"The more I study religions the more I am convinced that man never worshiped anything but himself."
~Sir Richard Francis Burton
by Tom Rees
The gods can't be communicating their preferences directly (because there's no such thing), so where do these beliefs come from?
One obvious source is the various holy books. However, even if you restrict yourself to adherents of a single religion, there are vast differences in beliefs about god's opinions (and that's just looking around the world today - when you extend the comparisons back in time the disagreements between believers become even more dramatic).
All this suggests that people must be projecting their own beliefs and opinions onto their god. A bundle of new studies from Nicholas Epley, at the University of Chicago, suggests that that is exactly what happens.
What he and his colleagues did was to subtly manipulate people's own opinions, and see if that affected their ideas about what God's opinions were.
Their beliefs about what god thought did change, however. In fact, the correlation between their own opinions and those they attributed to God was very strong.
'What would jesus do?' It turns out that what Jesus would do is exactly what 'I' would do - at least in so far as figuring out what Jesus's opinions are. Thinking about God's opinions and thinking about your own opinions uses an identical thought process.
This is a fascinating result. It suggests that people use God not to inform their own decision making, but to reinforce it. Here's what the study's authors conclude:
People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God’s beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.
Now, this doesn't show that religion has no influence on attitudes and opinions. Other research has shown that it does. But it does show is that people can and do reinvent their god to suit their own beliefs.
They make god in their own image.