Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Religious Moral Compass

The Religious Moral Compass and it’s tendency to point in the direction the believer is already facing

Believers‘estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs.
Nicholas Epley et al have an interesting piece of research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science Oct 2009 whereby they claim that people are more likely to base their beliefs about what God’s attitudes are towards moral issues by modelling them in an egocentric way on what they already believe rather than on external sources as contrasted with the way in which people base their beliefs on what other people believe.
When we make inferences about what other people believe they are guided by two main sources – knowledge of our own beliefs which we project onto others and knowledge of others belief through their behaviour (verbal or non-verbal), or stereotypes of the groups that they belong to, or what other people tell us about other people’s beliefs. In the case of religious beliefs people do rely on religious texts, and what perceived experts on such texts inform them about what God believes. However such texts also allow room for various interpretations which subjects are able to select from. So there is clearly a two way process at work.
It may be thought that subjects will select whatever interpretation seems most plausible to them and so their beliefs are being guided by the religious texts and how they are best interpreted – in this way it would be thought that God’s presumed beliefs as inferred from the religious texts were being used as a guide for one’s own beliefs. Alternatively it could be that one’s own beliefs are being used as a guide for the sort of beliefs that God would have and people are filtering out different interpretations of what God is presumed to believe depending on what they already believe.  
In order to try and tease apart the influence of peoples own beliefs on what they thought God's attitudes were towards moral questions and extrernal sources that informed them about what God's attitudes were towards such questions Epley et al asked subjects to rate their own attitudes to a range of issues such as Abortion, Affirmative Action, Death Penalty, Iraq War, Legalisation of Marijuana, and Same Sex Marriage and then to ask them what they thought two prominent American’s attitudes were towards the same issues (George Bush and Bill Gate) and the Average American. This gave them some level of correlation between their own beliefs, God’s presumed beliefs, and other people’s beliefs.  
However, in another study they also manipulated subject’s attitudes about certain moral issues by giving them strong arguments supporting it and weak arguments against it, and again in another study they asked participants to deliver a speech in favour or opposed to the death penalty. Subjects in these two conditions had their attitudes manipulated by these procedures e.g. subjects who had to give a speech that was inconsistent with their prior attitude had their attitudes made more moderate. What was interesting about these studies is that they found that subjects beliefs about God’s beliefs followed in line with their newly manipulated attitudes whilst their beliefs about what other people believed were not affected as much.
Finally Epley et al used fMRI scanning whilst reporting their own attitudes, God’s presumed attitude, and what they thought the average American’s attitude were towards moral issues. They found that thinking about one’s own mental states and thinking about Gods presumed mental states activated the regions associated with egocentric thinking and projection of one’s own mental states onto others much more than thinking about what the average American’s views were on such issues.
They concluded that inferences about God’s beliefs tend to be egocentrically biased and the processes used to generate beliefs about God’s beliefs are relatively similar to the process that we use to generate one’s own beliefs. Whilst believers may acquire the beliefs of the theology of those around them they are also more likely to seek out religious beliefs that most resemble their own. Whilst religion is often taken to be the moral compass that is the ultimate moral authority that guides followers moral beliefs and behaviour this research lends weight to the idea that the religious compass does not point north whichever direction the person is facing but has a tendency to point in whatever direction they are already facing.