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Natural history of the present

Analytic thinking erodes religious belief

Contemplating Rodin’s The Thinker affects religious belief. Mike_fj40 on Flickr

“Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence; it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines. – Bertrand Russell”

Few subjects generate as much friction among scientists as science’s relation to religious belief. Many scientists take a position like Bertrand Russell’s. It’s a position that believers feel insults their intelligence. And between devout faith and atheistic scientism one can discern an infinite number of more conciliatory positions.

One comforting position is the idea that science and religion are such different domains that they need never impinge on one another’s territory. In Stephen Jay Gould’s words they are “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). It is a position taken by many scientists who also hold religious beliefs, or simply “believe in belief” as Daniel Dennett predicts many closet unbelievers do.

Conciliatory ideas like NOMA allow everybody to carry on with business as usual: nobody calls anybody “stupid” and nobody gets burned at the stake. So science and religion can potter away in their distinct boxes, minding their own business.

At the heart of Bertrand Russell’s quote, though, is a prediction. That religion will decline – if not entirely wither - in societies where reason and science enjoy prominence. That prediction turns out to be correct. Religious belief has slowly dwindled since the Enlightenment. Leading scientists are far more likely than the general public to identify as agnostic or atheist. They are, unsurprisingly, also much more likely to accept scientific accounts of the world, including the idea of evolution by natural selection.

And although there is considerable disagreement about whether education kills religious faith, people’s chances of identifying as religious believers declines with scientifically education and education in rational thinking.

Some of the most exciting progress in this sphere comes from authors who examine religion as a natural phenomenon. My favourite book on the subject is Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, although Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct and Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain are almost equally excellent. By examining the evolved underpinnings of religious belief, scientists are beginning to understand what compels so many people to believe.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a paper by Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan who showed experimentally that merely reminding believers of the effectiveness of the police can lessen their distrust of atheists. Today, I see the same authors have a paper in Science entitled “Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief”.

In a series of five studies they explored the links between thinking analytically – as opposed to thinking intuitively – and religious belief. They first showed that people who are good at solving analytic problems and resisting the intuitive answer to questions are also less likely to be religious, to believe in the existence of supernatural agents such as God, the devil and angels, and less likely to think intuitively about religion.

They then manipulated cues that merely suggest the use of analytic processing by priming them with:

  • artistic works that either do or do not evoke the act of thinking (Rodin’s The Thinker versus Discobolus of Myron),
  • a verbal fluency task containing words about thinking or neutral words; or
  • presenting words in a difficult to read font – a prime known to activate analytic thinking – or an easier to read font.
Discobolus didn’t have the same effect as Rodin’s Thinker. A connection between sport and faith? williamcromar on Flickr

Subtle as these primes are, when Gervais and Norenzayan then assessed their subjects using standard assays of belief in God or in supernatural agents, those primed with cues of analytic thinking believed less strongly.

It’s a small study, limited as always by the constraints on what experimenters can achieve, but it shows not only that there is a link between belief and analytic thinking but that stimulating people to think analytically can cause a drop in belief. Or in the authors’ words:

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.

As it becomes clearer that religion is, in some senses, the opposite of rational thinking, we may have to shed the comfort of “I’m okay, you’re okay” ideas, including NOMA. The most fervent anti-evolutionists in the USA understand this implicitly, and their obsession with homeschooling and opposing rational thought is their way of fighting for their beliefs. The most forceful atheists, too, understand this.

We probably can’t keep pottering away in our different sheds forever.

What are your thoughts on science - religion compatibility? Comment or tweet @Brooks_Rob

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