it does) I would expect a very similar difference in Self-God. Is the "bigger than" sign just indicating more activity, so God-Self would show differences that are lost in Self-God? Are those results of independent subsets of the study so the questions were asked in different ways? Or what is it I don't get?

I'd also say that for a true believer it'd take a lot of cognitive dissonance to assign an opinion to his alleged deity but an opposing opinion to oneself -- isn't that the first and most important step on the way to the dark side: questioning the ethical superiority of the perfect being you're supposed to praise and follow?

Lucas, I read Jaynes' book some years back and was struck by his ideas. You summarize by writing:

That's right: One part of your brain speaks to the other and can even be internally audible. This voice can then be misinterpreted as being external, when in fact it is internal.

Yes! The "other" voice that I started hearing in my head when I was about four! I was amused by it for a while before I wondered who's voice it was. In short order I decided it was my own voice talking back at me. This decision was based on the observation that the voice was talking just like me and asking questions that were interesting and germane. Just like me! Jeez. Out of the minds of babes . . .

(and that sumbitch hasn't shut up since)

I also read (and plug once again) a book by Jack Miles that is titled God, A Biography in which Miles examines the, er, evolution of the character of Yahweh over the course of the Old Testament. Amazingly human and seemingly in character with the demands of the moment.

Yahweh is quoted directly throughout the OT indicating that he was an active participant in the daily affairs of individuals. Miles was the one to point out to me that the very last time this is done is when Yahweh finishes with Job. That's right. He never speaks in an active voice again.

How human.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 01 Dec 2009 #permalink

@Traveler: Actually I'm struck by the opposite thing. I've just come back from Borneo, where Fuzhou people- even though they have an entirely different culture and language- share such similar values.

What made me choose the quotes I did rather than say, Joshua's invasion and rule over Canaan? Well, simply because the clearly apply to you and I, whereas it is highly doubtful that (for example) you or I should invade and rule Canaan. For a start the people there are no longer habitually sacrificing their children, their "inquity" is not full, and unlike Joshua we have no specific command of God to actual do so.

"I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job."

-â George W. Bush, 2004

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 01 Dec 2009 #permalink

Hello Ed:

I'm having difficulties with your links. The DOI you provided doesn't seem to correspond to anything, and I have similar results when I do an author search at the PNAS website. Also, your link titled 'a tad egocentric' is broken (the URL is faulty.) I'm anxious to read the article(s); please help.

By j.t.delaney (not verified) on 01 Dec 2009 #permalink

Wow, this blog is not only having a good author, but very poetical commentators, too!

I came with the mindset of a scientist, but as I left, I found myself citing poems... ;-)

Thank all of you, people! Whenever it's about religion, I'll love to visit here again! :-)

Hmmm, this kind of makes sense for me as I stopped believing in God along the same time I started realizing the God of the bible is in no way moral, caring, or good.

By Stephanie (not verified) on 01 Dec 2009 #permalink

Theist: "Atheists just want to be their own gods and do whatever they like!"

- (Theist's imagined answer) "Why, yes, I do!"
- (Standard answer) "Of course not. You can be moral without god."
- (Answer after reading this article) *puts socks on hands* "yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip......"

By 5acos(phi/2) (not verified) on 01 Dec 2009 #permalink

I think Rosalie makes most of the salient points in semi-refutation of the conclusions drawn by this study.

One would hope that if a person truly believed that God felt a certain way, they would attempt to conform their beliefs to match up with Him/It.

I think another point which hasn't been addressed is that the Christian mindset is one in which there is a belief that God indwells checking with oneself and trying to discern "God's" will isn't really that bizarre from a Christian point of view.

I would also point out that 17 people do make up a very large sample from which to draw broad conclusions.

Someone else asked about the third brain image and what it was supposed to represent. I don't think anybody answered that question, so I'll ask it again.

What is the third image supposed to be representing? What is the significance of the lack of lighted up areas?

oops...I meant "17 people do not make up a very large sample"

The MRI scans show difference in signal between two experimental conditions. So the greyness of the self/God scan on the right indicates that in brain activity under those two conditions is very similar.

