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Their Personal God

For quite some time now, I've been saying that not only do cultures create their gods in their own images, so too do individual believers within these cultures invent their gods in their own individual images. Not too long ago, we got some medical data which seems to support this contention.

A year or so ago, I remember reading about some interesting studies. What had happened was that a number of voulenteers had their heads hooked up to scanning devices which monitored activity in different sections of their brains under different sets of stimuli. These voulenteers were asked a number of questions, all along similar lines, such as "What do you think about 'topic A'", "what do you think about 'topic B'", and so on and so forth. The actual topics being asked about are largely immaterial. They were then asked a similar set of questions, along the lines of "What do you think the average American thinks of 'topic A', 'topic B', 'topic C'", and so on and so forth. Interspersed among all of these second set of questions was the question "What do you think god thinks of 'Topic C'", or what have you.

What they found was really quite amazing.

Whenever these people were asked what they, personally, thought about a given topic, one section of the brain lit up with activity. Let's call this 'section 1'. Whenever they were asked what they thought someone ELSE thought on a given topic, a separate section of the brain lit up with activity. Let's call this 'section 2' (more specific details of which can be found here). But when they were asked what they thought god thought about a given topic? It was always section 1 that got busy. It seemed that when these people were forced to think about their god's motives and tastes, they invariably just thought of their own and then assigned these motives to their god.

Indeed, in a separate part of the same survey, people were asked about their own values on given topics, and then about their god's values on these topics. They were then presented with strong arguments in favour of an alternate position on these issues. Wherever their own personal beliefs on these topics were altered by these arguments, so too did they report that their god's views were similarly altered.

This got me to thinking.

For a long time now, it's been clear to me that a given christian will typically pick and choose which parts of the bible are "literally true" or merely "symbolic/metaphorical/allegorical/the product of human error" on the basis of which ones do and do not line up with their personal values and ethics. Every christian invents their own little god in their own heads, based upon what they like to believe of their god, and then, when confronted with something like the story of Noah's Flood, asks themselves something like "Well, do I think that it's morally permissible to murder every man, woman and child on Earth who disagrees with me?" If they view this as morally repugnant, then so too, naturally, does their god. Therefore he would never do something like that. Therefore the Flood never happened. Therefore the story is no more than myth and legend. Another christian, of a more bloodthirsty streak, might say "Well, of course, I would be glad to murder everyone on the planet who disagrees with me," and they might be a bit more likely to view the Flood as historical fact, and one that they think of rather fondly. These people are kind of terrifying.

The variability of this personal bias has long been a point of frustration for me when discussing this stuff with christians. They seem to feel free to dismiss any part of their mythology that they find uncomfortable as being, for whatever reason, not a fit topic for discussion, especially where the actions of their god, as described within that mythology, are in conflict with their own sense of right and wrong. Sometimes they can find ways to reconcile these conflicts, and sometimes they just pretend the conflict doesn't exist, such as by saying that these events simply never took place, even if the bible is otherwise largely a true story. I will sometimes push them to justify this selective editing process that they go through; "Show me where in the bible it spells it out that this story is no more than myth and folklore", I'll ask them, and will point out all the eminent christian authorities who will confidently assert that these stories are historical fact. Of course they can't do so, and will tend to fall back on a wishy-washy excuse such as "you've just got to have faith", and assertions that I need to pray to their god for guidance on the topic so that it can be made as plain to me as it is to them (choosing to ignore the fact that these other christians have doubtless done the same things and gotten different answers from their god).

But now I think it becomes a bit more clear what's going on here. The selection process is literally no more complicated than "Do I want this story to be true? No? Well then neither does god, and therefore it isn't true, because god wants whatever I want." They don't phrase it in this manner, and I'm sure the majority of them aren't even faintly aware of this process consciously, but the results are the same.

