Reading When God Talks Back, by T.M. Luhrmann, was a revelatory experience for me in many ways. When I picked up the book I was by and large unfamiliar with the scientific literature surrounding god-perceptions and god-concepts, and since then I’ve quickly found my way into the loop on such topics. When God Talks Back also clued me into some of the processes by which people conceive of and understand gods, such as the extension of theory of mind to perceived acts of gods like physical world occurrences, voice-like mentations, subtle visions, and other phenomena.
What truly blew my mind, in When God Talks Back, was the part about the study which Luhrmann conducted on types of prayer, in which she recruited monotheists to commune with God once a day in one of three ways: through apophatic prayer, through kataphatic prayer, or through lectures on the gospels. Her findings suggested that people who practiced kataphatic prayer, through which people actively imagine their gods, were able to grow closer to their gods by growing their god-concepts. The results weren’t what blew my mind— I suspected those results! What blew my mind was actually the idea of undertaking scientific studies on gods in the first place.
I thought, why haven’t more people done this? why isn’t this all over the news? God-perceptions and god-concepts can be studied in ways which can illuminate their underlying predispositions and behavioral characteristics. Shouldn’t this be more of a driving force in the discourse on theism?
It took me a while, but I found other studies like Luhrmann’s. I want to highlight one here: Benjamin Grant Purzycki’s paper in Cognition titled “The minds of gods: A comparative study of supernatural agency”, in which he looks at people’s gods’ (or god-like beings’) perceptions and interests of various moral and nonmoral happenings— moral happenings being occurrences like thefts and offers of assistance, and nonmoral happenings being things like sneezes and reactions to loud noises. One of his hypotheses was that all gods, even gods which societies claim aren’t very interested in moral affairs, are in fact perceived to care more about moral occurrences than nonmoral occurrences. That hypothesis held up very well, and in surprising ways. Here is an excerpt which I found particularly cool:
If there is a relationship between omniscience and concern for morality, then attributed breadth of knowledge should predict knowledge of and concern for moral behaviors. While there were no significant effects for knowledge-breadth on knowledge (F(1, 76) = 0.00, p = 0.99) or concern (F(1, 76) = 0.02, p = 0.90) of proximate moral items, attributed breadth of knowledge does in fact predict knowledge (F(1, 76) = 9.05, p = 0.004, ω = 0.31) and concern (F(1, 76) = 9.08, p = 0.004, ω = 0.31) for distant moral behaviors. This is consistent with previous findings of the positive relationship between omniscience and moral concern across populations, but these results are the first of their kind from a single population.
In other words, the more perceptual capacity attributed to a god or god-like being, the more likely that the god or god-like being is also perceived to care about moral behaviors of individuals. Given that such results aren’t unique to this study, it seems likely that god-concepts are predisposed to intermingle with moral senses.
Like many concepts prevalent throughout cultures, god-concepts seem to come with their own predispositions, both in their inherent natures and in their behaviors. That these predispositions can be discerned by scientific means suggests that god-concepts themselves have some amount of consistency.
This all matters to me because it suggests that behaviors of god-concepts can and, I contend, should be thoroughly studied. Scientific findings can serve to show how god-concepts can function in any number of contexts, and how god-perceptions can be approached for any number of practical benefits. The latter field of knowledge, regarding practical benefits of god-perceptions, is also going to have to expand through pioneering efforts of people who are willing to experiment with their own god-concepts, and to develop them in novel ways.