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« The Muslim Mission | Main | Links Mentioned on the Show »

April 27, 2012


super interesting, thanks. also interesting that love, justice, etc. ARE irrational concepts given a naturalistic worldview (which the researchers likely hold). i agree that this study doesnt really prove the implied premise that we are more reasonable the farther away we get from intuitive beliefs.

Great article. I'm an atheist, but I found this to be an excellent piece and provided good perspective on a study which unfortunately will be blindly misused by some of my less level-headed counterparts to mock believers as irrational, even though the study in no way proves that.

Good post, and uber interesting.

Great piece! In reading the full article, it just made me laugh.. It seems to say that religious beliefs are some how only intuitive, situational, and cultural. I'm not sure how much more wrong they can be. I've had the same experience as you with my religious beliefs.

Well written and well said. Thanks.

Nothing very interesting about this study really.

This quote says it all

"91 people who rated their religious beliefs on a survey in a hard-to-read font, were more likely to report religious disbelief, than 91 subjects given the same questions in an easy-to-read font."

Doesn't really say much about religion, other than outlining a quirk of the brain that has been well known for decades.

They really should have done the same study using the other side of the coin.

e.g. they should have tried to "encourage spiritual thought."

If they had, my hunch is they would have also found something like this:

"91 people who rated their religious beliefs on a survey in a room with candles burning, were more likely to report religious belief, than 91 subjects given the same questions in an empty room."


"91 people who rated their religious beliefs on a survey after watching the 1990 film "Ghost," were more likely to report religious belief, than 91 subjects given the same questions and the film American Pie."


"91 people who rated their religious beliefs on a survey that was given to them whilst they were in the kneeling position, were more likely to report religious belief, than 91 subjects given the same questions on a table."


"91 people who rated their religious beliefs on a survey that was given to them in a room full of priests, were more likely to report religious belief, than 91 subjects given the same questions in an empty room."

Is there no end to the number of ways people can find to waste time, effort, and money through useless studies that prove nothing? Chalk it up to a market driven economy. As long as there is a market for it...

It's from a public university, so it was likely funded by government money. If researchers actually had to find people interested enough in their work to invest in it (i.e., if the free market were more involved), we would see more effort going toward research that people need.

But this is off topic, as you know, Louis. And I'm going to put the brakes on it in this thread. But you're welcome to take this conversation to one of the other posts that's discussing the free market right now.

Brandon, I really appreciate your comment and am glad to hear from an atheist on this. And thanks, everyone else, for your comments, as well.

Interestingly, I just looked up the researchers and found another study on "anti-atheist prejudice," so it does seem they might have a particular agenda they're trying to accomplish with this.

In the past I have seen reports about how atheists are discriminated against come from this school, only to look up the paper and find either the methodology was questionable or sample size was too small to be remotely significant.

I will reserve judgement until further study is done.

Good points about the fact that religious belief is also based on analytic thinking. The researchers would have to determine ahead of time whether a person's beliefs were based on intuitions or analytic thinking for these results to mean anything. Because if they are based on intuitions or feelings it is no wonder that introducing analytic thinking might cause them to question their beliefs. As Francis Bacon said "A little philosophy inclines a man toward atheism; but depth in philosophy brings men's minds about to religion." Seems like these researchers gave the subjects a little bit of analytic thinking. So Francis Bacon was correct.

I just watched a video of John Behr, an Orthodox theologian, who suggests that religion is a lot like math. In geometry, for example, theorems are derived from other things that can be proven, but also they are derived from postulates, which can't be proven, but must be assumed. In Aristotelean terms, those things are like "first principles," which are intuited, or assumed. Like God. If "God" wound up being a concept that could be proved, it wouldn't actually be God. We'd have to further regress, Anselm-like, to the initial principle, or postulate, that could be assumed to prove God's existence. The first and greatest thing that can be thought, then, is not so much a fuzzy, feel-good myth as a reality proved like all other realities: by reducing it to its postulate.

Few religious folks need to go through the exercise to "prove" the God they intuit. St. Thomas did as an intellectual exercise. And some, like John Behr, do it for the evangelization of intellectuals who believe analytic thinking is incompatible with religious belief.

