Analytical Thinkers Seem to Be Less Religious, Study Suggests

But coaxing participants to think analytically had only a subtle impact on religious belief

THURSDAY, April 26, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- A new study links analytical thinking -- whether it's a natural state or temporarily coaxed by researchers -- to less belief in religion.

Making people think in an analytical fashion didn't have a huge impact on how they saw the world, but the impact was still noticeable, said study lead author Will Gervais, a graduate student in psychology at the University of British Columbia, in Canada.

"We didn't have participants enter as devout believers and leave as committed atheists. Instead, we saw that analytic thinking produced subtle, but reliable, effects on disbelief," he said.

The researchers launched the study to gain a better understanding of how people make choices about religion, Gervais said. "A comprehensive understanding of religion needs to accommodate the hundreds of millions of nonbelievers in the world. If you want to take a serious approach to understanding religion, you need to study the factors that promote both belief and disbelief," he said.

In one of several experiments, Gervais and a colleague gave tests to 179 Canadian undergraduate students, all designed to detect how analytical and religious they were.

The test that measured analytical skills asked questions that required brainpower to figure out that the answers weren't the immediately obvious ones. For instance: "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 correct answer is 5 cents, not 10 cents.)

The researchers found that those who were more analytical -- judged by their ability to override intuition -- were more likely to be nonbelievers.

Next, the study authors wanted to figure out if priming people to be analytical would affect their responses to questions about religion. They launched a series of experiments that they said revealed the power of coaxing people to be analytical. For example, they forced participants to think about words or consider either a neutral artwork or depictions of Rodin's "The Thinker." Then they asked about religious beliefs.

One possible response on religious beliefs was: "When people pray they are only talking to themselves."

"Subtly triggering analytic thinking tends to promote religious disbelief," Gervais said.

The experiments didn't produce layperson-friendly statistics about the influence of being analytical. "Unfortunately, our analyses don't yield nice, punchy numbers," Gervais said.

In the big picture, however, the study results "lend further support to the idea that religious beliefs persist in part because people find them intuitive," he said. "But people can also analytically override their intuitions, and this is one source of religious disbelief in the world."

Michael Nielsen, a department chair of psychology at Georgia Southern University who studies religion and is familiar with the study findings, said they offer "intriguing evidence that critical thinking in general is associated with lower levels of belief."

Why does the study matter? "It continues a growing body of research showing that simply being exposed to information, words, and other stimuli does have an effect on people's attitudes and behavior," Nielsen said. "Second, and more importantly, it offers a sensible account of how people might come to be irreligious."

The studies are published in the April 27 issue of the journal Science.

While the study found an association, it did not prove that analytical thinking affects religious belief.

More information

For details about how spirituality can affect your health, visit the Nemours Foundation.

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