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!

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2 thoughts on “Analytical thinking and religious disbelief: A Dawkinsian tale

  1. Hi,
    is there anywhere I can get the questionnaire to measure religious belief? Im a Psychology student, in UCLan, doing a study on it and I believe it would be helpful!

    • Hi Cat,
      I’m afraid I don’t actually do research on religiosity, but I would imagine that if you look up the Science article cited above, they would have a reference for a religious beliefs questionnaire included. Best of luck!

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