Is God a blank slate?

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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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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

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”

Do Egalitarians need Spirituality?

A thoughtful review by Graham Strouts of David Holmgren’s new book, Future Scenarios appears at his website, Zone 5.

This provides an interesting angle on the predeliction of Egalitarian thinkers to foreground the need for a ‘reorientation of spiritual values’ or a ‘fundamental change of paradigm’. Note that while Holmgren himself is clear that under certain scenarios such social changes are essential, not every Egalitarian is in agreement. One of the issues with advocating a return to spirituality is the question, Which spirituality? Continue reading “Do Egalitarians need Spirituality?”

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?”

Good Intentions: is rational choice the only choice?

A new book called Good Intentions proposes that Christians should stop judging economic matters on the basis of pre-conceived moral positions and start judging them on the basis of what actually works. A prime example is the debate about the minimum wage… Continue reading “Good Intentions: is rational choice the only choice?”

Virtual Goods and the Greatest Story ever Told


Virtual goods make money

In a recent post about the profitability of online social networks in the US, China and Japan, venture capitalist Bill Gurley presents evidence that the more financially successful social network sites are those that downplay advertising revenue and focus on revenue from virtual goods. He points out that Users in Second Life are doing $450m annually in this business and taking out of Second Life $100m a year.

But why would anyone buy them? Continue reading “Virtual Goods and the Greatest Story ever Told”

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?

Grid-group cultural theory and hierarchical churches

The Gag WarehouseIt came to my attention recently that there are still churches which don’t let women preach or lead worship.

Choosing the leaders because they are men is a hierarchical approach to social organisation and needs to be set in a context. The other ways of choosing leaders should be noted:

Egalitarian – ‘priesthood of all believers’ (become more like the Quakers and be suspicious of activities that require structured leadership)

Individualist – ‘work out your own salvation’ (become more like the new age and construct your own tailor-made religion out of bought pieces. Leaders are entrepreneurs).

Fatalist – ‘the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles’ (Acts 1.26) (become more like a lottery and embrace chance. After all, leadership is pointless –  who remembers what Matthias ever did?) Continue reading “Grid-group cultural theory and hierarchical churches”