There are many theories that attempt to explain the origins of belief in God, our culture’s successor to river spirits and the various ancient pantheons.
But this is the first time that I’ve run into a psychology study that postulates that God’s main function is to give us someone to blame when things go wrong. The idea may have been out there, but I don’t recall encountering it before.
It’s a clever — dare I say entertaining? — idea, despite it being no more fully demonstrated than any of the other speculations about the evolutionary bases of our cognitive functions. In “Blaming God for Our Pain,” posted online by the Personality and Social Science Review, Harvard’s Kurt Gray and Daniel M. Wegner posit that “the more people suffer, the more they appear to believe in God.”
It’s not that suffering people turn to God primarily for comfort, although many do find comfort in their belief; rather, in the authors’ view they “need” God in situations in which they’re suffering but there’s no obvious cause to blame. Rather than do without a cause — that is, accept that bad things happen to them for no good reason, or for no reason at all — it seems that many people conjure up an intentional agent to explain their suffering. Better a fictional bringer of pain than random pain.
That’s a pretty big idea for as small a study as the article describes, but the authors marshal support from a helpful psychological theory — enough support to make their contentions interesting, even if not compelling.
The study’s survey subjects showed an unexpected tendency to view God as a moral agent with purpose but little personality, long on “Agency” but short on “Experience”:
The study found that minds are perceived mainly in terms of Experience (the ability to feel and be conscious) and Agency (the ability to do things), with normal adult humans possessing the capacity for both. There were many entities who were seen to have Experience but not Agency (e.g., babies, dogs, and children), but only God was seen to have Agency without the capacity for Experience. People judging the mind of God seem to perceive him as relatively incapable of experience.
The authors attempt to explain this finding in terms of “moral typecasting theory.” In this construct, we see the participants in a moral situation as either the “moral agent” (the “doer”) or the “moral patient” (the “receiver”). And, once we have placed an entity into one category or another, we tend to keep it there, to “typecast” it. We don’t see the mugger as a victim; we also don’t see a bullied child as provocative. Once an agent, always an agent; once a victim, always a victim.
This moral “dyadic structure,” as the authors describe it, leads to significant outcomes. One, if there is a “moral victim,” there must also be a “moral agent.” If we can’t identify an agent in the situation — a river floods and destroys a farmstead, for instance — the authors suggest that we feel a compulsion to “supply” an agent, so we invoke belief in a supernatural entity whom we can hold responsible. (And, of course, in those cases where we receive unexplained benefits, whom we can praise.)
In this view, “morality may be not only a consequence of religion … but also a fundamental cause.” The authors write that “the central features of beliefs about God and religion spring not from our naïve wonder at thunderstorms or the sunrise but from our use of religious ideas to understand the moral world.” And, “humans invent God and Satan as moral agents to be responsible for the good and bad in our lives and in turn understand ourselves as moral patients who receive the good and bad that supernatural agents send our way.” What results is what the authors call “God of the Moral Gaps.” It’s a nice phrase, but that’s as much as I’ll allow for now.
The authors suggest that the God we blame (simplistically, the OT God) is a more powerful and motivated concept than the God we praise (the NT God) because “harms may be especially likely to need an agent because they are exceptionally important to organisms and therefore essential to control.”
If it’s true that belief in God is driven more by suffering than by pleasure, there should be evidence that those whose lives are more negative will have a higher likelihood of belief. The authors cite an anthropological study that shows a significant correlation between health and belief — residents of states with low overall health indices had high proportions of believers.
Interesting? Yes. Proved? Hardly. An attitude survey and a data compilation are clearly insufficient to establish so fundamental a proposition. That the authors’ proposition consistently explains the chosen data is not at all conclusive. I could argue, for example, that states with a higher proportion of religious believers will tend to have more conservative lawmakers, one result of which may be an insufficient level of support for public health care, leading to a greater incidence of chronic and acute disease. Why not? Doesn’t that explain the data, too?
As one regular participant here puts it, “even though researchers may claim that a particular finding is ‘supported by research,’ that may only be true if one accepts the assumptions of the theoretical paradigm overseeing the investigation.”
I accept that we use Theory of Mind to seek intentional agents, and that a testy or testing God is certainly such an agent. And I believe that we invent our gods as personifications of concepts which we find otherwise difficult to represent. But whether our culture invented its God for this reason, or ascribed a moral role to God after its creation, or some other scenario altogether, is not established by the current study.
Of course, if I have a really bad day, I may change my mind and start looking around for someone to blame.