Friday, April 27, 2012 by Tara Francis, Cosmos Online
CARDIFF: Thinking logically, or even just thinking about thinking logically, causes people to report higher levels of religious disbelief.
A study published this week in Science, established that people exercising analytical thinking were more likely to have religious disbelief. It also showed that this disbelief could be induced by priming participants with analytical images, words and tasks – showing for the first time that analytical thinking can cause religious disbelief.
"These results join a number of other findings in recent years demonstrating that people's religious beliefs are surprisingly malleable, both across time and across different situations," said Will Gervais from University of British Columbia, in Canada, who co-authored the study.
Gut instinct increases belief
Similar research from Harvard University recently looked at the flip side of the coin – how intuition predicts religious beliefs. Intuition - your immediate ‘gut instinct’ - is thought to work alongside analytical thinking, which is a much more deliberate and logical process. The researchers found that people who used their intuition on puzzles reported stronger beliefs in God, regardless of their upbringing or intellect.
Crucially, they also managed to show a causal relationship – individuals that wrote about a time they used their intuition, rather than those who wrote about a time of reasoning, were more likely to report a belief in God.
According to Gervais, however, focussing only on religious belief does not give us the full picture. "A comprehensive understanding of religion needs to also accommodate the hundreds of millions of nonbelievers in the world. If you want to take religion seriously, you need to study the factors that promote both belief and disbelief," said Gervais.
Look, play, think
To remedy this Gervais and his colleagues established a number of tasks that promoted analytical thinking, initially to establish a link and then see if there was a causal relationship with disbelief.
In the first experiment each person was given three puzzles where the intuitive and analytical answers differ. For example: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total, the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, so how much does the ball cost? The instinctive answer is 10 cents but the more analytical, correct answer is 5 cents. From these answers the prevalence of their intuitive or analytical thinking would be evident.
The next experiments primed individuals with analytical images, like The Thinker, and analytical words such as ‘think’ and ‘rational.’ After every task participants filled out forms about their religious beliefs but the last task was the most subtle. The only difference was some forms came in a hard-to-read font, a technique called ‘cognitive disfluency,’ where difficult tasks like this are also known to activate analytical thinking.
Font affects beliefs
In the first experiment, the ability of individuals to override intuition with analytical responses was associated with a tendency to religious disbelief and the remaining experiments showed analytical thinking could cause higher levels of disbelief in supernatural agents like God, angels and the devil.
"We predicted these effects, and had solid theoretical support for those predictions. But it was still surprising that, say, different fonts could influence what people told us about their personal spirituality," said Gervais.
Being analytical doesn’t make you an atheist
Gervais warns, however, that all the responses varied largely. Nonreligious participants were not all perfectly rational and religious participants were not incapable of thinking analytically. Each person uses both these systems but now we understand that analytical thinking is one factor that can promote religious disbelief that by overriding intuitive beliefs.
"It’s important not to interpret these findings as suggesting that "thinking analytically will make you an atheist". It’s not as simple as that," said Stuart Wilson a psychologist at
Queen Margaret University, in Scotland, who was not involved in this study. "What this study is essentially saying is that analytic thinking can dampen down the intuitive thinking system that sometimes acts as a fertile ground from which religious ideas can grow."
More research still needs to be done to understand why religious belief, and disbelief, can be held on to so strongly, as well as understanding how people change from one to the other.
"There’s still a long way to go before we understand all of these things, but studies like this one are, in my opinion, on the right track," said Wilson.