Monday, 13 April 2009

What a friend they have in Jesus

A fascinating study reported in the New Scientist suggests that when religious believers pray they believe that they're actually talking to someone. A Danish professor, Uffe Schjødt, used MRI to scan the brains of twenty Christians. In one task, they were asked to improvise a prayer. This "triggered patterns that match those seen when people communicate with each other, and activated circuitry that is linked with the theory of mind - an awareness that other individuals have their own independent motivations and intentions... Also activated were part of the prefrontal cortex linked to the consideration of another person's intentions, and an area thought to help access memories of previous encounters with that person."

In another test, they were invited to "pray" to Santa Claus. Here, the result was very different, with no activation of the prefrontal cortex. This, suggests Schjødt, is because people realise that the Yuletide gift-deliverer doesn't really exist.

Naturally, such experiments reveal nothing about whether or not God actually exists. It does, however, say a great deal about how people feel about him. Not surprisingly, the God to whom people pray is a person - basically, an invisible friend. Sophisticated believers, the sort who write articles in the Guardian criticising the "simplistic" notion of God held up by atheists as a straw man, want us to think that when discussing God or arguing about his existence anthropomorphic language is unhelpful, even misleading. They warn against the clichéd view of God as an old man with a long beard sitting on a cloud somewhere.

The high priestess of this sort of tosh is, of course, Karen Armstrong. Here's a typical passage from her bestseller, A History of God:

Those atheists who preached emancipation fro a God who demands such servile obedience were protesting against an inadequate but unfortunately familiar image of God. Again, this was based on a conception of the divine that was too personalittic. It interpreteted the scriptural image of God's judgement too literally and assumed that God was a sort of Big Brother in the sky... the anthropomorphic idea of God as Lawgiver and ruler is not adequate to the temper of postmodernity.

Similarly Mark Vernon, writing today on CIF in defence of "principled agnosticism", comments that

religious language appears to reflect something fundamental about the human condition, namely that we need what Keats called a "negative capability" – the capacity to live happily with the manifold uncertainties that surround us. God-talk, when divinity is recognized as being unknown and beyond our reach, can be a powerful expression of that.

But the Danish study shows that as "an old man with a long beard" is precisely how the vast majority of believers do conceive of God, at least when they are praying. Asked to articulate their theological opinions, most would doubtless deny such a reductionist view. God is a spirit, they would say. And, indeed, it is a manifest absurdity to picture the creator and sustainer of the vast universe as basically a superior type of human being.

Religious language remains soaked in such thinking. The most extreme anthropomorphism is to be found in the early books of the Old Testament, where God strolls around the Garden of Eden and turns up to lunch with Abraham. But even in later books, where a more elevated concept of God is supposedly to the fore, the writers describe a human-like being who loves and hates both nations and particular individuals, who is prone to anger and open to persuasion. He is a king, a lord, a judge, a father; he has a throne, a right hand, feet, an army. Of course, all this is "metaphorical", but it is also somehow more than metaphorical: it seems to be the only way in which most people can conceptualise the divine at all. With Christianity came a whole new level of anthropomorphism: a God who not only had human-like characteristics, but even a human face, one who put in personal appearances, as did his mother, to favoured men and women.

It's often claimed that Islam has a much less anthropomorphic view of God. But Allah, too, is a being who thinks and speaks (in Arabic, apparently) and who has strongly-expressed opinions, even about such trivial matters as the behaviour of Mohammed's wives. Hinduism offers its worshippers a vast array of gods to choose from, all with strikingly individual characteristics: the monkey-god Hanuman, the alluringly feminine Parvati, the warrior-king Ram. It is to these, rather than to the impersonal Brahma described by theologians and philosophers, that most ordinary people relate. Buddhism, for the most part, manages to dispense with anthropomorphism - but only by getting rid of "God" entirely.

What Schjødt's brain imaging reveals, then, is something that we really know all along: that when it comes to worshipping, or praying to, or putting trust in, "God" most people (even, I suspect, some of the sophisticated theologians) are not relating to the Supreme Being, or to the Ground of Universal Transcendence, or some such abstraction or spiritual essence, but to something much closer to the human scale. Perhaps language, with its talk of heavenly fathers and "the word of God", pushes them in that direction. But I suspect that religion, as a way of making sense of the world, had its orgins in anthropomorphic ways of thought that seem to come quite naturally to human beings. Evolved to relate to other individuals with minds, people tend to relate to inanimate objects and even the universe itself as beings possessed of intelligence. In the days before science, people conceptualised forces at work in the natural world as reflecting the activities of beings with intentions, or as beings themselves. Even today we tend to (half-jokingly, perhaps, and in full knowledge of its futility) feel anger towards a car that won't start. And we are constantly exhorted to feel a sense of responsibility towards "Gaia".

