Pragma Synesi – interesting bits

Compendium of interesting bits I come across, with an occasional IMHO

Suffering leads to belief in god

It seems misery loves supernatural explanations…

Excerpt from “Bering in Mind”‘s  God’s in Mississippi, where the gettin’ is good:

…. In an article soon to be published in Personality and Social Psychology Review , Harvard psychologists Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner argue that human suffering and God go hand-in-hand because our evolved cognitive systems are inherently unsatisfied with “sh*t happens” types of explanations (that is to say, reality). The main gist of their argument is that, since we’re such a deeply social species, when bad things happen to us we immediately launch a search for the responsible human party. In being morally vigilant this way–in seeking to identify the culpable party–we can effectively punish blameworthy, antisocial people, thus preserving our group’s functional cohesion and preserving each individual’s genetic interests. That’s all fine and dandy, say Gray and Wegner, when someone punches us in the face, steals from us or sleeps with our girlfriend; but when our misfortune is more “abstract” (think cancer or a tsunami) and there’s no obvious single human agent to blame, we see the hand of God.

Thus, according to these authors, attributing moral responsibility to God is a sort of residual spillover from our everyday social psychology in dealing with other people. “Without another person to blame,” write the authors, “people need to find another intentional agent to imbue the event with meaning and allow some sense of control.” The following little vignette may help clarify the researchers’ position:

Imagine a young family enjoying a nice picnic somewhere in a peaceful remote valley. The birds are chirping, the sun is out, a nice breeze. It’s positively idyllic. Suddenly, a malevolent dam worker upstream, jealous of the family’s happiness, causes the water level to suddenly rise. The whole family (including the pet dog) drown in the valley that day. Did God cause the family to drown?

If you’re like most of the participants who read a version of this story in Gray and Wegner’s original study, you’d say of course not. The dam worker did it, dummy. But something interesting happened when the authors stripped the story of any mention of the human agent. Half of the participants read the same story sans the malevolent dam worker. In other words, they learned only that the water level suddenly rose and drowned the whole family; and as you might expect, these people were significantly more likely to attribute the event to God than were those in the dam worker condition. Furthermore, participants only reasoned this way when the family drowned–when there was no “moral harm” (the lunch got ruined, but the family was fine) God wasn’t to blame.

In an even cleverer exploratory study, Gray and Wegner created a state-by-state “suffering index” and found a positive correlation between a state’s relative misery (compared to the rest of the country) and its population’s belief in God. To create an objective measure of such relative misery, the investigators used data from the 2008 United Health Foundation’s comprehensive Health Index. Among other manifestations of human misery, this regularly compiled index includes rates of infant mortality, cancer deaths, infectious disease, violent crime and environmental pathogens. What Gray and Wegner discovered was that suffering and belief in God were highly correlated, even after controlling for income and education . In other words, belief in God is especially high in places like Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina–and so is misery, at least as it was operationalized in this particular study. And that, say the authors, is no coincidence.

I should point out that Gray and Wegner are very much aware of the logical counterargument that God is of course also invoked for explanations of positive events. The authors don’t deny this fact, but nevertheless they argue that God is especially likely to crop up in people’s heads in response to life’s unpleasantries. “God may serve as the emissary of suffering,” they write, “but He can also be an emotional crutch . . . That God may be both the cause and cure of hardship suggests why harm leads us to God more strongly than help–with help people may thank Him, but with harm people both curse and embrace Him.”


October 15, 2009 - Posted by | psychology, religion, sociology | , , ,

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