God’s Emotions – 2 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 school-yard, net-yard argument has been repeating itself for centuries.  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 “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 to 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—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 of our awareness. These technologies hold up a mirror – not only to our individual quirks and pathologies –but 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 arise. 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 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 are working for us, especially religious ideas and habits, 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 and 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 imbedded 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.

If you don’t want to miss this series, you can subscribe to Valerie Tarico at this blog, or email her at vt at ValerieTarico.com with the word “Subscribe” in the subject line.

Dig Deeper

Darwin, Charles.  Letter 12757 to E. B. Aveling, 13 Oct 1880, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-12757

Spong, John Shelby.  Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile.  HarperOne, 1999. 

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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5 Responses to God’s Emotions – 2 What psychology can and can’t say about God

  1. In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes that is made with religion in general, is that from childhood, we tend to believe what we have learned at home and at our church/mosque/synagogue, etc. In our upper teens, when we really should be embarking on our own spiritual journeys, we in effect close our minds and hearts and stubbornly cling to what we learned in childhood — even though many times our lives do not even reflect the ‘schooling’ that we received from our parents and others.

    I am a Christian by choice, not because of any other reason. But I will point out something significant. If you read one of the great modern translations of the Bible from cover to cover, just like any book, what is evident is that even most professed Christians do not truly believe in the God of the bible!

    I was on very early this morning because I woke up and could not go back to sleep. I am so very glad that I found your blog, and will come back often!
    Tony Cota


    • “In our upper teens, when we really should be embarking on our own spiritual journeys, we in effect close our minds and hearts and stubbornly cling to what we learned in childhood.” Beautifully said. These some of the most important questions of our lives. How is it that on average people spend so little time actually wrestling with them? So many think (I guess) that they just happened to be born into the most true form of the one true religion. What peculiar creatures we are.


      • Gunther says:

        “How is it that on average people spend so little time actually wrestling with them?”

        Because we have been heavily indoctrinated that our ability to question was crushed not to mention we can’t tell our parents that we don’t believe in God and/or we don’t want to go to church because many of us don’t have the money to move out of the house and live our own. If kids had economic power, they would not pull up with should control and intimation from their parents and church authorizes. Think about how many churches would close their place of worship if people stop coming to church?


      • Sha'Tara says:

        It takes gumption and courage to stand up to [falsely established] authority. My first total rebellion against abusive parental domination was at 14, but I knew already prior to my act of defiance that I had to be ready to leave home – and I was, and they knew it, so I won. I didn’t have to leave home, but my situation changed drastically, from being abused to becoming more of an equal. It’s a case of mind over matter. Life is always about change, and it is not nature, but society, that dictates whether a 14 or 16 year old can leave home. Sometimes, as they say, you have to chew off your leg to get out of life’s traps. Society will scare you into submission and it will deny you your human RIGHT to self-empowerment from which comes self-determination. There are no legitimate “age limits” to attain self-empowerment: it’s always a choice, regardless of circumstances. “Kids” in the ghettos of the worlds Third World megalopolises are forced to find their own way to economic power and they find it, or die. North America and Europe has developed a more “welfare” mentality in which people become lazy and apathetic, satisfying themselves with the hand outs, less inclined to challenge themselves to changing their conditions. They want “someone else” – someone in authority, to do it for them, and therein lies the problem. You can’t get out from under an abusive authority by running to another for succor. That’s the perpetual vicious cycle.


  2. george says:

    I decided to stop searching. Much healthier for my mind. I feel free and happy now.


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