Screw Jesus, What Would *I* Do?
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.
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.