The Wall Street Journal today has an article today by Sharon Begley in the Science Journal column (only online for subscribers, sorry) about our mind’s amazing ability to find good in every situation, no matter how bad it may be.
It describes several experiments where subjects were either tricked or forced into making bad choices. In the first, a Swedish experiment, people were asked to choose the more attractive of two women in photos. After their choice, the experimenter put the chosen photo face down and slid it to the subject, secretly switching the photo for the less attractive one in the process. Interestingly,
Few subjects batted an eye. Looking at unchosen [photo], they smoothly explained why they had chosen her (“She was smiling,” “She looks hot”), even though they hadn’t.
Professor Daniel Gilbert at Harvard is doing similar experiments. Subjects are told they’ll need to partner with someone who’d likable and trustworthy. The then pick one of four folders at random, not knowing that each contains the same bio of an unlikable, untrustworthy person. The subjects still managed to read good into the bad description of this person. Even when compared to bios of others, they continued to see their choice as superior.
Later, the experimenter would tell the subject that they were subliminally sending them signals to chose the best candidate. Since they had already convinced themselves that they had chosen the best candidate, they needed to explain why, so they bought this explanation. He calls that ‘the illusion of external agency’.
The main gist of the article is that this is where religious belief come from. We desire positive explanations of bad situations like the Asian tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake and the Gulf hurricanes. So we say it was God, even if we cannot say what he was doing, we say He knows best.
I find a certain level of truth and irony in this research. I think there’s a powerful truth in it, people do try to explain away their own bad choices or bad situations by saying God did it for some reason. Get too many red lights on the way to work? Maybe God is protecting me from an errant driver up ahead. Have to file for bankruptcy? God wants me to rely on Him, not money. Katrina devastates New Orleans? It’s his judgement on their sinful lifestyle. The common theme is that it’s not my fault nor should I worry about acting as a result of this, God is in control. As a result, the chronically late or the bankrupt person don’t look at their behaviors and make changes, but instead simply get a warm fuzzy feeling about God’s providence and go on. Others look at disasters like Katrina and see people getting what their sins deserve and miss the opportunity to be like Jesus and meet the needs of the hopeless. Our minds and hearts have a powerful tendency to convince us that what we already believe and see is right, and to interpret the things that happen around us in light of our current point of view. God’s way for us, however, is to constantly re-submit our will and viewpoint to his, which is perfect. A couple of scriptures come to mind:
“But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose confidence is in him.
He will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”
The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
“I the LORD search the heart
and examine the mind,
to reward a man according to his conduct,
according to what his deeds deserve.”Jeremiah 17:7-10
Our heart is deceitful, but we will be blessed if we put our confidence in God’s ways. I suppose that one could say that blindly attributing events to God is putting our trust in Him, but I look at this differently. I see it as saying ‘Conform your view and your will to mine, and it will go well with you’ rather than ‘No matter what happens, trust that it is good because I am in control.’
Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
I ask myself ‘Why?’ a lot. Why do I want this? Why do I think this way? Why do I believe what I do? I do this because I know my heart is deceitful and I must constantly test it to see if it is conformed to God. God is truth and my faith in Him need not be afraid of questioning, testing and digging. I am confident that nothing I find will contradict Him, His word or His will.
The irony I find in this article is that the researchers are using this evidence to show how religion and the idea of God may be false. Of course it feeds their own preconceived notion about God that this would be true. Are they testing themselves? Are they using this to validate their own notions about God and to avoid asking themselves the hard questions of why they don’t believe in Him? Perhaps their saying to themselves (without knowing it), “See, religion is false and God doesn’t exist. It’s all a convenient illusion. I was right all along.”