Is God a blank slate?

chicken egg and hand
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Dan Ariely, behavioural psychologist, reports on research that concludes that we select our view of God’s opinions to fit with our own. It seems that as our own opinions change so does our description of God’s opinions. The conclusion then is that God is a blank slate, onto which we project our opinions.

“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.”

You can read more at Creating God in our own image.

It’s a great research project, but the trouble with such conclusions is that personal opinions tend to suffer from chicken and egg syndrome. Which came first, the opinion or the opinion-holder?

Methodological individualism tends to isolate the individual from outside influences. On this model the opinion-holder is prior and somehow selects their opinions from some kind of smorgasbord of opinions. The opposite view seems more explanatory of people’s religious views: we are born into communities of opinion and our communities shape us in their image. We can, for sure, dissent, but then we are dissenters.

Americans tend to see religion as a choice, but this is unsurprising since that country has more religions than any other. American culture almost forbids a view of  religious affiliation as determined – and this is one of its determining features.  I don’t just have opinions: I was given them by my environment.The environment given – mandated –  by America is one of religious choice.

But I didn’t just come up with my views on xyz out of thin air. Rather I was educated, raised, trained, tutored. Heck, I even learnt a few things for myself by means of life experience. In other words there’s no such thing as me independently of my God-concept. There is only a me-God nexus and we mutually reinforce one another’s understanding of the world.

The locus of concepts such as God isn’t entirely within the individual but is supra-individual or trans-individual. I don’t deny the import of the research referred to. I recently re-read Anne Lamott’s great line in Bird by Bird:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image, when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

However, it’s reasonable to be sceptical of the  assumption that whereas God is supposedly a blank slate, we ourselves are not and never have been. There’s a clue in the title of Prof Ariely’s blog post, creating God in our own image: we collectively (somehow) create God in our own image.

We’re in it together, or as Hilary Clinton never said, it takes a village to raise a deity.

The original research, by Nicholas Epley, Benjamin Converse, Alexa Delbosc, George Monteleone and John Cacioppo, is here. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/51/21533.full.pdf+html?sid=c9b4ab06-bf09-439e-b53a-e409619de735

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2 thoughts on “Is God a blank slate?

  1. Good catch. Ariely’s conclusion that his experiment shows “we pick religions that suit our opinions” is a complete nonsequitur. In the experiment, the researchers induced subjects to hold opinions randomly & observed that the subjects attributed the opinion they had been induced to hold to God. We can infer from this, I suppose, that we’ll encounter few people in the world who believe that the opinions they hold vary from God’s. But as you say, this tells us *nothing* about where the opinions people hold and are attributing to God come from, much less that they are selecting into groups that hold views people were committed to independently of their membership in the group. Like you, I suspect the people in the world are more-or-less randomly assigned to groups, which can be understood to be acting like the experimenters here — inducing individuals to hold beliefs, which individuals then impute to God. But let’s not make Ariely’s mistake in a way that favors our favored position on the ontological priority of chickens and eggs. It could also be the case that outside the lab God induces individuals to hold beliefs — in which case they are right to believe God agrees with them, at least until some psychologist mucks w/ them.

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