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.
Reading the Qur’an, going to mosques, listening to Islamic scholars – these all sound like the behaviors of a Muslim. But they also became the activities of 17 Christian high school students during a recent four-day trip. I called it the “Muslim Mission,” where believers were immersed in the world of Islam and engaged Muslims of all stripes.
Why do such a trip? Because training Christians to be prepared and confident enough to witness to both lay Muslims and scholars requires more than a clever article or intense lecture. It requires study, practice, and correction. In a word, it requires action. And that’s what the Muslim Mission provided.
Training began many months prior when I role-played a Muslim to a group of unsuspecting Christian students. That experience demonstrated their need to get educated. From there the students heard lectures and read books on Christian apologetics to Islam, including my book, The Ambassador’s Guide to Islam. But even after all that study, the students weren’t trained. They just knew a lot of stuff. Something else was needed. They needed to put into practice what they knew by engaging Muslims.
Fortunately, with several million Muslims living in the United States, it wasn’t necessary to fly to a distant country to do cross-cultural missions. All we had to do was drive to a major city. In our case, we took these Orange County students to Los Angeles. Once we found a few mosques, we knew communities of Muslims lived nearby.
We began the trip by meeting Persian converts from Islam to Christianity. They told us about their life as Muslims and how God intervened to bring them to the truth. This was an important first step, in my opinion, because there is a belief among some circles of people that Muslims don’t ever become Christians. Or at least it’s really, really difficult. So the students got to meet these converts, listen to their testimonies, and have dinner with them. This gave them the knowledge and confidence that Muslims do, in fact, come to Christ.
That helped prepare the students for the next day’s activity. We took them to a Muslim neighborhood to practice street evangelism. They had to find and meet Muslims and begin conversations about God, Jesus, and the Bible. This was their first chance to put their knowledge and conversational skills to the test. And the results were great. Students reported how easy it was to start talking to Muslims about religious issues. Since many of the Muslims were nominal, they didn’t offer sophisticated arguments for their views. But this built up the confidence of the students, something they needed for that evening.
That night we took them to a mosque at the Iranian American Muslim Association of North America. In addition to a tour of the facility, a Shi’ite Islamic scholar presented a lecture on the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity, especially those pertaining to Jesus. This was a step up in difficulty as the students were no longer talking to the average Muslim on the street. The scholar was a UCLA Islamic law professor who previously was an attorney for the Iranian parliament in Tehran. Despite his imposing credentials the students jumped right in and challenged him with good questions. After his presentation, the mosque served us dinner and the students got to sit with the scholar and other Muslims chat informally. It was a perfect combination of intellectual and relational engagement.
The following day the training and challenge grew more intense. We drove to a large Sunni mosque where two American girls shared their testimony of how and why they converted from Christianity to Islam. The girls in our group got to meet with them in a private room after their presentation and delve into a more personal discussion. They were very excited about the exchange.
But the bigger challenge was the Sunni Muslim speaker at the mosque. He was extremely aggressive and rhetorically sly. He attacked the reliability of the Bible, the Trinity, and the atonement. The students, however, didn’t stay quiet. They used what they learned to go toe to toe with him and his claims. It was a vigorous exchange.
It was these and other experiences that gave the believers the chance to practice their skills with real Muslims who really disagree with them. It also helped them build their confidence to engage Muslims in the future, wherever they meet them.
But the trip wasn’t merely an academic exercise. Within the first couple of days, the students’ hearts grew heavy for the Muslims. These diligent followers of Islam tried so hard to be good – to win Allah’s approval – but ultimately had no confidence they would enter heaven. You could tell from the students’ prayers that they longed for their Muslim friends to trust Christ for their salvation.
Now their desire to see Muslims accept Jesus was matched with the proper training to share His message effectively. Islam was no longer foreign to them. Mosques were no longer a mystery. But most importantly, Muslims were no longer strangers. These Christian students were now properly trained ambassadors for Christ to Muslims.
That’s the power of the Muslim Mission. It’s training for war. But the war is not against Muslims – they are hostages of the enemy. Our battle is against Satan, his army, and his lies. As Paul writes, our weapons “are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). It is the enemy, Satan, who has erected the stronghold of Islam. He has taken captive 20% of the world’s population. That’s why we can never forget that we are at war. The enemy is real. But we must train ambassadors to do the work of diplomacy for His kingdom.
If you’re interested in the Muslim Mission, it can be arranged near any major U.S. city. Contact Dawnielle Hodgman at Dawnielle@str.org for more information about booking a training experience like this.
A couple weeks ago, I linked to an interview with Dan Wallace on the basics of textual criticism. So now as an illustration, here’s Wallace with an example of how textual critics work through the internal clues in the text and external clues in the manuscripts (considering their dates, geographical distribution, genealogy, etc.) to determine which wording is likely the original reading. The basic principle is, “choose the reading that best explains the rise of the others.”
