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.

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.

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

Should we get out of the habit of worshiping anything?

“I want just to offer a few opinions, on the basis of no expertise whatever, for those who have already lost their religious beliefs, or who may be losing them, or fear that they will lose their beliefs, about how it is possible to live without God.

First, a warning: we had better beware of substitutes. It has often been noted that the greatest horrors of the twentieth century were perpetrated by regimes—Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China—that while rejecting some or all of the teachings of religion, copied characteristics of religion at its worst: infallible leaders, sacred writings, mass rituals, the execution of apostates, and a sense of community that justified exterminating those outside the community.

When I was an undergraduate I knew a rabbi, Will Herberg, who worried about my lack of religious faith. He warned me that we must worship God, because otherwise we would start worshiping each other. He was right about the danger, but I would suggest a different cure: we should get out of the habit of worshiping anything.”

Stephen Weinberg, Without God The New York Review of Books
Volume 55, Number 14 · September 25, 2008