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Nov. 30 2009 - 5:49 pm | 278 views | 1 recommendation | 21 comments

Screw Jesus, What Would *I* Do?

God Hates Techno

Image by RobotSkirts via Flickr

You may have noticed that my view of religion is, let’s say, skeptical. So, I’m gonna get my confirmation bias on here and bring you word of a wonderfully clever new study by Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago.

The bottom line is this: When people ask themselves What Would Jesus Do?, they’re really asking What Would I Do?. We already know that people project their own views on to other people — it’s called false consensus bias. In the absence of reliable information about what a person thinks or a group of people think, we assume they think basically what we do.

Now, imagine the same principle applied to the most difficult-to-poll entity in the metaphysical universe: God. Forget the cell phone problem, this guy’s off the grid.

Thus, all we’re left with is speculation. Which goes a long way toward explaining Epley’s results. Here’s Not Exactly Rocket Science with a description of the experiment:

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 experiment, Epley had people change their own opinions, by writing an essay in favor of or opposed to their own view on a subject. Needless to say, God’s opinion once again moved along with the the subjects’ (and the subjects’ views moved in line with whatever they wrote — another little cognitive bias we have).

Finally, Epley found that when people contemplated God’s opinions, their brains activated similarly to when they were contemplating their own opinions — the same was not true when they contemplated the opinions of other people.

So, what does it mean? Well, as they say: “God created man in his own image and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”

This study was conducted almost entirely on Western Christians, so one has to be cautious in assuming that it would apply universally to all people of all religions around the world. Americans have a great tradition of making up their own religion to suit their convenience and vanity. Does a Muslim terrorist in Gaza do the same thing? (He or she certainly thinks God hates Israel and approves of suicide bombing — so, maybe yes.)

Since there is no God — or, to be generous, since the mind of God is unknowable — the only place beliefs about a deity’s beliefs can come from is from humans. And how likely are we to decide that God’s on the wrong side of any given question? Maybe someday, with this species-wide self-knowledge in hand, we can stop invoking God in debates ranging from foreign policy to gay marriage to immigration.

In the meantime, keep in mind that the only thing God really hates is signs proclaiming what He believes.


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  1. collapse expand

    “Since there is no God — or, to be generous, since the mind of God is unknowable — the only place beliefs about a deity’s beliefs can come from is from humans.”

    And thus the best-selling book in history… or at least the most ubiquitous

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    Mr. Sagar,

    What I have always found interesting about Jesus is that what he has to say makes a lot of practical sense whether you believe in God or not. Turning the other cheek to insults, particularly when the person doing the slapping is a Roman Legionnaire, indeed wise. Not judging others works well in my experience. Do to other as you would have them do to you is also not bad advise. You will note that in none of these cases is the invocation of God or divine authority required.

  3. collapse expand

    I certainly wouldn’t discount your interpretation, but we’ve gotta remember that correlation doesn’t imply causation.

    Instead think about it this way – assuming anyone knows the mind and opinions of God, and has a healthy dose of fear/respect for him, why wouldn’t you try to conform your own opinions to his? You would expect people to. Your interpretation isn’t entirely inappropriate. I have no doubt at all that we construct much of what we think of the spiritual. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow from this study. You assume the correlation implies the agency of man, that man invents God. It’s quite possible that man doesn’t create God at all, that he does “receive” his word, but he misunderstands God and adheres faithfully to that misunderstanding.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong – I have quite a bit of sympathy for your view. We should just be careful not to ignore other valid interpretations. This doesn’t put a nail in the coffin of organized religion quite as easily as one might think – it simply confirms that humans can be delusional (either by tricking themselves into believing there is a God OR tricking themselves into thinking they know what the God believes). Religious people, to my knowledge, generally don’t deny that humans can be delusional!

    Very interesting study – thank you for sharing.

    • collapse expand

      I take your point, but if you look carefully at what the study did (the linked piece at Not Exactly Rocket Science lays it out pretty clearly), they went a long way toward showing the direction of causation here. The parts of the study where they subtly influenced a person’s opinion, and that person then changed what that person thought God thought — it shows pretty clearly that we’re looking at our own opinions to determine “God’s.”

      Of course, anyone who believes in God wants to agree with Him, but that’s all the more reason for us to divine His opinions from ours.

      I would, however, be very interested to see how this all worked in a much more fundamentalist, religious society.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Yes – emphasis on “to determine ‘God’s’”. What is very clear is that there is a discrepancy between what God is and what people think he is. That is thoroughly supported by these results.

        What these results provide no insight on is whether (1.) there is a God that we didn’t create, and our own opinions shape what we think that real God thinks, or (2.) the only God is the one we create. We can’t arbitrate between those two based on these results.

        The study manipulates three variables: (1.) our opinion of God’s opinion, (2.) our opinion, and (3.) our opinion of others’ opinion.

