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

Excommunicating Women priests

Just about to write something about the recent restatement of the Catholic Church’s opposition to the ordination of women – I realised, effectively, I already had.

Add only this: it’s not actually very easy to be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Few people have ever met anyone who has been (militant atheists have been trying it recently, with limited success). This is because exclusion is a very uncharacteristic measure for a hierarchical organisation. It sits rather better with Egalitarian organisations which have no other sanctions against persistent dissenters. Indeed, for hierarchies, exclusion makes almost no sense, since one thereby excludes the wrongdoer from punishment. Note that in describing excommunication theological commentators sometimes refer to it as being of medicinal benefit. It supposedly encourages the wrongdoer to realise the seriousness of their offence and thence to repent and return to the fold.

So, far from being another indication of the terrible hierarchy at its terrible worst, as some commentators have suggested, the restatement of the Church’s willingness to excommunicate those attempting the ordination of a woman is really more evidence of just how far Egalitarianism has made inroads into that most hierarchical of hierarchies. Lacking other more coercive sanctions, the Church is reduced to fighting Egalitarianism with its own weapon, exclusion.

But the excluded who won’t repent don’t merely vanish. These days they turn up in America where they take a largely competitive, Individualist approach to religion: if you can’t join them, beat them.  Does it seem unlikely that a small group of women could change the church’s longstanding practice? Perhaps these women and their supporters might take a little encouragement from the story of Mary Mackillop, the Nineteenth century Australian nun who was excommunicated for inciting disobedience. In October 2010 she’ll  be made Australia’s first saint.

Read also: grid-group cultural theory and hierarchical churches

Is it necessary for God to be doing anything different from the laws of physics?

Victor Stenger, is the author of  God, the Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows that God does not Exist.

The book claims:

Not only does the universe show no evidence for God, it looks exactly as it would be expected to look if there is no God.

I would frame this slightly differently and suggest that

the evidence in favour of the existence of God is exactly the same as the evidence against the existence of God.

It may seem like a small difference but I think it’s important. Here’s why. Continue reading “Is it necessary for God to be doing anything different from the laws of physics?”

Fortify your group with religious belief! Homing in on the God Gene

NY Times God Gene Graphic“Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal.”

An article in the New York Times, In Search of the God Gene, flies a kite for religion as an evolutionary benefit. But it takes a very particular view of what religion amounts to. According to the article the traits regarded as religion are those that promote a [high-group, low-grid]  egalitarian society, but then also those which favour a [high group, high grid] hierarchical society. However, the view that these cultures are the most effective and therefore the most likely to be selected for in evolutionary terms does not stand up to scrutiny. It begs the question of the relationship of nature to culture. Neither does it take account of the possibility raised by Cultural Theory of [low grid,  low group] Individualist, or [high grid, low group] Fatalist religions and religious practices.

No organised religion in the world today is claimed to have lasted more than 40,000-60,000 years. Most are far, far younger than this. Indeed we could characterise religion itself as a very recent phenomenon, far too recent to have affected evolution to any significant extent. Supposedly timeless ‘Religious’ practices such as ritual dancing or induced trance states are so general as to transcend any useful definition of religion, or else not actually necessary for a definition of religion.

The evidence cited in the article itself contradicts the claim that religion helps societies to survive over generations. Note that far from being static, the religious activities identified in the NY Times article change and involve discontinuity. Communal religious dancing floor, ancestor cult shrine, astronomical temple – it is our modern category of religion that links these structures, not the experience of those societies which changed, perhaps drastically, from one to the next. What seems to be selected for, if that is the right term, is the ability of humans to abandon their religious beliefs and practices and adopt different ones, often radically different ones. Apostacy seems to be the intergenerational norm, and even loyalty as the intra-generational norm can take a big hit from time to time. Letters of reply to the article were interesting, with some supporting the alternative view that religion is a byproduct of evolution, not a factor, and others pointing out that many ethically questionable human behaviours can be seen as adaptive.

Nipping and Biting: Characterising the Conflict between Science and Religion

Much of the supposed conflict between science and religion may well be imaginary, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any conflict.

How then should this conflict be characterised?

Gregory Bateson once noted the distinction in playful animals between the nip (playful) and the bite (serious). It’s clear that animals, including ourselves, can tell the difference, but how? How do they (we) make the transition between ‘this is play’ and ‘is this play?’?
Bateson famously summed up his observation of monkeys at the San Francisco zoo as follows:

“the playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite” (p.180).

This has a great deal to tell us about the science and religion debate. Continue reading “Nipping and Biting: Characterising the Conflict between Science and Religion”

Is God literally real?

3247937322_0f82afc8c1Philosopher A.C. Grayling writes about  the illiterate roots of religion.

The ‘roots’ of religion may be illiterate, but this is hardly a cogent argument since the roots of everything, including writing, are illiterate.

Further, it’s unhelpful to disparage illiteracy in a generalising way. Australian Aboriginal culture, for instance, has been ‘illiterate’ for most of its existence, yet is one of the high points of human achievement. Far from being ‘primitive’ as European theorists such as Durkheim claimed, it is highly advanced and has a highly advanced relationship with its environment. In a sense, country is the ‘text’ with which Aboriginal culture is ‘written’, or the page on which it is inscribed. Or rather, literacy in the sense we understand it is a pale shadow of its former glory (was it Socrates who thought writing was an inferior form compared with face to face discourse?). Continue reading “Is God literally real?”

Room for One More on the Atheist Bus

The Battle of the Bus Adverts has begun in earnest. Now the Christians have taken up the challenge and responded with ads of their own, including the Russian Orthodox Church who, with tongue firmly out of cheek, produced ‘There IS a God’.

There is probably a geographical or cultural specificity to the effectiveness of these adverts. After all, one message probably wouldn’t play equally well in every city. So here’s a couple of suggestions for the atheist riposte, which is sure to come… any time now, depending on traffic conditions.

In New York:
HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU.

In Jerusalem:
TYPICAL – YOU WAIT AGES FOR ONE THEN THREE COME ALONG AT ONCE.

Any others – or is it all just too silly?

Is it misleading to say there probably isn’t a God?

The Atheist Bus Campaign story just keeps rolling along.

The latest is that after more than 400 complaints, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority is considering an investigation.

Meanwhile in Australia no such problems have been encountered, since the advertising industry is already censoring itself by refusing to work with anti-God ads.

mithras-westminster-museum-chester

It seems the ASA may be putting itself in the unenviable position of ruling on whether the claim that ‘There’s probably no God’ is misleading. To help the process along I can definitively advise that there is in fact a God in England and he has been located  in Oxford, York, Manchester, London and Chester (see image), as well as at a number of places in Northumbria. This is obviously bad news for atheists, but it may be equally bad news for Christians, Jews and Muslims. The God in question is none other than Mithras, the subject of a popular ancient Roman mystery cult. In fact, evidence of his existence is to be found all over western Europe.

Paganism was banned in 341, but London’s Mithraic temple is due to be re-established by developers in 2009.

There is a serious point to this: by denying a certain type of god, contemporary Atheists risk lending that god some backhanded credibility.