Does Analytic Thinking Erode Religious Belief?

The following first appeared on Religion Dispatches. Read more and sign up for their free newsletter here.

By Andrew Aghapour

I have some secrets for you; feel free to tell everyone. Psychopaths have distinct types of brains, and so do left-handed people. Bar Mitzvahs aid myelination, the conversion of gray-matter neurons into white-matter neurons. Bragging makes us feel really good, which is why Facebook is better than sex. If that concerns you, don’t worry, because the pharmaceutical industry is going to save marriage. Shakespeare tickles the visual association cortexDopamine makes us do bad things, but meditation makes your brain quicker. Bloody Mary (the apparition, not the drink) is probably a facial recognition error. Babies are a little bit racist.

Like the zombies that populate our screens, Americans have an immense appetite for brains. Most of the above stories come from just the past month, and they are only a small sample of neuroscience’s prominent circulation in the news cycle. Neuroscience can tell us who we are, how we can improve ourselves, and why other people act in the strange ways that they do. In an increasingly complex world, brains seem to somehow point back to the one thing that all humans have in common.

Perhaps because of the high demand for news about the brain, media coverage of neuroscience is notoriously sketchy. In a recent article in the journal Neuron, the authors lament the ways that popular neuroscience is used to artificially “underline differences between categories of people in ways that [are] symbolically layered and socially loaded.” In other words, research about the brain is often stretched and extended to support existing stereotypes about race, sex, class, and religion. Neuroscience is new enough, and our desire for brain facts is strong enough, that dubious claims about brain types circulate widely.

A Trio of Wacky Experiments

Take, for example, the latest Neuroscience-of-Religion news item to make the rounds, this one claiming that critical thinking undermines religious belief. Based on two studies from The Journal of Experimental Psychologies and Science, it has been picked up by The AtlanticThe Huffington Post, and (unsurprisingly) RichardDawkins.net.

In the Scientific American article that activated the echo chamber, Daisy Grewal claims that we possess two different ways of thinking: intuitive thinking, which relies on shortcuts, rules of thumb, and commonsense ideas; and analytic thinking, which questions our rapid-fire intuitions, but is much slower and more energy intensive. According to some “clever techniques,” Grewal states, psychologists have examined whether analytic thinking “leads people away from believing in God and religion.” Presumably belief in God here represents intuitive thinking, and sober scientific analysis represents the energy-intensive act of systematically questioning one’s beliefs.

Experiment two was a bit more subtle:Three clever experiments allegedly indicate that critical thinking undermines religious belief, though the experiments range from dubious to just plain wacky. Experiment one had participants view images of artwork that were either “neutral” (e.g. the Discobulus of Myron, right) or associated with reflective thinking (e.g. “The Thinker”). Participants then filled out a survey about their religiosity, and those who viewed “reflective” artwork reported weaker religious beliefs.

Participants received sets of five randomly arranged words (e.g. “high winds the flies plane”) and were asked to drop one word and rearrange the others in order to create a more meaningful sentence (e.g. “the plane flies high”). Some of their participants were given scrambled sentences containing words associated with analytic thinking (e.g. “analyze,” “reason”) and other participants were given sentences that featured neutral words (e.g. “hammer,” “shoes”). After unscrambling the sentences, participants filled out a survey about their religious beliefs. In both studies, this subtle reminder of analytic thinking caused participants to express less belief in God and religion. The researchers found no relationship between participants’ prior religious beliefs and their performance in the study. Analytic thinking reduced religious belief regardless of how religious people were to begin with.

In a third experiment, psychologists had participants fill out a survey measuring their religious beliefs that was printed in either an easy- or difficult-to-ready font, since previous research has indicated that difficult fonts promote analytic thinking. Participants who filled out the difficult-to-read expressed less belief than those who filled out the same survey in an easy to read font.

Grewal’s claim is that the act of analytic thinking corrodes religious belief, such that sentence-scrambling or even being reminded of reflection leads people to become less religious. Yet there are two fundamental problems with this scientific story, and they will take us from St. Thomas Aquinas to Canadian undergraduates.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Atheist

Problem One is the assumption that religious and non-religious belief can fit neatly into two cognitive boxes, where “intuitive thinking” is religious and “analytic thinking” is rational and secular. Even if there are two distinctive cognitive operations, it isn’t clear that the rich and diverse mental lives of religious and nonreligious people will align with these two thought styles. “Intuitive thinking,” characterized by mental shortcuts and rules of thumb, is a fundamental part of human cognitive life, no matter what one’s religious beliefs. Every day the world around us changes: the appearances of those around us alter slightly; the path to work loses and gains landmarks; the market features a new array of foods and shifting prices. “Intuitive thinking” involves collapsing these minor differences into stable wholes so that we don’t, say, lose sight of our car when it is covered in pollen.

