Creating God in One’s Own Image (discovermagazine.com)

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.

Read the rest here.


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Ordinarily, I would not have put a piece like this in my blog, but as I couldn't think of where else it fit properly ... well, here you are.

My first response to this piece is: should we really be surprised at it?  Granted that Mr. Epley’s research is well-disciplined and has likely endured a peer review, but for those of us who have no need of a deity to reinforce our point of view, are any of us genuinely surprised that those who subscribe to a deity find that its opinion of the world and their own coincide virtually point for point?  Or, as has been previously expressed:

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

So, this is nothing new from an observational standpoint.  However, when it gets reinforced by disciplined neurological research, the observations take on new weight and significance.  More importantly, it gives additional credence to the atheist assertion:

Man created god.

Views: 98

Tags: Nicholas Epley, create, ego, god

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Comment by Sentient Biped on January 27, 2014 at 9:59am

Loren, thank you for linking to this provocative study.  Even acknowledging the "chicken/egg" challenges, or more sophisticated, "correlation is not causation", the author attempted to address that issue.

I especially liked what he said, "relying on a deity to guide one’s decisions and judgments is little more than spiritual sockpuppetry".  What a zinger!

As well, giving the history of the term "anthropomorphism" as originating with "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."   So not only is the idea of a sock puppet god not new, it was discussed more than 2,000 years ago.  Since we have transformed the word, "anthropomorphism" into giving animals human characteristics, we need a term for the same when related to deities.  In our linguistically democratic culture, a latin or greek word might reek of elitism.  "Spiritual sockpuppitism" sounds perfect to me.

Comment by Loren Miller on January 27, 2014 at 8:52am

Ducking responsibility at all costs is consistent with the whole scapegoat strategy which comes out of the new testament.  Check me on this, please, but I'm fairly certain that nowhere in the bible does any god or other authority exhort people to be responsible for themselves or their actions.  By the same token, asking WWJD and claiming to be acting as Jesus would act dodges the issue of responsibility for self in the same fashion.

It's as though standing on your own two feet and declaring, "Here I am, warts and all," would be the height of anathema to anyone who subscribed to the god of the christians, especially since, for them, it's supposed to be: "Not my will but thine be done."

Comment by Pat on January 27, 2014 at 8:27am

The above study lends a great deal of credence to that Usenet quote. Something struck me while reading your blog. People, acting on their own, lay the blame or credit for their actions, on their invisible friend. I suppose this goes hand in hand with the concept of vicarious redemption and vicarious blame. Duck responsibility at all costs.

Comment by Loren Miller on January 27, 2014 at 8:17am

[smile] Was tempted to pull that one out as well when I was writing this, Pat, but thank you for citing it here.

Comment by Pat on January 27, 2014 at 8:12am

"You know your god is man made when he hates all the same people you do." [Usenet]

Comment by Michael Penn on January 27, 2014 at 7:06am

This article tells it like it is!

Asked over the years "what would Jesus do," the true honest answer is that there is no possible way for us to know.

Comment by Loren Miller on January 27, 2014 at 6:33am

I think so, roland ... Jethro and Joe and Jim and Jack and Josiah and James and Jennifer and Jill...

Comment by kent l thompson on January 27, 2014 at 5:53am

By George I think you've hit on something there!

Comment by roland707 on January 26, 2014 at 11:10pm

So, there is a study proving I have been right all along!  WWJD really stands for What Would Jethro Do?

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