Analytical Thinking and Faith

Amina Khan:

Does this not need also to be examined from the angle of how we influence our own brains on the basis if what kind of thinking we do?

Scientists have revealed one of the reasons why some folks are less religious than others: They think more analytically, rather than going with their gut. And thinking analytically can cause religious belief to wane — for skeptics and true believers alike.

The study, published in Friday’s edition of the journal Science, indicates that belief may be a more malleable feature of the human psyche than those of strong faith may think.

The cognitive origins of belief — and disbelief — traditionally haven’t been explored with academic rigor, said lead author Will Gervais, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

“There’s been a long-standing intellectual tradition of treating science as one thing and religion as separate, and never the twain shall meet,” he said. But in recent years, he added, there has been a push “to understand religion and why our species has the capacity for religion.”

According to one theory of human thinking, the brain processes information using two systems. The first relies on mental shortcuts by using intuitive responses — a gut instinct, if you will — to quickly arrive at a conclusion. The other employs deliberative analysis, which uses reason to arrive at a conclusion.

Both systems are useful and can run in parallel, the theory goes. But when called upon, analytic thinking can override intuition.

Studies suggest that religious beliefs are rooted in this intuitive processing, Gervais said. So, he wondered, would thinking analytically undermine religious belief as it overrides intuitive thought?

To find out, his research team had college students perform three thinking tasks, each with an intuitive (incorrect) answer and an analytic (correct) answer.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • phil_style

    There’s a lot to unpack in this, which I had spotted a few days back on one the the journal aggregators I read online. I’ve wondered if it would surface here at JC.

    I think there is a general relationship between analytical thinking and a decline in religiosity. But the term religious is so fraught with nuance that it’s really difficult to draw any conclusions at the level of the individual.

    Using the research to make statements bout individuals is a bit like the way some racisms work. It might be more common, statistically for people of a certain race to exhibit trait X, or Y to a higher degree than those from another race, but no individual belonging to either race-group should ever be presumed to exhibit trait X, or Y. And no individual exhibiting trait X, or Y should ever be presumed to come from one of the racial groups.

  • Amos Paul

    Hogwash. All modern schools of thinking and study owe their existence to the history of Christian and other religious roots in establishing them. Moreover, intuitive and analytic thinking inform each one another in the mind of every human being. Presuming to separate the two distinctly is nothing but an illusion.

  • TJJ

    My gut reaction to this study was to mostly reject it. My analytical thinking then caught up with that a few minutes later and informed me there seemed to be a grid of dubious presuppositions behind this study as well as equally questionable interpretation of the results. I think this study tells us far more about those who conducted it than it does about anything else.

    Another possible interpretation: people trained and taught in an overwhelmingly secular atheistic and rationalistic system are more likely to adopt such thinking than those who are not trained and taught in such an enviroment.

  • Adam

    Scott Peck described four stages of Spiritual Development that I think applies here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._Scott_Peck#The_Four_Stages_of_Spiritual_Development)

    He mapped out a path of progression that people normally take.
    Stage 1: chaotic and narcissistic. Most children start here
    Stage 2: blind faith, most fundamentalist mentalities fall here
    Stage 3: skeptic, most science types are found here
    Stage 4: mystic, when you learn to doubt your own doubt

    The fascinating idea is that the scientific skeptic is further on the path of spiritual development than the blind faith person. But that doesn’t mean they’re done with their growth. A person who stays a skeptic is a person who lets their questioning rule them and can even slide back to Stage 2 in their thinking.

  • holdon

    “He mapped out a path of progression that people normally take.”

    Let’s guess: Mr. Peck is at stage 4?

  • MikeW

    I would suppose strictly analytical thinking does undermine faith, just like it would undermine marriage and friendship.

  • Mark Mathewson

    I guess I’m one of the exceptions to the rule. I’m an analytic thinker and was trained (Ph.D.) in analytic philosophy at a “secular” university. Such training (and thinking) has not undermined my Christian beliefs, but rather strengthened them.

  • Charlie Clauss

    Anyone read _Science, Faith, and Society_ by Michael Polanyi and can summarize why it is a ver y strong answer to these issues? (I only have a vague grasp on P’s argument, but think it makes an important contribution).

  • Joshua

    Mark (1:28):

    Did studying analytic philosophy at a secular university challenge your faith? Did you have to nuance it at all?

    TJJ (11:21)

    Then explain seminarians who lose their faith while training for pastoral ministry in Evangelical settings under the supervision of Christian professors. Plenty of Christians have the exact same experience and it’s not just in secular universities.

