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Researchers probe relationship between analytical thinking and religiosity

The Thinker

According to a story in The Raw Story, a group of Canadian psychologists has concluded that directing test subjects to think “analytically” lowers their level of religious belief. Their research was published in this week’s issue of Science. A look at the study’s methodology, however, reveals misguided assumptions.

Test subjects were given a problem-solving test, shown a picture of Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker,” and given a questionnaire asking participants how much they agreed with statements such as “I believe in God.” When these subjects were compared to control subjects not given problem-solving tasks, and presumably not shown a picture of “The Thinker,” the group subjected to the problem-solving tests were less likely to admit to having religious beliefs.

The Raw Story says:

Psychologists have long believed that humans rely on two different cognitive systems, one “intuitive” and the other “analytical,” and previous research has pointed to a link between intuitive thinking and religious belief.

“Our findings suggest that activating the ‘analytic’ cognitive system in the brain can undermine the ‘intuitive’ support for religious belief, at least temporarily,” study co-author Ara Norenzayan explained.

Philip Ball, Ph.D., a freelance science writer, responds in Nature, noting that the study uses an inadequate definition of religion. Ball:

The authors state that they “focused primarily on belief in and commitment to religiously endorsed supernatural agents” — they examined beliefs in God, the devil and angels. That, of course, already assumes a Judaeo-Christian context, but there are plenty of devout believers who have no need of angels or the devil, and some who perhaps have no need of a belief in God in a traditional or Christian sense (Max Planck was one such example).

This hints at the key problem, which is (or ought to be) as much a quandary for religion itself as for scientific studies of it. Almost all of the questions in Gervais and Norenzayan’s study related to religion as a literalist folk tradition — an aspect of lifestyle. This is how it manifests in most cultures, but that barely touches on religion as articulated by its leading intellectuals: for Christianity, say, philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and George Berkeley. The idea that the beliefs of those individuals would have vanished had they been more analytical is, if nothing else, amusing. Gervais and Norenzayan’s findings should help to combat religion as an indolent obstacle to better explanations of the natural world. But it can’t really engage with the rich tradition of religious thought.

Ball’s point is a good one, though from a wider perspective even his objections don’t fully identify the limitations of the study. For starters, there is not only the problem that belief in God is a “Judeo-Christian” belief as opposed to, say, Buddhists; there is the issue that there are many different levels of belief in God, or many different stations of life in which belief in God expresses itself. There are child-like forms of religious belief, mature and immature adult forms. Ball notes that religion is filled with intellectuals with highly refined analytical skills (he doesn’t take this a step further to note that there are different structure-stages of religious expression that ought to be considered separately).

Another issue with the study is that while the authors may only publish narrow findings about the difference between analytical and intuitive psychological types, their study is likely to be interpreted narrowly as a test of whether religious people are stupider than non-religious people, and to reinforce the idea that spirituality is dumb. I’m not quite sure why this study is considered non-offensive when a study examining whether people of different races or socio-economic statuses are more analytical or intuitive.

Spirituality expresses itself in a myriad of ways, and an Integral perspective includes both intuitive and analytical types, and has room for believers with a philosophical or non-philosophical bent. Tests seemingly designed to show that spiritual people are dumb are insulting.

About Joe Perez

Joe Perez is Executive Editor of Spirit's Next Move, Director of Communications and Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for World Spirituality. He has eight years of blogging experience and has seen two of his blogs published as books including Soulfully Gay, a pioneering Integral Spirituality memoir. He is an Honors graduate of Harvard University, has studied at The Divinity School at The University of Chicago, and holds a certificate in Integral Leadership from Pacific Integral. He also blogs at Gay Spirituality.


  1. Good observations, Joe. Well, for one I think that this also points to the varying “structures” of consciousness that Jean Gebser talked about. Criticism of the study aside, highly developing one’s “rational” mode of thinking might diminish or atrophy other dimensions if we don’t take the time to keep them in balance, and, well, integrated. But on the other hand, they also co-mingle. Take the great theologians of the late-medieval period in Europe and Islam, like Aquinas or Ibn Arabi. I know Kabbalah was at a high point in this period too. Anyway, just some stream-of-consciousness thoughts as it related to this interesting, but admittedly narrow study.

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