Interesting article. Like you, I think that my own ability to reason has not diminsihed my faith in any way.

It is always easier to pick holes in another person's argument. Atheists love doing that but, in my experience, often fail to really examine the weakness of their own position using the same intellectual rigour.

Best wishes,

Will :)

Amy, I really enjoy your posts.

By the way, when I look at the Rodin sculpture, it creates a desire for two things: 1) to take a shower (that dude looks filthy), and 2) go to the bathroom.

Mathematical concepts are themselves a deliverance of intuition. They are first principles for calculation. So, it seems that we have here are competing intuitions.

What the authors are essentially doing is showing there may be a conflict between second order mental activities that rely on first order intuitions and other first order intuitions.

I've not read the study. Like Amy, all I could find was the abstract. So, perhaps I am wrong about this.

"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?"

I don't think we need an experiment to prove this, just refer to someone who is autistic or has Asperger's. They are almost entirely left brained.

I like Amy's post but I think the last paragraph strikes to the heart of the issue... Less impressed with the research... Methodology still matters right? So, let me see if I got this right. The gig is we get people to look at the "Thinker" (or some hard to read font), then they think about the thinker, and then researchers ask them a question about what they were thinking about when they were thinking about the thinker? and this seems to somehow correlate with analytic and intuitive "brain processes" which, in turn, ultimately provides us with the grounds to believe that religion is intuitive (and here intuitive is likely, with a wink and nudge, equated to blind belief).

Intuitively, something seems wrong here... Just maybe the conclusion(s) are overblown. Analytically, its hard to really assess as the methodology remains somewhat obscured, even if the results are trumpeted in the media. Sometimes the results offered are less than persuasive after careful review; can anyone say cold fusion.

Intuitively, I think this is mediocre research, wrapped in a cape of scientism (so we best not question it!), with a conclusion that feeds the ideological predisposition of the academic and media mindset. If we listen closely I think we can hear someone grinding their axe here... There may be bright sparks but, boy, those sparks fade fast don't they.

Fascinating discussion and a field of study that has long interested me. I am a believing Christian with a scientific background. I fall into the "theistic evolutionist" and/or "evolutionary creation" camp, though this is the first time I have heard either of those terms.

In reply to the University of Chicago atheist, who rejects the entire Bible as a result of his understanding of evolution, I say the following.

Whether the Bible is scientifically accurate in a literal sense, or not, even the most atheistic of thinkers will admit that the Bible has indisputably had a dramatic effect on the course of human history since it was written and published. In particular, it has affected human "reproductive practices" ... otherwise known as "families".

Without the teachings of the Bible and Christianity, the course of human evolution would have been different. Therefore, it is scientifically erroneous to dismiss the Bible as irrelevant to the study of evolution. At the very least, the atheistic evolutionist must confess that the Bible has impacted human evolution, whether it is scientifically accurate, or not.

Human evolution is irrevocably intertwined with the Bible and the history of religion and political thinking. Any scientist who will not confess this is not being intellectually honest.

Furthermore, to the extent that the Bible and Christianity have conferred an evolutionary advantage to a particular group of people, it is highly relevant to the study of evolution.

Evolutionists who feel that the Bible is irrelevant to the study of evolution and should, therefore, be "thrown out" or otherwise disregarded are not being true to their own field of study.

The study of evolution acknowledges that different species compete in a process of natural selection. Whether it is scientifically accurate, or not, the Bible has played a role in that great competition known as "natural selection."

It is impossible for an intellectually honest evolutionary scientist to ignore or deny the fact that the Bible has been highly influential to the process of natural selection since it was written and published. And, to "acknowledge the role" of the Bible and the Creation story in human history is to believe in it.

To "acknowledge the role" of the Bible in evolution is to "admit that it is REAL" ... that it has had a very real impact on human history. And, to "admit that it is REAL" is to "believe in it."

It really irritates me that the assumption nowadays that "intellect" and "reason" are the domain of the atheists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A good Chrsitain will be grounded in both thinking and feeling, both analysing and belief.

What a wonderful analysis of the study!

Great insights, Ms. Hall!


Good analysis.

