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My academic advisor in college, a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, used to say (with an impish smile) that "Man created God in his own image." As a student of A Course in Miracles, I certainly don't believe that we made God up out of whole cloth. But a recent study has provided empirical evidence for a phenomenon many of us, believers and nonbelievers alike, have noticed: People have a tendency to project their own beliefs onto God, making their view of God a picture that is indeed an image of themselves. This finding is very much in accord with the Course, which claims that God as traditionally understood is very much a product of our projection — especially the fearful and condemning elements of that traditional God.
The study was conducted by Nicholas Epley and associates at the University of Chicago, and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study, a group of people who believed in the Abrahamic God (the majority were Christian) were asked for their opinions on controversial issues like abortion and the death penalty. They were then asked what they believed the views of God, of ordinary Americans, and of well-known public figures were. Perhaps not surprisingly, their own views most closely resembled what they regarded as God's views.
The experimenters also asked another group of believers in God to do various things that would have the effect of shifting their views on these same controversial issues — things like preparing speeches in which they presented arguments against their current position. The experimenters found that doing this not only shifted the experimental subjects' views, but also shifted the views they ascribed to God. It did not, however, shift the views they ascribed to other people.
Finally, the experimenters scanned believers' brains while they were thinking about their own views, those they ascribed to God, and those they ascribed to "average Americans." The experimenters found that when the believers thought about their own views or God's, the same area of their brain was active. But when they thought about the views of other people, a different area of the brain — an area associated with discerning the mental states of others — was active.
All of these experiments point to a single conclusion: While people can readily make a distinction between their views and those of other people, they are far less likely to make a distinction between their views and God's. Instead, their views and the views they assign to God are highly correlated, so much so that when their own views shift, the views they assign to God shift accordingly. The suggestion is that "people map God's beliefs onto their own." This study reinforces the findings of earlier studies that suggest our views about God are linked to the imagination and the self, even on the level of brain function. As Epley and associates conclude: "Intuiting God's beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one's own beliefs."
Atheists would undoubtedly argue that this finding validates and justifies their own belief: that God is nothing but a figment of our imaginations, a grandiose projection of our own wishful thinking. But the fact that we project onto God is hardly proof that He doesn't exist independently of our projections, any more than the fact that we project onto other people (which we do in many ways, even though this study didn't show us projecting our beliefs onto them) is proof that they don't exist independently of our projections. It does, however, give one pause. Just how much of our view of God is nothing more than our own subjective opinions writ large?
A Course in Miracles certainly agrees that our views of what God believes are tied very closely to what we ourselves believe. We do project our own beliefs onto God, making Him into an image of ourselves. This actually makes logical sense, for the Course tells us it is natural and inevitable that we will see our Creator and ourselves the same way: "A creator wholly unlike his creation is inconceivable" (W-pI.72.4:6).In Heaven, we know that we are just like God, indeed created in His image. But in our upside-down state of illusion here on earth, we've turned it around: We now think God is just like the distorted images we think we have become.
As I mentioned, the traditional concept of God is very much the product of this process – especially His fearful and condemning side. The Course stresses the point that our belief that God is angry at our sins and wants to punish us is a reflection of our belief that we are indeed sinners who deserve to be punished. Just as those researchers found, we believe that our view and God's view are one and the same.
For instance, Jesus speaks of how his disciples misinterpreted his crucifixion. In truth, as the Course describes it, the crucifixion was a wholly benign event that had nothing to do with God being angry at sinners or wanting to punish anyone. It was simply a teaching tool Jesus used to demonstrate that, like him, we can respond to even "the most outrageous assault" (T-6.I.9:1) without anger at all, but instead with pure, forgiving love. That is the import of the Course's famous line summarizing the message of the crucifixion: "Teach only love, for that is what you are" (T-6.I.13:2).
Yet his disciples had not fully taken in this message, and this had unfortunate results. "Their own imperfect love made them vulnerable to projection, and out of their own fear they spoke of the 'wrath of God' as His retaliatory weapon" (T-6.I.14:3). Jesus' benign message of love was distorted by their fear into a message of fear. They believed that their imperfect love was a sin deserving punishment. Projecting this onto God, they twisted Jesus' God of Love into a fearful God of wrath, a God Who used the crucifixion to punish His own Son for their (and everyone's) sins. Their belief that they were sinners deserving God's wrath became, in their eyes, God's belief too. Sound familiar?
This interpretation of God as wrathful — due entirely to the projection of human beliefs onto Him — became central to the religion that arose in Jesus' name. The idea that Atonement, our reconciliation with God, came through God's punishment of our sins through the death of Jesus eventually became fundamental to the faith. Yes, God was Love, but like the Star Wars Force He had a dark side as well. (I want to stress that Christianity hardly invented this; every religion ever made by human beings has had its projected fearful elements as well.)
