Saturday, May 15, 2010

Imposing our morality on God

A recent study at the University of Chicago suggests that people tend to use their own personal beliefs as a guide when thinking about what God might believe. Researchers asked a range of volunteers about their opinions on highly controversial issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, the death penalty, and affirmative action.

The subjects were asked three basic questions:

1. What are your beliefs regarding this specific issue?

2. What do you think other people believe regarding this issue?

3. What do you think God believes regarding this issue?

The results of several tests showed that the subjects' own beliefs matched what they thought God would believe, but were less constrained when thinking about other people's beliefs. In two tests, researches subtlety caused a change in the subjects' beliefs on a specific issue, and this in turn changed the subjects' own estimate of what they thought God believed.

The most interesting part of the study involved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the neural activity of subjects as they reasoned through their answers to the three questions above. The scans showed that separate regions of the brain were activated when subjects answered question 1 (what I believe) in comparison to question 2 (what other people believe). However – and this is the interesting part – question 3 (what God believes) activated the same part of the brain that was activated when answering question 1, suggesting that we draw on our own personal beliefs when thinking about what God might believe.

This comes as no surprise to me. I've often wondered, if there is indeed an objective morality set out by the creator of the universe, why there is so much disagreement between theists on what this morality actually is. Does God think homosexuality is wrong? Does he condone the use of condoms? You will find different answers depending on the theist you talk to. Irrespective of whether God exists or not, the above study seems to suggest that people tend to colour what they think God's morality is according to their own beliefs.

In other words, the type of God you believe in might tell us more about you than God.

(Download the full article here)


Marika said...

But what sort of weird person would say: 'this is what God thinks, but I'm not convinced; I believe something different'? Surely belief in God goes pretty naturally with belief that God's usually, y'know, right about stuff? Doesn't this study just state the blindingly obvious?

Chris Chen said...

Every theist believes it is his/her duty to figure out what God believes and then to align his/her own beliefs with that. As wrong as we all are, I can't blame anybody for trying to figure out what God believes.

I've been around two college campuses in the past four years, and what I've found among college students is that when I ask them about their theistic beliefs, they will reply, "Well, my family has always believed in _____, so I believe it, too."

CyberKitten said...

marika said: Doesn't this study just state the blindingly obvious?

As most of these studies tend to do I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

"In other words, the type of God you believe in might tell us more about you than God."

This makes those 2 sound separate, ("you, God") but aren't they the same thing? you/god/me/everything. In pantheism, it's all One.

Anonymous said...

As others before have indicated, I think it sounds like this research would be weak at establishing any kind of causal directionality.

I would think that your beliefs about the nature of God (and indeed God's influence in your life) would inform your personal attitudes.

Cobus said...

well, as a theologian, I'd have been very worried if it turned out to be any different. Metaphors such as "the indwelling of God's spirit", seem to suggest just this, that God's thoughts are contained exactly at this "place". The very close relationships between theology and reason, in all religious traditions, and the way in which the "voice of God" was linked to that which was obviously, and intentionally, a work of reason from the foremost theologians, also seem to suggest that for most of it's existence the church would have been quite comfortable with the implications of this statement, although obviously the knowledge of how the brain function wasn't available to formulate it in this way.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious as to how the results would differ, it at all, with atheist test subjects. If a subject is indifferent about the concept of "god", would the same area of the brain light up, or would there be a new area lighting up? (i.e., a deeper philosophical section) Very interesting study. Thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

It is true that God's desires typically are in line with those that believe in him. Not much of a coincidence.
The Atheist Perspective

Admin said...

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Let me know what you think.

Paul said...

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I've been following your blog here and there for some time. May I link your blog on my blog?

My blog doesn't have much of a direction. Just topics I feel like writing at the moment (ex. sports, bad drivers, odd things I notice, etc.)

Michael Gormley said...

Does God think homosexuality is wrong?

26 Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 27 and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity. (Romans 1: 26 - 27)

Kevin Parry said...

Sentinel wrote
I think it sounds like this research would be weak at establishing any kind of causal directionality.

This is what I also originally thought. But of the seven studies that they conducted, studies 5 and 6 tested causality. The researches subtly shifted the subjects’ attitudes on these topics during the course of these two tests, and found a similar shift in the subjects’ estimates in God’s attitudes, but their estimates of other people’s attitudes did not shift significantly.

Did God shift his attitudes on these issues in the short space in which these two tests took place? It seems more reasonable to conclude that the subjects’ changed their views, and then, maybe subconsciously, forced their own changed attitudes onto their idea of God.

Dar wrote
I'm curious as to how the results would differ, it at all, with atheist test subjects.

Interesting question. Maybe part of the brain that represents our ideas of other people’s beliefs would probably light up. But what if we try it on an ex-Christian? Maybe there will still be a small, dim, flare in the god/me section . . . a weak vestigial spark of a belief left far behind.

BC500 said...

What people believe about morality, and what they think God believes about morality should match. This is not surprising but predictable. If a person believes in a particular god (and studies and learns about that god) then they are highly likely to adopt that god’s view on morality (if they can identify that god’s view on morality). Sounds like the powers that be at the University of Chicago have money to burn on pointless studies or they have lost their ability to think logically.

Just because imperfect people are confused on what the perfect moral standard is, in no way precludes God from having set it down. You start from the premise that God does not exist, and since you are an Atheist, I would expect that, but that is no excuse for you to stop thinking logically.