This is our fifth and final installment on Psychology and Religion with Dr. Charles Hackney. Check out the previous articles in the series:
Moral Psychology and Smell
Psychology and the Book of Ecclesiastes
Questing Without Becoming a Spineless Wimpy Lily-Livered Milquetoast
Why Christians Shouldn’t Worry about the Neuropsychology of Religion
Our Spiritual Cognitions Go Up and Down, Up and Down, Up and Down:
by Charles Hackney
Today, we will be taking a cognitive approach to religion. Cognitive psychology is the study of the ways in which we process information. Recently, Brian Meier and colleagues used the tools of cognitive psychology to investigate the ways in which we process information about spiritual matters.*
God, being a spirit, cannot be directly perceived using our physical senses, so we are provided with symbols that convey something about God. For example, we shelter under God’s wings (Ruth 2:12; Psalm 17:8; Psalm 36:7; Psalm 57:1; Psalm 61:4; Psalm 63:7; Psalm 91:4), even though he does not literally have physical wings. The same goes for God’s arm (Isaiah 42:10), hand (Exodus 7:5), feet (Nahum 1:3), and nostrils (2 Samuel 22:16). God is also described in terms of light (2 Samuel 22:29), fire (Deuteronomy 4:24), lightning (Psalm 29:7), and the sun (Psalm 84:11). These things tell us about God, revealing a piece of truth in terms that we can understand.
The symbols Meier and colleagues investigated involve vertical space. In a series of experiments, they tested the idea that people will automatically associate the divine with highness.
In the first experiment, the researchers found that participants processed words associated with God (like “creator” and almighty”) faster if they were paired with words associated with the concept of “up” (like “high” and “above”), and they process words associated with the Devil (like “demon” and “Satan”) faster if they were paired with words associated with the concept of “down” (like “bottom” and “descend”).
In the second experiment, participants processed words associated with God faster if those words were placed higher on a computer screen, and they processed words associated with the Devil faster if those words were placed lower on the screen.
In the third experiment, participants were shown pictures, and later asked to remember where those pictures had been on the computer screen. There was a tendency for participants to recall God-related images as having been higher on the screen than they actually had been, and to recall Devil-related images as having been lower on the screen than they actually had been.
In the fourth experiment, participants were asked to look at pictures of strangers and guess whether or not those strangers believed in God. The higher on the computer screen the pictures were, the more likely people were to guess that the stranger was a believer.
Taken together, the results of these experiments show that people tend to make automatic connections between God and being “up.” I have seen this in my own ways of approaching God. Even though I know (at an intellectual level) that God is not actually located above my head (especially given our existence on a spherical planet), I am more likely to raise my head when I pray than to point my head toward the lower left corner of the room. If I feel humbled, I am more likely to lower my eyes than to raise them or shift them off to the side.
In the Bible, we also see God being given an elevated location. Moses went up Mount Sinai to meet with God (Exodus 19). Psalms 120 through 134 are the Psalms of Ascent, sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem. The author of Psalm 144 asks God to “reach down your hand from on high” to rescue him. Jesus was lifted up in the same way that the bronze serpent was lifted up (John 3:14). After the resurrection, Jesus was “taken up” into the sky (Acts 1:9).
Why this powerful connection between God and height? Why does scripture describe God as being “up,” when technically God is equally accessible in all directions?
I guess it’s the psychologist in me, but my first thought is to go to the power of early childhood experiences. We come into the world, surrounded by people on whom we are utterly dependent. These people are tremendously stronger than we are, considerably more knowledgeable, able to accomplish feats that are beyond our comprehension, and yes, very much taller than we are. This may be one reason why parental language is also prominent in the Bible’s descriptions of God. Our early lives are spent “looking up” at these powerful caregivers, so when we think of God, we automatically “think up” at him.
Thank you for joining us in this series on the psychology of religion.
*Meier, B. P., Hauser, D. J., Robinson, M. D., Friesen, C. K., Schjeldahl, K. (2007). What’s “up” with God? Vertical space as a representation of the divine. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 699-710.
Chuck is Associate Professor of Psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary and author of Martial Virtues. Originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, Chuck has been living in Canada since 2003. He is married to a beautiful Canadian woman, me!