Losing your religion? Analytical thinking weakens religious belief
Most of the world’s population believe in God, or gods, but alongside them there are also hundreds of millions of non-believers. What makes us a believer or not?
Religious faith is probably a complex phenomenon, shaped by multiple aspects of psychology and culture, say the authors of a new study. But researchers, Ara Norenzayan and Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia in Canada, have shown in a series of smart studies that at least one factor seems to systematically decrease the strength of people’s religious beliefs: thought. analytic.
âReligion is such a great force in the world,â says Norenzayan, associate professor of psychology. âNot a day goes by without allegiances being made to God, but we know very little about it. We are trying to fill this gap in our knowledge.
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In one study, researchers correlated participants’ performance on an analytical thinking test with measures of their religious belief. The reflection task involved three problems requiring participants to analytically replace their initial intuition. For example, one question asked, “A bat and a ball cost $ 1.10 in total.” The bat costs $ 1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The immediate and intuitive answer is 10 cents. Those who take the time to find the correct answer (5 cents) are considered more analytical, and these people tend to score lower on measures of religious belief.
The team went on to conduct four more studies showing that when people are ready to think analytically, it weakens the strength of their religious belief. In one experiment, the researchers asked the participants to look at images of sculpture: either that of Rodin The Thinker, a well-known depiction of a deep thought, or other work of art from a discus thrower that matched The Thinker for color and posture. (In a previous essay, researchers confirmed that simply viewing Rodin’s work improved people’s performance in a syllogistic reasoning task.) The Thinker were also significantly less likely than the control group to say they believed in God.
In other trials, researchers initiated analytical thinking in more subtle ways – for example, asking people to make simple sentences out of words, which included either words related to thinking like to reflect on Where rational or control words like hammer and Brown. Another task asked people to rate their religious beliefs on a questionnaire presented in one of two fonts: a clear, easy-to-process font or an italicized font that made the text difficult to read (previous research has shown that presenting information in a hard-to-read format increases people’s ability to reason). Overall, participants who were prepared for rational thinking were less likely to express a religious belief. In addition, the researchers had measured religious belief in many participants several weeks before the analytical thought experiments and found no difference between the groups.
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The impact of reflection tasks was large, but relatively small. Reported Science Now:
âWe don’t turn people into atheists,â says Gervais. On the contrary, when the questionnaire responses of all subjects in an experiment are taken together, they indicate a slight shift from religious belief.
There are surely many factors at play here, but the researchers say their findings suggest that a person’s thinking style may be a crucial contributor to religious belief. Intuitive thinkers are more likely to be religious; analytical types, less. âOne explanation for belief is that it is based on a number of intuitions we have about the world around us. People don’t necessarily come to belief because they reason in it. Intuition helps us, âsays Norenzayan.
For example, the widespread belief that the mind and soul are separate from the body stems from intuition. âIt’s not based on logic or reason. That’s not why people find it convincing,â says Norenzayan.
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That’s not to say that one way of thinking is more valuable than another, just that the friction between intuitive and analytical thinking can help explain the origins of religious belief – or disbelief. âWe know that in human psychology there are two systems of thought. System one is intuitive; it’s fast and effortless. System two is analytical, and is more reasoned and thoughtful. Our study supports the idea that analytical thinking can lead people away from intuitive thinking, âsays Norenzayan.
The authors point out that their findings only scratch the surface of how religious belief develops. Faith is a complicated thing, influenced by culture and experience, says Norenzayan, like those who find religion in situations of fear or morality. âWe are not saying that analytical thinking turns people against religion. â¦ There’s a lot going on, âsays Norenzayan. âOur results also do not suggest that one form of thought is better than another. We think not. Both are important and both have costs and benefits.
The study was published Thursday in the journal Science.
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