Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Santa and the Believer’s Real Idea of God

When people are prompted to give an account of what God is and they know that what they say is under scrutiny, they are inclined to describe a “theologically correct” being. That is, after centuries of debate and scholarly inquiry, philosophers and theologians have developed a highly abstract description of a being who possesses a set of carefully defined properties. Questions and challenges about the notion of God that the Old Testament Hebrews touted, for instance, have led us to explain God in ways that are less easily rejected as implausible. The general direction of these accounts has been away from anthropomorphism. The most simple, and objectionable, accounts of God that has been present in traditions have been highly anthropomorphic. God is conceived of as a person who occupies specific times and places, perhaps the way we do. He goes walking in the Garden of Eden, he argues with contrary humans, he impregnates women, he has desires and beliefs, he learns about events, he reacts to human actions as if he didn’t see them coming, and so on. Characterizing God in personal terms such as these is at odds with the more abstract and infinite properties of omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, transcendence, immutability, timelessness, and so on. The abstract God is not easily reconciled with the personal God. If God is the infinitely powerful creator of the universe, why would he resort to such terrestrial and human means to achieve his ends such as messengers, floods, sermons, and petty miracles? If God is transcendent and outside of time and space, how is it that he forms a personal, loving, intimate relationship with you when you pray on Tuesday night at 10:32 in Pittsburg?

In practice, believers seem to appeal to whichever description is necessary to address the questions at hand. If one is enduring some hardships from cancer, then God is a personal, loving presence who will help you through your difficult time. If the atheist is raising hard questions about how to reconcile the existence of God with what we know about the origins of the universe and life, then God is transcendent—above and beyond the physical universe. It’s long been recognized, at least since Aquinas, that these two stories about God are at odds with each other. The official account from philosophers and theologians, at least when they do not have a sympathetic audience, has been to always favor the highly abstract, non-anthropomorphic account of God. The abstract God account has more potential to solve more sticky theological problems and atheistic challenges. The personal God talk, many people will insist, is really just metaphorical and shouldn’t be taken that seriously. Excessively anthropomorphic accounts of God are even slightly embarrassing to the believer, or the non-believer who focuses on them has failed to see the real nature of God. Consider this question that seems to be factually accurate concerning the anthro-God, but sounds like a sneering, low blow coming from the atheist: “Do you believe in a giant, invisible magical being who reads minds and grants wishes? Seriously?”

The answers that the believe can give might be to say “yes, but his real nature is not as silly as that sounds,” or “no, God is something much more abstract and profound that the question suggests.”

Some recent evidence from cognitive psychology sheds some important light on the equivocations about God’s nature that believers frequently commit. It appears that when prompted, or when they are being careful, people will typically give a theologically correct, abstract, and less-personal account of God. But when we test them to reveal their unspoken assumptions and their default ideas about God, they really do have a individual person in mind who lives in space and time, who acts like a human, who hears (God has ears?!?), who literally watches (God has eyes?!?), and who goes first to one place to answer a prayer, and then to another to perform a minor miracle.

Here’s the abstract from Justin Barrett and Frank Keil’s article, “Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts,” (Cognitive Psychology, 31, 219–247 (1996)) Email me for an electronic copy of the whole article.

We investigate the problem of how nonnatural entities are represented by examining university students’ concepts of God, both professed theological beliefs and concepts used in comprehension of narratives. In three story processing tasks, subjects often used an anthropomorphic God concept that is inconsistent with stated theological beliefs; and drastically distorted the narratives without any awareness of doing so. By heightening subjects’ awareness of their theological beliefs, we were able to manipulate the degree of anthropomorphization. This tendency to anthropomorphize may be generalizable to other agents. God (and possibly other agents) is unintentionally anthropomorphized in some contexts, perhaps as a means of representing poorly understood nonnatural entities.

