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With God on Our Side

New study says when we talk about God, we mean ourselves

Marc Tracy
December 07, 2009

Does belief in God provide the faithful with an ethical compass driven by a morality that exists outside themselves? Or does belief in God merely enable the faithful to have pretty much whatever ethics they want to have, and then retroactively justify them by attributing them to God? A new study out of the University of Chicago, which employed both psychological investigation and brain-scanning, concluded that when many people talk about God’s rules, they’re really thinking about their own. As the study’s author puts it, “Intuiting God’s beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber.” Specifically, study participants (who were mostly American Christians) were more likely to argue that their own beliefs jibed with God’s than with other people’s. And scans revealed that the part of the brain that controls self-referential thinking lit up similarly when participants discussed their own belief’s and God’s beliefs. That, a believer might say, is just evidence that there is a little bit of God in each of us. A skeptic might say something else.

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Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.