It seems that the methods used in the experiment would only test for a false self-confidence in analytical thought, which is in line with your footnote. So I doubt the methods produce the conclusion asserted.

With regard to the conclusion asserted, I seem to recall, although I can't cite anything at the moment, that studies have been done that correlate higher IQs with higher percentages of religious skepticism. The intuitive conclusion is that atheism is more reasonable. But this begs the question that greater intelligence is always more reasonable, which has not been demonstrated. So the similar comment made by the researchers regarding intuition is a bit ironic.

I have to note that if any aspect of rational thought is inhibited for any reason by higher intelligence, then this may be manifest in a higher incidence of self-delusion while providing the cognitive means to undergird delusions with more sophisticated rationales. And the inhibition of rational thought need not be caused by greater intelligence for that intelligence to produce a sophisticated apologetic for any irrational thought. If the delusion is epistemically existential, then a pseudo-objective epistemology can still be employed to argue for its veracity.

Put in simpler terms, when anyone wants something false to be true, it's typical to set it up as a conclusion and invent premises to support it. Someone of greater intelligence can generally find better premises to support an argument than someone of average intelligence.

The beautiful part of your post, which I was struggling toward on my own, was the question whether inhibited intuition makes a person more or less reasonable. Thank you very much for that clarity. I was also surprised by the results seeing that so many faiths have a proud tradition of analytic thought and argument (Chistian Apologetics, Talmudic and Aristotilian argument, etc.).


Thanks for this very interesting article. The original research had caught my attention earlier this week, and I was most interested to read your helpful critique.

I would be interested in hearing your views on the following situation if you would indulge me by reading this and responding, if you have the time.

The reason why the original research caught my eye was because the headline seemed to describe me. Having been a committed and serving Christian for nearly 30 years, I have been going through a real crisis of faith over the past few years. During that time, I have been increasingly engaging in the debate that has arisen with the New Atheists and I have come to the conclusion (using System 1 analytic thinking, of course!) that the case for God's existence cannot be finally settled one way or the other. So much, so obvious. The evidence is inductive, rather than deductive, and cumulative. It will get you so far and then...

...System 2 intuition takes over? The move from merely cognitive to relational and existential takes place, and one places one's trust in God.

But that's where it has broken down for me. The System 2 thinking that underpinned the System 1 analytic thinking has crumbled, leaving me only with the 'not proven' conclusion from my System 1 thinking. And there's too much room for second guessing there.

However, further Critical Thinking takes over at this point, and says that correlation does not equal cause. For, at the same time as I was exploring the apologetic arguments, I suffered from a very severe case of depression (induced, most likely, by an underactive thyroid). This played merry mayhem with my System 2 thinking, as I was overwhelmed by a whole series of completely non-rational emotions that caused me to doubt almost everything in life, including my relationships with those closest to me. Now, which of those two causes is more likely to have produced the effect, I wonder?!?

I have leveled off emotionally now, and am much more in control of my feelings. However, the nagging uncertainties remain; I think I still trust in God (via my System 2 thinking), but I am often assailed by doubts from my System 1 thought life - you're deluding yourself; you've been suckered into this, this is purely wish fulfillment. Set against this are 30 years of very real experience of the truth and reality of my experience of my relationship with God.

So which do I believe? How do I reignite the existential side of my relationship with God without being bombarded by questions and doubts from parts of my rational thinking? Should my System 2 tell my System 1 where to get off? I desperately want to reclaim my faith, but I fear I am slipping into the agnostic camp.

Thanks for taking the time to read this and, again, I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts (or those of anyone else!)


Looks like you have your systems mixed up.

From the paper...

According to dual-process theories of human
thinking (5, 6), there are two distinct but interacting
systems for information processing. One
(System 1) relies upon frugal heuristics yielding
intuitive responses, while the other (System 2)
relies upon deliberative analytic processing.

I think it's better to call the systems 'intuitive' and 'deliberative'. Not sure which system I used to get that.

Good luck in your search.



I think you make a good point. It would be illuminating to know...

* if the religious beliefs that seem to have been weakened in the experiments actually were reached intuitively

* if apologists and/or the portion of their audience that believes them would respond differently in these experiments

* if beliefs based in deliberative thought are also weakened by reminders of deliberative thought

However, the researchers seem to be aware of the limits you point out.