A few years ago there was a much-mocked fad called "cosmic ordering", whose devotees were encouraged to "place an order" with the cosmos, as with an online shop, in the expectation that the cosmos would deliver. The absurdity lay in the unambiguous way it revealed the mechanics of most prayer and most religion. Instead of the mediating entity "God", which elides the radical disjunction between the human-scale and the universal, it forced people to imagine the universe itself as taking a personal interest in their wellbeing. And despite a brief popularity, that was for most people a step too far. It is difficult, though not impossible, to pretend that the vastness of space-time can be your friend. Yet that, surely, is what most religious people do every day.


Andrew said...

This reminds me of a strapping young rugger-playing fundie with a name like Jezza, whom I accompanied once on a missionary tour of Transylvania. He said, somewhere in Budapest airport, that "It's amazing to think that I have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe". This was very funny, since he made God sound like the proprietor of the estate next to his father's.

None the less, it's not entirely clear to me that you can read off with quite such confidence what people think from what shows up on a brain scan.

Edwin Moore said...

At the end of James Hider's marvellous book, The Spiders of Allah, there is a wee roundup of theories about why people believe in gods. It may be that our demon-haunted ancestors managed to wipe out the bigger-brained Neanderthals because the Neanderthals weren't physically equipped with the front brain matter to summon up deities - and gods (or demons) give back-up to expansive peoples (with god on our side).

As for literalism, yes the theoretically less literal approach of Muslims to the face of God gives way in practice to the same old desert ruler with a beard.

I am reminded of an old Posy Simmonds Guardian strip in which the Weber hamster dies: Dad tells the kids it will become nutrients that will feed the earth, Mum says it will live in on the memory and make them better people, Gran tells them it's gone to heaven. The children imagine a vision of the beardie God welcoming the hamster into heaven, and say 'We like Grannie's version best'. Indeed we do!

WeepingCross said...

The most appalling, but clearly vital, moment of my conversion was praying in the horrible expectation that there was, indeed, someone there to hear, rather than engaging in some self-motivation exercise which, from the far side of the event, seemed completely bizarre and pointless. I don't think the being I'm addressing looks like anything in particular, though. God doesn't have a beard in the Bible. He has a face, and a back, but then so does a coin. Other than that, he's a bush that burns without being consumed, a fire, a cloud, and so on. And when he's incarnated nobody bothers to remember what he looked like (though according to the Hadith Mohanmmed seemed to know).

DiscoveredJoys said...

More than 40 years ago there was a daily cartoon strip in the Southampton Evening Echo about a young Pharoh called Rameses.

In one strip his pet cat died. The priests told him that his dead cat had gone to be with the Gods. He then asked "What do the Gods want with a dead cat?"

A strangely subversive cartoon.

Edwin Moore said...

can you remember the cartoonist DiscoveredJoys? That's a brilliant line.

DiscoveredJoys said...

Edwin Moore:

Curiosity made me dig out the old box file with the cartoon stuck to the cover. I see that I had not remembered it clearly, although the meaning is preserved.

First box:
Boy: Boo Hoo!
Rameses: "What's the matter little boy?"

Second Box:
Boy: "My pet cat died!"

Third Box:
Rameses: "Never mind! The Gods have taken it up to heaven with them."

Fourth Box:
Boy: "What do they want with a dead cat?"

Unfortunately I can't decipher the cartoonist's signature, or confirm the date. However the cartoon bears the number 339 if that is of any use.

Anonymous said...

"Not surprisingly, the God to whom people pray is a person - basically, an invisible friend."

It would be interesting to scan the brains of children talking to their imaginary friends and see if there's any similarity.

MIDImouse said...

Orthodox Christianity has referred to all three members of the Trinity as "persons" since the Council of Nicaea. Note that "person" is not meant to imply "human". It is not a matter of anthropomorphism - casting God as a man, but of subscribing to the Biblical view that God made man in his own image. If we are "persons", then - from the Christian perspective - we have been imbued with a spark of the divine. If god exists, I certainly hope that god is not an impersonal force, but an individual with a will. I would be more concerned about praying to "The Force", a universal oversoul, etc.