Researchers Probe Ties Between Beliefs of Self, God

Religious believers are particularly likely to use their own beliefs as a guide when reasoning about God's beliefs compared to when reasoning about other people's beliefs, assert researchers behind a report recently published in the official journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

To test the basic hypothesis that people would be especially egocentric when reasoning about God's beliefs, the research team, led by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, conducted seven studies using correlational, experimental, and neuroimaging methods.

In their four correlational studies, the researchers found that people's estimates of God's beliefs were more strongly correlated with their own beliefs than were their estimates of a broad range of other people's beliefs – such as those of the average American, Bill Gates, and George W. Bush.

Manipulating people's own beliefs, as was done in the two experimental studies, similarly affected their estimates of God's beliefs more than it affected estimates of other people's beliefs, demonstrating that estimates of God's beliefs are causally influenced at least in part by one's own beliefs.

In the second experimental study, some participants were asked to deliver a speech inconsistent with their preexisting attitudes, such as one in favor of the death penalty when the participant is opposed to it. The researchers found that delivering an attitude-inconsistent speech made participants' own attitudes more moderate than delivering an attitude-consistent speech.

Perhaps most notable was neuroimaging data from the seventh study, which demonstrated that reasoning about God's beliefs tends to activate the same regions of the brain that are active when reasoning about one's own beliefs

"[The] study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one's own beliefs and God's beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person's beliefs," the researchers noted.

"In particular, reasoning about God's beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person's beliefs," they added.

In light of their findings, the researchers concluded that believers are not only likely to acquire the beliefs and theology of others around them, but may also seek out believers and theologies that share their own personal beliefs.

If people seek out religious communities that match their own personal views on major social, moral, or political issues, then the information coming from religious sources is likely to further validate and strengthen their own personal convictions and values, they added.

In concluding, the team noted that people may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want.

"The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing," they concluded. "This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing."

The findings of the team and their report appeared in last week's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Participation in the studies varied, ranging from 18 volunteers for Study 7 to 1,019 participants in Study 4.

The report on the study was submitted for review on July 27 and approved Oct. 21.