17 people is on the small side, but the brain-scanning results are hardly on their own here. If anything, they're the back-up act to the psychological work, which had more substantial numbers.

The issue of trying to match up your beliefs to God's has already been discussed in the article itself, and in #20. They key experiments are the ones where shifting people's attitudes - either by giving them persuasive arguments or by getting them to come up with persuasive arguments themselves - also shifted their estimations of God's attitudes.

On the subject of links, I'll fix the ScienceDirect one when I get a chance. The PNAS paper isn't up yet and I'll link to it when it is. In the meantime, you'll have to take my word for it that this paper exists and that I have read it and that it says what I've described, without seeing any actual evidence of this. Oh the irony ;-)

Junk science.

By John Knight (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

@51 John Knight

God told you this, did He?

By John Grant (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

A few thoughts:

(1) These results seem very much like an extension of findings in the cognitive dissonance literature, whereby a person lead into engaging in an action inconsistent with a pre-existing attitude, tends to change their attitude to be consistent with the action

(2) Arguably, that general finding represents an instance supporting the justification hypothesis , which holds that human self-consciousness (and cultural systems more generally), evolved as a justification filter, that serve as a means for justifying one's actions to others

(3) In all likelihood, that system is connected to theory-of-mind development, which involves the ability to understand that others have thoughts separate from our own, and which has recently been associated with belief in god(s). From a theory of mind perspective, it's easy to see how god(s)can be an imagined other(s) with particular attitudes consistent with one's own at any given moment

So it seems one could make the argument that god(s) (assuming their non-existence), are a reification of cultural values serving as a perpetual source for justifying one's actions.

Arguably, the most direct evidence for this reification comes in the form of illustrations of Jesus throughout time and cultures. It remains an interesting question why there is no definitive image of (likely) the most famous person in history.

Furthermore, the fact there are denominations within major religions, is prima facie evidence that god's views may be dependent on one's own.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

@52 John Grant:

Only in the sense that all knowledge is a gift from God. Itâs probably more accurate to say that God gave me the ability & tools to recognize comically bad methodology & ridiculous inferences without seeking divine intervention.

In your case, however, serious prayer is probably in order.

By John Knight (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink


Thank you kindly -- firstly, for the head's up on this promising article, and secondly for the timely response. The article title shows up on the PNAS website, but the pdf is still tantalizingly out-of-reach. Argh, the suspense is killing me!

By j.t.delaney (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

@51/54 - edited for accuracy.

Itâs probably more accurate to say that God gave me... comically bad... inferences

@53 - Thanks for the considered response David. I think your interpretation of the psych-manipulation set of experiments is rather charitable, but we'll just have to agree to disagree on this. The suggested follow-up experiments are interesting.

And the paper's up everyone - it's Open Access too:

Out of curiosity, #54, what would be your ideal method for testing whether or not God's guidance is really just the voices in your head?

Ed, thanks for explaining the third image.

I had mistakenly thought the comparison of the similar areas on images #1 and #2 were what was leading to the conclusion about the similarity between Self and God......meaning that the same general areas were lighting up because of the interchangeableness of Self/God.

I had a few more thoughts...

It would be interesting to know how people saw themselves in relation to "the average American". Do people assume that they are more unique than the "the average American", or that it is likely that the "average American's" views are counter to their own? Or do people think of themselves as "average Americans" in a positive way?......and do people think that the "average American" views things "God's" way?

The vantage point for answering these questions could be relevant to figuring out whether people think they are resolving discordant views...which would explain why images 1 and 2 are somewhat similar.

Ed @ 56 -- Sorry to keep pressing this, but I'd like to try just a little bit more to resolve our disagreement.

Notice just how surprising it would be if Epley's psych-manipulation experiments had gotten any other result. For instance, suppose Epley managed to convince a number of subjects that affirmative action is a good thing. But suppose that these subjects continued to think that God believes affirmative action is wrong. Then these subjects would (tacitly) believe that they understand the morality of affirmative action better than God! That would be really weird, if these subjects believe that God is an ultimate moral authority.

So: It would be VERY surprising if you could get religious people to revise their moral beliefs without revising their beliefs about God's will. By contrast, it is not the least bit surprising if you find that religious people's moral beliefs track their beliefs about God's will.

