A new University of British Columbia study finds
that analytic thinking can decrease religious belief,
even in devout believers.
The study, published today in the journal Science,
finds that thinking analytically increases disbelief
among believers and skeptics alike, shedding important
new light on the psychology of religious belief.
"Our goal was to explore the fundamental question of
why people believe in a God to different degrees,"
says lead author Will Gervais, a PhD student in UBC's
Dept. of Psychology. "A combination of complex factors
influence matters of personal spirituality, and these
new findings suggest that the cognitive system related
to analytic thoughts is one factor that can influence disbelief."
Researchers used problem-solving tasks and subtle
experimental priming including showing participants
Rodin's sculpture The Thinker or asking participants
to complete questionnaires in hard-to-read fonts to
successfully produce "analytic" thinking. The researchers,
who assessed participants' belief levels using a variety
of self-reported measures, found that religious belief
decreased when participants engaged in analytic tasks,
compared to participants who engaged in tasks that did not
involve analytic thinking.
The findings, Gervais says, are based on a longstanding
human psychology model of two distinct, but related cognitive
systems to process information: an "intuitive" system that
relies on mental shortcuts to yield fast and efficient
responses, and a more "analytic" system that yields more
deliberate, reasoned responses.
"Our study builds on previous research that links religious
beliefs to 'intuitive' thinking," says study co-author and
Associate Prof. Ara Norenzayan, UBC Dept. of Psychology.
"Our findings suggest that activating the 'analytic' cognitive
system in the brain can undermine the 'intuitive' support
for religious belief, at least temporarily."
The study involved more than 650 participants in the U.S.
and Canada. Gervais says future studies will explore whether
the increase in religious disbelief is temporary or long-lasting,
and how the findings apply to non-Western cultures.
Recent figures suggest that the majority of the world's
population believes in a God, however atheists and agnostics
number in the hundreds of millions, says Norenzayan, a
co-director of UBC's Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition
and Culture. Religious convictions are shaped by psychological
and cultural factors and fluctuate across time and situations,
Provided by University of British Columbia
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