Similarly, “analytic thinking” is a powerful cognitive tool that can be applied in a variety of contexts, from questioning our assumptions about a political candidate to analyzing a text, television show, or conversation. These generalized styles of thinking can equally apply to religious belief or nonbelief. Religious believers and nonbelievers alike fall into fast and frugal “rules of thumb” about the world, and both engage in analytic thought about texts, ideas, relationships, and objects. To see past Grewal’s artificial division between “intuition/religion” and “analysis/nonbelief” we need only look to Christian theology, which involves deeply analytic and critical modes of thinking, but which is more or less associated with religious thinkers. If Grewal’s binary were accurate, in other words, St. Thomas Aquinas should have been an atheist!

Problem Two is serious methodological flaws in the experiments that Grewal cites: they are based on surveys, where isolated groups of people are asked to self-report on their religious beliefs. People are notoriously difficult to pin down on issues of belief—for many, religiosity is a private and shifting dimension of identity, so much so that the answers to questions about religion are likely to be influenced by the setting and the questioner at hand.

If these “clever” experiments do tell a common story, it isn’t about critical thinking and belief, but about the population that was surveyed. According to the Science article that Grewal cites, these experiments were primarily based on surveys of Canadian undergraduates, a population that we would expect to be somewhat malleable on the subject of religion. We should not be surprised, then, that undergraduates faced with “The Thinker” or a puzzle loaded with the words “analyze” and “reason” would self-report less religiosity; it would be much the same as someone downplaying religious belief in conversation with an agnostic scientist.

To take heed of the recent call to be careful with how we inflate and extend neuroscientific findings, we should all try to be a bit more like St. Thomas Aquinas and use “analytic” thinking to parse claims like Grewal’s about religion. Where our intuitive impulse might be to align critical thought with science and uncritical intuition with religion, the picture is actually much more complicated and interesting. Although it won’t make many front pages, there is still a fascinating headline to be found here: “Canadian Undergraduates, Prompted with Analytic Exercises, Are Influenced to Self-Report Less Religiosity.”


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9 Responses to Does Analytic Thinking Erode Religious Belief?

  1. My speculation is that people who are not very motivated to whole-heartedly take up spiritual life as the only sane way to live, will endlessly come up with “new” subjects to consider. As death can call on any of us at any moment, what is the value of discussions of this nature?

  2. Yes, Maharaj Parikshit asked Sukadev Goswami what subject matter one should hear about if one was about to die. Srila Prabhupada said that Parikshit Maharaj kenw he had 7 days before death would come, but that death could come to us at any moment.

    Srila Vyasadeva begins Srimad Bhagawatam by engaging in analytical thinking. In the very first sloka he points out that the Absolute Truth has the characteristic of being the Source from which everything emanates. Also, that the material creation is a subordinate energy of that Truth. Also, that even the demigods are under the illusory sway of the inferior energy of the Absolute Truth. And most significantly, that that Absolute Truth has appeared on our planet earth as the son of Vasudev and Devaki.

    Srila Vyasadev continues delivering the analytical context by making a most significant discrimination. Although the subject matter of the Vedas is largely about religiosity (dharma), economic developement (artha), sense gratification (kama) and liberation (moksha), he rejects these orientations, pointing out, as Narada Muni had counseled him, that these goals are for less intelligent, short-sighted persons, who would neither be satisfied by such persuits, nor freed from the cycle of birth and death. And therefore Srila Vyasadeva directs us to engage in pure unalloyed devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

    Later on in Srimad Bhagavatam, Prahlada Maharaja tells us that this pure devotional service is cultivated thrugh nine forms activity, beginning with hearing and chanting about the Name, Fame, Forms, Qualities, and Pastimes of the the Supreme Lord.

    Most of what is commonly referred to as religion on this planet is exactly what Vyasa is rejecting as “cheating religions”, since they side-step the constitutional devotional nature of the soul, and encourage people to approach God with the goal of implicating them more deeply in the realm of material attachment.

