Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Illusion of Moral Guidance from God

When we consider only our own cases and our own experience, it is easy to make serious errors in our reasoning that we wouldn’t if we approached the question from a more objective, empirical, and scientific perspective.  I take a large dose of vitamin C when I feel a cold coming on, the cold seems to be abated, so I conclude that megadoses of vitamin C prevent colds.  The anecdotal evidence and reasoning isn’t born out by the facts, however.  Large doses of vitamin C have not been found in large scale, double-blind, control group clinical trials.  

Something similar is going on when the Christian who is contemplating some serious moral question, studies his Bible, listens intently to his preacher, prays, and feels that he has received moral guidance from God.  

Some peculiarities of the human psyche are contributing to a powerful illusion that then feeds into the widespread view that it’s not possible to be moral without God, or that God provides the pious with moral guidance. 

Recent studies prove the point.  People change their moral views when asked to consider alternatives, then they cover up the change and portray their view as the same all along.  And people are more egocentric in their attributions of moral views to God than they are to other people.  That is, with God, not knowing so clearly what his view is, they are more likely to attribute their own moral view to him than someone like George Bush where they acknowledge that Bush has his own, likely different views from their own.

Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs.

People often reason egocentrically about others' beliefs, using their own beliefs as an inductive guide. Correlational, experimental, and neuroimaging evidence suggests that people may be even more egocentric when reasoning about a religious agent's beliefs (e.g., God). In both nationally representative and more local samples, people's own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God's beliefs than with estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 1-4). Manipulating people's beliefs similarly influenced estimates of God's beliefs but did not as consistently influence estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 5 and 6). A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one's own beliefs and God's beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person's beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God's beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person's beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God's beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one's own existing beliefs.

In one of the most revealing studies, the researchers manipulated the subject’s moral views about some topic by having them write and deliver speeches for or against some position. The subjects’ attitudes about the position varied in parallel with the position they were assigned to defend, not suprisingly.  When you have to actually think hard about the other side, you tend to soften your stance or change your mind.  Have them deliver a speech in favor of the death penalty and their views shifted in favor of it, and have them present a case against it, and their views shift against it.  And when they were tested before and after the manipulation, it became clear that their assessment of God’s view of the position shifted too.  According to the subjects, God (and the subject) favored the death penalty more before the subject wrote and delivered a speech opposed to it, and then God’s view of it shifted against it afterwards along with the subject’s. 

But this shift in us and in our view of God tends to be invisible to us.  We don’t notice that we are changing our minds.  And then we don’t notice that we are rewriting history by attributing our current view to our former self and to what we previously thought about God’s views.  What we think God’s moral guidance is depends on what we are currently thinking about, and when our current thinking changes, God’s views do to, but we tend to see God’s views and our own as monolithic, unchanging.  “What I believe now, that’s what I always believed.  And that’s always been God’s commandment too.”  One of the places where you can actually observe this moral confabulation going on is in the shift of people’s attitudes about homosexuality, gay marriage, and civil and women’s rights.  Our culture has undergone a rapid shift on all of these views—in just a few generations many people have gone from being passionatly opposed to many of these developments and giving powerful religious justifications for them, to being much more liberal and subsequently arguing that the new views are in fact God’s views too. 

So what’s happening is that our moral inquiries are actually more rudderless than we know, and to ill effect.  There’s nothing wrong with changing our minds, or reflecting on new evidence.  Quite the contrary, we should gather as many relevant considerations as possible for moral decisions and then be prepared to alter our views.  What’s dangerous is being oblivious to the organic nature of how our cognitive faculties produce these ideas and being ignorant of our tenedency to create revisionist histories.  And what’s even more dangerous is the tendency to attribute these shifting moral decisions to an almighty, supernatural being who will enforce them, whatever they happen to be that day, with eternal damnation.  Putting God into the process adds a level of false certainty, and ignores its fluid, constructive nature.  It also ignores the fact that our moral judgments should be defeasible and that a moral principle or judgment that seemed to work well in the past may not capture the subtleties of evolving moral situations.  It would be insane to think that the moral principles that served a nomadic band of Iron Age peasants will serve us equally well in navigating the complicated moral status of different classes of embryonic stem cells in a 21st centurey Berkeley laboratory.
The irony is that neither the Bible, nor God are actually making the substantial contribution to the content of the judgments that many people think.  The Christian is finding his own way through the moral problem, with the vague, metaphorical, and diverse ideas from theology and the text providing some opportunities for cognitive riffing.  The same thing could have been done just as well, and probably with better results, by studying Shakespeare, or George Elliot’s literature.  We approach a text and ponder some passage, “What does this mean?”  We talk about it, read other passages, think about things we’ve heard about it, draw connections, and out of this activity some lesson or theme emerges.  You’ve probably heard a preacher, priest, or rabbi engage in this very process out loud in a sermon. 

What the studies show is that God’s moral positions, because he’s not a concrete person who we know much about, are more or less a blank slate for this process of moral extemporizing.  And the studies also show that when our moral views drift, as they inevitably do, we tend to ignore or not notice the shift in our views, and we cover it up by thinking that God’s view was the same all along.  People can and do justify anything they like with any text they like.  And when the text is as convoluted, diverse, ambiguous, metaphorical, and large as the Bible, the opportunites are endless.

The persistent myth that the Bible is the inerrant, consistent word of God excacerbates this cluster of mistakes.  The text is a hopeless mashup of contradictions that have been documented over and over again.  Then if we were to carefully record what the fundamentalist Christian avows as God’s moral judgment on one day, and then compare that to what he insists is God’s perfect moral judgment about the same topic a year or 5 years later, the further inconsistencies of this faulty textual exegetical process would be even more apparent.  Going to God and the Bible for moral guidance the way many people do it piles contradictions, fallacies, and mistakes on top of fleeting and rationalized errors.  And yet the Christian insists through this convoluted mish mash that God is the only true source of morality.  This mistake is thinking of the moral query as a matter of just checking the divine rule book as if there are discrete, unambiguous, and consistent answers there, and then refusing to acknowledge that the process that produced the answer was highly subjective, variable, and contingent.