    I think the study is true of my own experience, in the sense that I began to have some serious doubts in college when I realized that things in the Bible are not as simple as I was led to believe growing up in the church. My professors were all Christians, and my close friends were devoted Christians. The context doesn’t solve the problem (of doubt, that is). This is also true of Christians who prepare for ministry in seminary (as I already implied above).

    Faith isn’t necessarily undermined by reason, but it does challenge it. It has to morph into a new kind of faith. Indeed, it requires MORE faith to continue believing things which we were once certain about, but are no longer certain, but still believe.

  • http://rwtyer.blogspot.com Rory Tyer

    A foundational assumption of this study is that “religious belief” is a discrete and describable entity, assignable to “intuitive” rather than “analytical” thinking (there’s another questionable assumption: that those two are different and differentiable). I’m not sure that a single thing called “religious belief” exists, and I think it is dangerous to generalize about that without paying attention to the plurality of religious truth-claims that actually exist. More importantly, the way these authors frame that concept seems alien to how, e.g., the New Testament uses language of “belief” (and related concepts like “faith”). For them, such terminology is related to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and bears the character of (sometimes counterintuitive) response.

    I guess I would suggest that people whose “religious belief” is challenged by the mere fact of analytical thinking have not in fact practiced belief as the NT authors seem to have conceived it.

  • http://rwtyer.blogspot.com Rory Tyer

    Let me modify that second paragraph a bit: I cannot make claims about how particular people process their beliefs; that is a bit strong. But I do think that what the authors of this study mean by “religious belief” is a sort of phantom that can be questioned and that bears little resemblance to what the authors of the NT mean by similar language.

  • RJS

    Joshua,

    You are right – it has to morph into a new kind of faith. I’ve experienced this as well – at a Christian college and in the secular University. I don’t mean new as in liberal, or unorthodox, or such, but certainly different from the rather simple view taught in most churches. Reason challenges these ideas at a very fundamental level.

    I think it faith can be reconstructed in a healthy fashion – but it helps if churches don’t put up unnecessary barriers and if one has a community to grow in.

  • Joshua

    On another note, I would like to know which questions were specifically asked to gauge peoples’ analytical reasoning skills.

  • Jon G
  • RJS

    Jon G,

    Thanks for that link. I also went and looked at the science article itself. There is a bit more caution there than in some of the reports on the article. The authors note that these results “are silent on long-standing debates about the intrinsic value or rationality of religious beliefs … Instead these results illuminate, through empirical research, one cognitive stage on which such debates are played.” There are threads in the article that do seem to presuppose that religious beliefs are false … but the actual conclusion here is more subtle, and potentially quite useful.

  • Joshua

    The title of the article was a little more divisive than the content, I think. At the end of the article:

    “So does this mean that religious faith can be undermined with just a little extra mental effort? Not really, said Nicholas Epley, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago who was not involved in the study. But it does show that belief isn’t set in stone, but can respond to a person’s context.

    ‘There’s an illusion that our brains are more static than they actually are,’ he said. ‘We have fundamental beliefs and values that we hold, and those things seem sticky, constant. But it’s easier to get movement on something fundamental.’

    As for whether this should alarm the layperson, Epley shrugged. ‘Even deeply religious people will point out they have had moments of doubt,’ he said.”

    I think that changes how one understands the article as a whole significantly.

  • http://www.createdtobelikegod.com theophilus.dr

    One can also take their faith and strengthen it (for themselves) by a detailed study and quantitative analytical approach to the scripture using deductive and inductive reasoning. And they can try to communicate the wonderfulness of their discoveries, assuming they can locate any of the 0.4% of the population who can relate to that type of thinking. The other 99.6% become glassy-eyed within 24.4 +/- 3.8 seconds. I know of a person all too well who has this problem. It’s lonelier than being an analytical Maytag repairman.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I had to go to the internet to find Christianity adequately explained using analytical reasoning. The reason analytical minded folks drop out is because the Christianity typically taught makes no sense. I hope that is changing now….

  • D. Foster

    You can’t deduce that there is a God by analyzing the tangible, sensory world: the reality of God has to be seized by an intuition as you observe the world around you.

    Since analytical people’s epistemology tends to be more or less Empiricist–because they’re prone to thinking along the lines of the tangible, sensory world–they don’t believe in God. Others who go more from the gut are open to other forms of epistemology and thus tend more often to believe in a higher power.

