Science on Religion

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Does analytical thinking disprove religion?

LightbulbReligious believers often speak about their faith “springing from the heart” rather than arising from the cool application of the intellect. New research – which has made quite a splash in the media – supports this model of religious belief by showing that analytical thinking actually works to decrease acceptance of God, the afterlife, and other religious concepts. Does this mean that religious belief is a symptom of an underperforming intellect? Things probably aren’t that simple. A large body of separate research demonstrates that analytical thinking isn’t always the best strategy for all situations.

Contemporary theories of cognition postulate that there are two basic systems for making decisions and processing information. Type 1 processing is intuitive, rapid, integrative, and runs on unquestioned assumptions. These base assumptions provide a cognitive toolkit we use to make decisions quickly or to assimilate a large amount of data rapidly and come up with an action plan in response. Type 2 processing is more analytical. In Type 2 processing, cognition slows down, becomes more careful, and questions assumptions. This kind of decision making is best for making careful calculations, reading texts in foreign languages, and performing well in other situations that require a lot of precise attention to detail.

Two recent articles in major scientific journals have gained widespread attention for examining the relationship of cognitive processing styles to religious belief. The first paper, authored by psychologist Gordon Pennycook and colleagues of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and published in the journal Cognition, explored the connection between overall analytical thinking abilities and religious and paranormal beliefs. The researchers tested analytical thinking skills by having participants complete a short test featuring reasoning problems in which an immediate answer was obvious, but incorrect. An example is, “A bat and ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

The immediately intuitive answer, of course, is that the ball cost ten cents, and indeed that’s what many people answer. But some quick analytical reasoning shows that this is the wrong response – if the ball costs ten cents and the bat costs $1.00 more, then the bat must cost $1.10, making the combined cost of the two $1.20. The correct answer is that the ball costs five cents. People who rely more on intuitive thinking tend to answer these questions incorrectly, because they’re inclined to go with their gut-level responses. More analytical thinkers question those gut instincts and actually do the math, with the result being that this and similar questions can reliably distinguish intuitive from analytical thinkers.

As expected, survey participants who tested poorly on the analytical thinking questions tended to show higher levels of belief in God, heaven, and other supernatural concepts. They also expressed more belief in paranormal claims like ESP, spiritual healing, and ghosts. Analytical thinkers, by contrast, showed more skepticism of both supernatural and paranormal claims.

In agreement with results from other studies, general cognitive ability was also negatively correlated with religious belief. However, analytical thinking did a much better job of predicting religious disbelief than overall cognitive ability, and when overall intelligence was controlled for, analytical thinking still was negatively associated with belief in religious concepts. This meant that it was mostly cognitive style, not not cognitive ability, that led people to question spiritual or paranormal claims.

What’s more, Pennycook and the other authors found that women were significantly less likely to perform well on the analytical reasoning test than men, backing up previous research that had found that men were more prone to analytical thinking – even if it led them to the wrong results.  Since women also reported higher levels of religious belief than men, the authors suggested that greater reliance on intuitive thinking may be part of the reason women tend to show higher levels of religious faith across cultures.

The second – and much more well-publicized – study was published in Science magazine and authored by University of British Columbia psychologists Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan. Gervais and Norenzayan, aware of previous research like Pennycook’s that showed a general correlation between analytical thinking and religious disbelief, wanted to discover whether there could also be a causal relationship. So they designed five ingenious studies to probe whether increasing people’s analytical thinking abilities would also decrease their religious commitments.

The first study simply tested for overall analytical ability (using the same test as described above) versus religious belief, much like the study by Pennycook and colleagues. As expected, higher levels of analytical reasoning ability significantly correlated with religious disbelief.

Things got a bit more interesting with the ensuing studies. Volunteers were randomly sorted into two groups; the first group was shown an image of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker, while the control group was shown an image of a discus thrower. The authors hypothesized that viewing Rodin’s creation would subconsciously prime participants to think more critically and analytically, and that they would therefore both perform better on the analytical reasoning task and report lower levels of religious belief than the control group members. This is, indeed, exactly what happened – members of the Rodin group scored higher on the analytical thinking task and showed less commitment to religious precepts than their peers.

The third and fourth studies both used word-choice priming to establish the same effect. All participants were asked to make sentences out of groups of random words. The control group was shown neutral words like “brown” and “jump,” while the experimental group had to make sentences out of words like “analyze,” “reason,” and “rational.” Again, the experimental group outperformed the controls on the subsequent analytical reasoning test and expressed less belief in religious concepts. (The two studies differed in that Study 4 included more participants from across the U.S. and from different ethnic and class backgrounds; the results held even for this more diverse sample.)

