Religion appears to serve as a moral compass for the vast majority of people around the world. It informs whether same-sex marriage is love or sin, whether war is an act of security or of terror, and whether abortion rights represent personal liberty or permission to murder. Many religions are centered on a god (or gods) that has beliefs and intentions, with adherents encouraged to follow ‘‘God’s will’’ on everything from martyrdom to career planning to voting. Within these religious systems, how do people know what their god wills?
Well, it turns out that God generally agrees with each individual believer. The researchers find:
Intuiting God’s beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber that reverberates one’s own beliefs.
The scientists conducted a number of studies, but one of the more fascinating was an fMRI brain scan in which they looked at which parts of believers' brains were activated when they were asked about what they believed, what other people might believe, and what God believes about ten different moral issues. It turns out that thinking about what God believes activates the same brain areas as thinking about one's own views.
The researchers conclude:
[T]hese data provide insight into the sources of people’s own religious beliefs. Although people obviously acquire religious beliefs from a variety of external sources, from parents to broader cultural influences, these data suggest that the self may serve as an important source of religious beliefs as well. Not only are believers 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. Religious belief has generally been treated as a process of socialization whereby people’s personal beliefs about God come to reflect what they learn from those around them, but these data suggest that the inverse causal process may be important as well: people’s personal beliefs may guide their own religious beliefs and the religious communities they seek to be part of.
Finally, these data have interesting implications for the impact of religious thought on judgment and decision-making. 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.
Talk about confirmation bias!
Go here to read the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.