    C.S. Lewis’s 2-page essay, “Meditation In A Toolshed,” deals with this issue in a way I think brings out the underlying approaches people take to belief/unbelief: http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~ivcfgf/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/C-S-Lewis-meditation-in-a-toolshed.pdf

    –Derek

  • http://www.createdtobelikegod.com theophilus.dr

    Derek, thank you for this link.

  • phil_style

    @holdon May 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm
    “Let’s guess: Mr. Peck is at stage 4?”

    unfair.
    Firstly, Peck is dead.
    Secondly, rather than “guess” (in a rhetorical way) why don’t you read the material and check his methodology for determining/ mapping these stages. Did Peck even include himself in the study?

  • holdon

    “unfair.
    Firstly, Peck is dead.
    Secondly, rather than “guess” (in a rhetorical way) why don’t you read the material and check his methodology for determining/ mapping these stages. Did Peck even include himself in the study?”

    Then Peck is now stageless.

    But whence is this desire for stratification of (others would say boxing) people’s “advancements”?

    Are the “religious” thinkers just so dumb that they can’t calculate the factor of a given sum. Because that’s seems to the message here: “religious” people don’t think analytically.

    Back to Peck’s strata: Jesus told us to become and believe as children. Inverse of “advancement”. So much wiser.

  • phil_style

    @Holdon “But whence is this desire for stratification of (others would say boxing) people’s “advancements”?”

    Maybe because there is a trend which is recogniseable over many data points?
    I don’t know where this desire comes from, or even if such a desire exists. The categorization of things is one of the primary skills/ abilities that humans have, it’s rooted in our ability to distinguish one thing from another. Event he Genesis story spells this out as one of man’s primary functions/ skills (naming the animals).

    “Are the “religious” thinkers just so dumb that they can’t calculate the factor of a given sum. Because that’s seems to the message here: “religious” people don’t think analytically.”

    I think you’re misreading the main article. It notes a trend/ spectrum between the intensity of religious belief and the intensity of analytic thinking. Either such a trend is there or it is not. The another of this study says such a trend exists. I have not interrogated the data sets used in the study, but I’m sure they are available if you wish to investigate further, the study was journal published, after all. The research article does not say what you claim it suggests (i.e. it does not say that religious people don’t think analytically).

  • holdon

    “The research article does not say what you claim it suggests (i.e. it does not say that religious people don’t think analytically).”

    Kind of surprised by your statement, because this is what everyone can read:

    “Studies suggest that religious beliefs are rooted in this intuitive processing, Gervais said. So, he wondered, would thinking analytically undermine religious belief as it overrides intuitive thought? To find out, his research team had college students perform three thinking tasks, each with an intuitive (incorrect) answer and an analytic (correct) answer.”

    These are the suppositions:
    Intuitive processing –> religious beliefs
    Intuitive processing –> incorrect answers

    Analytical processing –> correct answers
    Analytical processing –> undermine religious beliefs.

  • phil_style

    @holdon,
    These are the suppositions:
    Intuitive processing –> religious beliefs
    Intuitive processing –> incorrect answers
    Analytical processing –> correct answers
    Analytical processing –> undermine religious beliefs.

    No, you’re reading the work of a journalist, not a researcher. I suggest referring to something other than a write-up in the LA Times.
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120426143856.htm

  • holdon

    Phil o Phil,

    “No, you’re reading the work of a journalist, not a researcher.”

    I quoted: from the journalist who quoted from the researcher: “Gervais said.”

    Now it is entirely possible that the journalist is wrong. But that’s what we have to work with here. And you saying “you haven’t seen the datasets” to conclude anything else to the contrary doesn’t make any sense at all.

    Perhaps you’re too intuitive?

  • phil_style

    Holdon o Holdon, only a small section of your text was quoted from Gervias, the rest was journo-speak + your schematic interpretation of it. The methodological “suppositions” are made clear in the study proper. This is part of the scientific method (identifying assumptions) and one should understand that a media report is not the place to find methodological assumptions.

    So, is the test fair then?
    What are the methodological problems with the tests carried out and the relationships implied?
    Do the types of answers presented in the test represent examples of what you would call “intuitive” and/ or analytic responses? If no, why not?
    Why is it that the tests produced the results correlating with statistically significant variations in the self-reported religious/beliefs of the participants?

  • holdon

    “only a small section of your text was quoted from Gervias, the rest was journo-speak”

    That was the “research article” that I supposedly “misunderstood”. And then you go off and discuss the “study proper”, and say while you haven’t seen the datasets, yet have formed an opinion that I am wrong; not on the conclusions of the study, but on conclusions drawn from the “research article”. ???

    You don’t make much sense to me, sorry.

  • phil_style

    So is anything wrong with the research?


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