Analytic Thinking Can Undermine Belief
â€” Scientific American
A series of new experiments shows that analytic thinking can override intuitive assumptions, including those that underlie religious belief
By Marina Krakovsky | April 26, 2012 | ?
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."
Analytic thinking undermines belief because, as cognitive psychologists have shown, it can override intuition. And we know from past research that religious beliefsâ€”such as the idea that objects and events don't simply exist but have a purposeâ€”are rooted in intuition. "Analytic processing inhibits these intuitions, which in turn discourages religious belief," Norenzayan explains....
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....
.The study also gets high marks from University of California, Irvine, evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala, the only former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to have once been ordained as a Catholic priest, and who continues to assert that science and religion are compatible. Ayala calls the studies ingenious, and is surprised only that the effects are not even stronger. "You would expect that the people who challenge the general assumptions of their cultureâ€”in this case, their culture's religious beliefsâ€”are obviously the people who are more analytical," he says.
The researchers, for their part, point out that both reason and intuition have their place. "Our intuitions can be phenomenally useful," Gervais says, "and analytic thinking isn't some oracle of the truth."
Greene concurs, while also raising a provocative question implicit in the findings: "Obviously, there are millions of very smart and generally rational people who believe in God," he says. "Obviously, this study doesn't prove the nonexistence of God. But it poses a challenge to believers: If God exists, and if believing in God is perfectly rational, then why does increasing rational thinking tend to decrease belief in God?"