Inside the mind of God

by Benjamin Grant Purzycki

Punitive Big Brother; cosmic petty-thief-catcher; vigilant landlord. Why is God so interested in bad behaviour?

Benjamin Grant Purzycki is an anthropologist working at the Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Edited by Pam Weintraub 

Of all humanity’s eccentricities, religion could very well be the most baffling. Even though no one has produced a fleck of evidence for the existence of the gods, people will engage in repetitive, often taxing behaviours, under the impression that some ethereal being out there knows and cares. And regardless of whether or not they believe, many thoughtful people have burned considerable numbers of calories trying to unravel the mystery that is God’s mind and the implications it has for, quite literally, everything.

The anthropologist Pascal Boyer of Washington University in St Louis has observed that people primarily fixate on what gods know and care about.  Those following the Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – focus on God’s mind.  They rationalise their behaviour whenever they claim that God wants them to do something. They invoke God to influence others, as in: ‘God sees through your cheap tricks.’ From Moses on Sinai to ecstatic, modern-day Evangelicals, many claim to have gone directly to The Man Himself for a chat, even reporting their conversations in bestselling books.

Ask a random stranger what God knows, and chances are he’ll say: ‘Everything.’ But ask what God cares about, and he’ll say murder, theft and deceit; generosity, kindness and love. Amid God’s infinite knowledge, His concerns are quite narrow: He knows everything but cares only about the moral stuff. Where do these beliefs come from, and what impacts do they have on our lives?

Across cultures, even children seem to think that gods know more than normal humans. This is borne out by experiments using what psychologists call the ‘false-belief task’, which tests whether individuals can detect that others have false beliefs. In one version of the test, researchers put a bag of rocks into a box of crackers, showed children what’s inside, and then asked what various entities would think was in the box. If the children said: ‘Mom thinks rocks are in there’, then they haven’t passed the false-belief task. If they said: ‘Mom thinks crackers are in there, but there are really rocks’, they have a handle on the incorrect mental states of others.

What’s curious is that, with age, children come to know that Mom, dogs, and even trees will have incorrect thoughts, but they never extend that vulnerability to God. In fact, the quality of omniscience attributed to God appears to extend to any disembodied entity. In a 2013 paper in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Louisville Seminary researchers found that children think imaginary friends know more than flesh-and-blood humans. There appears to be a rule, then, deep in our mental programming that tells us: minds without bodies know more than those with bodies.

This early, intuitive rule is much easier to follow than the tricky effort of wrapping our own limited minds around omniscient, unlimited ones. Indeed, theologians and philosophers continue to argue over the implications of omniscience. It might be intuitive for us to assume that gods know more than humans, but to consciously and consistently think that gods know everything isn’t quite as easy. In a 2013 article in Cognition, I reported that Christian students from the University of Connecticut who claim that God knows everything will nonetheless rate His knowledge of moral information (Does God know that Sebastian robs grocery stores?) as better than His knowledge of non-moral information (Does God know that Rita likes chilies?). This bias is especially clear under time pressure.

As reported in a 2012 article in Cognitive Science, our lab at the University of Connecticut examined what might be called this ‘moralisation bias’ of omniscient beings. To examine this bias, our lab asked students a host of randomised questions about what God knows and told them to answer as quickly as possible by computer. If their answer was ‘Yes’, they pressed one key; if ‘No’, another. Unbeknownst to the participants, the software we used also recorded response speed. The quicker the response, the more intuitive the question. We found that even though people say: ‘God knows everything’, they are quicker to answer questions about God’s knowledge of moral information (Does God know that Leon hurts the elderly?) than non-moral information (Does God know that David has black gloves?). Even though people might say ‘Yes’ to every question, it’s easier to process God’s knowledge in the moral domain.

Having a cosmic Wyatt Earp on the beat aids survival and reproduction by curbing others’ banditry

To assess which aspects of all-knowing agents produce this effect, we asked the same questions about a Big Brother-type government we called New Land. Even though New Land knew everything down to the tiniest of details, volunteers were quicker to respond to questions about New Land’s knowledge of people’s misconduct than proper conduct. And these questions about moral issues were answered more quickly than non-moral questions. The results were virtually identical to those of the sample answering questions about God. Yet another batch of students answered questions about Santa Claus; the response times reflected the same moral bias, but without any difference between the ‘naughty’ and the ‘nice’. A final group of students answered questions about an omniscient alien species that never interferes in human affairs; there, no speed distinction occurred across any of the question types.

