Analytic Thinking Can Promote Atheism

A man praying in black and white.
Religious beliefs can be disrupted by analytical thinking. (Image credit: Kevin Carden, Shutterstock)

Deliberate analytical thinking can cause people to believe less in God, according to a new study.

The researchers, who found  that religious belief arises from gut feelings, were quick to say their study was not a referendum on the value of religion. Both analytical thinking and the intuitive processing that seems to promote religious beliefs are important, said study researcher Will Gervais.

"Both are useful tools," said Gervais, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of British Columbia. "Ultimately, these studies are looking at cognitive factors that might influence belief or disbelief, but they don't have anything to say about the inherent rationality or worth of religion."

Head versus heart

Psychologists have found that people process information through two distinct systems. One is the analytical system, marked by deliberate, logical processing. The intuitive system, on the other hand, uses mental shortcuts and gut feelings, Gervais said.

Earlier studies have shown that people who tend to go with their gut are more likely to believe in God than analytical types are. Gervais and his UBC colleague Ara Norenzayan reached the same finding by giving people a test to determine whether they were more analytical or more intuitive. For example, one question asked, "If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?"

The intuitive, go-with-your-gut answer would be "100." But the analytical, do-the-math process gets you the correct answer of five minutes. People who came to the analytical answer also reported less religious belief than those who offered the intuitive response. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]

Thinking analytically

But Gervais and Norenzayan also wanted to see if thinking style, in addition to being associated with religious belief, could actually cause changes in belief. In a series of four studies, the researchers subtly influenced participants to think more analytically. In one study, participants looked at a photo of either Rodin's sculpture "The Thinker" or  "Discobolus," a Greek sculpture of a man throwing a discus. A pilot study had shown that viewing only "The Thinker" made people more likely to think analytically, while viewing the discus thrower did not sway anyone one way or another.

Is belief in God good for people?

In two other studies, participants played word games with either neutral words such as "hammer" and "shoe" or analytical words such as "think" and "reason." After these priming activities, participants answered questions about their religious beliefs.

In a final study, the participants simply answered the religion questions on a questionnaire printed in either a difficult-to-read font or an easy-to-read font. (Reading a hard-to-decipher style of lettering is known to boost analytical thinking.)

The surveys included statements that participants had to rate based on their level of agreement or disagreement, such as: "I believe in God"; "When I am in trouble, I find myself wanting to ask God for help"; and "I just don't understand religion."

The studies involved more than 650 participants in the United States and Canada. In every study, participants who were prompted to think analytically were less likely to report religious beliefs, such as believing in God, than participants who saw neutral stimuli.

"The overall take-home message is that religious beliefs are supported by a variety of intuition, but if you can get people to engage in analytic thinking, that promotes religious disbelief," Gervais said.

Other factors, including culture and social norms, also influence religious belief and atheism, Gervais said. He and his colleagues aren't sure how analytical thinking disrupts faith-promoting intuition. It's possible that the analytic thinking might interfere directly with intuitive thoughts about life having a purpose or there being life after death, for example. Or these intuitive beliefs could still exist, but their cognitive link to religious belief could be broken by analytical thoughts, Gervais suggested. Or it might simply be that analytical thinking triggers a conscious "override" in which people talk themselves out of their beliefs.

"It's important to emphasize that everybody has these two systems," Gervais added. "Everybody can think intuitively and analytically, and it's not the case that the intuitive system is always wrong and the analytical is always right."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.