I've always wondered why so many christians take it so very personally when I point out the various moral failings of their god, as evidenced in their mythology. It always seemed to run more deeply than the resentment one might feel at a criticism of a friend of family member. I begin to see, now, what's going on here. To attack the moral character of their god, on an emotional level, seems no different than an attack upon themselves, because their god is nothing more than a deification of themselves.

It also begins to become more clear why it's so difficult to get believers to find fault with the moral character of their god. I had always believed it was just fear that prevented them from agreeing with me when I pointed out that acts which they would call evil if performed by anyone other than their god were also evil when performed by him. Fear of hell, fear of doubt, fear of whatever. And perhaps it still is on some level. But more fundamentally, if their god's values are identical to their own, then how in the world are you supposed to get them to disagree with or disapprove of the moral character of this god? You may as well be trying to get them to disagree with the actions of their own shadow or mirror reflection even as they're performing them, since this is all that their god is.

It's given me pause to re-think my approach to talking with christians on this topic. All this talk of "letting Jesus into your heart" makes a lot more sense now; their god is not some entity separate from themselves, but an extension of themselves, whether they realize it or not. My strategy of getting people to see the moral bankruptcy and obsolescence of their creator-figure seems to have a flaw in it that I had hitherto fore not considered, and one that bears some reflecting-upon.

Comments

( 20 comments — Leave a comment or comments. )
skittish_derby
11th Nov, 2010 05:51 (UTC)
that is very interesting. thought provoking, thanks for sharing.

and, gah... about the noah's flood thing-- I was just complaining about how horrible that story is on my fb, and I got so much flack from so many of those terrifying people saying things like "it is a beautiful story of..." just... no.

dave_littler
11th Nov, 2010 06:16 (UTC)
Yeah, a lot of the stories in the very early parts of the bible/torah are just so nakedly barbaric and bloodthirsty that they unflinchingly appeal to the very worst and lowest parts of the human character. To pretend otherwise is to show yourself to be a liar or a fool.

Have you read my take on the similarly-horrible story of Sodom and Gamorrah?
skittish_derby
11th Nov, 2010 14:25 (UTC)
i don't think so. lol. do you have a link?
dave_littler
11th Nov, 2010 14:40 (UTC)
Certainly. Here you go.

http://dave-littler.livejournal.com/118870.html

"I could write a better god with my ass tied behind my back"; November 26th, 2009.
skittish_derby
11th Nov, 2010 18:23 (UTC)
as usual, your biblical prose is superb. and it made me happy. =]
dave_littler
11th Nov, 2010 18:44 (UTC)
Well, hey, it may be worth your time just to peruse my "religion" tag a bit; I've certainly tagged a good many entries with that one, and if you missed that entry, you may have missed others you'll also like.
solace_eternal
11th Nov, 2010 07:44 (UTC)
It could possibly be argued that they could have similar beliefs to their god because they're [attempting?] to live in his image, but I don't think that's the case.




Some of what you are describing I am thinking is more of a human responce than anything related to religion: they're being asked something about someone they've never met that is not or has not been explicitly explained to them beforehand, and so they ad lib. Having never met the guy, they have to make judgement calls, and naturally they resort to using their own judgements to do so, without realizing they are basically defining him by their own beliefs in the process.

I'm thinking it boils down to simply filling in the blanks with their own personal [read: limited] experiences; that their view of god agrees with their own views by default, because God doesn't exactly show up to prove them otherwise and because they have no other frame of reference than their own. "What would He do?" immediately becomes "what would I do?" because the first question cannot be answered.

Simply put: Ever retold a story a friend told you first, and have a third party make inquiries on the story that the first person didn't explain? I think it's along similar lines.


I am, of course, refering to the average joe christian, and not the kind that twists it all around to serve them.

Christianity strikes me as a religion where the only people that are fully aware of the details of the religion are either against it or running it. I think this is part of the appeal, actually; you are promised enternal paradise for going along with it, and the rules for doing so are up to interpretation. The end result is people doing what they are inclined to do and ending up convincing themselves what they're doing is right, and what they believe is right, and nothing short of God himself walking the earth or the rebirth of christ is going to be definitive proof one way or another.

