Study: People Imagine God in Their Own Images

By Andrew Moseman | December 1, 2009 12:49 pm

Creation of Adam220Perhaps unsurprisingly, people tend to project their own opinions onto God, according to a new study (in press) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But, the researchers say, they also found that when people tweak their own opinions, they tend to also change their idea of God’s beliefs in order to keep the two in line.

The team conducted seven studies in the US, including four in which they surveyed people about their own beliefs on controversial issues such as abortion and the death penalty. Participants were also asked about what they thought God believed, as well as famous people like Bill Gates and President George Bush [Sydney Morning Herald]. Scientists then asked the participants—all of whom believed in the Abrahamic God and most of whom were Christians—to do things that might change their minds, like writing an essay about the death penalty from the opposite viewpoint of their own. When participants changed their own opinions, their ideas of God’s opinion changed too, though their opinions of what other people thought remained the same.

Finally, the team used fMRI to scan the brains of volunteers while they contemplated the beliefs of themselves, God or “average Americans.” … In the first two cases, similar parts of the brain were active. When asked to contemplate other Americans’ beliefs, however, an area of the brain used for inferring other people’s mental states was active. This implies that people map God’s beliefs onto their own [New Scientist].

Despite their results, and the fact that members of the same religion can reach opposite viewpoints on these polarizing issues, the researchers say that believers’ ideas of God don’t change overnight. [Alexa] Delbosc, a Christian who carried out the research in the US while studying for a masters in psychology, said that although people’s perceptions of God’s attitudes on an issue could be ”nudged” slightly, there would be limits to how radically people changed their views [Sydney Morning Herald].

Related Content:
80beats: God on the Brain: Researchers Probe the Neural Circuitry Behind Religious Beliefs
80beats: Debates of Evolution and Creationism are Headed for the Islamic World
DISCOVER: The God Experiments

Image: Wiki Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: PNAS, psychology, religion
  • shanks

    An alternative interpretation could be that people believe that God must always be right. Once they change their view of what is “right”, their perception of God attitude must also change accordingly. On the other hand, other people need not always be right.

  • Arki

    Well, people tend to excuse god for its mistakes, or to look for lame excuses for the abudant loopholes in its laws.
    They usually do the same for themselves and their own opinion on things.
    I had observed that behavior while in conversations about religion with others, but it’s nice to know of a study that supports it.
    Personally, my views and opinions about different matters changed quite a bit pretty quickly when I finally realized how ilogical religion was and embraced a naturalistic view. Things make more sense when you don’t have to make silly and often complicated excuses for the invisible man upstairs.

  • Mike

    When I meet someone religious I generally don’t get too personal with them…I have always found that they will eventually look down on me, or think I am lost at some point…that I need or should consider their own beliefs to comfort the woes of life. “Mike, if only you could find Christ”.

    Same for non believers too…or even some scientist who refuse to accept others ideas or research and think their view or ideas are the only ones plausible. They can’t even agree on what’s going on at the particle level and all these different geniuses are off in different directions. An athiest can be just as annoying as a right wing christian or jihadist muslim, ready to fight, argue, convince, recruit, organize meetings, raise money, etc – all to prove, or enforce their personal views that their ego craves to inflict on others, glorifying their self image with delusions of power.

    Agnostic is the only way to really be, with what we know now. Anyone who believes in something otherwise (Gods or no Gods) it’s just opinion, nothing more than a thought projected by their socially conditioned ego mind. Nobody can set down absolute proof of the existence or absense of a God, creator, or whatever (whether it’s us or some entity out in space or just random chance energy)…all we can prove is that we are aware and conscious beings in a really big weird, effed up universe. That’s it. Anyone who comes to me with any “absolute opinion or proof” otherwise is a jackass – for now anyway.