To this day, many theologians preach the strange message that we are guilty sinners condemned by God, and the only way to heal the rift between us and God is through His punishment of Jesus, without which would His justified wrath fall upon us:
If [unhealed healers] are theologians they are likely to condemn themselves, teach condemnation and advocate a fearful solution. Projecting condemnation onto God, they make Him appear retaliative, and fear His retribution. (T-9.V.3:4-5)
Notice here how the theologians first condemn themselves, then project that condemnation onto God, and therefore see Him as condemning them. Again, their belief becomes God's belief.
This projected fear of a wrathful God goes all the way to the end of the spiritual journey: the Last Judgment. Jesus tells us, "The term 'Last Judgment' is frightening not only because it has been projected onto God, but also because of the association of 'last' with death" (T-2.VIII.5:1). The actual Last Judgment, according to the Course, is a "final healing" (T-2.VIII.3:3) in which we (with Jesus' help) sort out our thoughts and retain only the loving ones as a prelude to awakening to Heaven. But projecting our fear of our apparent sinfulness onto God, we have made the Last Judgment into something terrifying: a "meting out of punishment" (T-2.VIII.3:3) in which God delivers our just deserts after we die — into the lake of fire and sulphur we go.
We've done such a good job of projecting our fearful beliefs onto God that the real God of Love is obscured at best and completely blocked at worst. The views we have ascribed to Him have pushed His knowledge of the truth almost completely out the picture. In a powerful passage, the Course points out the sheer arrogance of concluding that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God without even giving Him a chance to get a word in edgewise:
Here is a principle [the principle that we are sinners deserving of death] that would define what the Creator of reality must be; what He must think and what He must believe; and how He must respond, believing it. It is not seen as even necessary that He be asked about the truth of what has been established for His belief. His Son can tell Him this, and He has but the choice whether to take his word for it or be mistaken. (T-23.II.6:2-4)
This is projection of our beliefs onto God at its most pigheaded. He is still the God of pure Love He always has been. He has been trying to tell us this from the very beginning of the separation; "His Love has called to us unceasingly since time began" (W-pII.In.8:5). He is trying to undo our false beliefs, trying to communicate His message of pure Love any way He can. But we keep saying to Him, "Don't confuse me with the facts." We've got our minds made up, thank you very much. Don't give us any of that namby-pamby unconditional love stuff. We know You're out to get us, and we're watching our backs.
How do we get out of this mess? For those of us who are called to the path of the Course, I think the answer is A Course in Miracles itself. The entire Course is essentially Jesus' heartfelt and determined attempt to get us to withdraw our fearful projections onto God and experience Him as the wholly loving Father He truly is.
Jesus starts by simply reasoning with us and inviting us to consider a new way of looking at things. At times, he virtually begs us to reconsider our fearful image of God. Never is this more evident than in the Text section called "Atonement without Sacrifice" (T-3.I). This section addresses head-on the whole edifice on which traditional Christianity stands: the belief that God punished Jesus as Atonement for our sins. This section is worth quoting at length, because you can really see how eager Jesus is to completely disabuse us of the whole notion that God could possibly rest salvation on such a fearful basis. (I've bolded lines that emphasize the role of our projection in making this fearful God):
The crucifixion did not establish the Atonement; the resurrection did. Many very sincere Christians have misunderstood this. No one who is free of the belief in scarcity could possibly make this mistake. If the crucifixion is seen from an upside-down point of view, it does appear as if God permitted and even encouraged one of His Sons to suffer because he was good. Many very devoted ministers preach this every day. This particularly unfortunate interpretation, which arose out the combined misprojection of a large number of my own would-be followers, has led many people to be bitterly afraid of God. This particularly anti-religious concept happens to enter into many religions, and this is neither by chance nor coincidence. Yet the real Christian should pause and ask, "How could this be?" Is it likely that God Himself would be capable of the kind of thinking which His Own words have clearly stated is unworthy of man? (3:2-9, Urtext version)
Persecution [of others] is a frequent result [of this belief that a wrathful God punished Jesus for our sins], justifying the terrible misperception that God Himself persecuted His Own Son on behalf of salvation. The very words are meaningless. It has been particularly difficult to overcome this because, although the error itself is no harder to correct than any other, many have been unwilling to give it up in view of its prominent escape value. In milder forms a parent says, "This hurts me more than it hurts you," and feels exonerated in beating a child. Can you believe our Father really thinks this way? It is so essential that all such thinking be dispelled that we must be very sure that nothing of this kind remains in your mind. I was not "punished" because you were bad. The wholly benign lesson the Atonement teaches is lost if it is tainted with this kind of distortion in any form. (2:4-11, Urtext version)
The statement "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord" is a misperception by which one assigns his own "evil" past to God. The "evil" past has nothing to do with God. He did not create it and He does not maintain it. God does not believe in retribution. His Mind does not create that way. He does not hold your "evil" deeds against you. Is it likely that He would hold them against me? Be very sure that you recognize how utterly impossible this assumption is, and how entirely it arises from projection [we project our belief that our past is evil onto God, so now He believes our past is evil and we must be punished]. This kind of error is responsible for a host of related errors, including the belief that God rejected Adam and forced him out of the Garden of Eden.