The point here is that Epley's psych-manipulation results are well-explained by the fact that people regard God as an ultimate moral authority. You don't need the Sockpuppet Hypothesis to explain these results.

I want to add that I don't really disagree with the Sockpuppet Hypothesis. Actually I think it is quite plausible and if I had to bet, I'd bet that it's true. I'm just making the narrow point that Epley's experiment doesn't provide any additional evidence for this hypothesis.

By David Killoren (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

From the man himself:

Imagine, however, that we HAD found exactly the opposite resultsâthat believers base their inferences about God's beliefs on religious teachings, and inferences about God's beliefs are therefore uninfluenced by variability in their own personal beliefs. You'd have plenty of people pointing out that this result is not surprising, either. In fact, that result is so unsurprising that I'm sure that such a finding wouldn't be publishable. Your reader will likely claim that's not the case, that this result WOULD be surprising, but we unfortunately can't run that experiment to assess surprise at the opposite outcome. That's what research on the hindsight bias does. Surprise is a measure of one's ability to explain an event after it's happened, not the ability to predict it before it occurs. Science has to do the latter, and I don't worry too much about the former given that almost any result could be easily explained and therefore seem unsurprising.

Your reader suggests and explanation for our finding based on believing that God is the ultimate moral authority. Indeed, that's a very easy explanation for our results, one that we tested in a variety of ways early on, but one that we could not find any evidence to support. This mechanism also does not explain why, in some of the experiments, inferences about a well-liked and ambiguous figureâBill Gatesâwere also considerably egocentric. Is Bill Gates an ultimate moral authority?

I have enjoyed the comments as much as the original post--thanks to all. As someone who served as an LDS missionary in France I was reminded of a frequent response people gave as they closed the door or walked away from us: "ca ne me convient pas," which is approximately "that doesn't suit me." I formed a general observation that most people are not looking to understand the will of God and change their lives accordingly; rather most people don't give much thought to the "what would Jesus do" question or, if looking for a religion, are looking for something that fits their existing attitudes and lifestyle. I met rare outliers--people who decided to make drastic lifestyle changes (e.g., giving up wine & coffee) in a belief that they were following God's will. I am interested in the possible outliers of this study too--what differences might there be between say, a recent convert to a religion and someone who holds religious beliefs but does not actively participate in their religion? It would be nice if there were some measure of religious conviction that could be used as a covariate.

I find David's arguments for an alternative interpretation convincing. It would be hard to find people who believe in the existence of God but disagree with Him on moral grounds! It would also be interesting to examine more "us/them" scenarios. For example, the "me compared to average Americans" showed differences but what if we set up "me versus average Chinese versus average American?" Would the average American then move closer to the "me?"

Thanks for the link to the original article-I'm looking forward to it!

You know, I'm really very pleased that (for the most part) people are conducting themselves in an intelligent and civil manner in this comment thread, regardless of what side of the fence they're sitting on. Good show.

I love it! The height of narcisism, people praying to themselves. What better trick to make people feel important, and more important than others, than the notion that "God" agrees with their own personal beliefs. In fact it is their own minds reinforcing their own beliefs, crazy or not. What a delusion as well. Thanks for the data. The world needs more reality and less delusion -- at least that's what God told me -- great column.

From the Discussion section of the paper: "Not only are believers likely to acquire the beliefs and theology of others around them, but may also seek out believers and theologies that share their own personal beliefs. . . people's personal beliefs may guide their own religious beliefs and the religious communities they seek to be a part of." I am strengthening my own convictions on human behavior by finding similar observations in this paper!

So many follow-up questions come from this study--I'm now wondering what the brain scans would look like for "what would an average American think God's opinion would be on this issue?" Also, what if the question was "what would your mother think about this?" That is an appeal to a higher moral authority, but one that is more knowable. Would the neural processing put mom in the same category as George Bush or would it look similar to my self-thinking? What would it look like for topics where people disagreed with their mother?

@59, 60: Surely a similar mechanism would explain Bill Gates as well? People simply tend to believe that other people are also moral.

