Tuesday, December 01, 2009

God in the Mirror

Ever wonder why you and God agree so often?

An interesting new study that combines surveys, psychological manipulation, and brain-scanning finds that "God's will" is usually aligned with "my will." The study, by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, finds that people generally think that God's attitudes on important social issues line up with their own opinions. Shocker!

According to science blogger Ed Yong:
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."
Yong brilliantly uses the sockpuppet as a metaphor for relying on a deity to guide decisions and judgments. As Epley himself remarks, God usually tells us we're right:
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.
However, Steven Novella says on Neurologica that almost any time we try to infer what an other (either big "o" or little "o") thinks, we start from our own personal beliefs.
This is why questioning our own motives, and our own process, is critical to a skeptical and scientific outlook. We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process. The process (i.e science, logic, and intellectual rigor) has to be more important than the belief.


  1. Anonymous3:34 AM

    One thing people don't talk about with these types of studies is the cyclic effect of it being god's words...

    0) People believe not(___)
    1) People believe that ___ is from god
    2) People change their beliefs to ___
    3) Since god and people agree it is self reinforcing

  2. I think I see your point - I think.

    Essentially, you are saying that God provides a frame.


  3. Anonymous1:57 PM

    I guess so.

    To give an example: Many people believe that there is nothing wrong with gays. They then ask their priest/rabbi/whatever or consult the book of their choosing which says that god says that it is wrong. They then make an effort to change their opinions about gays to reflect what they believe god says.

  4. Yong brilliantly uses the sockpuppet as a metaphor for relying on a deity to guide decisions and judgments.

    Wow! I thought that "invisible friend" and "Sky Daddy" were derisive comparisons, but now—Hashem as Lamb Chop!

    Or maybe it is more like the episode of South Park in which Eric Cartman thinks that his hand is Jennifer Lopez.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.