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.

They seem to recognize that they have more experiments to do. Since I see no way for an investor to make any money on this knowledge I guess you would be against that. (Yes, the study was publicly funded. Most, if not all journals, require authors to disclose finding and any conflict of interest. This comes at the end of the paper.)

You say

it was only when I started thinking analytically about religion that I became convinced Christianity is true.

Only then? Are you sure you want to leave it at that?

Later, you say

[intuitive thinking] is the correct way to perceive certain truths

So what truths are those?
How do you know intuition is the correct way to 'perceive' them?
Why do you say 'perceive' and not 'know'?
How, in general, would you say one can verify intuitions?

My take:

Intuition's only advantage is speed.

So deliberate if you can - rely on intuition only when forced to by, for example, limited time and/or cognitive resources.

A couple of clarifications that bear on decision making: 1) Intuitions can generate good options (but choose from among them by deliberation). and 2) Deliberating about feelings is still deliberating.


Ron, an example is what I mentioned: perceiving social cues. We don't take in information about the people around us through analytic thinking.

And I actually agree with your last point. That's why I said in the post that once the information is apprehended, we can think rationally about it.

Searching, thanks for your comment.

I wouldn’t describe it as analytic thinking getting you “so far” and then intuitive thinking “taking over.” I don’t think that’s exactly what’s going on. I think, rather, that we get information from both these types of thinking and they interact with each other.

So in your case, when you lost all input from one type of thinking (if that’s what happened) because of your depression, you were working on less information, and your confidence failed.

As you say, that’s what happened in your other relationships, correct? You lost the ability to perceive the relational aspects and resorted to depending only on analytic information. But I don’t think this made you more reasonable, it just made your relationships suffer. We’re fallen on both sides of the brain, so we can twist our analytic thought about a person just as we can twist intuitive thought. Imagine if, while you were feeling this way, you spent all your time with someone who was constantly trying to prove to you that your family and friends didn’t care about you. How would your relationships have come out? Not so good. So it’s not surprising that you’re feeling this way now about God.

We’re such complicated beings, and our physical bodies affect so much of how we think and feel. I know from experience what depression does for a person’s relationship with both God and man, and it’s not pretty. I don’t blame you at all for feeling disconnected from God and not knowing where to go from here.

When you’re asking about what to do about reigniting the existential side of your relationship with God, ask yourself, what would you do about reigniting the existential side of any relationship after a situation of distrust like this?

You’re going to have to work through your cognitive issues against the relationship, just as you would with a friend you no longer trusted, but with whom you wanted to try a friendship again. Keep looking for answers. You’re probably better off reading some good, new apologetics books or podcasts than hanging around blogs. It’s just quieter that way. Give yourself a chance to focus on one thing at a time.

But secondly, you would also spend time with that person, right? Again, speaking from my own experience with depression, if you stop spending time with anyone--God or man--the relationship will be shaky, less real, distant. The trouble is that when we’re depressed, we don’t have the strength to keep going back to it when it’s not immediately rewarding. So here’s the oh-so-annoying answer: you have to do it anyway. Even if it’s boring and plagued with doubts.

What I’ve found with prayer is that it’s very difficult to start up again after being away from it. But don’t stop. Because I’ve also found that there’s a dramatic difference in my life when I pray and don’t pray. The older I’ve gotten, the more God has not allowed me to drift. I’m forced to depend on Him and stay close, because as soon as I stop meeting with Him, things get very difficult. Not my belief, per se, but my life, and drive, and love for God, and connection to Him. I’ve learned first hand that my soul is real, and it’s a spiritual reality that if I don’t eat and drink prayer and the Bible, my soul will starve. I wrote about this here: “The answer to your apathy or despair might be as simple as beginning to eat again.” You need to place as much urgency on these things as you do on eating. This has made all the difference for me.

Secondly, I highly recommend you try something like this. Pick one of the shorter books in the New Testament (Ephesians, Galatians, etc.) and read it twice or more a day for a month, then move on to the next one. Memorizing whole chapters can also help you to meditate on them. See what happens.