Presumably, if David's explanation is was the correct explanation, the correlation with God's beliefs should be stronger- since they think that God is moral than other people, and would be less likely to ascribe beliefs they think are not moral to him. That they do a similar thing (but a lesser extent) to other people, is perfectly consistent with this explanation.

What Chucky said.

Also, I'm afraid the comment from Epley @60 doesn't really address my point. I can grant the whole first paragraph. (Even if I wouldn't have been surprised if Epley's results have been different, that doesn't mean my alternative explanation doesn't work.) The second paragraph is more interesting, though a bit cryptic. Does Epley mean he could not find any evidence for the hypothesis that believers consider God to be a moral authority? That seems very unlikely! Or does Epley mean he could not find any evidence for the hypothesis that believers' view of God as a moral authority explains his results? If so, that's interesting, but I guess I'd like to know more about how he tested this hypothesis. Also, since my explanation is simpler than the Sockpuppet Hypothesis, what we really need is evidence *against* my explanation and/or evidence in favor of the Sockpuppet Hypothesis (not just a lack of evidence *for* my explanation).

I guess the bottom line here is I should probably go and read the damn paper if I want to keep babbling about this! :)

By David Killoren (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

Damien @#57, John Grant @#52:

John Knight @#54 is almost certainly the same theologian who demonstrated presuppositionalism to me on Pharyngula.

That was my first introduction to presuppositionalism and its peculiar way of being used as a denial-of-service attack.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

The experiment where they presented arguments for and against a specific position proves that people change their views of god's will. Unless you think that they, by chance, put everyone who agreed with a particular view in the group that was being convinced for it, and everyone who disagreed in the group that was being convinced against it then it proves that when their minds were changed that god's mind was changed. BTW it would be practically impossible in any halfway decent experiment for all of the people to be divided thusly.
It should be simply obvious though from how the same god is used to support a vast array of opinions, many of them contradictory.

I keep coming back to this post because I keep thinking of complications to this study and the conclusions drawn from it....which mainly revolve around assuming that this is some sort of evidence that "God" exists only in our minds and therefore does not exist at all.

It would be interesting to see what the MRI would show if atheists were put in and asked questions pertaining to what they view as a Moral Truth, in place of God. I suspect that the results would be the same and that the results would also be the same in the case of the "changeability" of opinions about right and wrong.

And really...those results, as many have already said, should be no surprise to us. The correlation between Self/God/Truth would be what most people would label as a "conscience" inner compulsion to do what one feels is "right".

Great stuff! I look forward to reading the article in more detail.

(btw, "tad egocentric" link has an address error)

Kevin @61--

I have in fact met people who believe in god, but either disagree with him/her on moral grounds, or believe that god is obviously not living up to those moral grounds that we are told we should share with god.

Those people tend to point to things like the existence of Tay-Sachs Disease, or the number of people killed by tsunamis. In fact, one of the classical answers to what believers call the "problem of evil" is that the actual creator and/or ruler of the world is not a benevolent but a malevolent being.

What such people don't do is worship this malicious being.

It seems to me that the conclusion the paper reaches isn't logically justified by the actual experiment since, as has been pointed out by several different people here, there are several different explanations which are consistent with the data - not only the one presented on this blog, or that presented in the paper.

One question is whether people's beliefs are correlated with God because they have changed God's opinion, the sockpuppet hypothesis (A) or whether they have learnt from, say, the Bible, their churches or through other means and slowly changed their own beliefs accordingly (B).

If (B) is predominantly true, we would expect that issues that are more clearly taught by the church, and the Bible, be areas where there are higher degrees of correlation between believer's own beliefs and what they see as God's. For subjects on which God's will is less clear to the people surveyed, we would expect less correlation.

However if (A) was predominantly true, we would expect a high degree of correlation, regardless of how clearly something was taught in the Bible, or in church, say.

It would be possible to do this quantitatively: how clear people are about God's opinion was surveyed directly, and is also reflected in the degree to which different people's opinion of God's attitude is correlated. Highly correlated results and strong opinions of God's attitude indicating a clearly taught principle.

It would be a simple matter to test this (at most a few matlab/excel commands), with the data already available. This might go some way to telling the two explanations apart. I don't know what the answer would be, but I'd be interested to find out.

