One of the reasons why some are less inclined to believe in God than others is that they choose to think analytically rather than depend on their gut feeling, two researchers from the University of British Columbia in Canada have claimed in a new study.
Researchers Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan agree that although religion is a big force in the world, we know very little about it. "We are trying to fill this gap in our knowledge," Norenzayan said in the report of their study published in the Friday's edition of the Science journal.
"There's been a long-standing intellectual tradition of treating science as one thing and religion as separate, and never the twain shall meet," said Gervais, adding that that is now changing with scientific studies "to understand religion and why our species has the capacity for religion."
The research found that religious belief is a result of intuitive thinking, which can be undermined by analytical thinking. "So when people are encouraged to think analytically, it can block intuitive thinking," Norenzayan said.
The research team had participants perform some thinking tasks, which included this question: "A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?" The intuitive response would be that the ball costs 10 cents, which is incorrect. But those who spend more time doing the math and then arrive at the correct answer would say 5 cents. The latter were judged as being more analytical, and they scored lower on the religious belief scales.
The participants were then randomly asked to look at artwork, either of Auguste Rodin's sculpture "The Thinker," or of the ancient Greek statue of a discus thrower, "Discobolus." Those who viewed "The Thinker" were prompted to think more analytically and expressed less belief in God, compared with the group that viewed the discus thrower.
The participants were also asked to make simple sentences out of given words, which included either thinking-related words like "think" or "analyze" or neutral words like "hammer" and "brown." Those who got the thinking words expressed less religiosity as compared to those who got neutral words.
Additionally, some participants were asked to read text in a clear, legible typeface, while others were given a typeface that was difficult to read to promote analytic thinking. The latter rated their belief in religion lower than the former did.
Norenzayan clarified that the experiments did not turn devout believers into total atheists. But, he added, if people begin to think analytically on a regular basis, it might undermine their religious belief in the long run.
"There's a combination of factors why people become believers or nonbelievers – this is only one piece of the puzzle," Norenzayan explained. "We know that in human psychology there are two systems of thinking. System one is intuitive; it is rapid and effortless. System two is analytical, and is more reasoned and thoughtful. Our study supports the idea that analytic thinking can push people away from intuitive thinking."
The authors said their findings did not suggest that one form of thinking was better than the other. Both are important and both have costs and benefits.
Robert McCauley, director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture at Emory University, found the study "interesting," saying it was hard to make even a nominal change in religious belief. "It's not likely you would argue someone out of a religious belief very often because they don't hold those beliefs on argumentative or reflective grounds in the first place," CNN quoted him as saying.