Barrett and Keil played brief stories to a number of subjects and then asked them questions about the events of the story. Their hypothesis was that if the subjects had strong anthropomorphic ideas about God, they would unknowingly fill in details of the stories to answer the questions that were more anthropomorphic than the story’s details. So they were given this story, for example,

It was a clear, sunny day. Two birds were singing back and forth to each other. They were perched in a large oak tree next to an airport. God was listening to the birds. One would sing and then the other would sing. One bird had blue, white, and silver feathers. The other bird had dull gray feathers. While God was listening to the birds, a large jet landed. It was extremely loud: the birds couldn’t even hear each other. The air was full of fumes. God listened to the jet until it turned off its engines. God finished listening to the birds.

And here’s the amazing part. When questioned about the story, subjects made comments such as these:

‘‘God was listening to two birds singing in a tall tree next to an airport. When a large jet landed, God listened to it because he could no longer hear the birds. Then he listened to the birds again.’’
‘‘. . . A jet came and began destroying the beauty and even took God’s attention away . . .’’
‘‘. . . The noise was so loud God couldn’t hear the birds . . .’’
‘‘. . . God could only hear the jet until it turned off its engines . . .’’

They were also given this story:

A boy was swimming alone in a swift and rocky river. The boy got his left leg caught
between two large, gray rocks and couldn’t get out. Branches of trees kept bumping into him as they hurried past. He thought he was going to drown and so he began to struggle and pray. Though God was answering another prayer in another part of the world when the boy started praying, before long God responded by pushing one of the rocks so the boy could get his leg out. The boy struggled to the river bank and fell over exhausted.


And they answered:

‘‘This story suggests that God cannot listen to more than one prayer at a time, however, he will get to each prayer and answer it in time. Much like Santa Claus delivers toys to all houses in one night.’’


(Note: These are well-educated, adult American subjects.)

What the study shows is that for all of our fancy philosophical and theologically abstract descriptions of God as the transcendent source of reality, what’s really lurking in believer’s heads at the bottom of all of this is an idea of God who is pretty much the bearded guy in the robe who’s a human with magical powers. They will deny it, but the evidence indicates that the mental image they have in mind is pretty much the same as Santa Claus.

16 comments:

steve martin said...

You are right. Many believers do think of God like a jolly Santa-Claus.

He is not.

He is a righteous, perfect, omnipotent person, who has made himself known to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

He is...Who He is.

Matt McCormick said...

I see a pattern in your comments, Steve. Here's a challenge for you: can you give a description of God and some of these metaphysical claims about him that does not employ any of the jargon, or insider cliches, or boiler-plated poetic theology? That is, can you say any of this stuff without presuming so much background and acceptance in your audience that it's true or even makes sense? I think that would be useful for you and the people who are trying to understand you because otherwise, you just sound like a cult member whose consciousness has been completely co-opted. Then, if you can make these claims without all the theo-babble, can you offer some non-circular, non-question begging grounds for the rest of us to think the claims are true? That is, do you have any grounds for believing the doctrine besides appealing to the doctrine itself? It's not a unreasonable request--your audience wants to know why you believe, not just hear empty platitudes. And you should satisfy yourself that there are some reasons to accept this stuff and dedicate your life to it that are independent of the doctrine itself.

Think of it this way: imagine a non-believer, in response to legitimate questions from you, just kept saying things like:

"The vast nothingness IS WHAT IT IS, and nothing else."

"The non-existence of God has revealed itself in the righteous, perfect, impersonal absence of God."

"The nothing manifests itself in the hearts and minds of humans, not in arguments or reasons."

"The Non-God is the Non-God, glory be to its absence!!"

Do you see what I mean? From an outside perspective, this sort of talk just sounds insane.

MM

Bror Erickson said...

Matt,
I get a kick out of how you present these so called problems.
And the answers are fairly simple. God, who is transcendent etc, the creator of space and time, wishes to communicate to fallen man. To do so he lowers himself to our standards of understanding. It isn't so hard now is it? And if he wants to hear me at 10:32 tonight, he will hear me at 10:32 tonight, just as he knew me before I was born. It isn't an either/or with God, it is both and.
And I don't see any jargon Steve used that wasn't in your post. Do you often use words you don't understand?

