Monday, January 04, 2010

God's beliefs as what we want them to be.

Epley et al., in an open access article, find that what we believe about God's views is more egocentric than what we believe about the views of other humans:
People often reason egocentrically about others' beliefs, using their own beliefs as an inductive guide. Correlational, experimental, and neuroimaging evidence suggests that people may be even more egocentric when reasoning about a religious agent's beliefs (e.g., God). In both nationally representative and more local samples, people's own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God's beliefs than with estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 1–4). Manipulating people's beliefs similarly influenced estimates of God's beliefs but did not as consistently influence estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 5 and 6). A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one's own beliefs and God's beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person's beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God's beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person's beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God's beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one's own existing beliefs.


  1. Interesting. It seems strange to use the term "belief" in reference to a supposedly omniscient being. If, for example, I believe in an omniscient God, then I also believe that God only "believes" in things that are true. So if I am asked if God believes proposition p, I would need to know if p is true. Which in turn means that I have to consult my own beliefs about p. And if someone convinced me to change my mind about the truth of p, I would naturally change my belief about God's belief.

    But another way to look at it might be that people don't "know" God as well as they know, for example, a friend. If you asked me to reason about the beliefs of someone I don't know, in the absence of other information I would probably just fill in the gap with my own beliefs. To find out if this is the case, I guess we would have to compare the neural activity when someone is reasoning about God's belief's with their neural activity when reasoning about:

    a) The beliefs of someone they know well
    b) The beliefs of someone they barely know
    c) The beliefs of someone they don't know, but who they believe to be real
    d) The beliefs of a hypothetical person
    e) God's beliefs

    In other words, if people create God in their own image, is it because:

    1. They believe God is omniscient and therefore consult their own beliefs by the logic I outlined above)?
    2. They feel they have insufficient knowledge of god's beliefs, and have no option but to fill in their own beliefs?
    3. They have some other motive (e.g., wishful thinking)?

  2. This certainly puts a twist in the sympathetic approach to religion. It appears that it is a switch, or catalyst for a narrower understanding of life. It takes away the argument that religion is an adaptation for a greater good.

    I think that this study makes it very hard to defend the religious problems we have in this world and our country.