Does God exist or not? That question may never be answered to everyone's satisfaction — but the question of why people become religious might be. Scientists found a way to meddle with the level of analytical thought people used, and in turn were able to influence the strength of people's religious beliefs.
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Most people believe in God or some form of the supernatural, but there are hundreds of millions of atheists and agnostics worldwide. Experiments have only recently begun exploring the specific underpinnings of religious belief, said researcher Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
"When I became a professor about 10 years ago, I was surprised by how little experimental psychology had to say about religion - I grew up in Lebanon during the war, and I understood that religion was really important in people's lives," Norenzayan said in an interview.
An old idea in psychology suggests human thinking is divided between intuitive and analytical thinking. The former leads to quick-and-dirty answers via mental shortcuts and gut feelings; the latter involves more deliberate, effortful thinking. Since intuitive thinking appears to support belief in the supernatural, psychologists reasoned that analytical thinking might be one source of religious disbelief - indeed, questionnaires gauging analytical thinking and religious belief found that people who were more likely to adopt an analytical stance tended to report they were less religious.
In four experiments with more than 650 volunteers in the U.S. and Canada, Norenzayan and his colleague Will Gervais then found a number of subtle ways to influence volunteers into thinking more analytically to see how it affected religious belief. This could simply involve looking at a picture of someone who looks like they are thinking hard about something, like Auguste Rodin's sculpture The Thinker, or looking at words such as "think," "ponder" or "rational." Even reading words in difficult-to-read fonts triggered analytical thinking.
The experiments revealed that volunteers prodded into thinking analytically increased disbelief among believers and skeptics alike, compared with people who did not receive the same cues. "It's a moderate-sized effect - not trivial," says Norenzayan.
The scientists expected plenty of misconceptions and public reaction over their research. "I'm bracing for a lot of hate mail," Norenzayan says.
They emphasized this work does not suggest that either analytical thinking or intuitive thinking is innately superior, because they promote either religious disbelief or belief. "All human beings have both systems of thinking - they both have costs and benefits in any given situation," Norenzayan tells io9.
They also stressed that believers were capable of analytical thinking, and skeptics intuitive thinking. "Theologians reason over religious beliefs all the time," Norenzayan adds.
Finally, they noted that analytical and intuitive thinking are just one piece of the puzzle of why people may favor religious belief or disbelief. "For example, we know very little about how religiosity is shaped by cultural factors, although there's clear evidence it is," Norenzayan says.
Future research will explore whether the increase in religious disbelief is temporary or long-lasting, and how the findings apply to non-Western cultures. Gervais and Norenzayan detailed their findings in the April 27 issue of the journal Science.
Image credit: credit: Ryan DeBerardinis/Shutterstock.