Casey said...

And I don't see any jargon Steve used that wasn't in your post. Do you often use words you don't understand?

Full response forthcoming, but for now I just want to clarify this bit. MM was specifically dealing with phrases like "He is who he is", "God manifests himself in the hearts and minds of humans, not in arguments or reasons.", "God is Love", etc.

These phrases get uttered a lot but simply lack any kind of substance. And specifically he was making the point that these kinds of phrases uttered by the atheist would be unacceptable, if not unintelligible.

He was not attacking the use of any specific word outside of context, so I'm not sure what your response was getting at. Did you read MM's full comment?

steve martin said...

Well...I really don't know what you'd like me to say about the God that you don't believe in.

His name is really Larry, and He lives at 132 N. Elm in Cleveland...?

He made you, and He made me...that's good for starters.

That you don't believe it is not my problem.

Eric Sotnak said...

steve martin wrote:
"He made you, and He made me...that's good for starters."

So let's start with that. You say God made you. But at the same time, surely you acknowledge that you came abourt through the union of a sperm and an egg. So when you say God had a role in this so that it was not a purely naturalistic process, where was his role? At the very beginning, only, and everything thereafter was natural processes? or did God intervene so as to favor one particular sperm so that YOU existed, rather than any one of millions of other possible individuals who might have been conceived instead?

Or do you hold the belief that humans are body-soul composites, so that in addition to the natural process of conception, there is a supernatural event where God adds a soul to the human organism?

Is there compelling evidence for the existence of such a soul? What are its properties (and what evidence do you have for the belief that the soul has those properties)? When does God add it to the developing human organism?

steve martin said...

Eric,

Great questions! If I could answer tham all then I would be God.

I believe that God is actively involved in the creation and sustains His creation...actively.

Proof, or evidence? Look around. There is plenty of evidence for a creator. If you saw a watch laying in the forest, you would ask, I wonder how that evolved...but rather where'd that come from...who made it? Or a painting (same thing).

I cannot convince anyone that God is real. He has to make Himself known to you.

When and how He does this, is His business.

The bible tells us that He has chosen to do it through His Word of promise. That He loves you, that He did for you. That He forgives all your shortcomings and sins. These things are not grasped by us but through faith and God gives us that faith...when and where He wills to do it.
One place that He has decided to do it is in baptism. In baptism He forgives sin and gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I was baptised as an infant and faith came alive in (so that I could notice) me when I was 40.

Oftentimes it is tradgedy or hopelessness that God uses to kill us off to ourselves, that we might realize that He is there, that He is real, that He loves us and that one day we will live with Him.

You know Eric, I still have doubts. There are times when I wonder, 'God..where are you...why are you letting this happen?', but that is the nature of faith.

God has to use faith, otherwise we would not love Him, but rather we would just fear Him.

If He showed up here, or wrote in the sky so that the whole worls could see it...no faith would be required and we'd all believe...but we'd be scared to death of Him.

I think that is why God reveals Himself in the way He does to people.

Eric Sotnak said...

steve martin wrote:
"You know Eric, I still have doubts. There are times when I wonder, 'God..where are you...why are you letting this happen?', but that is the nature of faith."

Thanks for acknowledging the existence of your doubts. Too often, I think, believers hide under a cloak of absolutely unshakeable certainty. But I think the vast majority of believers have more than a few moments of doubt.

Now, consider those of us who are skeptics, agnostics, atheists. We, too, have our doubts. But instead of brushing off those doubts by appealing to faith, we have taken the step of taking those doubts seriously. Many believers find that terrible, and I think that is at best curious. Their line of thinking goes like this: "It's ok to have doubts, so long as you don't give in to them. No matter how severe one's crisis of faith, faith must be preserved."

But I don't think religious belief is deserving of this special immunity. To be sure, there are some theists who think they don't need it -- they believe theism can be reasonably established on the basis of evidence or argument. But my experience is that such theists are either rare or disingenuous.

