Analytical thinking and religious disbelief: A Dawkinsian tale

Last week Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, out-spoken atheist, and author of The God Gene, announced his support for British education secretary Michael Gove’s proposal to put a King James Bible in every state school in the UK. Dawkins stated that, “I have heard the cynically misanthropic opinion that, without the Bible as a moral compass, people would have no restraint against murder, theft and mayhem. The surest way to disabuse yourself of this pernicious falsehood is to read the Bible itself.”

Dawkins’ tongue-in-cheek support for the measure highlights his proselytism of critical thinking over blind acceptance of the scriptures. This more rational and methodical type of thought is affectionately known as “System 2” in the neuroeconomics and decision-making literature, and a new study published last month in the journal Science suggests that Dawkins, as an atheist, is not alone in his analytical thinking habits. The other mode of thought, System 1, relies more on instincts and heuristics (quick decision-making tools based on past experiences), and is thought to underlie much of an individual’s conviction in religious beliefs. The stories that make up the dogma of organized religion often require acceptance of supernatural processes that are difficult to rationalize, such as immaculate conception or resurrection. These leaps of faith require a reliance on intuition over analytical rationalization, and as such individuals with strong religious beliefs are thought to have a greater activation of System 1, whereas disbelievers engage System 2 more frequently.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia tested this hypothesis of a distinction between religious believers and non-believers in dual-process thinking (System 1 vs. System 2) by carrying out several experiments assessing analytical abilities and religious beliefs in 179 undergraduate students (insert joke about the oxymoron of analytical thinking and undergrads here). The tasks required “an analytical overriding of initial intuitions”, meaning that the first obvious answer to any problem was wrong, and an inhibition of this initial response and critical re-assessment of the problem was required to arrive at the correct answer. Participants then completed three questionnaires asking about religiosity, intuitive and supernatural beliefs. Successful analytical thinking on the cognitive tasks was negatively correlated with all three measures of religious beliefs, such that the ability to over-ride an immediate intuition was associated with greater religious disbelief.

Follow-up studies aimed to assess the directionality of these trends – i.e. whether a lack of religious beliefs led one to think more critically, or if a tendency towards analytical thought resulted in greater disbelief. Researchers attempted to answer this by exposing participants to a series of subtle primes of words and images that were meant to subconsciously evoke connotations of analytical thought, and then asking them about their levels of religious or supernatural beliefs. For example, in one test students were primed with an image of either Rodin’s The Thinker or a control image matched for pose, material and familiarity. During a pilot test, viewing The Thinker was related to an increase in analytical reasoning, and during the experiment seeing it resulted in an increase in self-report levels of religious disbelief as compared to control images.

In the final and most devious manipulation, researchers had participants rank their religious beliefs on a questionnaire presented in either standard font or in a more challenging and difficult-to-read one. Reading in an unusual font, known as perceptual disfluency, requires greater cognitive effort, which the researchers hypothesized would result in increased recruitment of System 2. This would then over-ride any natural inclinations towards System 1 and presumably reduce reliance on intuitions. Sure enough, participants who filled out the difficult-to-read questionnaire rated themselves as being less believing, regardless of previously obtained baseline levels of belief.

The researchers caution against reading too much into these experiments, stating that no estimation on the value of religious beliefs can be interpreted from the findings. Additionally, disbelief could stem equally from a lack of intuition-based thought as an increase in analytical thinking. My main question regarding these findings is just how unaware the participants were to the researchers’ objectives in the study. A psychology experiment, a setting less than welcoming to religious convictions, and particularly one with an emphasis on cognition and critical thinking, may cause individuals to feel sheepish about their beliefs in supernatural phenomena, religious or otherwise, and lead them to under-report their personal levels of faith. Thus the setting of a research laboratory, as well as any expectation bias introduced by the researchers, should be considered as a caveat for the results of this study.

On an unrelated side note, today marks the one year anniversary of Brain Study! A big thank you to all of my readers, be they friends who feel obligated to check in every week or poor unwitting strangers who stumble across the blog through Google searches. Hope everyone’s enjoyed reading this past year as much as I’ve enjoyed writing, and stay tuned for more posts on our brains, bodies and life as a graduate student in science!