    Krishna makes similar discriminations in Bhagavad-gita in various ways. And Srila Rupa Goswami also deliniates the nature of pure devotional service in his Bhaktirasamrita Sindhu.

    All of these literatures encourage us to make fine discriminations by engaging our analytical capacitites. Regardging the idea that such analytical activity tends to decrease our attraction to spitirual subjects, Maharaja Parikshit is engaged in hearing this material, calmly awaiting his death, and remarks that he is so pleased with the analytic dicsussion that hunger and thirst are not affecting him in the least.

    It may very well be that the conclusion reached by the experiments described in the article are simply the contention held by the researcher, viz., that spiritual persuit is for those of lesser brain substance, but that those who can actually think will delete such considerations from their minds.

    Actually the opposite is the truth. Srimad Bhagavatam asserts that those who have superior brain substance will be attracted to the movement of Lord Chaitanya. And, simultaneously, addressing the subject of “Eat, Pray, Kill” which is receiving a lot of attention on this site at the moment, Srimad Bhagavatam states that those who eat animals will not be capable of appreciating the analytical discussions presented in that literature.

    In other words such persons are not capable of thinking analytically even as their very lives are depending on it. Certainly they will atempt to engage in analytical thinking, but inevitably their so-called scientific conclusions are dysfunctional, causing them to revolve endlessly in the terrible cycle of birth and death. Let us pray for the compassion that will motivate us to extend a helping hand to such beings.

  3. Perhaps the photo of the gorilla is there to depict the atheistic scientist as he/she may appear in a future birth, as a reward for trying to prove that their thinking capacity will remove them from the arena of God-consciousness.

    Even though smoking causes lung cancer the Camel smoker is quoted as saying he would rather fight than switch.

    Simlarly, the so-called scientist is saying she would rather take birth as a gorilla before agreeing to engage the mind in the subject of Srimad Bhagawatam.

    Srila Prabhupada tells the story of the donkey who has fallen into the stool pit. The donkey is up to his neck in stool, but he is very much attracted to eating the green grass that is growing at the edge of the pit. so when someone puts a rope around him and tries to pull him from the pit, the donkey digs in his heels in resistance, for fear that he will loose the chance to eat that grass.

    In the same way the atheist scientist holds fast to his so-called freedom of analytical thinking.

  4. The Bhagavatam describes that reading material that does not glorify the name and deeds of Krishna to be a place of pilgrimage for crow-like men. It is refuse or simply garbage.

  5. In recent forays into the explanation of love from the perspective of neuroscience, I am left to conclude that the state or conditioning of the brain itself is a result of the influence of karma. I then met a neuroscientist a few weeks ago who was attending a workshop to experience a non-ordinary state of reality through holotropic breathing. I stated to her that I see life as fundamentally faith-based and that we are essentially always engaged in the process of “fishing for faith” (I did not say in what). She responded by saying that she was not fishing for faith and her ‘experience’ as she described it seemed to be the darkest of all. Her perspective prevented her from seeing the forest for the trees.

    This article does a fantastic job of showing how modern studies are couched in language that is misleading and faulty. It is definitely on the agenda of the global elite to promote secular humanism / atheism as being the superior to religion and mysticism.

    If analytic thinking erodes religious belief, the jiva was already lacking in real faith, which is not actually belief. Real faith lives and breaths and is constantly renewed. Belief is static and non-adaptive, which is why analytic thinking could actually erode it. Asking somebody what they believe is a trick question, because to believe is to not actually know. Belief is unnecessary if one knows.

  6. Lalasamayi Sullivan

    I confess I only scanned this one, but the gist to me is that our world society has promulgated the notion that science, analytic thinking, reason, and so forth are fact, are “serious” subjects; while metaphysical subjects, God, spirituality, religion, and so forth are in the realm of “hocus pocus” because they cannot be proven materially. And even though a truly religious Canadian/whatever nationality person is still, on immediate impulse, patterned to follow group think, albeit un/subconsciously (and I speak of consciously here only in the usual sense). They (we) are conditioned from birth to follow societal norms. These are typically young, intelligent students who, for whatever reason (and there are, I believe, two viable ones mentioned) default to that mode.
    It’s an interesting, if sad, commentary on the prejudicial nature of our LACK of grounding in true reality in our Age of Kali-yuga.

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