Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Analytical thinking undermines religious belief

with 5 comments

A very interesting case of bending the needle: trying to prevent analytical thinking in order to prop up religious belief, which I think is the mission of many of the conservative Christian colleges (and of the enmity conservatives of all religions feel toward education). Talk about bending the needle!

Marina Krakovsky writes in Scientific American:

People who are intuitive thinkers are more likely to be religious, but getting them to think analytically even in subtle ways decreases the strength of their belief, according to a new study in Science.

The research, conducted by University of British Columbia psychologists Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, does not take sides in the debate between religion and atheism, but aims instead to illuminate one of the origins of belief and disbelief. “To understand religion in humans,” Gervais says, “you need to accommodate for the fact that there are many millions of believers and nonbelievers.”

One of their studies correlated measures of religious belief with people’s scores on a popular test of analytic thinking. The test poses three deceptively simple math problems. One asks: “If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?” The first answer that comes to mind—100 minutes—turns out to be wrong. People who take the time to reason out the correct answer (five minutes) are, by definition, more analytical—and these analytical types tend to score lower on the researchers’ tests of religious belief.

But the researchers went beyond this interesting link, running four experiments showing that analytic thinking actually causes disbelief. In one experiment, they randomly assigned participants to either the analytic or control condition. They then showed them photos of either Rodin’s The Thinker or, in the control condition, of the ancient Greek sculpture Discobolus, which depicts an athlete poised to throw a discus. (The Thinker was used because it is such an iconic image of deep reflection that, in a separate test with different participants, seeing the statue improved how well subjects reasoned through logical syllogisms.) After seeing the images, participants took a test measuring their belief in God on a scale of 0 to 100. Their scores on the test varied widely, with a standard deviation of about 35 in the control group. But it is the difference in the averages that tells the real story: In the control group, the average score for belief in God was 61.55, or somewhat above the scale’s midpoint. On the other hand, for the group who had just seen The Thinker, the resulting average was only 41.42. Such a gap is large enough to indicate a mild believer is responding as a mild nonbeliever—all from being visually reminded of the human capacity to think.

Another experiment used a different method to show a similar effect. It exploited the tendency, previously identified by psychologists, of people to override their intuition when faced with the demands of reading a text in a hard-to-read typeface. Gervais and Norenzayan did this by giving two groups a test of participants’ belief in supernatural agents like God and angels, varying only the font in which the test was printed. People who took the belief test in the unclear font (a typewriterlike font set in italics) expressed less belief than those who took it in a more common, easy-to-read typeface. “It’s such a subtle manipulation,” Norenzayan says. “Yet something that seemingly trivial can lead to a change that people consider important in their religious belief system.” On a belief scale of 3 to 21, participants in the analytic condition scored an average of almost two points lower than those in the control group.

Analytic thinking undermines belief because, as cognitive psychologists have shown, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2012 at 11:38 am

Posted in Religion, Science

5 Responses

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  1. It’s not news to me. People who think carefully and arrive at more correct conclusions tend to reject religion because religion is a wrong hypothesis about the way the universe works.


    27 April 2012 at 11:48 am

  2. Well, certainly I agree in the scientific area, but not so much in the social area. Many of the statements attributed to Jesus (to pick one divinity) make a lot of sense and are much in advance of his time (at least, in our modern understanding of what the statements mean). For example, his warnings against wealth are borne out by recent research that shows an increase in wealth results in a drop in ethical standards, which would indeed be something that would concern Jesus. But in terms of explanations of the development of the universe and the origins of humanity, we now have much better resources than religious texts offer, and I think sensible people recognize that. Indeed, the conservative religious recognize it as well, as shown by their resistance to letting their children and parishioners be exposed to those ideas. If religious conservatives had more confidence in the truth of their explanations, they would be willing to submit them to testing. Their refusal to do so reveals their lack of confidence—one might even say their lack of faith. Finding out true things about the universe and ourselves would never lead away from a true God.


    27 April 2012 at 12:09 pm

  3. I’m not so sure. Jesus clearly thought the Kingdom was immanent, that some of his contemporaries would live to see it. Thus he urged people to not worry about their earthly possessions and to abandon their families–and anyone who did not would be severely punished.

    If you believed Skynet was about to nuke the world next week you’d probably advise people not to bother going to work, too.

    His golden rule was pretty good, but it wasn’t new. Ethically I think he’s great compared to the priesthood of his day, but pretty “meh” to this modern person.


    27 April 2012 at 1:01 pm

  4. He did seem to think that, but he also seemed to be quite angry about wealth—the eye of the needle passage and others. So I think that’s a bit independent.


    27 April 2012 at 1:07 pm

  5. Maybe you’re right. Interesting question.


    28 April 2012 at 1:41 pm

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