The variant in question in this video is a bit of poor grammar found in Revelation 1:4 that appears in some manuscripts. Is it original? The answer Wallace comes to sheds light on the whole book of Revelation:
You can also see how Wallace resolves the tension between the opposing internal and external evidence for the variant in Matthew 27:16-17, or watch the whole series of these videos on “The Basics of New Testament Textual Criticism” from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) on iTunes U.
On Saturday while at a conference in Seattle, I was waiting to do my next presentation when I received a text message from Melinda. It simply said, “Chuck Colson is in Heaven.”
After a few moments of deep, very mixed emotions of sadness and happiness, the first phrase that came to my mind was, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I texted that single line back.
Though I knew Chuck—we had worked together a number of times—we were really more colleagues on a first-name basis than friends. Even so, it was hard to be around him at all and not be influenced by him.
I first met Chuck in the early 90s when I was interviewed in D.C. as a potential writer for Breakpoint. I didn’t get the job, but I did have a brief audience with Chuck. Though he was entirely gracious and cordial, I was a bit tongue-tied, being in the presence of genuine greatness. And Chuck Colson was a great man, in all the important ways.
We had both become Christians the same year (1973), and when Born Again eventually came out I devoured it. It was a vivid testimony of the power of God to take a powerful and prideful man and transform him into a powerful and humble servant.
Around ten years ago I heard Chuck reflect that his years were numbered, so he resolved to redouble his efforts, dedicating his remaining time to do anything and everything he could to build the Kingdom of God. He didn’t want to waste a moment or squander an opportunity. He wanted to leave a legacy, not for his sake, but for Christ’s sake.
When Chuck fell critically ill, someone on our staff wondered who would replace him. I simply said, “No one.” I didn’t mean Chuck Colson was indispensable. Nobody in the Kingdom of God plays such a role. I simply meant he was utterly distinctive, making a singular contribution at a defining moment in history.
Chuck Colson was a man I looked up to. He was someone I learned from, not only from his books, but even more from the example of a life well-lived, a man laboring faithfully for Christ. I was instructed by his stature as a Christian statesman, and by his tireless, humble, service for the cause of Christ.
Chuck Colson didn’t just run the race well. He finished the race. May we each, by God’s grace, do as well as he, and hear—as he did—when we cross the line: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
It's with mixed feelings, truly, that I just read the news that Chuck Colson has passed away. It's a sad loss to the Body of Christ on earth, yet it's a joy to know this man has entered the presence of his Savior and is rejoicing seeing Him face to face. Colson's life is a tremendous example of the redemption God offers us through His Son. And his example of service is one of running the race well all the way to the end.
If you haven’t heard the story of how Corrie ten Boom and her family hid Jews from the Nazis in Haarlem, Holland and then suffered in concentration camps, I recommend her book, The Hiding Place, or this dramatized version of it.
But now you can also hear her story from the Corrie ten Boom Museum, which offers an online interactive tour of the Ten Boom home where you can explore 360° images of each room while listening to what happened there. Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, so it’s a perfect time to take the tour.
I’m endlessly fascinated by Corrie ten Boom and people like her who rejoice in God in the midst of the worst kind of suffering.
Fascinated by people who, like Paul, rejoice even while suffering, because the pain is less important than the fact that
Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death (emphasis mine).
And my fascination has been this: How did these people get there? So far, the answer I’ve been able to find seems to be a simple one—not complex, not advanced, and not beyond the capability of any of us who have been united with Christ. And here it is:
The Holy Spirit will transform us by His power—the very power that raised Christ from the dead—into people who see Christ as He is, and who therefore value Him and the spreading of the truth about Him above all comfort, through these means:
The very ordinary practices of reading, learning, meditating on, and memorizing the Bible; of praying consistently, intentionally and honestly, with repentance, humility, and dependence; and of being part of a local church where we can receive what we need from God through the other members of Christ’s body, the church, which is “being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part…for the building up of itself in love.”
Time. I don’t think we become these people overnight. God is writing a story in each of our lives in which our redemption will honor Him and His grace in front of the whole world. This is usually a long-term plan. He seems to teach and shape us through events in our lives, and events take time.
Practice. As we learn to value God more and more, and as we experience His faithfulness in situation after situation, we learn to trust Him to enable us and strengthen us in the future, freeing us to rejoice that our suffering will be used by Him for good.
Are you afraid to ask God to make you into one of these people? You probably should be. I’ve never once asked God to make me humble without suffering something painfully humbling soon after, so I can’t imagine this kind of prayer would be different. So yes, you might lose some things as an answer to this kind of prayer. But what if God, as part of His answer, also made you into someone who “count[s] all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus [our] Lord”?