Also: they get defensive when you start poking logic holes in their christ bubble because you address things that they don't want to consider; they like their bubble as it is.
dave_littler
11th Nov, 2010 18:42 (UTC)
It seems to me that the researchers took this into consideration when conducting the study; they asked their subjects "what do you think the average American thinks of this topic"; this too is someone they have no first-hand knowledge of per se; they need to think about someone else, based upon stuff they've heard, stuff they've seen elsewhere, and make a subjective call about what's in "Average American"'s head, just as they're being asked to do so with respect to their god.

I do think that you're right with respect to your second point; I probably give this sort of thing a LOT more thought to this sort of thing than the average christian does, because they get all they want or need out of the religion just by kind of passively experiencing the contentment that comes from believing themselves to be "loved" and/or "saved", whereas for me the big reward comes in the intense scrutiny and logic puzzles which the convoluted dogma systems seem to present. As such, they have no great reason to think about all of this stuff... aside from the manipulative charlatans who run the whole deal. I do think there are some genuinely insane people who give it as much thought as I do and come up with the opposite conclusion that I do, though: they scrutinize and analyze the character of the biblical god, see him as a bloodthirsty monster, and rather than recoiling from it as I do, they internalize it and become monsters for god, I suppose. I can think of no more ready explanation for the zealotry of, for example, the Spanish Inquisition.
drhoz
11th Nov, 2010 13:33 (UTC)
very clearly stated, if depressing
dave_littler
11th Nov, 2010 14:41 (UTC)
The first I have power over. The second I do not. I do what I can with what I have available to me.
rayefrenzy
11th Nov, 2010 17:07 (UTC)
Very interesting. I think some of the hostility might not because Christians feel they are personally being attacked but because the core of their faith is being questioned. I mean, what are the basics? God is love. Love God, Love your neighbor. And I'd like to think some Christians actually think about this. They see some of the situations where God isn't love. And no one is loving their neighbor. So, maybe they're hostile because they're questioning it too. Shit is hard. And no one likes to be told "Hey, everything you love and believe and adore is wrong/false/made up".

I'm a Christian. Or, well, I love Jesus and I believe the things he said. But when I read shit like in Joshua where God apparently said to commit mass genocide and take the promised land. Well, I can't swallow it. Instead of letting go of God completely, I guess its just easier to say "naw, that was not God. that was the Israelites".

I hope this is making sense. I haven't had enough coffee yet and I feel like I'm not making my point. And yer way more eloquent than I could ever be.
dave_littler
11th Nov, 2010 18:35 (UTC)
But see, this is essentially what I'm talking about. The god you choose to say you're worshiping wouldn't order genocide, because, being a human being with a functioning moral core, you deem genocide to be "wrong". Therefore, your god could not condone it either. Therefore he didn't order it. Therefore you ignore that part of the bible, even though you otherwise consider that book of the bible to be a factual account of events. This is pretty much exactly what I'm talking about.

I'd be curious to know your thoughts on incidents in the bible where the christian god is described as being more directly responsible for horrible shit, like when he chose to murder every man, woman and child on earth aside from the eight people he liked in the flood.

Or this: http://dave-littler.livejournal.com/118870.html

Or this: http://dave-littler.livejournal.com/59678.html

rayefrenzy
11th Nov, 2010 18:50 (UTC)
Honestly, I think most of the OT isn't a factual account of events at all. Hell, even a lot of the NT is screwy. But I like to take the 2 Thessalonians 5 approach: "Test everything. Hold onto what is good".

Maybe what I'm trying to get at is that, yes, I am most definitely one of the people this entry is about. But I'd like to think its less trying to align God to my morals, as much as trying to work out what the hell God's morals are to begin with. I went to Bible college and only came out with knowing 2 things; shit's fucked and what the fuck. And while I know shit is fucked, I still couldn't let go of the fact that Jesus had done some pretty fabulous things in my life and I didn't want to let that go. We're all groping around in a dimly lit room trying to figure things out. I guess that's what makes this life so fun.
dave_littler
11th Nov, 2010 18:59 (UTC)
Well, alright, for the sake of clarity, since I know you can ask any two christians what they think of any bit of dogma and get three different answers: What do you think hell is, who deserves to go there, and how were the rules determining who goes there established?

