I Like It, So God Would Too: Egocentrism in Believers’ Estimates of God

Religion is often seen as a moral compass – it is frequently used by believers […]

Bonnie / 6.22.10

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.”

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14 responses to “I Like It, So God Would Too: Egocentrism in Believers’ Estimates of God”

  1. JDK says:

    This is awesome, Bonnie—thanks.

  2. Wenatchee the Hatchet says:

    Having formerly been Pentecostal (as in two decades ago) I came to notice that in the Pentecostal/charismatic world saying something has "the annointing" or is "annointed" frequently means nothing more than someone liked the music or the story or the sermon. The person liked thing X and, therefore, thing X was indisputably annointed by God.

    On the other hand, when you see how pervasive this egocentric confirmation bias is amongst Christians we can all find embarrassing examples of this in our own lives and in our own tradition. It can even get deployed as a kind of evangelistic technique where we use shared points of interest as a way to evangelize people to Christ when what we've really done is co-opt Christ into our own existing cultural tastes. Having relatives who are American Indian I have some family connections that historically attest to some of the worst ways Christians have conflated culture with self with Christ in the last two centuries.

  3. Emily says:

    Reading this, I think immediately of my friends who think that people invented the idea of God by way of deifying their own preferences/tendencies… does anyone have thoughts about/responses to this line of thinking?

  4. SC says:

    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!
    — — — — — — —
    Don't you think that's a bit of an over-reaching statement? Galatians, for example, makes it clear that a "moral" life of the Spirit is necessary to the Kingdom… the shape of that morality is the Cross… and the Holy Spirit provides the power/resources/animation to actually accomplish it in us…

    Fr. Greg Smith
    Holy Cross, Sullivan's Island

  5. StampDawg says:

    Bonnie's piece made me think of something — which may be a little controversial, given how many people here at MB have collars, and I know a lot of you guys use the following language… but…

    It always strikes me as funny how, when a layman decides he wants to make a career move — take a better job somewhere else, etc. — he just says he's making a career move. He says something like: I'm psyched, I think I'll be a lot happier, or the extra money is gonna be a big help, etc. And he doesn't pretend like the job magically fell out of the sky — he's real straightforward that he's been job hunting.

    When somebody with a COLLAR makes a career move, however, it's always "God is calling me to a new parish…"

  6. Nick Lannon says:

    Hey Stampdawg –

    The inverse of both your observations are also true, of course. Christiany lay-people often pray over job decisions. I will say, though, as someone with a collar, that the process of being "called" to a parish is usually MUCH more lengthy and involved, and dare I say, spiritually searching, than an average job interview process. In fact, the salary terms are often not discussed until a "call" is accepted.

  7. Nick Lannon says:

    I don't seem defensive, do I? BAHAHAHA

  8. JDK says:


    I don't see any why laypeople should invest their careers with any less prayer than do ministers—both should be viewed as callings—ideally, at least:) Oz Guiness has a good book on this called, appropriately, "the call":)

    That most jobs seem like less than a spiritual exercise probably has to do with the lack of a prayer/discernment department at many businesses—but I hear Google is coming close:)

  9. JDK says:

    Should be "Os"– 🙂

  10. StampDawg says:

    The guys with the collars circle the wagons! (Big grin.)

    I totally agree that all Christians should pray about everything. From which it follows that lay Christians should pray about it when they start looking for a new job.

    So that's a for sure.

    But lay Christians are less likely to hide the direct self-interest motivating the job change. The new job didn't fall out of the sky, stunning an otherwise complacent layman happy where he was. It happened because the layman was scanning the classifieds, sending out resumes, looking on monster.com.

    What I am saying is pretty simple. Clergy and other church leaders often want to appear to be hyper holy guys, too spiritually elevated to angle for a job and certainly too elevated to say (even to themselves):
    * Yeah, I'm a canon at this cathedral but I just wanna run my own church… or
    * This job was great but we're having a kid and this new gig pays a lot more, or
    * My old job would have been ok but my boss was a $^#$$^ and made my life hell.

