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.