A University of British Columbia study just released “finds that analytic thinking can decrease religious belief, even in devout believers”:
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.”
This is interesting to me because I had the exact opposite experience—it was only when I started thinking analytically about religion that I became convinced Christianity is true.
My first thought when I read the opening of this article was, “I guess it depends on what information is available for you to analyze!” If an analytical person has only heard rational arguments against religion, but never for religion, it would be no surprise if he were to be less religious. But after reading how the study was conducted (as explained in the excerpt above), I think it might show something else. And sadly, it would make sense in our culture today.
I say this because it seems the participants in this study weren’t given any information about religion to analyze—no arguments for or against religion (or anything else). Rather, the researchers were merely trying to activate the areas of the brain associated with analytic thought.
So now imagine you’re an average religious person who has been taught not to think about religious matters, but only to feel them; not to analyze religious claims to determine what is true, but to consider them nothing more than personal preferences.
If you’ve walled off your religious ideas from your analytic thinking, is it any surprise that when you’re focused on the grandeur of analytic thinking (e.g., looking at The Thinker*), or activating the analytical parts of your brain, that you would be drawn away from your purely-feelings-based religious ideas? If you “undermine [a person’s] ‘intuitive’ support for religious belief,” and there is no accompanying analytic support present in that person’s mind, then of course belief will go down.
But does this happen because of the very nature of religious thought, or is this merely a cultural problem? Consider this: It was serious thinking that led Aristotle to believe in a First Cause. In his mind, deep, analytic thought was not disconnected from ideas about immaterial things. So activating the analytical parts of Aristotle’s brain would most certainly not have caused him to believe less in his idea of a First Cause. And he, of course, is only one example.
So just at first glance, this study might only reveal how people currently view religion—whether they subjectively associate religion with analytic or intuitive thinking, whether they’ve ever thought about religion analytically before. And what it finds, unsurprisingly, is the current cultural practice of thinking of religion as being in a separate category from reason.
The bottom line is, it's not the case that all religious ideas are by nature tied to intuitive thinking at the expense of analytic thinking (the researchers probably wouldn't deny that). Thinking they are is a culturally created phenomenon.
But in saying that, I don’t want to fall into the related cultural trap of conceding that one can’t reason about the kinds of things that activate the intuitive side of the brain—things like meaning and purpose, according to the researchers:
Analytic thinking undermines belief because, as cognitive psychologists have shown, it can override intuition. And we know from past research that religious beliefs—such as the idea that objects and events don't simply exist but have a purpose—are rooted in intuition. "Analytic processing inhibits these intuitions, which in turn discourages religious belief," Norenzayan explains.
But the question is, are we more or less reasonable when our intuition is inhibited? The former is often assumed (the researchers suggest this, citing how intuitive thinking led participants to incorrect answers when it was used in matters like math, where I agree it ought not be applied), but I don’t think it’s justified overall since we actually need intuitive thinking in order to apprehend certain truths about reality. I can’t give you a syllogism proving love, justice, or goodness, but that doesn’t mean they’re irrational subjects about which we can’t reason once they've been apprehended. On the contrary, to deny their existence and not include them in our thinking about reality would be to have a less reasonable understanding of what is true.
So if a person is having one type of thinking inhibited in favor of another, we can’t assume that person is acting more reasonably—not if the inhibited thinking is the correct way to perceive certain truths. In other words, the reduction of a person's ability to engage in intuitive thinking doesn't necessarily mean he's thinking more clearly about what's true in this world.
I'd be interested in hearing if these types of experiments inhibited other true apprehensions of reality that depend on intuitive thinking. For example, would activating analytic thinking cause people to have a more difficult time correctly reading social cues? Would thinking about social relationships and engaging in tasks that focus on reading body language cause a temporary lowering of their ability to solve logic puzzles? Just as such things wouldn't prove that a person who perceives social cues is a bad thinker, neither do these experiments prove that those who perceive truths about religion are bad thinkers.
Granted, these comments are based on the news reports, not the study (I only have access to the abstract at this time), and I don’t know what conclusions the researchers will draw, if any. But you’re bound to hear someone draw unwarranted conclusions about the reasonableness of religion based on this study (I already have), so these are just a few things to keep in mind as more of the details come out and we're able to think through them.
*I’m not sure why looking at the Rodin sculpture causes analytic thinking. It seems to me it’s more likely to merely create a desire in the participant both to join in with the beauty and prestige of what’s being portrayed and to likewise be thought of as a thinker. This, of course, would cause the participant to give answers that would put him into what he perceives to be the scholar’s corner (that is, what our culture has taught him is the scholar’s corner, not necessarily where analytic thinking actually leads). And currently, that corner is a scientism that rejects religion. This would end up measuring cultural perception more than anything else.