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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.


(Deleted comment)
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.

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