I also recommend you get out of apologetics a little and start listening to people who plumb the depths of God. Apologetics aren't always focused on the person of God, so you're not getting the full picture if that's where you're spending all your time. Read some books that are hundreds of years old (I love this one). Listen to these. God is bigger than the discussion that's happening right now, and maybe it would help to see that.

I’m not saying spending time with God will make up for intellectual doubts, but neither would I say that answering intellectual doubts will make up for a lack of time with God--don’t go after one at the expense of the other. But God is a real Person, not just an argument. If you’re not interacting with Him as a person, even if it is weakly, you can’t expect to get closer to Him just by thinking about arguments about Him. You wouldn’t go about it that way for any other person, right?

And just as with another person, it means something that you have a past relationship. Don't forget that--it's something for your analytic thinking to keep in mind! That makes it worth doubting your doubts about the current relationship and trying again. Our intellect can deceive us also--doubting where it's not warranted for a multitude of reasons.

Ron H - oops! So I did!! Thanks for the clarification :-)

Amy - your thoughts are very interesting and helpful. You've given me a lot to think over and I look forward to taking some time to reflect on the things you've said. I appreciate the time you've taken to offer this sage advice.


From your words, you are now an atheist and an agnostic, that has been a painful, difficult transition.

You'd like to believe again by will. This might mean 'going back' to your old belief or 'going forward' to a new one. Either way this is called voluntarism.

Unless you forget all that you've been through, you can't truly go back; the old place no longer exists.

That leaves going forward - rather than recover your old belief, you acquire a new one. Amy seems to suggest that you (willfully) acquire a new belief by a training process. (Right, Amy?)

There are, in turn, two ways to go forward. One is to a particular, known, end point of belief. This is no easier than 'going back' unless you can foresee the whole path ahead of time in which case you are already at the end point.

The other way of going forward is to do things that seem likely to take you toward a new belief and hope you are satisfied with the one you end up with if any. To me this seems like an option you only take if you are very uncomfortable with where you are.



I confess I forgot/missed that you had said that about social cues.

I agree that we do interpret social cues intuitively.

But we interpret them rationally too. In particular, we often rationally correct our intuitions about social cues.

So, I still think that if intuition is 'correctly' used by itself it is only for the sake of speed.

It occurs to me that we sometimes combine intuition and discursive thinking. The combination is discursive, not intuitive.

The Rationally Speaking podcast just did a whole show on intuition.

And, the latest Reasonable Doubts show mentions this very post.


Searching, you're welcome. If you're open to letting me know how this goes, I would love to hear from you. (amy @ str . org)

Amy seems to suggest that you (willfully) acquire a new belief by a training process. (Right, Amy?)

Well, no. I said that he should develop the strained relationship he already has by spending time with the Person, while at the same time forthrightly, yet in a way that won't overwhelm, working through the things that are causing him to pull away from Him.

It's pretty much the same advice I'd give to anyone in a troubled relationship.


Since I know you do believe there is such a 'Person to spend time with'. In retrospect, I had no reason to think you would confirm my understanding of your suggestion.

I didn't see such a statement of belief in Searching's words.

Pascal was giving similar advice with his Wager. William Lane Craig explains...

Pascal’s advice is that the person who wants to believe but finds himself unable to do so should attach himself to a Christian community and begin to take part in the same spiritual activities that believers engage in. Eventually, faith will come.

I call that 'training' too. Act like a runner and you will run better. Lift weights and you get strong. Act as if you believe and you will come to believe.



In addition to (or instead of) taking advantage of Amy's generous offer you might want to look here for resources intended for people in situations like yours.



I didn't see such a statement of belief in Searching's words.

I can't speak for Searching, but I interpreted "I think I still trust in God,"I fear I am slipping into the agnostic camp," and "Set against this are 30 years of very real experience of the truth and reality of my experience of my relationship with God," differently from you.

These words seem to be saying something different from your statement, "From your words, you are now an atheist and an agnostic."

(I say this not to argue with you about Searching, but just to explain why I responded the way I did.)


I feel like I ought to have said this before: It sounds like the depression is behind you and that you saw a doc about it. I hope so. If not, I hope you will see someone about it or continue to.


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