And do you believe that Jesus was in fact the christian god, Yahweh, made flesh?
rayefrenzy
11th Nov, 2010 19:37 (UTC)
Ah fuck. You caught me with the thing I know the least about: hell. I don't think or know if hell even exists. For a while, I thought if it truly were eternal separation from God, then perhaps you just simply cease to be, as opposed to whatever else the afterlife could be (i'd like to think its a giant ho-down and I get to ride dinosaurs. i hope i'm right). Really, the only thing I know is Jesus said that no one comes to God except through him. So, I got that down. But I'd like to think God reveals himself to us in different ways all the time. I also think that "if you seek, you shall find." I'll stop rambling. In short, I don't know.

But I do believe that Jesus is God made flesh, yes.
dave_littler
12th Nov, 2010 08:19 (UTC)
Fair enough. For me, my final and most unwavering moral judgment against the christian god comes in my condemnation of the concept of hell. I see in the traditional conception of hell nothing that resembles justice; it's nothing more than a petty and megalomaniacal tyrant punishing those who dared to not bow down to him (which, if you cruise back a few entries on my "christianity" tag, you'll see I've spoken of somewhat exhaustively and don't need or want to beleabour now).

But this brings me to a key question (and another one I've brought up before!): It seems that you don't view the bible as a particularly reliable or consistently accurate source of information, if you disregard the parts you don't like or agree with. If this is the case, how do you internally justify treating some of its other more outlandish claims as credible, feeling that it's not a source of information which is all that reliable and apt to tell lies?
rayefrenzy
12th Nov, 2010 17:21 (UTC)
The short answer to your question (im kinda outta town and stuff, I know I havent answered shit as thouroughly as I would have liked) is my testimony and the fact I feel it is perfectly acceptable to be in a constant state of questioning, doubting, and figuring it out. I know that Jesus has done some outstanding, amazing, stuff in my life (And ill spare you the details, I dont wanna sound like I'm converting you) and the gospels say Jesus was always patient with those who doubted. I'm certain we're all gonna die and we're all gonna be a little (or majourly) wrong about this stuff, and I can't wait to know in full. But, as 1 Corinthians 13:12 says "For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known"
(Anonymous)
17th Nov, 2010 14:09 (UTC)
youre exactly correct.God is an extension of everyone no matter what religion or non-religion. Alot of the christian faith doesnt seem to understand that jesus was a man just like all of us but it was the fact that he understood fully his divination and through much disipline and determination was able to best,(more than any man before him)explain and put into practise the true nature of the creator. Wether they know it or not,when someone says you have to let jesus into your heart to enter into heaven what is meant is open your self to love so that you can be filled with love(your natural state)and you will then be in heaven. Have you ever heard people like the dali lama speak? There is someone who lives in thier natural state.
(Anonymous)
17th Nov, 2010 14:24 (UTC)
Another thing. I think anyone who believes anything other than the fact that most of the bible is metaphorical must be brainwashed.It is full of riddles and mazes. One things certianjust about all of jesus's teachings centered around two main topics. One God( love)and (do unto others....)Hell,predestination,sin...these are all taken out of context. Hell is seperation from love not realising and acting out our true nature. Predestination,bogus and completely contradictory.If god is everywhere in all things at all times and we are a part of "him'and"him"of us then how in Gods name could he send a part of himself to a place like that.
shelwyn
22nd Dec, 2010 12:44 (UTC)
Your post has lead me to a very amusing conclusion (in my mind). Next time I think of attacking someone’s religion for ‘the lulz’ I will attack them instead. Thank you sir, you are an inspiration to us all.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment or comments. )

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