Religion is often seen as a moral compass – it is frequently used by believers as a guide to doing and believing the right thing. People may disagree on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and the death penalty and back their opinions by invoking God as the ultimate advocate of their beliefs. But how do people reason about God’s beliefs? In an interesting set of six studies by Nick Epley and colleagues, it was argued that people are remarkably egocentric when asked to infer about God’s beliefs–that is, people seem to draw on their own beliefs about these issues when asked to infer what God’s beliefs about the same issues may be.

In the first four studies, participants (most of whom believed in God) were asked to report their own belief about an issue, and then estimated God’s belief along with some other targets’ (specifically Bill Gates’, George Bush, and the Average American’s) beliefs about the same issue. The issues in question included abortion, same-sex marriage, affirmative action, death penalty, the Iraq war, and Marijuana legalization. Epley and colleagues calculated an “egocentric correlation” between participants’ own attitudes and their estimates of the other targets’ attitudes. They found that the egocentric correlation between self and God’s beliefs were larger than the egocentric correlation between the self and all other targets.

Next, the researchers experimentally manipulated people’s own beliefs to see if it would also affect their estimates of God’s beliefs. People’s attitudes towards affirmative action were manipulated by exposing them to persuasive arguments for or against affirmative action. People who were exposed to a persuasive pro-policy message were more likely to say that God also supported affirmative action, and the egocentric correlation between self and God was again higher than the correlations between self and the other targets. The researchers also manipulated people’s existing attitudes by asking them to write and deliver a speech that was either consistent or inconsistent with their own views about an issue like the death penalty. Those who wrote and delivered a speech that was consistent with their own attitudes reported stronger attitudes about the issue after giving the speech, while those who wrote and delivered a speech that was inconsistent with their own attitudes had more moderate attitudes after giving the speech. When asked what they thought God’s beliefs were about the death penalty, those participants who had their attitudes strengthened (by writing and giving an attitude-consistent the speech) also said that God would have a correspondingly strong attitude, whereas those participants who had their own attitudes weakened (by writing and giving an attitude-inconsistent speech) were more likely to say that God’s attitude towards the issue was also more moderate. In contrast (and most interestingly), changing people’s attitudes did not affect their beliefs about Bill Gates’, the Average American’s, or George Bush’s attitude towards the particular issue. Changing people’s attitudes towards an issue also changed their view of God’s attitude towards the issue.

To further their point, the researchers also used brain imaging techniques to study the neural mechanisms underlying the generation of beliefs. There was more correspondence in neural activity when people are asked to think about their own beliefs and God’s beliefs, compared to when thinking about another person’s beliefs. In other words, the underlying neurological mechanisms that generate one’s own beliefs are much more similar to those used to generate estimates of God’s beliefs than those used to generate estimates other people’s beliefs.

The authors did note at the beginning of their paper that people don’t get their beliefs from thin air, and that many religious people draw their beliefs about these issues from sacred texts which are believed to communicate God’s word, intentions, and beliefs. They do not deny the possibility that God’s presumed beliefs (as indicated in religious texts and traditions) provide guidance in situations where people are uncertain of their own beliefs. They did, however, suggest that God’s beliefs on these major social issues are inherently ambiguous, which is why people will rely on their own beliefs when asked to estimate God’s beliefs, and that the way our beliefs and our inferences about God’s beliefs may be a two-way street:

“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 a part of.”

I found these studies to be really interesting and creative – I was particularly impressed by the way several different methods were used and results coverged. I found it convincing evidence that at least some of the time people do project their own attitudes about social and moral issues onto God. It is true that the quasi-experimental approach (particularly the studies that actually manipulated people’s own attitudes) can indicate causality, but it would be difficult to prove true causality without any data from longitudinal or developmental studies on how these attitudes are acquired. It would also be interesting to see whether the same findings would be replicated when attitudes for issues not related to morality are studied. In addition, just as Epley and colleagues can call it “egocentric correlation”, the concept of God-centric correlation should also be explored; it would be fascinating to see whether exposure to biblical material (for example, reading Psalm 139 before asking about God’s and one’s own attitudes about abortion, or reading a passage about people being equal before asking about God’s and one’s own attitudes about universal healthcare) might affect people’s responses in a replica of the attitude-manipulation studies.

If our moral compasses aren’t all that great, then I am glad that the central message of Christianity is not about doing the right thing or living a moral life! I am also humbled by the fact that many of our judgments (and judgmental-ism) on these issues that are so decisive may in part be driven by our own projection of what “God wants” or what “God thinks is right”. As the authors wrote:

“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.”