    I saw this with when a choir director left a big parish here to go to NYC. It was known by a huge number of people that the real reasons were prosaic (a terrible boss in the old job, a desire to live in NYC, etc.). But still we had to use the language "He is accepting a call from _______" — as though the call came out of the blue, as though he wasn't angling for it for months.

    Laymen are a bit more likely to just say, hey I am psyched about this new job I've been trying for — and a little less likely to disguise that process with language of an unsolicited "call".

  11. Wenatchee the Hatchet says:

    One of the most memorable statements I've ever heard from a pastor was an Assemblies of God youth pastor who admitted (to his youth group, in a sermon) that, you know, as a pastor it's considered unspiritual to say, "Yeah, I just don't like that guy." So to avoid just saying bluntly that you don't like someone, can't get along with them, and would prefer to avoid dealing with them you end up using sad spiritualized phrases like, "His/her situation really grieves my spirit." Anyone ELSE could say "I don't like the guy but they're a Christian and I work with them so I have to suck it up" but pastors are expected to be spiritual. Of course the opposite extreme of saying that you'd beat the crap out of a brother in Christ if you wouldn't end up on CNN for it is not exactly an improvement. 😉

  12. Bonnie says:

    Hahaha you guys are funny 🙂 You guys think of this in way more sophisticated terms (i.e., callings). I'm just thinking of the oft-cited reason for breakups within Christian youth groups: "God told me that I needed to love and pursue him only. That's why I am breaking up with you." Terrible reason!

    I thought Emily raised a really good and interesting question – about whether God just a deification of their own personal preferences. My initial response is two fold. First, I think many religious traditions (and certainly Christianity) demand a lot more from their believers than deified personal preferences. I'm thinking more specifically of the call to lay down your life, the call to love the unlovable, etc. I could see how prosperity gospel might look more like deified personal preference, but I personally think that God (and particularly God's demands) are much more than complex than just deified personal preference. Secondly, most of this sort of research isn't able to say much about the _existence_ of God. They can tell us something about our view of what our God is like, but it doesn't actually give any definitive, "objective" answers about the reality of God.

  13. John Zahl says:

    Fascinating post Bonnie! It's material that lines up nicely with some of Feuerbach's classic argument for atheism (used by Marx), a point which Emily is touching on too in her question.

    I preached a sermon about some of these matters at the Advent this past March, called "The Best Argument for Atheism":


    In a nutshell, my take is that the "Theology of the Cross" is an undoing of our thinking, inclinations, and aspirations. A "theology of glory", on the other hand, leads ultimately to atheism and/or wishful thinking. Forde's "On Being a Theologian of the Cross" is, I think, the best explanation of the material. Feuerbach tried to deal with Luther's theology, but completely failed to engage with the theology of the cross/God's "alien work" (b/c his critique of faith cannot account for it).

    In Luther's rose, it's worth noting that the cross is black (received like poison, or better, hydrogen peroxide on a festering wound) and the heart (fleshy). The idea, to my way of thinking, suggests that the work of the cross is received by the flesh like an unwelcome invader. The image portrays the tension and the resolution to the question quite well:


    btw, Emily, your post from DFW's wife about the plums is so moving!

    best, JAZ

  14. Todd says:

    Greg, thanks for your question. This may be too late, since you probably already preached on this last Sunday! But I don't think that Bonnie is overstating things. I think it's fair to say that the message of Christianity is one of Christ crucified for sinners. It is a grace freely given to those who don' deserve it.

    It's true that in Galatians, Paul speaks of the absence of "works of the flesh" as a tangible description of those who are outside the kingdom and that the mark of "those who belong to Christ" are those who have "crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." But these statements are not to be confused with the central message of Christianity, nor of a precondition for the offer (or withdraw) of grace. But Paul seems to be clear that such a reorientation of oneself (faith, and the work of the Spirit), is born exclusively out of hearing the message of the unconditioned Promise (Galatians 3:5).

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