This is why I think so many atheists get irritated when the best response theists can muster is "I'll pray for you" It smacks of condescension, doesn't it? It amounts to "I can't tell you where your arguments go wrong, and I can't mount any superior arguments for my position, but I am unwilling to credit your position with any reasonableness, so instead I will pity you and change the subject."

Thanks for staying polite.

M. Tully said...

So Steve,

You wrote, "Proof, or evidence? Look around. There is plenty of evidence for a creator. If you saw a watch laying in the forest, you would ask, I wonder how that evolved...but rather where'd that come from...who made it? Or a painting (same thing)."

...So between the watch and the trees in the forest, is your claim that the watch is supernatural but the trees are natural? Or is it the paintingare supernatural? What is it exactly that I am supposed to take from that?

Anonymous said...

Steve Martin wrote: "God has to use faith, otherwise we would not love Him [Her], but rather we would just fear Him [Her].

If [S]He showed up here, or wrote in the sky so that the whole worls could see it...no faith would be required and we'd all believe...but we'd be scared to death of Him [Her]."



Why would we fear God if She made herself known? Especially if the God that you speak of is "all-loving", unless in fact She is not?

Please explain.

I'm going to bite my own tail and provide a rather premature argument. But in the name of the Laughter, the Fun, and the Holy Roast... Here it is:

I don't see how this is justification for the reason God's believers are imprisoned with their "almighty" faith, which undermines the most unique quality about being human; our ability to reason. Do you think that God wants us to be better humans? If so, then wouldn't She want us to believe in things through reason and not faith? Faith stumps reason. If God exists and created humans who are unique only through our ability to reason, why would She want to limit what makes us human? Please explain.

So, either She does not want us to know that she exists or She does not exist.

if She does not want us to know that she exists, then why should
anyone be so inclined to believe in Her? Why go against Her wishes?

I guess it's hard to go against passed down traditions, beliefs, and a self-reproducing, self-sustaining religion whose lineage can be traced to none other than the powerful and persuasive minds of other humans.

Regards,
-Moral Orel

Bror Erickson said...

Eric,
you write: "Now, consider those of us who are skeptics, agnostics, atheists. We, too, have our doubts. But instead of brushing off those doubts by appealing to faith, we have taken the step of taking those doubts seriously. Many believers find that terrible, and I think that is at best curious. Their line of thinking goes like this: "It's ok to have doubts, so long as you don't give in to them. No matter how severe one's crisis of faith, faith must be preserved."
Do you? Do you take those doubts seriously, when you have doubts?
You see from my perspective what you say of "believers" I say of many agnostics, atheists, and skeptics, unbelief must be maintained at all costs.
Then people who have never read the Bible try to come up with any conceivable argument against it, posing so-called "problems" and "contradictions" that with a little inspection turn out to no problems at all.
Or like M Tully, they play like they don't understand Steve's question about the watch and dismiss it in such away that makes one look childish.
Do you agnostics, atheists, and skeptics ever actually investigate the counter arguments? do you entertain the thought that maybe not everything there is in this world is to be investigated with a microscope? That perhaps there are answers to questions that lie outside of physics and biology? I came across this sight because Matt here said every philosopher he knew laughed at a certain argument for a creator. The argument was rehashed Aristotle. Has the maintenance of unbelief come to the point that Philosophers are now laughing at Aristotle?! Disagree with him you may, but laugh?
There are atheists out there that I respect. I feel indebted to Kai Nielson, and Thomas Nagel. I have nothing but respect for men like Karl Popper, and Anthony Flew. And when a critical thinker like Anthony Flew is persuaded by intelligent design arguments to change his position, I think the time for laughing has stopped.
As for Christians praying for you, don't take it as insulting. I think you may read a little into that. Forgive them for not being able to come up with an argument superior to yours and not abandoning the faith they cherish. Perhaps they ponder it such "well I don't know now, but perhaps there is a superior argument I am not able to come up with at the moment." Has that not happened to you? Met an argument you smelled something wrong with but couldn't put your hand on what was wrong? Been persuaded for a while by an argument, only to have seen it torn to shreds later on?

