Field of Science

What you want, god wants

Religious people tend to think that they know what their god wants, but how do they come by that knowledge? For me, as an atheist, it's a fascinating question. The gods can't be communicating their preferences directly (because there's no such thing), so where do these beliefs come from?

One obvious source is the various holy books. However, even if you restrict yourself to adherents of a single religion, there are vast differences in beliefs about god's opinions (and that's just looking around the world today - when you extend the comparisons back in time the disagreements between believers become even more dramatic).

All this suggests that people must be projecting their own beliefs and opinions onto their god. A bundle of new studies from Nicholas Epley, at the University of Chicago, suggests that that is exactly what happens.

What he and his colleagues did was to subtly manipulate people's own opinions, and see if that affected their ideas about what God's opinions were.

So, for example, in one study he had people read two arguments, pro-and anti-affirmative action. In the 'pro-policy' condition, the 'pro' argument was strong and the 'anti' argument weak. In the 'anti-policy' condition, the strength of the arguments was reversed.

This had the desired effect on the subjects own opinions. Whether they were pro- or anti affirmative action was influenced by which arguments they read.

Then he asked them about what the average American thought about the topic, and also what George Bush thought. As you can see in the graph, this didn't change regardless of how their own beliefs have been manipulated.

Their beliefs about what god thought did change, however. In fact, the correlation between their own opinions and those they attributed to God was very strong.

Now, what's interesting is that their beliefs about Bill Gates' opinions also mirrored their own. The thing about Bill Gates is that he's generally admired, but nobody really knows what his opinion is on this topic. So they were free to invent it.

They did another, somewhat more sophisticated experiment that showed something similar. Basically, if you change people's attitudes to the death penalty, then that changes whether they think God is pro- or anti-death penalty.

This is all good stuff. But it gets really interesting when you look at some of the brain scans they did. In these scans, they asked subjects to think about attitudes to euthanasia. First, their own attitude. Then the average American's attitude. And finally God's attitude.

The first brain image shows the difference between thinking about your own opinions and thinking about the average American's opinions. You can see that some bits light up, indicating that there is a difference between the two thought processes. The brain recognises that the average American has a different opinion.

Looking next the brain image, which shows thinking about God's opinions compared with the average American's. Again, some differences. According to this brain, God does not think the same as an average American.

Now look at the last brain image in the panel. This takes the brain activity of someone thinking of their own opinion, and subtracts that from the brain activity of that same person thinking of god's opinions. And guess what? They are exactly the same.

'What would jesus do?' It turns out that what Jesus would do is exactly what 'I' would do - at least in so far as figuring out what Jesus's opinions are. Thinking about God's opinions and thinking about your own opinions uses an identical thought process.

This is a fascinating result. It suggests that people use God not to inform their own decision making, but to reinforce it. Here's what the study's authors conclude:

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. 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.

Now, this doesn't show that religion has no influence on attitudes and opinions. Other research has shown that it does. But it does show is that people can and do reinvent their god to suit their own beliefs.

They make god in their own image.
Epley N, Converse BA, Delbosc A, Monteleone GA, & Cacioppo JT (2009). Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 19955414

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. They make god in their own image.

    Isn't that what it says in the Bible, too? Or how was it?

    I can just the the popular media get a whiff of this and start equating Bill Gates with God. "Study finds no difference between God and Gates."

  2. Antithesis: "Atheistic people tend to think that they know that god doesn't exist, but how do they come by that knowledge? For me, as a believer, it's a fascinating question. God has communicated himself directly (numerous times), so why does this belief persist?"

    Consider the following: "God is just". If you hear an argument regarding a moral position "X" that makes you change your belief towards something you feel is more "just", do you think your belief regarding God is going to change? Of course it is. The reason isn't because you are making God in your image, but rather your underlying belief is "God is just".

  3. "Now look at the last brain image in the panel. This takes the brain activity of someone thinking of their own opinion, and subtracts that from the brain activity of that same person thinking of god's opinions. And guess what? They are exactly the same."

    Sorry, but this is naive (bad) neuroscience. fMRI's show what parts of the brain are active when performing a task; they do not show "the brain activity". The finding that the same parts of the brain are used in both these cases is significant, but you are way over-interpreting it.

  4. Not my interpretation, but that of the study authors. And of course fmri measures brain activity - i.e. which regions of the brain are most activated at a given time.

  5. This is so far from my relationship to religion and God that I don't recognize it. If I get angry at my husband and I reflect on the teaching of my religion before reacting, my reaction tends to be kinder and more understanding toward him. If I get tired and want to go home and rest but a friend is ill in the hospital, I believe that God wants me to put her needs before my own and I go visit her. I don't think that a relationship with God is about deciding what God's view would be on political questions, its about finding the inner strength to choose virtue over petty self-interest. Even saying that God "agrees" or "disagrees" with anything I think or believe seems absurd to me. Rather, I see the relationship as this: I am coming to an understanding of how to interact with this world and everyone and everything in this world and I get insight and assistance by studying religion and by praying and by seeing a larger picture with spiritual principles at play.

  6. Maybe this only applies to things that are not explicitly tenets of a religion or discussed in its holy texts. God doesn't talk about affirmative action in any holy text I know, so without testing beliefs that are discussed in a holy text, this could just be the same thing that is going on with their belief about Bill Gates's opinion (God is someone admired, but whose opinion is not known).


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