What if there were no God?

Jonathan Morgan

Chaos concept in the hand of a womanDon’t worry, this isn’t a post about why God doesn’t exist– frankly, those arguments are pretty boring.  Instead, this is a thought experiment. The results will say more about you than about the existence, or non-existence, of God.

However you conceive of God – whether as a creative impersonal force or as a loving being with goals and actions, or even as the abstract ground of being – imagine that God doesn’t exist.  What does the world look like without God?  How would your life change?

Often it’s difficult to say how God functions in your life, but by imagining the negative –by picturing the absence of God – those functions emerge more clearly.  A duo of psychologists asked a group of American Christians this very question, and the results were striking.

The experiment was led by Dan McAdams, a narrative psychologist who first made a name for himself by studying the stories people tell to describe their lives.  He and Michelle Albaugh asked 128 devout Christians to imagine and describe their lives, communities, and worlds without God.  While the subject group may sound homogenous, they varied widely across the political and ideological spectrum.  And it turns out this diversity matters.

McAdams and Albaugh analyzed people’s stories for various themes.  One group of participants described a world devoid of meaning.  If there were no God, they said there would be emptiness, a lack of vividness, and absence of a center in their lives.  Maybe that’s what you imagined too.  But there was another group of people who described the world without God in terms of chaos, not lack of meaning.  This group talked about societal breakdown: people would run amok pursuing their desires, causing relationships to fall apart, and ultimately the institutions of society would crumble.  Of course many people fell between these two poles, but for the most part people tended to imagine either chaos or emptiness.

Christianity isn’t monolithic.  This research confirms what we should already know– there’s a broad spectrum of ways people see their faith as active in their lives.  This is an important finding in and of itself.  If you’re a religious person, then hopefully this sort of research may help you recognize the diversity in your community– those people sitting next to you may see a very different God than you expect.  If you’re not a religious person, then kudos for reading this far, and hopefully this helps you recognize how diverse religion really is.  But there’s more.

The two groups reliably correlate with people’s political preferences.  Liberals tend to be the ones who imagined an absence of God leading to emptiness and a lack of fulfillment.  Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to describe a chaotic world without God.

This isn’t to say that these boundaries are rigid– plenty of liberals and conservatives overlap on these categories.  They also agree on many aspects in their imagined world: there’d be more fear and anxiety and less hope and ability to cope with difficulty.  But the overall trend holds: conservatives generally saw a world without God as a chaotic world where society would crumble, while liberals saw the absence of God as leading toward emptiness.

These trends also fit with other studies.  Political views correspond to how and what people pray for: liberal Christians tend to ask God to provide for them and their community, while conservative Christians more often pray for guidance, forgiveness, or to give thanks.  The liberal-conservative spectrum also predicts different types of life-narratives: the conservative pole generally describes life as a struggle, requiring discipline to overcome obstacles, while liberals tend to describe life as a journey of self-exploration and fulfillment.

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has extensively studied these differences along the political spectrum.  One of his most startling findings came from an experiment showing people moving dots on a screen.  Sometimes the dots were moving all together in the same direction, but other times the dots were moving randomly with no synchronized order.  When asked for their impressions, conservatives tended to like it more when the dots were orderly, while liberals generally preferred the random dots.  Crazy, right?  We’re not talking about hot-button political issues; we’re talking about dots on a screen.  These differences run deep.

And if you read enough of these studies, you begin to think liberals and conservatives live in completely different worlds.  But the important thing to remember is that neither camp is wrong – life is a struggle and a journey; within religious communities, God provides order and structure as well as meaning and fulfillment.  The challenge is to find a way to exist in a community that nurtures both of these worldviews.

Let me rephrase that – our culture in the USA desperately needs communities that can support this ideological diversity.  Otherwise, the culture wars continue with each group thinking their world is the only valid one.  Hopefully this sort of research helps us recognize the different worlds that exist in our communities whether we like it or not.  From there, we can hopefully begin to move towards empathy and working together.  Otherwise we may land in a world where it does seem that no God exists, regardless of what that means to you.

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