What Drives Religious Belief? It's Not Intuition

Camino de Santiago
A pilgrim walking on the Camino de Santiago, also known as the "Way of Saint James." (Image credit: Gregory Fish/Shutterstock)

Is religious belief driven by the heart or the head — that is, is it intuition or reason that explains why people believe in god or gods? The answer may be neither: A new study finds that cultural upbringing may explain religious creed.

The finding challenges the standard view among psychologists, who tend to report that religious beliefs come intuitively to people, the researchers said. 

"It is probably about time psychologists reconsider their understanding of belief as 'natural' or 'intuitive,' and instead focus on cultural and social learning factors that give rise to supernatural ideas," the researchers wrote in the study. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]

Three tests

The scientists did three experiments to examine the widely accepted idea that religion is linked to intuition, as well as the lesser-held idea that religion can be explained by reason. In one experiment, 89 pilgrims taking part in the famous Camino de Santiago, or the "Way of Saint James" pilgrimage, completed a cognitive test. They answered questions about the strength of their religious or spiritual beliefs and the length of time they had spent on the pilgrimage. The pilgrims also completed probability tasks that assessed their levels of logical thinking and intuitive, or "gut feeling," thinking.

The results showed no link between religious beliefs and intuitive thinking. Nor was there a link between supernatural beliefs and analytical thinking, the researchers found.

In the second study, 37 people from the United Kingdom had to try to solve mathematical puzzles designed to measure intuition, and also rated their levels of supernatural belief. But, just like the pilgrim experiment, this test found no link between levels of intuitive thinking and religious belief, the researchers found. 

Finally, the researchers looked at the brain itself. Previous research suggested that analytical thinking may inhibit supernatural beliefs. Moreover, brain-imaging studies have indicated that the right inferior frontal gyrus (rIFG), located in the brain's frontal lobe, plays a role in this inhibition. For example, a small 2012 brain-imaging study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience showed that this region was more active in people who had fewer supernatural thoughts.

So the researchers who worked on the new study attached electrodes to the scalps of 90 volunteers from the general public, activating the participants' rIFGs. This activation led to a spike in cognitive inhibition, but it didn't change the participants' levels of supernatural belief. The results suggest that there isn't a direct link between cognitive inhibition (usually caused by analytical thinking, but in this case caused by electrodes) and supernatural thoughts, the scientists said.

Given these results, it's "premature to explain belief in gods as 'intuitive,'" the researchers wrote in the study. Instead, people's spirituality or religiousness likely develops based on their upbringing, culture and education, the researchers said.

"Religious belief is most likely rooted in culture rather than in some primitive gut intuition," lead researcher Miguel Farias, a lecturer and director of studies in psychology at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.

Nature versus nurture

These results buck the prevailing view of religion, said Nathan Cofnas, a doctoral student of philosophy at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the study. [Saint or Spiritual Slacker? Test Your Religious Knowledge]

"[The researchers] pose a big challenge to the view that religion manifests when people turn off their analytical thinking," Cofnas told Live Science in an email.

But this study isn't the last word, Cofnas noted. Other studies show that religiosity is highly heritable. "We know from twin studies that, at least in the American population, genes tend to have a greater influence than (shared) environment on whether someone becomes religious as an adult," he said. "So, there must be some psychological mechanism that varies among people and is associated with different levels of religiosity."

In addition, atheists are generally smarter than religious people, according to studies done in the United States. "The reason for this is not entirely clear, but it's possible that more intelligent people are more likely to reject religion after a rational investigation," Cofnas said.

It's likely true that social and educational factors play major roles in a person's religious beliefs, but core cognitive dispositions may also play a part, Cofnas said.

The study was published online Nov. 8 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.