Sex at Dawn vs. sex today

There has been an undeniable shift in the conventional nuclear family over the last several decades, with increases in single parent, step-parent, grandparent and single-sex parent homes. A recent survey by the New York Times stated that as of 2009, women who gave birth under the age of 30 were for the first time less likely to be married than not. These trends, along with the rise in divorce rates seen over the last 40 years, support the relationship narrative put forward by Dr. Christopher Ryan and Dr. Cacilda Jetha in their book Sex at Dawn of long-term, semi-monogamous mates, rather than story-book life-long, monogamous marriages.

Ryan and Jetha question the naturalness of our society’s emphasis on exclusive and eternal pair-bonds. They cite the polyamorous relationship tendencies of our early ancestors and the sexual habits of our closest living relatives, free-loving bonobos and chimpanzees, as evidence that we were not always this way. They also list current hunter-gatherer societies who maintain looser definitions of sexual relations and expectations, and who have adjusted their property owning and child-rearing practices accordingly. Examples include the Curripaco tribe of Brazil, where a couple who hang their hammocks together are considered married (until one hangs her hammock elsewhere), or the Dagara of Burkina Faso, one of many societies in which every woman is called “mother” and every man “father” as questions of paternity are highly uncertain. Allocations of resources and affection are spread equally throughout these tribes, treating all as family and ensuring the well-being of every member of the community.

Ryan and Jetha’s research is wide-ranging, in-depth and highly interesting, including evidence from anthropological, biological, philosophical and historical perspectives. Their arguments are compelling and for the most part well-thought-out, identifying flaws in the standard narrative of the evolution of sexual relations. The analysis on the anatomical differences in primates as evidence for different mating styles is particularly provocative and entertaining. For example, who would’ve thought that large external testicles were an indicator of sexual competition within species, preparing the males for battle in a “sperm war” in more free-wheeling and promiscuous females? As such male gorillas, the largest living primates, have the smallest relative penis and testicle size, as they enjoy a relatively stable role in the social hierarchy and a lack of sexual competitors. And who knew that female baboons vocalize during orgasm to attract attention from other future potential male suitors? Certainly puts Meg Ryan’s famous deli scene in When Harry Met Sally into a new perspective!

However, one issue that I felt was glaringly under-addressed in their sexual manifesto was the question of jealousy. The authors acknowledge early on that this fundamental problem arises when contemplating the benefits and detriments of a more inherently promiscuous lifestyle, and promise to address the issue in full later in the book. However when the big moment arrives, they merely cite more tribes existing today who practice non-monogamous pair-bonding and communal child-rearing, and state that jealousy is not an issue in these societies. They further suggest that our deep feelings of jealousy are a learned result of our mating and marriage practices, stemming from the agricultural revolution and commoditization of women and children. There is no mention of the biological underpinnings of jealousy (thought to involve activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, the same area involved in feelings of emotional and physical pain, in case you were wondering), its potential evolutionary benefits, or its prevalence in modern society.

Now perhaps this is rather naive and un-empirical of me, but I find it difficult to swallow that the intense physiological pangs that nearly all of us have felt in the course of our romantic lives are a culturally created phenomenon. The visceral and automatic nature of these feelings would suggest that jealousy is a more organic emotion, rather than a learned response to a threat of ownership or security. Also if, as Ryan and Jetha claim, our naturally non-monogamous ways are the reason so many relationships fail, then why are we unable to evolve away from these underlying promiscuous tendencies but have developed these accompanying negative emotions in the meantime? Jealousy is a highly unpleasant experience that I would imagine few desire to feel, so why is it that we have created this emotion in ourselves that can be so painful?

For the most part, I found myself agreeing with Ryan and Jetha’s hypothesis that humans were originally a more “promiscuous” species, rejecting life-long mates in favor of short-term or non-monogamous relationships. However my question to this new narrative they present is, so what? Are we to change our dating, mating and marriage habits today because our ancestors did it differently 2 million years ago? As our lives and cultures have evolved, to the extent that they are almost incomparable to the ones maintained by our ancestors, is it not natural that our sexual and romantic relationships would change as well? And even if these behaviors are more natural to humans than the practices we hold today, could we ever feasibly go back to that way of life, even if we wanted to?

(Thanks to Jesse Sleamaker for the recommendation for this book).