says lead author Will Gervais, a PhD student in UBC’s Dept. of Psychology via Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief: UBC study « UBC Public Affairs, pdf1, pdf2
- Researchers used problem-solving tasks and subtle experimental priming – including showing participants Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker or asking participants to complete questionnaires in hard-to-read fonts – to successfully produce “analytic” thinking. The researchers, who assessed participants’ belief levels using a variety of self-reported measures, found that religious belief decreased when participants engaged in analytic tasks, compared to participants who engaged in tasks that did not involve analytic thinking.
- The findings, Gervais says, are based on a longstanding human psychology model of two distinct, but related cognitive systems to process information: an “intuitive” system that relies on mental shortcuts to yield fast and efficient responses, and a more “analytic” system that yields more deliberate, reasoned responses.
- “Our study builds on previous research that links religious beliefs to ‘intuitive’ thinking,” says study co-author and Associate Prof. Ara Norenzayan, UBC Dept. of Psychology. “Our findings suggest that activating the ‘analytic’ cognitive system in the brain can undermine the ‘intuitive’ support for religious belief, at least temporarily.”
- Although subjects’ levels of commitment to their religious beliefs generally went down after the analytical part of their minds kicked into gear, Gervais said that doesn’t prove religion is irrational. To support this last point, Gervais cited the Danish existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who encouraged people to use their rational minds in shaping their spiritual convictions. Kierkegaard also suggested, in the midst of analytical thinking, people often need to take “a leap of faith” to experience the universe’s deeper transcendent mysteries. Most people don’t recognize there is a key difference between the “irrational” and the “non-rational,” Kierkegaard taught. The “irrational” describes that which is illogical and unreason-able. The “non-rational,” on the other hand, refers to intuition; the sphere of the imagination, emotions and the arts. (via vs)
Gervais and Norenzayan also want to stress that heightened analytical thinking is not the only thing that might decrease a person’s spirituality.
- Three other factors come into play. One is that certain people may have “deficits in the intuitive cognitive processes” that allow humans to grasp spiritual concepts.
- A second reason some people are not religious is they may live in strongly secular cultures, such as Canada and parts of Europe, which generally “lack cues” that support spirituality.
- A third reason is they may reside in societies “that effectively guarantee the existential security of their citizens.” To bolster this final point, the authors refer to Phil Zuckerman, author of Society Without God, who has written about low levels of religious belief in Scandinavian countries with generous social-welfare programs.
In the past, they’ve shown how early exposure to death makes people more religious, how atheist countries operate at higher levels of mutual trust than religious societies and how religious people tend to be more generous.
They are also not finished trying, as Gervais said this week, to discover why humans appear to be the only species who are religious.
Without arguing that either religiosity or atheism are superior, the two will soon publish another paper on experiments that reveal people who are adept at “reading the minds of others” are more inclined to be religious.
People who can psychologically intuit what another per-son might be feeling, Gervais theorizes, seem to be inclined to do the same in regard to what they consider a personal transcendent reality.