Thursday, October 29, 2015

why is god so interested in bad behavior?


aeon |  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.