In agreement with Chucky:

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

A few points:

(1a) Was it determined that these people had religious affiliations? If the point of the study was to assess whether God serves as an independent moral compass, assessing the moral opinions of persons having a specific religious affiliation would seem a more direct test of the hypothesis. In other words, asking WWJD seems a pointless question, if prior to asking it, it is determined one is unfamiliar with the philosophies of said religious figure.

(1b) It seems to me that even if theologans were the focus of the study, it is likely their opinion on various morally relevant topics would vary, in addition to their opinions being the same as that of God. So if opinion can vary between theologans (and non-religious persons), but yet be internally consistent (re: God and self), that definitely would suggest moral opinions are indicative of personal interpretations. If opinions do not vary between theologans (and the non-religious), and are also internally consistent, that would be more suggestive of some type of moral compass (possibly Bible related), but, which is usually called conscience.

(2) It would be interesting to see what the results look like with the IAT, given some research suggesting explicit and implicit attitudes can be inconsistent. For example, would people's implicit attitudes about abortion and same-sex orientations be the same as explicitly-expressed opinions about what God might think?

Given the relevant media-reported scandals, undoubtedly there will be more than one instance of inconsistencies between self and imagined-other opinion.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 04 Dec 2009 #permalink

Duh!! Hasn't it been obvious forever that religion is just an excuse (like any other) for doing whatever the hell you want???

I am a fan of this work, and I think it captures something important about the way people experience God, but I think it follows neither that God is purely a narcissistic projection (though God surely is shaped by a sense of self) nor that people do not pay attention to God. The people of faith that I know do an awful lot of what Thomas a Kempis called imitating Christ: seeking to model their interior world on what they imagine God to be. This takes a lot of work and most people fail, and of course people imagine based on what they know. If the questions had been "I am as good as God wants me to be" I bet people would have differentiated their own response and God's response--sometimes, depending on the theology, with God giving the more generous answer.

By tanya luhrmann (not verified) on 06 Dec 2009 #permalink

I would say "good job" except that Nietzsche made this conclusion 130 years ago (I wouldn't be surprised if other philosophers had done the same). I guess my question is, were you unaware of this fact or did you merely forget to give credit where credit is due?

We are social animals. This means that our morality is implicitly a mediation between a consciousness that is self-interested, and a behavioral law that is dictated by our membership in a community.

Poking fun at religious myopia is a shallow way to address the issue. It makes just as much sense for someone like me were to poke fun at Nicholas Epley for only recently discovering this fact, or poking fun at you for writing of this discovery as if it's somehow groundbreaking.

Try empathy. Try seeing the issue as you implicitly suggest in the article. Think about how God would write this article. And think about what that means based upon what you know.

Your reader suggests and explanation for our finding based on believing that God is the ultimate moral authority. Indeed, that's a very easy explanation for our results, one that we tested in a variety of ways early on, but one that we could not find any evidence to support. This mechanism also does not explain why, in some of the experiments, inferences about a well-liked and ambiguous figureâBill Gatesâwere also considerably egocentric. Is Bill Gates an ultimate moral authority?

Another possible explanation is that this reflects the internalization of prosperity theology, which couples morality, wealth, and religion. The same idea can be found in Max Weber's work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Additionally, I suspect the self-serving bias is also involved, which tends to show up more in Western than Eastern cultures (in fact, research suggests that persons in Eastern cultures tend to show the opposite self-effacing/modesty bias). So another interesting study would be to see whether the current study results can be replicated in cultures that have more of a collectivistic rather than individualistic ethos.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 08 Dec 2009 #permalink

I have sought and found after 80 years of seeking, no god. Good luck to those who have found the god of their own making. When you die, he dies.

By Marv Bryce (not verified) on 26 Jan 2010 #permalink

I hope you wouldn't mind if I translate this text to Croatian language and place it on my web site. Of course I will give tributes to you. People in Croatia need to know of things like this. Well written.

I particularly liked the observation that there are two different regions of the brain used for thinking about one's own opinions and the opinions of other people, except for God, and that God's opinions are hypothesized using the former part. Doesn't that basically make God like an imaginary friend? He is literally in their heads.