  • Tom

    Re: “Agnostic is the only way to really be, with what we know now. Anyone who believes in something otherwise (Gods or no Gods) it’s just opinion….”
    More appropriately, what you should have said is: “As for myself…..with what I know now.”
    You cannot possibly speak for those of us who have chosen to study not only the Bible itself, but also the veritable mountains of evidence that support the information and knowledge therein.
    There have been people attacking the Bible since “Day 1”, and there will continue to be counter-influences until the end of days. It is easy to deny God, if that is what you wish to do. That is your choice, granted by Him.
    People who wish to gravitate away from God will always gravitate towards reading (and firmly believing) ANYTHING that supports their decision to do so. For those who have chosen to walk with God, studying and abiding in His word are sufficient. I, for one, praise Him for blessing me each and every day with answers (i.e., responses) to each and every argument raised by persons such as yourself.
    The early disciples of Christ went to their deaths rather than deny Him, because THEY knew Him first-hand; they would not have dared to deny the Truth that they knew and understood!
    When Diocletian issued the edict (circa 300AD) to have all scriptures burned and tried forcing Christians to convert, God stepped-in by having his successor pay to replace (50 sets) of God’s Word.
    The ‘irony’ of Voltaire, the non-believer’s so-called “Beacon of Enlightenment” ~ after he stated that Christianity would be gone-and-forgotten ‘some years’ after his death … instead, his OWN printing press was put into service printing tons of Bibles for distribution around the globe!
    The atheists who tried to “prove” that the Bible must ALL be nothing more than a ‘hoax’, claiming that Moses could not possibly have authored the pentateuch (1st 5 books), stating that writing didn’t even EXIST during Moses’ time : they were forced to eat their words with the discovery of the “black stele” stone tablet, which pre-dated even Abraham…!
    God does not exist to “do our bidding”. One cannot deny Him, simply because He did not answer your prayer to make YOURS be the winning Lottery ticket(!)
    Forgive me for this one, singular trespass: even the *ignoramus* who founded ‘Scientology’ made ONE statement that was fundamentally correct:
    “We were put here (on this earth) to work out our own salvation.”
    Here’s wishing you the best of luck with that.

  • Kirk

    “People who wish to gravitate away from God will always gravitate towards reading (and firmly believing) ANYTHING that supports their decision to do so. ”

    Right back at you with the requirement to attribute this to YOUR belief(s) and your POV.

    I came to my current, still evolving set of beliefs by reading everything I could get my hands on. This was including but not limited to science, philosophy, religious history, religious texts…
    Still reading and studying and will continue to do so.

    I speak only for myself.

  • Sparkicus

    I love how people who say they are Agnostics are called “non-believers.” (Just as Pro–Choice people are called “pro-abortion.”) Agnostic means “I don’t know” not “I don’t believe” (just as Pro-Choice means “I believe in your individual right to choose your fate” not “I LOVE abortion.”)

    If you don’t know what the word Agnostic means but criticize Agnostics as though you’re certain of all things (like the “facts” in the Bible which are actually 3rd party testimony), aren’t you revealing your ignorance and arrogance? Wouldn’t God disapprove?

  • Fisher of Mana

    Leave it to Churchy to puke more words than the original post.

    My God eats with his hands, lusts after Latinas, and can beat your God in arm wrestling.

  • Believer

    Amen Tom! and to Mike….I know, without a doubt, that God exists. That’s what faith is. In the unlikely event that I’m wrong, so what. In the event you are wrong…

  • Jason R.

    Hey Believer,
    In the likely event that you’re wrong, there are plenty of other religions out there that think you’ll go to Hell for it. You’ve got just as much chance of burning as the rest of us, so don’t think that Pascal’s wager will protect you.

  • Chintan

    Tom – a very intelligent defense but if Science ate its words about stone tablets its not a first… science is always correcting itself as it unveils more and more of the mysteries of this universe. Its religion which has absolute knowledge – and looks like the only group which has a right to have it – as they KNOW – but it took them 5 centuries to acknowledge that Sun is the center of the solar system.

    Lets leave facts to be domain of science and faith to be domain of religion – there is not common ground for a debate and lets not attempt one.


  • Daniel Knight

    I don’t understand what the Hell this article is talking about. The title can be argued as misleading, because God already states who and what he is, to a degree, in the Bible, and were the people who are IGNORANT about what the Bible says distinguished from those who were saying what they believed based on what the Bible said? The study should have taken into account pre-knowledge (whether true or not), which I doubt they did, as such a thought is too sophisticated for Mainstream Scientists, who are a shallow cult.


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