Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Scientists who believe may have more unusual experiences

weird_scientistYou might expect professionals working in the hard sciences to be less religious than the rest of us, and to an extent you’d be right – the vast majority of elite scientists in the U.S. identify as nonbelievers. But rank-and-file scientists stack up a bit differently, with between 40% to 50% reporting belief in a personal God. A new study by James S. MacPherson and Steve W. Kelly (University of Strathclyde, Scotland) suggests that two personality traits may help faithful scientists reconcile their scientific and religious viewpoints: creativity and positive schizotypy.


MacPherson and Kelly argue that the pursuit of science depends on being committed to empiricism, which means that scientists aren’t usually the types to believe anything without good evidence. The authors’ assumption is that religious and scientific ways of knowing are basically at odds, competing for “explanatory space” in people’s minds. According to this model, the more committed one is to an empirical explanatory system, the less convincing religious explanations for various phenomena will seem to that person – and vice versa. Testing has backed up this hypothesis, with research subjects primed under one explanatory system finding the other less appealing.

But working scientists, roughly half of whom profess to believing in religious or spiritual entities, seem to challenge that model. And so a conundrum arises: how can someone who spends his or her working day dealing empirically with the world go to church on Sunday and believe things for which there is no evidence? MacPherson and Kelly draw on previous research to suggest that, in fact, such scientists do encounter evidence for their religious beliefs, often in the form of unusual experiences. Thus, strange as it might sound, scientists who believe in God may in fact have good reasons for doing so, at least according to their own experience and logic. Such experiences are associated with a personality trait known as schizotypy, which is also characterized by magical thinking, general nonconformity, and the propensity for dissociated, disorganized thinking. Positive schizotypy refers to an emphasis on the "positive" aspects of this trait, such as subjectively pleasant "flow" states and absoprtion in creative work. Schizotypy is also correlated with creativity – a trait that scientists tend to have in more abundance than the general population.

Importantly, schizotypy isn't schizophrenia – the latter is a serious psychological disorder that causes patients to suffer from hallucinations and psychotic breaks, while schizotypy is a personality trait that may often be highly adaptive. However, both schizotypy and schizophrenia feature highly imaginative states and dissociative experiences. It's perhaps best to think about schizotypy and schizophrenia as existing far down the line from each other on a continuum; in this sense, schizophrenia might be thought of as the extreme version of schizotypy.

Since scientists have been trained to encounter the world empirically, experiential evidence would presumably be more important for their faith than it would be for the religious convictions of a scientific layperson. Hypothesizing that scientists with high schizotypy and creativity scores would be more likely to be religious, MacPherson and Kelly surveyed more than 220 working scientists and 190 nonscientist control respondents to determine the connections between schizotypy, creativity, and religious belief. Their international sample ran the gamut from biologists to physicists and psychologists, ensuring that they had a well-rounded representation of scientists in different fields. The authors also hypothesized that the nonscientists would show little to no connection between schizotypy and religious belief.

The study’s results upheld both of the authors’ hypotheses, showing that religious scientists were much more likely to score highly on measures of schizotypy and creativity than their unbelieving peers. Among scientists, the effect of creativity on religiosity was partially mediated by schizotypy, but not entirely. In other words, both schizotypy and creativity had strong positive effects on scientists’ levels of religious belief – but not on the beliefs of laypeople. In fact, neither schizotypy nor creativity predicted religiosity among laypersons at all.

These results led MacPherson and Kelly to the conclusion that, since someone with a creative, schizotypal personality is more likely to have unusual sensory experiences such as seeing shapes in shadows or feeling an invisible presence in a room, scientists who have such experiences may be much more likely to think of them as evidence for religious or spiritual entities. Since scientists are trained to rely on evidence for their beliefs, this neatly parses the difference between many believing and non-believing scientists: one group tends to have unusual experiences that lend credibility to religious ideas, while the other, for good or ill, doesn’t.

MacPherson and Kelly went one step further and suggested that schizotypy is associated with a concept known as “transliminality,” in which sensory and cognitive data become intertwined. In persons with high transliminality, these data pass easily over the borders of conscious awareness and unconscious automatic processing, leading to more associative, intuitive modes of thinking. This type of cognitive style may lead to more insightful and creative solutions to scientific problems, but it also means that data from one part of the brain might unexpectedly pop into awareness in another – leading to the types of odd sensory experiences associated with schizotypy.

The portrait of believing scientists that emerges from MacPherson and Kelly’s study is a fascinating one: more creative and, perhaps, more intuitive than their peers, such scientists may be prone to seeing connections between seemingly disparate concepts. At the same time, their cognitive style may make them more likely to have the kinds of unusual, even bizarre, sensory and emotional experiences that have been recorded in the annals of mystics and religious seekers for millennia. What’s more, it seems that many of them are interpreting those experiences in exactly the same way that the great religious writers have before them – as signs, tangible and credible, of a spiritual dimension to reality. While this doesn't necessarily mean that these scientists should be taken at their word regarding spiritual matters, it does imply that the conflict between scientific and religious ways of thinking could be rooted as firmly in the personality styles of individual scientists as it is in the logical arguments they wield.

Click here for MacPherson and Kelly's article, "Creativity and positive schizotypy infuence the conflict between science and religion," in Personality and Individual Differences.

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