Anthropomorphic gods turn religious transgressions into moral outrage

Anthropomorphic gods turn religious transgressions into moral outrage April 22, 2009

The previous post took a look at a recent brain scanning study which found that Orthodox Christians tend to relate to their God in an unorthodox way – pretty much as they would to another human being.

Here’s another study that tries to puzzle out some of the implications of that. What Carey Morewedge (Carnegie Mellon University) and Michael Clear (Harvard University) wanted to know was this: how does your view of the nature of God affect how you judge breaking religious rules.

What they did was take a group of 43 Christian students at Harvard and measure the extent to which their view of god agreed with the standard theological line (“God can occupy space without in any way distorting it”, “God can do any number of things at the same time”, “God knows everything”, “God can read minds”).

They also measured the degree to which these students thought about God in anthropomorphic terms (i.e., accepting, caring, comforting, controlling, forgiving, judging, loving, responsive, and wrathful, but not impersonal, distant or unavailable (reversed scored).

Then they presented then with a number of little stories in which people broke one of the ten commandments. Some of the stories depict acts that are immoral by most people’s standards:

“Molly entered a department store with the hope of buying a new watch. When she realized that she did not have enough money to get the watch she wanted, Molly placed it in her purse and walked out of the store undetected.”

While others were purely religious transgressions:

“One day, on his way home from work, Sam got stuck in a large traffic jam. As he attempted to change lanes, the car behind him pulled out quickly and cut him off. Sam exclaimed loudly, “God!” and proceeded to wait for another opening in the traffic.”

When they asked whether these these stories were wrong from a religious perspective, they found that the concept of God that people held (theological or anthropomorphic) didn’t matter. Whichever scale they looked at, the higher the subjects scored, the more likely they were to judge the people in the stories as having broken religious rules.

They got a different result when they asked if the stories illustrated an immoral act. Judgements of immorality were pretty much entirely driven by the degree to which the subjects thought of God in an anthropomorphic way.

In other words, students who believed in a distant, impersonal god did not judge breaches of the 10 commandments to be morally wrong, even though they knew they broke their religious rules.

Explaining these results is pretty tough. Morewedge and Clear suggest that it might be because believers in an anthropomorphic god may react to religious transgressions in the same way they might if a person is harmed.

We have an inbuilt predisposition to look unfavourably on actions that harm somebody, even unintentionally. If you think of God as a person, a friend and an ally, then perhaps insulting God (by breaking God’s rules) takes on moral overtones.

Morewedge, C., & Clear, M. (2008). Anthropomorphic God Concepts Engender Moral Judgment Social Cognition, 26 (2), 182-189 DOI: 10.1521/soco.2008.26.2.182

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