Analytical Thinking May Reduce Religious Belief

Analytical Thinking May Reduce Religious Belief

A recent study shows that thinking analytically increases questioning of faith, even among believers.

Basic human psychology holds that there are two fundamental ways of human thought; analytical and intuitive. The former is a highly specialized process of tearing apart ideas and concepts, looking at the origin and their implications. The latter is also highly specialized in its own way, involving mental shortcuts and “gut” instincts. According to Dr. Ara Norenzayan, a psychology professor at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver, it’s the latter type of thinking to allows us to most readily believe in God, while analytical thinking actually seems to mitigate that belief.

It’s clear why so little of our knowledge of psychology has delved into the realm of religion; it remains one of the most sacred (excuse the pun) and defended aspects of human thought. So much so that to even consider it a facet of our psychology, rather than a innately held truth, immediately alienates wide swaths of our population. As a result, Norenzayan and his colleague, Will Gervais, decided to examine the connection between religion and analytical or intuitive thought to begin to fill this taboo gap in psychological study. Norenzayan acknowledged the danger in addressing the psychology-religion link, telling futurist publication io9, “I’m bracing for a lot of hate mail.”

There were a series of four experiments to test whether analytical thinking impacted religious belief, encompassing 650 respondents throughout Canada and the U.S. One easy gauge of the connection was to administer a simple questionairre, in which responsdents answered a series of questions that tested their likelihood for analytical thinking over intuitive thinking, or vice versa, and religious belief. The simple correlation showed that just as intuitive thinking increases a person’s likelihood for piety, analytical thinking decreased it. Norenzayana dn Gervais then attempt to prompt individuals to think analytically, often by solving a problem or just looking at photo of a person concentrating or a difficult-to-read font. Afterward they were prompted with more questions to see if just the pattern of thinking might reduce their level of belief. The result was that respondents, believers or atheists, were more likely to acknowledge questions of faith if they had previously been exposed to analytical thinking models, and the effect size was moderate, according to Norenzayan.

The authors of the study noted the study isn’t intended to show that analytical thinking is a  superior mode of thought, no more than it’s intended to portray religious people as simply “gut” level thinkers. Everyone has the capacity for both types of thought, and religious individuals may be as analytical as agnostics and atheists are intuitive. Norenzayan explains, “Theologians reason over religious beliefs all the time.” There are many cultural factors and other variables that effect religious belief, and beliefs can be as varied and subtle as there are individual believers. Instead, the study simply points out a socio-religious tendency in human psychology; thinking analytically is not a highly present (or often encouraged) aspect of religious discourse.