Neuroscience and Faith: In Whose Image?

30 November 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

It was a philosopher by the name of Feuerbach who famously established the idea that religion is merely “wish fulfillment.”  Now Feuerbach lives on in the cutting edge field of neuroscience.

USA Today reports of a new study that suggests that  “Believers subconsciously endow God with their own beliefs on controversial issues.”  That is, on issues of great social controversy, people seemingly “project” their views of morality on God.


The study reports that they used two tests to determine this.  First, they asked volunteers (who stated they believed in God) to state their personal views on controversial topics.  They were then asked what God’s views were on the same issue.  They found that the participants’ views and God’s views were often the same.

Second, the participants were encouraged (through speech preparation) to engage the opposing viewpoints on these controversial subjects.  The study “found that this led to shifts in the beliefs attributed to God.”

Finally they did actual brain scans (using fMRI) to detect activity in portions of the brain when thinking about (1) themselves, (2) God and (3) other people.  When thinking about themselves, there was activity in one portion of the brain, and when thinking of others, there was activity in another.  But when thinking of God, there was activity in the same portion of the brain that was active when thinking of themselves.


Researchers are suggesting two things: (1) man already has a preconceived set of moral values and (2) these values are then assumed to be the same as God’s.  One researcher writes,

People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want…The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God’s beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.


How can we respond?

First we must acknowledge that there may be some truth to these conclusions.  The USA Today article paraphrases Voltaire well, who said that “God created man in His image, and then man returned the favor.”  To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the opposite of faith is not doubt, but imagination.  The writer of Ecclesiastes says that “God has set ignorance (Hebrew: ‘olam) in the human heart.”  Into that void man often pours his own sets of ideas and beliefs.

To that end these beliefs may not correspond to reality, and unless they know Jesus, these “believers” who took part in this study are just as far from God as those who don’t believe at all.  “They honor me with their lips,” Jesus says, “But their hearts are far from me.”

Finally, the conclusions of the study are a bit backwards.  Could the results not merely show a close connection between God’s values and human morality?  Why is it assumed that people necessarily are projecting onto God, rather than modeling their lives according to His character?  Wish fulfillment does not mean non-existence.  Water is no less real because I thirst for it – it is even more real because of it.  Food is no more real because I hunger for it.  And Lewis so famously writes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.


There is much more to be said on this controversial issue.  Modern science is shaping the way religion is viewed by many in the scientific community, such as when Dean Hamer of NIH published the book The God Gene, which argued that man was genetically programmed to seek after transcendent religious experiences.

The science is difficult to ignore.  But the philosophically weak conclusions demand thoughtful response.  And ultimately we treasure a gospel that pushes us beyond the boundaries and limits of the human mind, drawing us near the heart of the Creator.

30 November 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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