Monday, August 20, 2012

Jesus? He's On Your Side

A string of attacks on religious institutions including Muslim and Sikh houses of worship got me thinking about the sort of psychology that justifies these things. That led me indirectly to one of the more significant questions of our time: What would Jesus do?

According to a recent study, He’d do whatever you’d like him to — except that He’s more liberal than you on caring for the poor and more conservative on gay marriage.

The finding, write Stanford University psychologists Lee Ross, Yphtach Lelkes, and Alexandra Russell in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science last December, is a consequence of cognitive dissonance theory. In short, the theory says that people try to reduce the mental tension stemming from conflicting feelings, beliefs, and actions the easiest way they can. For example, if you discover a close friend harbors racist views, you’re likely to downplay those views rather than disown your friend. 

Or, if you’re a liberal Christian who supports gay marriage, you might say that Jesus did too.Curious how both liberals and conservatives resolved inconsistencies between their politics and the biblical tales of Jesus, the researchers recruited 451 people via the survey Web site SurveyMonkey and asked them to place themselves — and the Son of God — on a 100-point, liberal-to-conservative scale.  Not surprisingly, liberals thought Jesus was much more liberal than conservatives did. On average, liberals placed themselves at 20.75 points on the scale and placed Jesus at 26.98 points, while conservatives placed themselves at 77.09 points and placed Jesus at 72.82 points.

On the other hand, both liberals and conservatives thought Jesus would be more politically liberal on issues like welfare and more conservative on social issues such as gay marriage. While liberals’ and conservatives’ beliefs about where Jesus would stand on raising taxes on the wealthy differed by 42.6 points, both viewed their own positions as less liberal than those they attributed to Jesus by roughly five points. Likewise, survey participants viewed themselves as more conservative on treatment of illegal immigrants and more liberal than Jesus on abortion or gay marriage. 

So do our political views come from our perceptions of Jesus, or is it the other way around, and what might the answer mean? The authors are careful not to say: since the data come from a survey, it’s impossible to say what caused what. Instead, they argue, the causality goes both ways — a bit of a cop out, but probably an appropriate one.