Does analytical thinking erode religious belief?

I have some secrets for you; feel free to tell everyone. Psychopaths have distinct brain types, just like lefties. Help with Bar Mitzvahs myelinationconversion of gray matter neurons to white matter neurons. Bragging makes us feel real good, that’s why Facebook is better than sex. If this concerns you, don’t worry, because the pharmaceutical industry will save the marriage. Shakespeare tickles the visual association cortex. Dopamine makes us do bad things, but meditation makes your brain faster. Bloody Mary (the appearance, not the drink) is probably a facial recognition Mistake. Babies are a a bit racist.

Like the zombies that populate our screens, Americans have a huge appetite for brains. Most of the stories above are only from the past month and represent only a small sample of the significant spread of neuroscience in the news cycle. Neuroscience can tell us who we are, how we can improve, and why others are acting strangely. In an increasingly complex world, brains somehow seem to refer to the one thing that all humans have in common.

Perhaps due to the high demand for information about the brain, media coverage of neuroscience is notoriously sketchy. In a recent article in the review neuronthe authors lament how popular neuroscience is used to “artificially emphasize differences between classes of people in ways that [are] symbolically superimposed and socially charged. In other words, brain research is often stretched and stretched to support existing stereotypes about race, gender, class, and religion. Neuroscience is new enough and our desire to know brain facts is strong enough that dubious claims about brain types circulate widely.

A trio of wacky experiences

Take, for example, the latest Neuroscience-of-Religion news item to make the rounds, this one claiming that critical thinking undermines religious belief. Based on two studies by The Journal of Experimental Psychology and Scienceit was picked up by Atlantic, The Huffington Postand (unsurprisingly)

In the American Scientist article that activated the echo chamber, Daisy Grewal asserts that we have two different ways of thinking: intuitive thinking, which relies on shortcuts, rules of thumb and common sense ideas; and analytic thought, which challenges our quick intuitions, but which is much slower and more energy-intensive. According to some “smart techniques,” says Grewal, psychologists have examined whether analytical thinking “leads people away from belief in God and religion.” Presumably, belief in God here represents intuitive thinking, and sober scientific analysis represents the energy-consuming act of systematically questioning one’s beliefs.

Three clever experiments allegedly indicate that critical thinking undermines religious belief, though the experiments range from dubious to downright far-fetched. In the first experiment, participants viewed images of artwork that were either “neutral” (eg Myron’s Discobulus, right) or associated with reflective thought (eg “The Thinker”). Participants then completed a survey about their religiosity, and those who saw “reflective” artwork reported lower religious beliefs.

The second experiment was a bit more subtle:

Participants were given randomly arranged sets of five words (e.g. “high winds, the plane is flying”) and were asked to drop one word and rearrange the others to create a more meaningful sentence (e.g. “the plane is flying high”). Some of their participants were given scrambled sentences containing words associated with analytical thinking (e.g. “analyze”, “reason”) and other participants were given sentences containing neutral words (e.g. “hammer”, “shoes “). After deciphering the sentences, participants completed a questionnaire about their religious beliefs. In both studies, this subtle reminder of analytical thinking caused participants to express less belief in God and religion. The researchers found no relationship between participants’ prior religious beliefs and their performance in the study. Analytical thinking has reduced religious belief, no matter how religious people were to begin with.

In a third experiment, psychologists asked participants to complete a survey measuring their religious beliefs that was printed in an easy or difficult-to-prepare font, as previous research has indicated that difficult fonts promote analytical thinking. Respondents who completed the hard-to-read font expressed less belief than those who completed the same survey in an easy-to-read font.

Grewal’s assertion is that the act of analytical thought corrodes religious belief, so the blurring of sentences or even being reminded thinking causes people to become less religious. Yet there are two fundamental problems with this science story, and they will take us from St. Thomas Aquinas to Canadian undergraduates.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, atheist

The first problem is the assumption that religious and non-religious beliefs can fit neatly into two cognitive boxes, where “intuitive thinking” is religious and “analytical thinking” is rational and secular. Even though there are two distinct cognitive operations, it is not clear that the rich and diverse mental lives of religious and non-religious people will align with these two styles of thinking. “Intuitive thinking,” characterized by mental shortcuts and rules of thumb, is a fundamental part of human cognitive life, regardless of religious beliefs. Every day, the world around us changes: the appearances of those around us change slightly; the path to work loses and gains landmarks; the market offers a new range of foods and changing prices. “Intuitive thinking” is about grouping these minor differences into stable wholes so that we don’t lose sight of, say, our car when it’s covered in pollen.

Similarly, “analytical thinking” is a powerful cognitive tool that can be applied in a variety of contexts, from questioning our assumptions about a political candidate to analyzing a text, a TV show or a conversation. These generalized thinking styles can also apply to religious belief or disbelief. Religious believers and non-believers alike fall into quick and frugal “rules of thumb” about the world, and both engage in analytical thinking about texts, ideas, relationships, and objects. To see beyond Grewal’s contrived division between ‘intuition/religion’ and ‘analysis/non-belief’, one need only look at Christian theology, which involves deeply analytical and critical ways of thinking, but which is more or less less associated with religious thinkers. If Grewal’s binary were correct, in other words, St. Thomas Aquinas should have been an atheist!

The second problem concerns the serious methodological flaws of the experiments cited by Grewal: they are based on surveys, where isolated groups of people are asked to self-declare their religious beliefs. People are notoriously hard to pin down on questions of belief – for many, religiosity is a private and shifting dimension of identity, so much so that answers to questions about religion are likely to be influenced by setting and the questioner at hand.

If these “clever” experiments tell a common story, it is not about critical thinking and belief, but about the population that was surveyed. According to Science According to the paper Grewal cites, these experiments were based primarily on surveys of Canadian undergraduate students, a population that one would expect to be somewhat malleable about religion. It should come as no surprise, then, that undergraduate students confronted with “The Thinker” or a puzzle loaded with the words “analyze” and “reason” report less religiosity; it would be much the same as someone downplaying religious belief in a conversation with an agnostic scientist.

To heed the recent call to be careful about how we inflate and extend neuroscientific findings, we should all try to be a little more like St. Thomas Aquinas and use “analytical” thinking to analyze claims. like that of Grewal on religion. Where our intuitive impulse might be to align critical thinking with science and uncritical intuition with religion, the picture is actually much more complicated and interesting. Although it doesn’t take up many front pages, there’s still a fascinating headline to be found here: “Canadian Undergraduates, Asked to Do Analytical Exercises, Encouraged to Declare Their Religiosity Less.”

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