        I’m agreeing that our opinion of God’s opinion is determined at least in part by our opinion of ourselves, and that that is indeed the direction of causality. But until you know something about a fourth variable, God’s actual opinion, there is no possible way this sort of study could say anything causally about whether God made man or man made God. In other words, you can validate one direction of causality, but you can’t invalidate the other direction (that God’s opinion does exist independently and we are conforming to it, just as we are creating our opinion of God’s opinion). It’s thought provoking, and it debunks a naive view of divine revelation. But it doesn’t really go beyond that.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Well, we can’t ever do a study with God’s actual opinions, I don’t think!

          An interesting substitute for that, I suppose, would be to treat the relevant scripture as “God’s opinion.” Say, the Bible for Christians.

          Are there any people who take the Bible as true, think God holds one opinion, but then go on to take the opposing opinion themselves? Say: “God thinks homosexuality is a sin, I believe this is his opinion from the Bible, but I think homosexuality is not a sin.” I don’t think you’d find too many people.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            RE: “Well, we can’t ever do a study with God’s actual opinions, I don’t think!”

            Precisely my point! :)

            I’m not sure what your suggestion would prove. Any interpretation of what a source as complicated and imbued with varying levels of meaning as the Bible is going to suffer from the same problem – you’re not able to separate what people think the Bible says from what the Bible “actually” says (and I put “actually” in quotes because I’m not even sure if this is possible). You may think it’s easy to say that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin, but there’s a lot of discussion about whether this was a contextual, cultural imperative or an eternal truth. The Bible isn’t a list of axiomatic statements, after all. You can’t just lift “truths” from it’s pages.

            And even if you could, you just move the underlying epistemological problem back one more iteration. Someone wrote the Bible. God didn’t actually write it. So it’s still an opinion of God’s opinion. This study is interesting insofar as it ellucidates one causal determinant of man’s belief in God. But it inevitably runs into an epistemological wall – so long as you’re only able to comment on man’s opinion of God, you’ll never be able to rule out statements about the actuality of God.

            It’s an interesting experiment, but you’re pushing it into a fruitless line of questioning. Didn’t we settle that point in the 18th century or so?

            In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            re: “Didn’t we settle that point in the 18th century or so?”

            No kidding. And Feuerbach stood as a much more eloquent culmination of the tradition than any article titled, “Screw Jesus, What Would *I* Do?”

            In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    It would be interesting to see the results of a similar study replacing “God” with “morality” or something like that. One presumably doesn’t worship or pray to morality, which may lead to less self-reference when considering how one’s own beliefs line up with certain moral “beliefs”. Not that the answers to the questions would be any less self-referential, but the brain scan might not reveal so much similarity.

    It might have also been helpful to ask people questions like “Is God’s will knowable or unknowable”, or “are there external standards for determining God’s will?”, or “Does God reside in your heart/speak to you/inspire your beliefs?” These sorts of questions might indicate how much one distinguishes oneself from God. Even more interesting, they could be used to lead a person’s subsequent answers, the same way that the study attempted to manipulate answers by presenting pro and con arguments before asking about beliefs.

    The most interesting thing about the study seems to be the brain monitoring, rather than the actual answers to the questions. And it would have been more interesting to pursue some further prodding to see what exactly links a person’s self reflection with their reflection about God. Trying to see what cues might separate these thought processes would better get at the heart of why they are linked in certain instances, and might answer suspicions about whether the survey questions bias the results, or whether different sorts of believers contemplate God’s will differently.

  5. collapse expand

    On an American Enigma…

    Does anyone in the world see any IRONY or HYPOCRISY at all in being both a REPUBLICAN and a so-called CHRISTIAN??? The right-wing, conservative “Christian” Republicans, in all their so-called moral
    superiority should practice what they so tirelessly preach and proselytize. Their “Christian” “values” and supposed reverence for the teachings of a man named Jesus Christ just don’t jibe with the loathsome nature and despicable politics of a man such as (R) Jesse Helms, a hateful, bigoted and PROUDLY RACIST man. Nor are their, um, “beliefs,” in accordance with the fundamental Republican platform of laissez-faire economics, less government, pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps bravado and all the other nonsense that Republicans so loosely throw around; I think it was their own “man,” Jesus Christ, that said, “Love thy neighbor”, “Help thy brother”, etc., etc., etc. WHAT? Unless he is BLACK? Or POOR? Or UNEDUCATED due to NEGLIGENCE?

    The lot of these right-wing fundamentalists do nothing but spew hatred and venom whilst causing bitter divisiveness amongst the very “brothers” and “neighbors” whom they are supposed to love, treat as they themselves would like to be treated, etc., etc., etc.

    And, on the other hand, if Republicans really believe in a hands-off approach in governing, what in God’s name are they doing telling anyone else how to live one’s own life through legislation of their beliefs, e.g. Pro-life, Bible-study in PUBLIC SCHOOLS, etc., etc., etc.

    It seems to me that these, um, “Christians” could better spend their time talking and preaching A LOT LESS and actually getting their ideas and arguments straight BEFORE they open their mouths…or join the Republican party.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

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