Analytical thinking undermines religious belief

When reading statements from creationists, it’s always unclear why they accept the premise that the world is only 6000 years old, despite a huge amount of evidence that shows otherwise. Or why they cannot accept or just reject common descent of all organisms, including humans, through the powerful processes of evolution. Is it because biological evolution is so difficult to grasp? Or the evidence takes a certain amount of scientific knowledge? Or is it because it is impossible to comprehend the almost infinite number of changes in DNA that are required to evolve from a single cell organism to an ape? 

There may be a scientific answer to these questions.  In last week’s issue of Science, University of British Columbia psychologists Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan penned an article, Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief, which revealed some off the reasons why some individuals are more religious than others.  

Scientific interest in the cognitive underpinnings of religious belief has grown in recent years. However, to date, little experimental research has focused on the cognitive processes that may promote religious disbelief. The present studies apply a dual-process model of cognitive processing to this problem, testing the hypothesis that analytic processing promotes religious disbelief. Individual differences in the tendency to analytically override initially flawed intuitions in reasoning were associated with increased religious disbelief. Four additional experiments provided evidence of causation, as subtle manipulations known to trigger analytic processing also encouraged religious disbelief. Combined, these studies indicate that analytic processing is one factor (presumably among several) that promotes religious disbelief. Although these findings do not speak directly to conversations about the inherent rationality, value, or truth of religious beliefs, they illuminate one cognitive factor that may influence such discussions.

The LA Times review of the Science article, stated that less religious individuals “think more analytically, rather than going with their gut. And thinking analytically can cause religious belief to wane — for skeptics and true believers alike.” It also “indicates that belief may be a more malleable feature of the human psyche than those of strong faith may think.” In other words, faith isn’t as solid as has been advertised by religion.  

According to Gervais, there has been little scientific analysis of what causes the difference between religious belief and 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.”

Some researchers have theorized that the brain processes information using two systems. One system relies upon intuition (gut instinct) to arrive at a conclusion. This system is quick and requires little deliberation. Individuals do this all the time, like the example above regarding evolution.  There are just so many permutations of organisms, one’s gut instinct would lead one to assume that it’s impossible that we arrived here by random chance. It is the easier choice in some respects. On the other hand, the opposite thinking system is a deliberative analysis, using reason to arrive at an appropriate conclusion. This can be a rather slow process, which may lose the attention of those listening.

Normal thinking processes actually use both in parallel with one type overriding the other depending on the situation. While driving, you use all kinds of deliberate analysis to determine when to switch lanes, or when to move over to exit. But at other times, like avoiding an accident, your analysis has to be fast, usually relying upon an instinctive move.

So Gervais and Norenzayan tried to determine if analytical thinking would undermine religious belief which is presumed to be a result of intuitive thought. They asked students (presumably from the University of British Columbia) to test their hypothesis by asking the students to perform three thinking tests, each of which had an intuitive, but incorrect, answer and an analytical, but correct, answer.

For example, the researchers asked, “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?”

Think about it. What’s your answer? If you answered, “the ball costs $0.10,” then you used an intuitive answer, based on the simple math that the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, so the ball must cost 10 cents. Except for one problem. If the ball cost $0.10 and the bat costs $1.00 more (hence, $1.10), the total cost is really $1.20.  The analytical answer would be 5 cents for the ball, making the bat $1.05, for a total cost of $1.10, exactly as the total cost stated in the question.

If you want the math, if you assume that x=the price of the ball, and,

  • X+$1.00 is the price of the bat, then,
  • (X+$1.00)+X=$1.10 (the total cost of bat and ball)
  • The equation then resolves to 2X=$0.10, or $0.05 per ball. That took some work, though not that much.

Two additional questions were asked similar to this one. Then they were asked to rate a series of statements on belief, such as “in my life I feel the presence of the divine”, or “I just don’t understand religion.” Subjects who answered all three questions correctly, implying that they utilized their analytical skills, were significantly more likely to score lower on the belief scale. The authors concluded that “this result demonstrated that, at the level of individual differences, the tendency to analytically override intuitions in reasoning was associated with religious disbelief, supporting previous findings.”

Gervais and Norenzayan wanted to to further understand if analytical thinking was associated with a lower level of religious beliefs:

The first experiment randomly assigned subjects 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.

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 “analyze” 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.

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.

The authors make this overall conclusion from their results:

. . . the hypothesis that analytic processing—which empirically underlies all experimental manipulations—promotes religious disbelief explains all of these findings in a single framework that is well supported by existing theory regarding the cognitive foundations of religious belief and disbelief.

The conclusion certainly doesn’t leave much room for misunderstanding. The authors clearly state that the more analytical you are, the less religious you become. 

The authors hypothesize that people who think analytically may reflect upon their intuitive religious beliefs, and then rejecting it. The authors stress that analytical thinking may be just one of several processes that lead individuals to dismissing religious belief. We could speculate that it could be analytical skills, curiosity about the universe, and long years of science education that lead to disbelief. Or it could be a combination of many factors. The authors also don’t discuss the merits or values of the two types of thinking, where one might be “better” than the other.

There’s no doubt that this study will be used by atheists to “prove” that rational thinking leads one away from religion. A simple google search of this study will give you hits from almost every English-speaking atheist blog promoting this study.  nd there’s a similar number of religious blogs that are debunking the study.

The fact is that this study is an interesting first step into understand why people hang on to religious beliefs, despite the lack of evidence supporting it. The reliance upon “faith” as the reason for rejecting evidence may have its foundation in accepting intuition over analysis.

Just to be analytical, the bravery of these two psychologists to perform these experiments, then publish them, is amazing. Atheists may consider them heroes, and buy them a beer. Religious types tend to be a lot less tolerant. Religious hate mail is probably on its way to the University of British Columbia as you read this.

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!