Scientists have found why some folks are less religious than others. The researchers suggest that too much analytical thinking cause religious belief to wane for both sceptics and true believers.
The study, published in Friday's edition of the journal Science, indicates that belief may be a more malleable feature of the human psyche than those of strong faith may think.
According to lead author Will Gervais, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, there has been no study exploring the cognitive origins of belief as well as disbelief. “There's been a long-standing intellectual tradition of treating science as one thing and religion as separate, and never the twain shall meet,” he said. But in recent years, he added, there has been a push “to understand religion and why our species has the capacity for religion.”
Experiments have only recently begun exploring the specific underpinnings of religious belief, said researcher Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “When I became a professor about 10 years ago, I was surprised by how little experimental psychology had to say about religion - I grew up in Lebanon during the war, and I understood that religion was really important in people's lives,” Norenzayan said in an interview.
A theory suggests that brain processes information using two systems. The first relies on mental shortcuts by using intuitive responses - a gut instinct, to quickly arrive at a conclusion. The other employs deliberative analysis, which uses reason to arrive at a conclusion. Both systems are useful and can run in parallel, the theory goes. But when called upon, analytic thinking can override intuition. Studies suggest that religious beliefs are rooted in this intuitive processing, Gervais said.
To find out the connection his research team had college students perform three thinking tasks, each with an intuitive (incorrect) answer and an analytic (correct) answer. For example, students were asked this question: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The intuitive answer - 10 cents - would be wrong. A little math on the fly reveals that the correct answer would be 5 cents. The study included 650 American and Canadian individuals.
After answering three of these questions, the students were asked to rate a series of statements on belief, including, “In my life I feel the presence of the Divine,” and “I just don't understand religion.” Students who answered the three questions correctly — and presumably did a better job of engaging their analytical skills - were more likely to score lower on the belief scales.
To tease out whether analytic thinking was actually causing belief to decrease, the researchers performed a series of additional experiments. First, students were randomly assigned to look at images of Auguste Rodin's sculpture “The Thinker,” or of the ancient Greek statue of a discus thrower, Discobolus. Those who viewed “The Thinker” were prompted to think more analytically and expressed less belief in God - they scored an average of 41.42 on a 100-point scale, compared with an average of 61.55 for the group that viewed the discus thrower, according to the study.
Further two additional experiments used word games rather than images. In one case, participants were asked to arrange a series of words into a sentence. Some were given neutral words and others were presented with trigger words such as “think,” “reason” and “analyse” to prime them to think more analytically. And indeed, those who got the thinking words expressed less religiosity on a 10-to-70 scale: They ranked themselves at 34.39, on average, while those in the control group averaged 40.16.
Thereafter in the final experiment, students in the control group read text in a clear, legible font, while those in the other group were forced to squint at a font that was hard to read, a chore that has been shown to trigger analytic thinking. Sure enough, those who read the less legible font rated their belief in supernatural agents at 10.40 on a 3-to-21 scale, compared with 12.16 for those who read the clear font.
“It's very difficult to distinguish between what a person believes and what they say they believe,” said Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate at Princeton University who has done pioneering work on the contributions of intuitive and analytical thinking to human decision making. “All they have shown, and all that can be shown, is that when you're thinking more critically you reject statements that otherwise you would endorse,” Kahneman says. “It tells you that there are some religious beliefs people hold that if they were thinking more critically, they themselves would not endorse.”
Nicholas Epley, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago who was not involved in the study feels analytical thinking cannot shake belief. “There's an illusion that our brains are more static than they actually are,” he said. “We have fundamental beliefs and values that we hold, and those things seem sticky, constant. But it's easier to get movement on something fundamental.” As for whether this should alarm the layperson, Epley said, “Even deeply religious people will point out they have had moments of doubt,” he said.
The scientists expected plenty of misconceptions and public reaction over their research. “I'm bracing for a lot of hate mail,” Norenzayan said. They emphasized this work does not suggest that either analytical thinking or intuitive thinking is innately superior, because they promote either religious disbelief or belief. “All human beings have both systems of thinking - they both have costs and benefits in any given situation,” Norenzayan said.