Finally, the fifth study primed participants to think analytically by providing them with surveys printed in either easy-to-read or difficult fonts. The group that was given a difficult typeface had to expend more cognitive energy and focus harder to make sense of the words, triggering their analytical, Type 2 processes. This group then went on to perform better on the reasoning test and, again, showed less confidence in religious beliefs.

So why would analytical reasoning actually decrease religious and spiritual beliefs in the space of minutes? Gervais and Norenzayan hypothesized that religious beliefs are partially the products of cognitive defaults, including the tendency to over-perceive order, patterns, and purpose in the world. Numerous researchers in the cognitive science of religion have argued that these inbuilt biases form the basis for religious belief, and Gervais and Norenzayan suggested that, therefore, religious concepts are cognitively natural – that is, intuitive – for human beings. Only when analytical thinking is triggered do people begin to question intuitive assumptions, leading to a decrease in religious belief.

However, it’s important to note that we’re not talking about a switch from full-on theism to out-and-out atheism here. The effect sizes for Gervais and Norenzayan’s study were relatively small; analytical thinking decreased religious faith somewhat, but not to an extraordinary degree. Still, the connection between analytical reasoning and faith may be important for understanding greater patterns in the culture at large; in fact, the perceived conflict between science and religion may be at least partially due to the widespread influence of, and greater prestige accorded to, analytical thinking styles on and within society since the Enlightenment.

So is this lights out for religious folks? Do these studies prove once and for all that religious belief is a sham, a cognitive illusion that is quickly scared off by the cool light of analytical reason? Some people certainly think so. But there are several complicating factors that urge caution in that judgment.

First, analytical or Type 2 processing is not considered by most researchers to be innately superior to intuitive, or Type 1, thinking styles. Indeed, intuitive thought is more adaptive for many situations than analysis. Researchers at the University of Washington in 1991, for example, found that students who were urged to override their intuitive decisions with explicit analysis made poorer choices about which classes to take than their peers. And some very serious scientists argue that intuition and analysis are both vital for successful navigation of everyday problems, as well as for successful science. In short, analysis and intuition are both necessary, but for different circumstances. What’s maladaptive is using the improper strategy for a given situation.

What’s more, the research has been very clear that women do, indeed, rely more on intuitive thinking strategies than men – and thus perform more poorly on analytical thinking tests. This politically sensitive result has only two valid interpretations. The first is that women are cognitively inferior to men. But this claim has been debunked nearly everywhere it has been examined – women almost always perform equally to men in terms of raw cognitive ability. The second interpretation is that men and women rely to somewhat different extents on different cognitive strategies, and that both strategies have advantages and disadvantages depending on context. This distinction is important because, if commentators and writers are to interpret the results of the two studies detailed here to mean that we ought to dismiss religious claims because they appear to be the territory of intuition rather than analysis, they will be de facto valuing analytical reasoning over intuitive thinking. It will then be difficult to avoid the conclusion that women, being in general both more religious and more intuitive than men, are cognitively inferior to males. That is a conclusion atheist crusaders probably do not want to associate themselves with.

Instead, a more responsible assessment of these intriguing studies ought to conclude that religious beliefs do, indeed, appear to be supported more by intuitive than analytical thinking, but that this does not necessarily imply that they should be dismissed because of this. Analytical reasoning is possibly not the best mode with which to gauge the rationality of belief. Gervais and Norenzayan address this fact directly, reminding readers that their studies “are silent on long-standing debates about the intrinsic value or rationality of religious beliefs.”

Indeed, religious traditions across history and cultures have acknowledged that pure logical analysis is not always the best strategy to approach to understanding their claims. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, for example, an important Vedantic Hindu text, claims that

He who dwells in the intellect, but is separate from the intellect, whom the intellect does not know, whose body the intellect is, and who controls the intellect from within – he, the Self, is the Inner Ruler, the Immortal.

Scientists and scholars who study religion need to decide for themselves whether the type of perspective expressed in this Upanishad and countless other religious writings and philosophies is valid. If analytical thinking is indeed the proper mode with which to address religious questions, then religious claims must take a hit in credibility. If, as in life in general, multiple modes of cognition are admissible for attempting to make sense of the data of religion, then the situation may be more complex – and more friendly to religious claims.

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+1 #1 Crowhill 2012-07-05 08:51
If it is true that encouraging people to think analytically decreases religious belief, the obvious next step is to see if encouraging people to think intuitively increases religious belief.
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