27 April, 2012

Analyse religion, and you'll reject it

An article in the latest issue of Science has investigated the hypothesis that a propensity for analytical thinking over intuition is linked to a disbelief in a god or gods. I was quite surprised to see a paper on this topic make it into such a prestiguous journal, as I don't find the results all that surprising, but nevertheless it made for interesting reading. The hypothesis the authors set out to test was as follows:

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.

Not only did they want to find a correlation between analytical thinking and disbelief, they also designed experiments to test a causal relationship. To do this they tested whether persuading someone to think analytically about an unrelated topic and then 'measuring' their religious belief, causes them to favour disbelief over belief.

The first test was simply to show correlation. They asked the participants three questions in which the immediately obvious answer is wrong, meaning that those who are more prone to analytical thought will arrive at the correct answer more often than those who rely on their intuition. Here are the questions (scroll down for the answers*):

1) A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
2) If it takes 5 machines 5 min to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
3) In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

They also scored the participants for their religious belief using three different scales involving their agreement with certain statements about god and faith. The results were very clear. Participants who got the correct answers, and hence were more prone to analytical thought than relying on intuition, were significantly more likely to not believe in god. As the authors state:
This result demonstrated that, at the level of individual differences, the tendency to analytically override intuitions in reasoning was associated with religious disbelief, supporting previous findings.

Next they wanted to see if this was a causative relationship, not simply a correlation. They designed four experiments to investigate this, all of which involved subtlely promoting the participants to either think analytically (the test group) or not (the control group). Following this, they were questioned about their religious belief to see if their primed mindset would influence their religiousity.

The four tests were as follows:

1) "...a visual priming paradigm in which a sample of Canadian undergraduates rated their belief in God (from 0 to 100) after being randomly assigned to view four images (samples provided in Fig. 1) of either artwork depicting a reflective thinking pose (Rodin’s The Thinker; N = 26) or control artwork matched for surface characteristics like color and posture (Discobolus of Myron; N = 31)."

2) "...participants received 10 different sets of five randomly arranged words (e.g., “high winds the flies plane”). For each set of five words, participants dropped one word and rearranged the others to form a meaningful phrase (e.g., “the plane flies high”). The analytic condition included five-word sets containing target analytic thinking words (analyze, reason, ponder, think, rational), and the control condition included thematically unrelated words (e.g., hammer, shoes, jump, retrace, brown, etc.)."

3) Same as test 2, but done on a much larger scale as part of an internet-based experiment.

4) "...participants rate their religious beliefs on a questionnaire presented in fonts pre-rated by a separate group of participants (20) as either typical (N = 91; sample) or difficult-to-read (N = 91; sample)."

In each test, the results were the same and, when combined, the studies demonstrate that explicitly or implicitly primed analytic thinking promotes religious disbelief, suggesting that their is a causal relationship. So the study seems to suggest that those of us who are more analytical are more likely to be non-religious, while those of us who rely more on intuition than analysis will favour religious belief.

Although the authors take care not to spell it out the obvious conclusion, this means that people who actually analyse things carefully tend to find reasons to reject belief in supernatural beings and so they are less religious. On the flip side, people who prefer to rely mostly on intuition, and hence do not analyse seemingly far-fetched claims for their truth, are more likely to be religious.

There are some obvious caveats to the conclusions, which the authors outline at the end of their article. Nevertheless, this seems like a clear indication that religious belief does not stand up to analytical thought. Little wonder that the vast majority of scientists would declare themselves to be non-religious. It also explains why religious beliefs is more prevalent in areas with relatively lower levels of education.

*(1) Intuitive answer = 10, Actual answer = 5
(2) Intuitive answer = 100, Actual answer = 5
(3) Intuitive answer = 24, Actual answer = 47

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