Pop Neuroscience and spirituality: “Dear God, please don’t exist, so I can get lucrative assignments, and maybe tenure, teaching easily digested rot … “

Here's another gem from the treasure house of New Scientist (Andy Coghlan, "Dear God, please confirm what I already believe", 30 November 2009),

God may have created man in his image, but it seems we return the favour. Believers subconsciously endow God with their own beliefs on controversial issues.

"Intuiting God's beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one's own beliefs," writes a team led by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers started by asking volunteers who said they believe in God to give their own views on controversial topics, such as abortion and the death penalty. They also asked what the volunteers thought were the views of God, average Americans and public figures such as Bill Gates. Volunteers' own beliefs corresponded most strongly with those they attributed to God. .

So is the cart pulling the horse, or is the horse pulling the cart? The researchers claim that they have demonstrated that we "map" God's beliefs onto our own. The idea that we might adopt the beliefs that we think God wants us to have is not under consideration.

When the researchers asked different volunteers to prepare speeches in which they took the opposite view from their professed one, we are informed that the volunteer's views of God's beliefs changed.

Of course, that could not be because they had, for the first time, needed to grapple with opposing arguments, could it? Anyway, much neuroscience handwaving in evidence here.

Ryan Sager at TrueSlant goes along for the ride.

Also just up at The Mindful Hack:

Neurosurgery: Does "slice n' dice" cut it, when mental disorders are in question?

Neuroscience and popular culture: Neuroscientist examines brains of his family members for killer gene

Neuroscience and popular culture: How much are journalists to blame for pop science culture?

Psychology: Think positively – or peel potatoes!

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

3 thoughts on “Pop Neuroscience and spirituality: “Dear God, please don’t exist, so I can get lucrative assignments, and maybe tenure, teaching easily digested rot … “

  1. Study starts with tail-wag-dog hypothesis, and, surprise, concludes with tail-wags-dog analyses. The subtext of the study title — Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs — almost makes one want to stop reading right there.
    The methodology doesn’t pass the laugh test. fMRIs of the mPFC as it relates to speech? When asked questions about God, Bill Gates, Barry Bonds, Katie Couric, and G.W. Bush?
    Some of the questions were good, i.e. abortion, death penalty, but the statistical correlation was sketchy, to say the least.
    People actually get paid for this? When decent, hardworking people are lining up for food stamps?
    I’d like to see how Nicholas Epley’s MRI would light up when asked to give a speech about how overpaid he was compared to, say, his plumber, whose work could be correlated to the mess on a bathroom floor?
    Still, no cure for cancer. Or heart disease. Maybe this is where they need to point their MRIs.

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