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What God Do You, or Don’t You, Believe In?

The God in Your Head is Not the Real God

This essay riffs off lecture 20, How the Brain Changes God, in Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg’s Great Courses lecture series The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience.


From the ages of 16 to 24, I was an obnoxiously outspoken, in-your-face atheist. I’d lost faith (or jettisoned belief because it became inconvenient, same thing) in the small town Methodism I’d been raised in. I spent my last two years of high school doing arrogant things like shouting “F*&k God!” in crowded classrooms (before the teacher arrived, of course), then pontificating to my teenaged peers that, since no bolt of lightning rained instantly down to incinerate me, clearly God must not exist.

Yeah, I was that big of a jerk.

It gets worse. In the weeks leading up to my first Christmas living on my own, at the age of 18, I discovered Jethro Tull’s Aqualung LP. Gracing the album’s back cover, over a picture of a homeless guy and his dog, was a tantalizing snippet of mock-scripture that began:

In the beginning Man created God; 
and in the image of Man 
created he him.

The rest was theistically doubtful, sure, but it was considerably more nuanced in meaning and humanist in tone than any mere atheistic, God-hating screed. At 18, however, all I got out of it was, “God is imaginary! Deal with it!” I brought the album to Kinko’s, copied the back cover onto a couple dozen sheets of shiny green paper, and sent it to everyone I knew as my Christmas card that year.

In declaring my atheism, I’d confused my personal imaginary picture of God, based more on Sunday school coloring pages than any kind of sober theological reflection, with the larger Supreme Being those simple tools attempted to describe, and who may or may not exist as a thing unto him/her/itself in the greater reality outside my head. I had deduced, correctly, that the childish “God” of my imagination could not possibly be real. But I had arrogantly, and incorrectly, assumed that meant no God outside my head could exist, either.

And I was damned and determined that the whole world should agree with me.

In his lecture How the Brain Changes God, Dr. Andrew Newberg points out that most religious believers do exactly the same thing. They also presume the personal imaginary picture of God in their brains to be an accurate portrayal of Divinity, and usually assume that everyone does, or at least should, agree with them about it. They embrace that image rather than reject it, but what is being embraced or rejected is the same.

What we embrace or reject is not God, but rather our necessarily limited and incomplete personal conceptions of God.

Which says exactly zero about the existence or non-existence of an actual Supreme Being outside our brains. Our beliefs (or unbeliefs) about God have no impact on God’s possible reality.

So yes, whenever human beings (even atheists) talk about God, they are discussing various imaginary constructs.

But no, that does not mean that God is imaginary.


A 2008 Baylor University study of religious belief in America revealed that most Americans who say they believe in God picture him in one of four primary ways:

Type A: Authoritarian God: Individuals who believe in the Authoritarian God tend to think that God is highly involved in their daily lives and world affairs. They tend to believe that God helps them in their decision-making and is also responsible for global events such as economic upturns or tsunamis. They also tend to feel that God is quite angry and is capable of meting out punishment to those who are unfaithful or ungodly.

Type B: Benevolent God: Like believers in the Authoritarian God, believers in a Benevolent God tend to think that God is very active in our daily lives. But these individuals are less likely to believe that God is angry and acts in wrathful ways. Instead, the Benevolent God is mainly a force of positive influence in the world and is less willing to condemn or punish individuals.

Type C: Critical God: Believers in a Critical God feel that God really does not interact with the world. Nevertheless, God still observes the world and views the current state of the world unfavorably. These individuals feel that God’s displeasure will be felt in another life and that divine justice may not be of this world.

Type D: Distant God: Believers in a Distant God think that God is not active in the world and not especially angry either. These individuals tend towards thinking about God as a cosmic force which set the laws of nature in motion. As such, God does not “do” things in the world and does not hold clear opinions about our activities or world events.

According to Dr. Newberg (I am waaay simplifying here), there are specific areas in our brains that process information in ways closely paralleling each of these God-views. He hypothesizes that how individuals imagine God will likely depend on which parts of their brains they use (and were probably taught in childhood to use) when thinking about God.

He suggests placing the four God-types from the Baylor study on an axis, with Authoritarian/Benevolent running one way, and Critical/Distant the other, and asking ourselves to what degree each attribute applies to the God we believe in. Our answers would allow us to locate almost everyone’s limited conception of God as a coordinate in one of the four quadrants.

Atheist may have their own conception of God they are rejecting, or they may simply reject everyone else’s ideations, but you can bet that whatever they are choosing to not believe in has a plot point on the graph (that is, it is a God-conception, and not actually God).

Dr. Newberg’s research has led him to posit a fifth God-type, the Mystic God, powered by the holistic function in our brains. The mystic image of God could be drawn on the graph as a circle connecting and enclosing the other four types.

Individual mystics may view God as embodying the sum total of all the points inside the circle, or as to be found only in the “ineffable” space outside the circle, or some combination thereof. But even here, what we are witnessing is less the brain solving the problem of how to correctly imagine God, than it is the mind’s chafing against the natural limits of human imagination.


Is there a Spirit — imminent, transcendent, or both — beyond our faulty conceptions of God that “causes us” to create imaginary versions of him/her/it? That draws our imaginations, the way a magnet draws steel?

Could that “imaginative draw” be a factor in our cognitive evolution toward experiencing, and eventually inhabiting, a larger reality?

I think the opening stanzas of the Tao Te Ching express this possibility better than any Western canon:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things

Thus, constantly free of desire
One observes its wonders
Constantly filled with desire
One observes its manifestations

These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders


1. Try reading “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao” as “Any God the human brain can imagine is too small to be the real God.” That’s my whole point in this essay.

2. But don’t let that convince you a real God does not exist. The limits of human imagination are not the limits of reality.

3. If we can agree that no human conception of God can be accurate or complete, we should also be able to agree that differences in our views are to be expected, and are not worth fighting over.

4. Believers and atheists are both wrong. Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders!

Thanks for reading!