Sacrifice is a notion totally unknown to God. It arises solely from fear [we are afraid that we must sacrifice to pay for our sins and we project this onto God, Who now demands sacrifice to pay for our sins], and frightened people can be vicious. Sacrificing in any way is a violation of my injunction that you should be merciful even as your Father in Heaven is merciful. It has been hard for many Christians to realize that this applies to themselves. (3:1-4:4)
There is so much rich material in these lines, but the basic message is very simple. God is a God of absolute Love. He sees no sin in us, and has no desire to punish us; He only wants our happiness. But we have convinced ourselves that we are guilty sinners who deserve to be punished. We then project this fearful belief about ourselves onto God, so now it looks like He shares that belief: Now He believes that we are guilty sinners who deserve punishment, a punishment He carries out on Jesus instead of us.
Jesus pleads with us to question this whole scenario: "The real Christian should pause and ask, 'How could this be?'" "Can you think our Father really thinks this way?" We need to relentlessly question these fearful projections until they have been undone entirely: "It is so essential that all such thinking be dispelled that we must be very sure that nothing of this kind remains in your mind." It is utterly crucial that we realize that God is Love, wholly Love, and nothing but Love.
Jesus is giving us a whole new theology, a whole new picture of God and of ourselves that calls us to withdraw our fearful beliefs and see things as they truly are. But of course, we need to do more than simply study this new theology, foundational as that study is. We also need to practice it, which is why we have the Workbook. So many of the Workbook's practices aim to reinforce in our minds this new image of God and of ourselves. Think of some of the lines the Workbook has us repeat: "Love created me like Itself" (Lesson 67). "God's Will for me is perfect happiness" (Lesson 101). "There is no cruelty in God and none in me" (Lesson 170). "Love, which created me, is what I am" (Lesson 229).
In these lines and others like them, which the Course wants us to repeat again and again, the Course aims to train our minds to completely reverse the process that has led to that fearful, wrathful God. Instead of believing that we are guilty sinners and then projecting that belief onto God so He now "believes" the same thing, we learn to recognize that "God is but Love, and therefore so am I" (Review VI). Our beliefs don't determine His beliefs; rather, what He knows to be true determines the truth, whether we believe it or not. And what is true about Him is also true about us. He is Love and so are we. Like Father, like Son.
Another way we learn to withdraw our fearful beliefs is by doing meditations aimed at setting aside our usual frame of reference and inviting an experience of God to come to us. A wonderful example of this is the beautiful meditation from Lesson 189 (whose famous injunction to "forget this course" means "forget it during this meditation," not "throw the Course away"). It calls us to let go of all of our beliefs, at least temporarily, and let God fill our empty hands with the truth:
Simply do this: Be still, and lay aside all thoughts of what you are and what God is; all concepts you have learned about the world; all images you hold about yourself. Empty your mind of everything it thinks is either true or false, or good or bad, of every thought it judges worthy, and all the ideas of which it is ashamed. Hold onto nothing. Do not bring with you one thought the past has taught, nor one belief you ever learned before from anything. Forget this world, forget this course, and come with wholly empty hands unto your God. (W-pI.189.7:1-5)
What will happen when we do this? "In our quiet hearts and open minds, His Love will blaze its pathway of itself" (9:4). With our fearful projections set aside, God will show us the Love He really is and we really are.
Finally, we throw away our fearful beliefs and learn the true nature of God and ourselves by extending the Love of God to others; by teaching them through our thoughts, words, and deeds that God is but Love, and therefore so are all of us. It is by teaching this message of God's Love that we truly, finally learn it for ourselves, as this beautiful passage tells us:
Since you cannot not teach, your salvation lies in teaching the exact opposite of everything the ego believes [such as the belief that we are sinners and God is out to punish us]. This is how you will learn the truth that will set you free, and will keep you free as others learn it of you.…Only thus can you win back the knowledge that you threw away. An idea that you share you must have. It awakens in your mind through the conviction of teaching it. Everything you teach you are learning. Teach only love, and learn that love is yours and you are love. (T-6.III.4:1-2, 5-9)
Through study, practice, and extension, then, we will finally stop projecting our fearful beliefs about ourselves onto God. We will stop telling ourselves that He shares those fearful beliefs. We will finally free ourselves from the insidious "echo chamber" revealed by researchers like Epley and associates. Instead of telling God what to believe, we will let Him tell us what is true. Instead of creating God in our own image, we will at last recognize that we are created in His.