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Nearly all religious traditions describe God as both benevolent and authoritarian, and also in more abstract terms as infinite and transcendent. We propose that psychological needs influence the extent to which people emphasize these different attributes of God.

We focus on three types of psychological needs elicited in diverse social contexts: (1) self-protection needs elicited by physical and resource threats, (2) self-expansion in times of prosperity, and (3) self-transcendence from exposure to diversity in the domains of religion and science. We develop hypotheses about how these human needs influence the extent to which people perceive God as being authoritarian, benevolent, or transcendent. Representations of God are also posited to be moderated by individual differences (gender, agreeableness, and openness). We also propose that emphasizing various attributes of God impacts moral concerns and values.

Using a multi-method approach, we plan both individual and group levels of analyses. First, we will refine several methods for measuring these different dimensions of God representations. Second, we will investigate the extent to which social context and social learning (knowledge of science and religion) influence individual God representations. At the group level, we will examine whether broad social changes are related to aggregate shifts in God representations and values. Finally, we will experimentally test the causal directions of relations among the proposed variables.

The proposed research represents a more nuanced approach to the scientific study of religion and will be important across disciplines. We plan to publish in leading social science journals, and present at national and international conferences. Ultimately, our goal is to systematically examine how social contexts activate very basic psychological needs that interact with individual differences, leading to variation in representations of God, moral concerns, and values.