Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Agreeing with God

It's nice to have confirmation of something you knew all along.

Some research from the University of Chicago into religious opinions suggests that most people who believe in God think God agrees with them. Or, as the paper's title rather wonderfully puts it, "Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs". The scientists discovered that deciding what you think about a given issue and deciding what God thinks about it is more or less the same thing. But you probably knew that.

There were seven studies in all. Four involved surveys in which people were invited to give their opinions about various moral questions, along with what they imagined other people (such as Bill Gates, George Bush or the "Average American") would think about the same issue, and what God would think about it. For most people there was a strong correlation between what they believed and what they thought God believed. But respondents had a more "objective" assessment of what other human beings believed. In other words, they were prepared to entertain the thought that they disagreed with the former president, but not that they disagreed with the Almighty. Hardly rocket science, you might think. After all, it's how US foreign policy was formulated for eight years of this past decade.

In two further studies, the scientists "directly manipulated people’s own beliefs" by, for example, asking them to make a presentation about capital punishment in front of a video camera, "an exercise known to affect people’s reported beliefs." Asking people to think seriously about something hardly amounts to manipulating their beliefs, I wouldn't have thought, but in any case the researchers concluded that "inferences about God’s beliefs tracked their own beliefs." People who started off believing in capital punishment but after a few hours' intense thought changed their mind felt that God endorsed their new opinion just as strongly as he had endorsed their previous one. Again, no surprise there.

Another study involved the inevitable brainscans (always a sure-fire way of getting your findings taken seriously). Researchers MRI'd people's brains as they reasoned about their own beliefs versus those of God or another person. The "data demonstrated that reasoning about God’s beliefs activated many of the same regions that become active when people reasoned about their own beliefs." Presumably that's because they were reasoning about their own beliefs.

It would be amazing if believers didn't use the same part of their brains when thinking about what God felt about a given issue as when considering their own opinions. It would imply that there was a separation between God and morality, which is almost a contradiction.

And the conclusion:


The researchers noted that people often set their moral compasses according to what they presume to be God’s standards. “The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing,” they conclude. “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.”


In a sense, of course, that's the whole point of religion-based morality. God is supposed to be the ultimate source of right and wrong, the guarantor of absolute values. A large part of religion can be summed up as "find out what God wants you to do, and do it". So to say "I think this is right" and "God thinks this is right" is to say more or less the same thing. This has two major side-effects: fanaticism and neurosis.

"Because God says so", or "it is written in the Bible" is not much of a defence, intellectually speaking, to a philosophical challenge: it is usually a sign of weakness, frustration or a desire to close down debate. But for most people, for most of history, religious precepts have provided moral guidance, in thought if not in deed. The belief that one's opinions chime with those of the Creator of the Universe is powerfully reinforcing. That is why bigotry and self-righteousness are often so marked a feature of the religious mindset. The most dangerous fanatics are those who believe that they are doing God's will. This is the core of Richard Dawkins' insight that for good people to do evil, you need religion. But even good people who don't do evil things can fall prey to a similar fanaticism. Karen Armstrong, for example, is as unshakeably certain that God is "compassion" as any Taliban commander is convinced that God wants to stone adulterers. She is just as convinced as he is that God agrees with her point of view.

But not everyone is quite so comfortable with what they imagine to be God's views on morality. To act contrary to the perceived will of God is to sin, and sin brings with it guilt, consciousness of having done wrong. The result can be misery. Fortunately, there are ways round the problem.

Say you've read in the Bible that homosexuality is an abomination unto the Lord, and you're gay (or your best friend is). There are three ways out. One is to stop believing in God. A second is to try to become heterosexual, or at least celibate, neither of which is reliably a route to happiness; or to live with the knowledge that you are offending God, which is probably worse. Where God is concerned you can hardly just agree to differ. The third option is to discover that God doesn't hate homosexuality after all, that the Bible is open to interpretation (or even wrong), because God is love. What you're most unlikely to conclude, if you take this convenient third option, is that God has changed his mind on the question, that when he said in the Bible that gay sex was an abomination punishable by death he really meant it, but that a perusal of New Labour's anti-discrimination legislation has prompted a divine rethink. What you will say, instead, is that previous generations, and traditionalist believers in this generation, have all been limited in their understanding of the true nature of God, which is, however, available to you.

Is there a fourth option? Kingsley Amis (reports Martin) was once asked if he was an atheist. "It's more that I hate him," he replied. Martin thought it was the "most revealing thing" his father ever said, but what it reveals is a style of atheism rather than a style of belief. God is available to the believer, some of the time, through religious experience. The main source for the believer's idea of God will usually be the religious tradition to which he or she belongs, but even this will be experienced as something personal. But for the non-believer, the only source of information about God is what believers say or have written - or, perhaps, what he or she used to believe. So a negative opinion about God is really a negative opinion about religion: about believers, or about the version of God that believers have described over the centuries.

Once you start believing in God you're already committed to agreeing with him. But don't worry, he already agrees with you.