What these studies suggest is that we intuitively attach moral information to disembodied minds. And this subtle association can alter our behaviour in significant ways. In one study, in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 2011, the psychologist Jared Piazza of Lancaster University and colleagues told children a story about a ghostly princess living in their lab. Though these children never heard a peep from the ghost, they cheated less on a difficult game than a control group of children who were not told the story. This suggests that gods, ghosts and other incorporeal minds might just get us to behave – particularly if we assume that the gods know about our behaviour, and especially if we think they can interfere in our affairs.

From an evolutionary perspective, the gods facilitate social bonds required for survival by raising the stakes of misconduct. Having a cosmic Wyatt Earp on the beat aids survival and reproduction by curbing others’ banditry. If you’re tempted to steal from someone, but know that God cares and has the power to do something about it, you might think twice. If God knows your thoughts, perhaps you wouldn’t even think twice. The Abrahamic God appears to be a punitive, paranoia-inducing Big Brother always watching and concerned with our crimes.

Globally, belief in moralistic gods appears to be more common in complex societies. The evolutionary ecologist Carlos Botero at the North Carolina State University and colleagues found that ‘moralistic’ gods crop up in societies facing similar ecological stresses. That group and another from the University of Oxford found that social complexity in general meant that belief in a moralistic god was likely to be high. It pays to have an all-knowing, morally concerned Big Brother God in places with greater anonymity and less accountability. Gods evolve.

Of course, not all gods are as moralistic as the God of Abraham. Not all gods care about how we treat each other. Not all gods know everything, not all gods beat you down for violating norms, not all gods care that you believe in them, and not all gods are thought of as human-like. If we proudly toot our little social-science horn without acknowledging that we’re playing in the key of Abraham, we won’t hear if we’re in harmony with the orchestra playing around the world. What do other gods care about? Unfortunately, until recently, no one had ever collected systematic data to find out for sure.

So I decided to address this in the Republic of Tyva, popularly spelled ‘Tuva’, a small region in southern Siberia, home to yurt-dwelling herders, reindeer-riders, and polyphonic ‘throat’ singing. Rural Tuvans herd various livestock including sheep, goats, yaks, reindeer and cattle, while urban Tuvans engage in wage labour, education and business. Geographically, Tuva is remarkably diverse with rugged steppe, majestic taiga (forested mountains), desert, craggy mountain ranges, and massive undulating hills.

Tuvan religion is a complex mixture of Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism. Contemporary urban shamanism includes clinics that offer the oracular and ritual services of spiritual experts who act as intermediaries between clients and the spirits of nature.  While things are rapidly changing, Tuvans, like many other herders throughout Inner Asia, mark herding territories, natural resources and other sacred places with cairns – piles of stones or tree branches used as altars or shrines devoted to local spirits. These spirits can take either human or animal form and are literally called ‘masters’ of the place.  Unlike the God-as-Big-Brother model of the Abrahamic faiths, spirit-masters follow more of a God-as-shy-but-watchful-landlord model.

The spirit-masters aren’t as vindictive or punishing as the God of Abraham.  However, if you disrespect them or forget to make an offering, your luck can quickly change.  They also aren’t omniscient. ‘Does the spirit-master of this area know what happens in another area?’ I would ask when in the field.  Responses often consisted of: ‘No, but those spirits know what happens in that area.’

The local gods in Tuva aren’t concerned with morality in the Abrahamic or Western sense; instead, they care about rituals and protecting resources such as natural springs, lakes and hunted animals in their area of governance.  In a survey similar to the one I used at the University of Connecticut, I found that, instead of saying: ‘No, these gods don’t know or care about moral stuff’, there was a positive spike in Tuvans’ ratings of their gods’ knowledge of and concern for social behaviour locally. In other words, through conversations, interviews and a variety of other questioning techniques, Tuvans communicated that their gods care about rituals and practices associated with resource conservation. But when asked, for example: ‘Does this God care about theft?’ they’re more inclined to give affirmative responses than to non‑moral questions – though still not as divergent in their answers as the University of Connecticut Christians.

It looks as if gods can tap into our mental moral systems regardless of what our explicit beliefs tell us. Even though Tuvans might think that their spirit-masters are unconcerned with how they treat each other (or simply do not talk about their gods in this way), these gods might still contribute to co‑operation.  If they trigger Tuvans’ moral cognition, the gods might curb ‘immoral’ behaviour especially when associated with territory.

And territory is something directly linked to Tuvan gods. Throughout Inner Asia, territorial borders and natural resources are often marked by ritual cairns. Many Tuvans have annual rites at the end of a harsh winter (when livestock are struggling and when grass begins to grow). In a 2013 paper in Current Anthropology, Tayana Arakchaa, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and I found that Tuvans invest significantly more trust in those who always pay their respects to the local spirits than to those who don’t. Ritual cairns devoted to gods might be effective triggers of moral cognition, and collective rituals can reinforce respect for others’ territory.

March 18, 2015