Study: Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief

From the journal Science: “Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief,” by Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan. Here’s the abstract:

Scientific interest in the cognitive underpinnings of religious belief has grown in recent years. However, to date, little experimental research has focused on the cognitive processes that may promote religious disbelief. The present studies apply a dual-process model of cognitive processing to this problem, testing the hypothesis that analytic processing promotes religious disbelief. Individual differences in the tendency to analytically override initially flawed intuitions in reasoning were associated with increased religious disbelief. Four additional experiments provided evidence of causation, as subtle manipulations known to trigger analytic processing also encouraged religious disbelief. Combined, these studies indicate that analytic processing is one factor (presumably among several) that promotes religious disbelief. 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.

Here ‘s an excerpt:

If religious belief emerges through a converging set of intuitive processes, and analytic processing can inhibit or override intuitive processing, then analytic thinking may undermine intuitive support for religious belief. Thus, a dual-process account predicts that analytic thinking may be one source of religious disbelief. Recent evidence is consistent with this hypothesis, finding that individual differences in reliance on intuitive thinking predict greater belief in God, even after controlling for relevant socio-demographic variables. However, evidence for causality remains rare. Here we report five studies that present empirical tests of this hypothesis. . . .

All of the manipulations used in studies 2 to 5 plausibly produce multiple effects, and any specific finding in a given study may be open to alternative explanations and should be interpreted with caution. However, across all studies, it is difficult to think of a broad alternative explanation that could parsimoniously explain why analytically overriding intuitive answers, visual exposure to a thinking pose, implicit priming of analytic thinking concepts, and perceptual disfluency all converge on promoting religious disbelief. By contrast, the hypothesis that analytic processing—which empirically underlies all experimental manipulations—promotes religious disbelief explains all of these findings in a single framework that is well supported by existing theory regarding the cognitive foundations of religious belief and disbelief.

And here are the qualifications the authors provide at the end of the article:

In closing, we urge caution in interpreting three key implications of the present results. First, although these findings were robust to variation in ethnic and religious backgrounds in the current samples, and in study 4, to variation in other demographic characteristics, it is important to examine the generalizability of our findings further across a more diverse range of populations and cultural contexts in future research. Second, although these results indicate that analytic processing promotes religious disbelief, we again emphasize that analytic processing is almost certainly not the sole cause of religious disbelief. Disbelief likely also emerges from selective deficits in the intuitive cognitive processes that enable the mental representation of religious concepts such as supernatural agent beliefs, from secular cultural contexts lacking cues that one should adopt specific religious beliefs, and in societies that effectively guarantee the existential security of their citizens. The present results suggest one possible cognitive source of religious disbelief, and join a growing literature using experimental techniques to test hypotheses regarding the cognitive, motivational, and cultural origins of religious beliefs. Finally, we caution that the present studies are silent on long-standing debates about the intrinsic value or rationality of religious beliefs, or about the relative merits of analytic and intuitive thinking in promoting optimal decision making. Instead, these results illuminate, through empirical research, one cognitive stage on which such debates are played.

Go read the article in full. Their findings make sense intuitively (ironically), and their methodology is really interesting.

Applying this study specifically to the realm of Christianity, I see one potential ramification and one area where I’d like a similar study to delve further. The ramification: conservative critics of higher education and its tendency to diminish faith now have empirical data to back up their claims; that is, these critics may now point to real data in support of their claim that higher education (at least in a secular setting) will destroy their faith. The authors of the study wisely disclaim any ethical dimension to their findings.

I would also like to see the same study done with undergraduates in Christian studies/Biblical studies/Apologetics programs at confessional Christian colleges. I wonder, since such programs often (at least, in my own experience) emphasize marshaling analytic thinking to defend a set of religious beliefs, if being primed for analytic thinking would increase their apparent religious disbelief (as the results of this study would predict), if the priming would have an insignificant effect on disbelief, or if it instead would increase their level of religious belief.


1 Comment

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One response to “Study: Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief


    This is a really great article you have written here. Thanks for sharing.

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