Creating God in Our Own Image
Question: what are God’s views on affirmative action, the death penalty and same-sex marriage? Answer: whatever you want them to be.
That’s according to a recent study by Nicholas Epley, Benjamin Converse, Alexa Delbosc, George Monteleone and John Cacioppo, found that we tend to ascribe our own views to God.
Past studies have shown that when we reason about other people, we form an opinion of their views based on two sources: egocentric info (i.e., what we ourselves believe) and outside clues (what the other person has said and done, and what others have said about them).
Here, the researchers wanted to find out how much we rely on egocentric info to construe other people’s views, including God’s. To that end, they had devout American participants provide their personal views on various issues (abortion, death penalty, Iraq war, etc.), as well as what they thought were the views of others (Katie Couric, George Bush, the average American, God, etc.).
When the researchers compared participants’ personal views with the participants’ estimates of others’ views, they found one significant pattern: there was a correlation between participants’ personal views and their estimates of God’s view. For example, participants who said they were for same-sex marriage tended to also say that God was for same-sex marriage. And participants who said they were against same-sex marriage tended to also say that God was against same-sex marriage.
But this wasn’t the case for the other figures – Couric, Bush, average American, and so forth. Participants who said they were for same-sex marriage were statistically neither more nor less likely to say that Couric was for same-sex marriage than those who held the opposite view. In other words, what I say Couric thinks has nothing to do with what I myself think. But what I say God thinks has lots to do with what I myself think.
But correlation doesn’t imply causation, so to shed light on the direction of causality, the researchers ran two follow-up experiments. This time, instead of just surveying participants for current views, they induced participants to change their personal views by randomly assigning them to give speeches for or against the issue (death penalty) in front of a camera. Because it was random assignment, some people ended up arguing for their personal view, while others argued against it (many past studies have shown that in this context, people tend to shift their own opinions in a direction consistent with the speech they delivered). So, what about the other views (God’s, Couric’s etc.) – would the participant revise those as well?
Yes and no. The only other view that changed was God’s. As participants’ own views changed, so did their estimates of God’s view. The participant who started out very much for the death penalty but took on a more moderate view after arguing against the death penalty on camera also ascribed a more moderate view to God. But his estimates of the others’ views remained unchanged.
Overall these results suggest that God is a blank slate onto which we project whatever we choose to. We join religious communities that argue for our viewpoint and we interpret religious readings to support our personal positions.
p.s and happy birthday to my little sister Tali