Jon said...

It's difficult to believe the Gospel when:

Mt 5:18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.w 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

So, the specific slavery quotes in both the Old Testament and the New Testament must by necessity count "to the letter".

Maybe it could be argued in there that "everything is accomplished" via any form of conjecture, however, that would be merely getting away from the literalism, now wouldn't it? Trippy.

Just a bit of texical exegesis.

Eric Sotnak said...

Bror Erickson wrote:
"Do you? Do you take those doubts seriously, when you have doubts?"

I can only answer for myself. Yes.

But what does that mean? From an epistemic standpoint, it means taking seriously the possibility that I might be mistaken, and being open to the consideration of new arguments and new evidence.

At the same time, however, I have to say that the more I see the failure of arguments and purported evidence for theism, the less likely I am to give new arguments and new evidential claims seriously.

You also wrote: "people who have never read the Bible try to come up with any conceivable argument against it, posing so-called "problems" and "contradictions" that with a little inspection turn out to no problems at all."

But what about people who HAVE read the Bible who find such problems? Take, just as one instance, John Loftus over at http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ -- surely you can't tell me he has never read the Bible? Loftus abandoned Christianity mainly BECAUSE he read it and tried to reconcile the problems he found there.

You also wrote: "As for Christians praying for you, don't take it as insulting. I think you may read a little into that."

I am not insulted by Christians praying for me. What I find insulting is when someone can't give even a semblance of a reasonable response to an argument and then gives up trying, but leaves off with "I'll pray for you". They might as well say, "I can't tell you why you're wrong, but I'm so closed-minded that I am not willing to take your arguments seriously. So I'm going to pity you for being wrong. Poor thing."

Just as an analogy, how annoyed would you be if an atheist couldn't give you a resonable answer to one of your objections and instead simply said, "I'll think for you."

Reginald Selkirk said...

Just the other day, I received an "emergency appeal" in the mail from Catholic Relief Services. This request for contributions included a Prayer Request Card which underlines the extent to which a large number of believers view their deities as a Santa-like figure, and not an aloof, abstract "liberal" un-disproveable deity. Here is the list of items for which I could request prayers:

victims of natural disasters (and why didn't they label these as 'acts of God"?)
world peace
homeless refugees
hungry and sick children
unborn children
healing of an illness
departed loved ones
marriage
reconciliation
financial problem
employment
spiritual growth
peaceful death
Pope Benedict XVI
other:_________

Reginald Selkirk said...

Proof, or evidence? Look around. There is plenty of evidence for a creator. If you saw a watch laying in the forest, you would ask, I wonder how that evolved...but rather where'd that come from...who made it?

Of course you would. That is because we know that watches are made by people; either factory workers or master craftsmen. We could even go visit the factories in which they are made. We also know that watches do not reproduce biologically. If we put two watches in a shoe box with some food (metal and oil?) and left them alone for a week or two, we know that they would not reproduce by themselves.

Or like M Tully, they play like they don't understand Steve's question about the watch and dismiss it in such away that makes one look childish.

M. Tully's response shows that he did indeed understand steve martin's question, and the response included a cogent objection. It is after all the argument from design, which has been around thousands of years, and identical to the most famous expression of it by William Paley early in the 19th century (except the substitution of a forest for a heath). There were serious objections to the argument from design even before Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection completely eviscerated it. That someone would pose such an argument as if it hadn't been considered and rejected before is indeed childish.

And when a critical thinker like Anthony Flew is persuaded by intelligent design arguments to change his position, I think the time for laughing has stopped.

I agree, age-related deterioration is not a laughing matter. And his name is Antony. At least have enough respect to get his name right.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Joe the Plumber becomes war reporter
Wurzelbacher said he was not concerned about heading into a warzone for a 10 days.

"Being a Christian I'm pretty well protected by God I believe. That's not saying he's going to stop a mortar for me, but you gotta take the chance,” he told WNWO.