Study: Analytic thinking causes religious belief to diminish

Alternate headline: “Hey, who’s up for an angry, thousand-comment thread on Friday night?”

First, students were randomly assigned to look at images 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 — they scored an average of 41.42 on a 100-point scale, compared with an average of 61.55 for the group that viewed the discus thrower, according to the study.

Two additional experiments used word games rather than images. In one case, participants were asked to arrange a series of words into a sentence. Some were given neutral words and others were presented with trigger words such as “think,” “reason” and “analyze” to prime them to think more analytically. And indeed, those who got the “thinking” words expressed less religiosity on a 10-to-70 scale: They ranked themselves at 34.39, on average, while those in the control group averaged 40.16.

In the final experiment, students in the control group read text in a clear, legible font, while those in the other group were forced to squint at a font that was hard to read, a chore that has been shown to trigger analytic thinking. Sure enough, those who read the less legible font rated their belief in supernatural agents at 10.40 on a 3-to-21 scale, compared with 12.16 for those who read the clear font.

Lots of news stories about this on the wires today, as you might expect, but I think people are overinterpreting the results. As I understand it, the researchers aren’t claiming that analytic thinking will turn you atheist or that nonbelievers are sharper critical thinkers than the faithful. They’re claiming that intuition is a component of religious belief and that intuition tends to dim when the mind is preoccupied with reasoning, which means religious belief dims with it. Note: Dims, but not disappears. Per the study, you’re talking about small, if statistically significant, differences in belief between the test subjects and the control group. Says one psychologist of the results:

“In some ways this confirms what many people, both religious and nonreligious, have said about religious belief for a long time, that it’s more of a feeling than a thought,” says Nicholas Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. But he predicts the findings won’t change anyone’s mind about whether God exists or whether religious belief is rational. “If you think that reasoning analytically is the way to go about understanding the world accurately, you might see this as evidence that being religious doesn’t make much sense,” he says. “If you’re a religious person, I think you take this evidence as showing that God has given you a system for belief that just reveals itself to you as common sense.”

Yeah, I’m not sure why these results are controversial; they can be interpreted in different ways. For instance, religious friends tell me that their faith isn’t merely something they’ve reasoned through but something they “feel” or “experience.” For God to enter your heart, you must be “open” to him. In other words, faith isn’t strictly analytic; there’s more to it, or so I’m told. It may be that, as your mind adjusts to perform analytic tasks by applying certain known criteria, its capacity to analyze something that doesn’t operate according to known criteria momentarily decreases. You become less “open” to supernatural possibilities. If that’s true, then it’s not that “intuitive” understandings are necessarily false (although maybe they are), it’s that it’s hard for the brain to switch quickly from one paradigm to the other. Or maybe there’s another explanation? I’m all for the “atheists are inherently awesome” theory, if anyone wants to offer it!

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David Strom 6:01 PM on February 01, 2023