What Psychology Can and Can't Say About God
"Prove that God exists," says the skeptic.
"Prove that He doesn't," says the believer.
"The burden of proof is yours," says the skeptic, with a sneer in his voice. "Exceptional claims and all that."
"I can't hear you," says the believer with his fingers in his ears -- and he can't, partly because of the fingers and partly because of the sneer.
"What an idiot," the skeptic mutters to himself.
"What a jerk." mutters the believer. Then they both walk away self-satisfied.
This schoolyard, net-yard argument has been repeating itself for centuries, but there's another, more civilized conversation that also has been going on for centuries: a conversation among scholars. This argument has caused some to leave the faith or, more rarely, to join it. It has driven the evolution and bifurcation of Christian theology. And yet, painfully, I think it has had little more effect in building bridges or resolving our deepest questions than the schoolyard squabbles. The burgeoning field of cognitive science may, finally, offer us a chance to have a totally different conversation about religion.
Many scholars of Christianity deal with big theological and philosophical questions: Based on our best ability to follow logic and detect fallacy, what is possible? If we eliminate self-contradiction and faulty reasoning, what is left of our knowledge of the supernatural? They ask not only, "Does the Christian God exist?" but also, "Can the Christian God exist, and if so, in what form?" These are the questions that apologists and counter-apologists have been wrestling with and arguing over for so many centuries.
Psychology, by contrast, doesn't deal with what is possible; psychology deals in practicalities and probabilities. It asks, "What can we know about how people (and sometimes other animals) function within this natural world?" It neither assumes nor denies the existence of a supernatural realm because the methods of science are not applicable to this question, and the findings of science are agnostic on this question. That said, it does assume that if we have sufficient natural explanations for natural events, then we don't assert supernatural causes as well. If schizophrenia can be explained (and controlled) by the presence or absence of certain neurotransmitters, then we don't bother talking about demons possessing schizophrenics.
This assumption is basic to the study of psychology, but not uniquely so. In fact, except where it threatens religious dogmas, it is considered trivially true. Consider our everyday lives. If I think my car runs on gasoline alone, I don't bother to draw magical runes or pray over it after filling the tank. Gallons of hydrocarbons suffice. If I think that locking my door will keep out thieves, I don't bother with sprinkling protective herbs around and above it. If I think that bullets alone kill enemy soldiers, I don't employ a cadre of voodoo specialists to stick pins in figures before going into battle. When we find natural cause-and-effect relationships that are sufficient for us to explain, control, or predict a phenomenon, then we let it be.
That is why a discussion of psychology -- specifically emotions, and even more specifically God's emotions -- is relevant to assessing biblical Christianity. The nature of God may not be subject to psychological study, but religious beliefs and assertions made by humans are not synonymous with God, if some such entity exists. They are natural phenomena, which means they are open to scrutiny via the methods of the social sciences. The Bible states that we humans are made in the image of God. Presumably, the similarities between our emotions and God's -- love, hate, moral indignation, vindictiveness, pleasure at gifts and praise, yearning for companionship, and so forth -- exist for this reason. But what are emotions, really?
Twenty years ago, the focus in psychology was largely on cognition: on memory, learning, attitudes and reasoning patterns that are accessible to our conscious minds. But as new experimental protocols and imaging technologies have been developed, it has become possible to explore a whole Carlsbad Cavern of subterranean mental processes that operate before and outside our awareness. These technologies hold up a mirror not only to our individual quirks and pathologies, but also to mechanisms of information processing and information distortion (cognitive biases) that characterize our whole species.
As cognitive neuroscience has flourished, another field of study has also flourished: affective science, the study of emotions. Psychology largely ignored affective phenomena for years. Emotions seemed too amorphous, subjective and hard to measure. But now neuroscience can correlate self-reports with actual brain scans, hormone levels and more, and affective science has leaped ahead. The growth of affective neuroscience has given researchers confidence to look at how emotions function at other levels -- in decision making, for example, or religious experience.
As we explore the nature of emotion, a set of interesting questions arises. Considering the nature and functioning of feelings, what would it mean for an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-benevolent being to have emotions?
Christian theologian John Shelby Spong once said, "Christians don't need to be born again. They need to grow up." He was reacting to the fact that many believers never outgrow their childhood concept of God as a kind or mean daddy in the sky, one who needs our admiration, can be cajoled for special favors, and covers or beats our backs when we get ourselves into trouble. We often acquire religious beliefs before adolescence, when we are too young to process abstractions. When children are taught that Jesus loves them, they have no means of defining the word love except through their experience of other humans, especially their parents. As we get older, most people don't stop to reevaluate our childhood concepts. Believers rarely ask themselves, "What does 'Jesus loves me' actually mean?"
As long as our childhood ideas and habits, especially religious ideas and habits, are working for us, we seldom take the time to revisit them. Coming out of an Evangelical childhood, I remember how startled I was when I first realized that Catholics, Latter-Day Saints, and Seventh-Day Adventists were Christians! But they were bad, and Christians were good... I started laughing. My old categories had held sway long after I was capable of knowing better.
Looking at God's emotions through the lens of affective science forces us into our adult minds. It puts us in a position from which our adult selves can get a glimpse of the deeply layered god-concepts that are embedded in us whether we believe or not. Some of those concepts come not from our own childhoods but from the childhood of our species. The Bible writers did the best they could to sift through their received traditions and posit their best hypotheses about what was real and good, in other words, what was God. But living as they did, in the Iron Age, they were constrained by how little they knew about themselves. We may not have made perfect progress since then, but, mercifully, we have made some.
Spong, John Shelby. Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. HarperOne, 1999.