In God we see ourselves
Clare Aukofer and J. Anderson Thomson, the writers of the July 18 Op-Ed article "Imagine no religion" have this to say about the comments posted on their piece:
God is clearly controversial. Our Op-Ed on the psychological origins of religious belief sparked heated online discussion, with more than 2800 (and counting) comments from nonbelievers, believers and agnostics arguing with passion and, sometimes, humor.
It all started rationally enough, when theodorejackson wrote, in part: "I find it difficult to fathom why this is such an issue of debate and, often times, anger.”
As the week progressed, posters became more and more adversarial. A believer posting as GodIsLove1 got into a roaring battle with nonbelievers, in one response clearly expressing an opinion of his adversaries using some words we won't repeat: "[Some of the posters here] are half human and the other half is devil, evil wicked ... drunks liars stealers killers (of their soul), atheist. ... And you know who made them that way, these scientist and evolutionist, atheists and the likes."
There actually is an answer for theodorejackson, that also explains GodIsLove1's passionate posts. And it goes to human psychology as well.
Religion is a sensitive issue because we now know it is intimately tied up with our identity, as seen in functional MRI studies, and if the posts are any indication, human vanity too. Identity and vanity are raw nerves to poke.
The same mechanisms that make us such successful social creatures make us vulnerable to creating supernatural entities with human social attributes. We ascribe to these gods, or God, thoughts, desires, attitudes, beliefs, intentions and communicative abilities that are turbocharged reflections of our human capacities.
In one MRI study published out of the University of Chicago and Australia's Monash University, psychologist Nicholas Epley and colleagues found that those who believe in God also believe that he is very much like them, more so than other humans. One part of believers' brains lit up when they thought about what their friends think; when they thought about what God thinks, the same part of the brain in which they process their own beliefs -- not those of their friends -- lit up. Believers assumed that their God thought the way they do more often than they assumed their friends did. Challenging God becomes a challenge to the core of those who believe in God. It's not surprising that our assertion that God is a human construct was taken very personally in hundreds of these comments.
Photo: Icons and artwork reflect the heritage of the Greek Orthodox church, a cultural hub for L.A.'s large Greek American community. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times