First of all, fantastic and thought-provoking post on Scienceblogs, “Creating God in one’s own image“, about a study which concluded that God is a sockpuppet (see illustration) — and this does appear to have a scientific basis in fact, not based just on the answers, but on the methodology of the study. It’s all in how you ask the questions.
What fascinated me most about the study was the methodology, and the changing of minds.
And as better evidence of causality, Epley showed that he could change people’s views on God’s wills by manipulating their own beliefs.
He showed some 145 volunteers a strong argument in favour of affirmative action (it counters workplace biases) and a weak argument opposing it (it raises uncomfortable issues). Others heard a strong argument against (reverse discrimination) and a weak argument for (Britney and Paris agree!). The recruits did concur that the allegedly stronger argument was indeed stronger. Those who read the overall positive propaganda were not only more supportive of affirmative action but more likely to think that God would be in the pro-camp too.
In another study, Epley got people to manipulate themselves. He asked 59 people to write and perform a speech about the death penalty, which either matched their own beliefs or argued against them. The task shifted people’s attitudes towards the position in their speech, either strengthening or moderating their original views. And as in the other experiments, their shifting attitudes coincided with altered estimates of God’s attitudes (but not those of other people).
He “asked people to write and perform a speech” — he asked them to think. Thinking changes minds, and believing involves being taught to obey rather than think. This study involved more than just surveying the respondents and recording their answers, it explored the way their brains worked, and in doing so demonstrated that it’s not terribly difficult to change minds. It starts with asking the right questions, and providing an atmosphere in which it is not a threat to one’s belief to think about the answers (for instance, consenting to a study they felt would help demonstrate their godliness).
This tends to reinforce Michael Shermer’s view that talking to theists can and should be done in ways that do not threaten their faith, if only because of the importance of educating people that science is not the enemy and should not be attacked. And the methodology used in the study could help inform conversations with the faithful.