Holy humans: Why we project our personalities, biases, and desires onto God

Who or what is God? One religion answers this question better than the others

Reza Aslan: There’s a cognitive psychologist by the name of Justin Barrett who did a series of really fascinating studies about the way in which people think about God. He asked a group of devoutly religious people—Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus—he basically gave them a form to fill out about the ways in which they think about the divine. And for the most part what he found was that they answered in theologically correct ways when talking about God as being, say, omniscient or omnipresent. But then he began to engage the same subjects in conversation. He asked them to start describing in regular language how they think about God. And what he discovered is that almost every single person, when forced to start talking about God, violated those core theological principles of God being, for instance, omnipresent and omniscient. In fact, what he discovered is that the more they talked about God, the more it sounded like they were describing some person that they met on the street. And this goes to a fundamental aspect about the way that we think about the divine, whether we are ourselves believers or not. And that is that, unconsciously, we can’t help but to imagine God as essentially a divine version of ourselves. When we conceive of God we unconsciously, innately, impose upon God our own personality, our own virtues, our own vices, our own strengths, our own weaknesses. We project upon God our own biases and bigotries. We implant in God human characteristics, human personality, human desires all along with superhuman powers. And so, as a result, what we really do—again, whether we’re aware of it or not—is we divinize ourselves.

If you believe in God then what you believe in is something that is, by definition, utterly unhuman. And so the question becomes: how do you talk about that thing, how do you think about that thing, how do you form a relationship with something that is utterly unhuman? Well, the way you do so is by humanizing that thing. In fact, the entire history of human spirituality can be viewed as one long, intimately linked and remarkably cohesive narrative in which human beings increasingly humanize the divine. Until, of course, in the person of Jesus, God literally becomes a human being. That, I think more than anything else, explains why Christianity is the most successful religion in the world because, in a way, it scratches an unconscious itch that we all have. Our brains work in such a way that we are compelled to conceive of God in human terms. It’s an impulse that we’re born with, it goes back deep in our human evolution. What Christianity says is: God is not just humanlike, God is literally a human being. And imagine how appealing that notion is because if you want to think about God, you know, it’s an impossible task. It’s so difficult to conceive of something like God. And what Christianity says is that it’s not that hard, actually. You want to know what God is like? Imagine the most perfect person. Perfectly good. Perfectly compassionate. Perfectly sinless. That’s God. That’s a pretty easy thing to imagine.

Did God make us in his image, or do we make him in ours? The answer becomes apparent when you ask devoutly religious people to describe their god. Religious scholar Reza Aslan cites a series of studies by cognitive scientist Justin L. Barrett which show that, on paper, the devout tend to score a perfect A for theological knowledge but, in conversation, that theology flies out the window—a god who is omnipresent was just "too busy" to hear a prayer, for example. The more people reveal about how they imagine the divine, the more they describe attributes and biases they happen to possess, what Aslan refers to as divinizing ourselves. "Unconsciously, we can’t help but to imagine God as essentially a divine version of ourselves. When we conceive of God we unconsciously, innately, impose upon God our own personality, our own virtues, our own vices, our own strengths, our own weaknesses. We project upon God our own biases and bigotries," he says. God is, by definition, unhuman and is therefore impossible to conceive of—but we humans have a psychological itch that must be scratched: we're compelled to know what our god is really like so we fill in the blanks with what we know best: ourselves. One religion satisfies this urge to know better than the rest: in the birth of Jesus, God literally becomes a human being. "That, I think more than anything else, explains why Christianity is the most successful religion in the world," says Aslan. Reza Aslan's latest book is God: A Human History

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