Aug 25 2011

The god of the glass

Back when I was in my younger teen years I used to love playing a game for Nintendo called Secret of Mana. Toward the end of the game, you have to battle against clones of your own character in order to complete a particular dungeon. This battle was always necessarily the most difficult in the game, because the clone of you had all of your abilities. It meant that unlike other enemies in the game, you couldn’t gain experience or items that would tip the scales in your favour if the fight was too difficult on first pass. The opponent was always your equal, meaning you had to rely on your superior abilities to carry the day. I wasn’t (and am still not) a very good gamer, so this part was always tough for me.

I was reminded of my frustration with this battle against one’s self when I saw this article:

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).

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.

(I find HTML journal articles very difficult to read. A .pdf version is available here)

I hinted at this during last week’s Movie Friday, suggesting that when someone talks about their ‘personal relationship’ with whatever deity they happen to worship, there are always discrepant accounts of what that deity values. This is quite inconsistent with the idea that there is an actual entity out there, but fits exactly with the hypothesis that people have a ‘personal relationship’ with something within their own heads. I’ve made this more explicit in the phrase “Ask 100 people for a definition of god, get 200 answers” – referencing the fact that the gods people claim to believe in almost always turn into something much more mushy and deistic under direct scrutiny. The authors of this study have done the scientifically responsible thing and made fun of religious people on a blog actually conducted some research.

In the first study, the researchers asked people to report their own beliefs, those of a person they do not know personally, and those of their god. Keep in mind that if there were some external standard (god), the level of correlation between people’s own evaluations and that external standard would vary. After all, not everyone agrees with homosexuality or capital punishment or abortion, or any number of topics. What they found instead was that there was a consistently strong correlation between whatever the respondent happened to believe, and what they thought their god believed. Once again, surprising if you believe in a supernatural source of absolute morality that communicates with humans, completely expected if you recognize what it looks like when people talk to themselves.

The facile rejoinder to this would sound something like this:

True followers of YahwAlladdha spoke the truth about those topics, whereas those who are not real _______ only spoke what was in their own heads. What this study demonstrated is nothing more than the fact that some people are not sincere believers.

Luckily, there is a way to test this hypothesis too. If this was indeed the case, then the sincere believers would not change their minds, whereas the convictions of those who are just faking it (or worse, believing in the wrong version of YahwAlladdha) would shift to fit the circumstances. After all, the sincere believers have direct communication with the divine, who is unchanging and absolute. The scientists had participants read arguments for and against a policy (in this case, affirmative action) and rate how strong they felt the arguments were. Then they were asked to rate their opinion of the topic, as well as the fictitious people’s opinion, and then God’s.

As we can see from the graph, those that opposed the policy (the anti-policy group) felt that their god disapproved just as much. Those who had been manipulated to support the policy (keep in mind these were randomized groups, so their position before reading the arguments would have been the same) felt that their god did too. Interestingly, this effect was not seen in how participants thought the average person felt – suggesting that evaluations of the average person are not quite as egocentric as evaluations of YahwAlladdha. This effect was further explored by having people read speeches that either supported or opposed the position they held on the death penalty, which has the effect of polarizing agreement and moderating disagreement. Again, after being manipulated into a position, the participants’ expectation of what their god supports changed right alongside.

Finally, if that wasn’t enough evidence that the ‘personal relationship’ is about as personal as it could be (i.e., just a reflection of your own beliefs), the investigators hauled out a functional MRI (fMRI) scan. Brain activity when considering one’s own beliefs was different than when participants considered the beliefs of other people. However, as you might have expected from the above experiments, when people thought about what their god wanted the pattern of activity was the same as when thinking about themselves. Not only are the content of the beliefs identical, but so too is the method by which believers arrive at them.

None of this is proof that a god doesn’t exist – such a thing is logically impossible and wildly uninteresting (I will explain this on Monday). What it does prove, however, is that people do not get their morality from direct communication with the Holy Spirit or any other kind of supernatural entity. Moral attitudes come from a variety of sources, none of which point to non-material origin. While people may get their moral instruction from religion (in a “do this, don’t do that” kind of way), it is not because of an entity which embodies absolute morality and communicates said morality through prayer.

I am still curious how believers deal with things they disagree with, but which they are told are commanded by their god. Do anti-gay activists legitimately hate gay people, or are they just following the instructions from the pulpit? Are the religious teachings to blame for the evils committed by religious adherents, or are they just a smokescreen used to justify underlying organic hatred and spitefulness? Whatever the answer, those of us hoping to deal with those who believe their cause is divinely justified have to confront the truth that we are not just fighting against the concept a god – we are fighting against the concept of a god that takes shape in the mirror.

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