Analytical thinking vs. religion

Connor Wood

Is analytical thinking bad for religious belief? Signs point to yes: last month, a study in Science magazine showed that participants who were primed to think analytically – as opposed to intuitively – showed small but significant declines in religious belief. Of course, many commentators and bloggers across the internet have gleefully pounced on these results as proof that religion is for the soft-headed and jejune. But I have a different take – one that acknowledges religion’s irksome and undesirable traits, even as it rolls its eyes at the careless popular storytelling that casts science as a vanquisher of faith.

First, let’s sum up the research paper, published by University of British Columbia psychologists Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan. The paper covers five remarkably clever experiments, each of which measured belief in religious propositions – such as “I believe in God” – after subjects completed tests that required analytical thinking. The first experiment simply tested for correlation: participants were measured both for their baseline analytical thinking skills and their levels of religious belief. As expected, volunteers who were naturally better at analytical reasoning showed less belief in God and other religious concepts.

The four other experiments each investigated causation rather than mere correlation, by priming participants to think more analytically than they normally might. The investigators then compared participants’ performances on analytical reasoning tests and their levels of religious belief with those of control groups who received no priming.

Study 2 primed participants by showing them either Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker” or an image of a discus thrower, with the expectation that volunteers who viewed the Rodin image would be subconsciously primed to think more analytically. Studies 3 and 4 had participants unscramble sentences that either included analytic priming words, such as “analyze” or  “rational,” or neutral words such as “hammer” or “brown.” These two studies differed only in that the latter included a wider range of geographic and income diversity.

Finally, in Study 5 subjects completed their questionnaires on religious beliefs either in a very easy-to-read font or a more difficult one. This strategy was based on previous research showing that reading passages in more challenging typefaces stimulates analytical thinking, as the brain marshals resources to make sense of the confusing lexical data. (I told you these studies were clever!)

As Gervais and Norenzayan expected, in each of the four priming studies volunteers who had been exposed to analytical primes performed better on the ensuing analytical reasoning test than their non-primed fellows. They also showed slightly lower levels of religious belief. The authors convincingly argued that this effect occurs because religious propositions are generally intuitive: that is, religious beliefs are often based on gut feelings that may incorporate a number of unquestioned and cognitively easy assumptions. By contrast, analytical thinking often spurs questioning of these assumptions, which in turn can inspire people to mistrust their intuitive judgments.

The analytical reasoning tests in the five studies essentially work by attempting to “trick” test-takers into opting for cognitively easy – that is, intuitive – answers to questions that actually require a bit more reflection. A common sample question might be, “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The intuitive, gut-level response is that the ball costs ten cents. But a more thoughtful analysis shows that this shoot-from-the-hip answer is misleading. If the ball costs ten cents, and the bat costs one dollar more than the ball, then the price of the bat must be $1.10. This makes the total cost of both bat and ball $1.20. Oops. The correct answer, then, is that the ball costs five cents – but you have to use some analytical thinking to get there.

That analytical thinking requires more energy, and that intuitive thinking is actually our default cognitive strategy as humans, are both evidenced by studies in which subjects who are cognitively overloaded – by being forced to make decisions quickly, say – tend to give more intuitive responses to questionnaire items. To speak crudely, the brain only has so much juice. If most of that juice is taken up by other tasks, then our decision-making apparatus defaults back to intuitive mode.

So, the chain of causation is relatively clear: religious beliefs (especially beliefs about life after death and a purpose in the universe) are intuitive. Intuitive beliefs are low-energy; deconstructing them analytically takes energy and investment. But once analytical cognitive processes are triggered, intuitive beliefs quickly become vulnerable to analytic skepticism and may be discarded accordingly.

But wait. Does all this mean that analytical thinking is better than intuition? Perhaps counterintuitively (pun intended), the answer is no. While contemporary Western culture tends to value analytical thinking over intuition, intuitive and analytical thinking are actually two different cognitive strategies that are adaptive in different contexts. Analysis is excellent for comprehending logical connections and explicit linguistic data. It’s also highly useful for solving puzzles and riddles, and for understanding causal chains of events (think police detectives gathering clues at a crime scene).

Intuition, meanwhile, is useful for assimilating a large amount of subtle data quickly and producing an emotionally weighted response that urges one decision over another. It’s ideal for situations where there isn’t enough time to carefully catalogue all the pros and cons – as Benjamin Franklin recommended – in a neat handwritten list. It’s also good for dealing with highly complex systems, such as the wealth of emotional data that is registered subconsciously on other’s faces as we interact with them – data that can be crucial for making social, romantic, or professional decisions, but which often isn’t even registered by the conscious mind.

In fact, there’s good reason to think that analytical reasoning can actually impair sound decision-making in contexts where intuition is the better strategy. A 1991 study at the University of Washington found that research subjects who were asked to analyze their decisions about which courses to take made suboptimal choices when compared with controls who were simply asked to decide based on immediate data. More recently, research into the condition known as alexithymia – which makes it difficult for sufferers to access or interpret their own emotional states – has shown that the absence of emotional, intuitive input actually retards decision-making abilities, especially the ability to learn from and adapt to poor decisions.

These studies don’t mean that analytical thinking is somehow undesirable, or that over-reliance on intuitive thinking doesn’t lead to trouble (it does). Instead, what they mean is that we have these different cognitive strategies for a reason, and that we need them both, probably equally. Most people rely more on intuition than analysis, but in balance most people have access to both strategies, and we do a fairly good job in our quotidian lives of choosing which strategy is best for which situations. It’s in novel or taxing situations, such as analytical reasoning tests, that we make mistakes and use the wrong strategy.

So the question remains: if intuition and analysis are both useful, but in different situations, which is the best strategy for answering religious questions? It’s obvious that analytical thinking is better for nailing trick questions on surveys. Some very smart people would argue that it’s also the right way to understand belief in spiritual realities. For instance, Deb Kelemen, a psychologist at Boston University, has found that both children and adults are cognitively predisposed to see purpose, or teleology, in the world where there often isn’t. And Washington University anthropologist Pascal Boyer has famously suggested that human brains are hardwired to over-detect agents, or beings that have plans and intentions, in the environment. These models suggest that our brains are evolved to provide us with misleading intuitions about spirits, invisible agents, and purpose in the universe. Analytical thinking should be applied to these intuitions to deconstruct them and uncover the truth.

Boyer, Kelemen, and many researchers like them put forth good arguments, and they should be taken seriously by anyone who is genuinely interested in these questions. But it should also be noted that those arguments are anticipated by the writings of many of the great religious thinkers and philosophers in history. These thinkers have often argued that analytical reasoning is precisely the wrong tool with which to grasp at spiritual things. The Spanish novelist Miguel de Unamuno, for example, wrote that

God goes out to meet him who seeks Him with love and by love, and hides Himself from him who searches for Him with the cold and loveless reason.

Meanwhile, the Mundaka Upanishad, an important Vedantic Hindu scripture, admonishes that “Not through much learning is the Atman [spirit] reached, not through the intellect or sacred teaching.” This insufficiency of the raw intellect and logic to comprehend Brahman (the supreme reality in Vedanta) is a major recurring theme in Upanishadic literature.

To switch religions yet again: in Muslim philosophy, the intellect, or Aql, operates on two levels – the lower level of reason or logic, and the higher plane of universal intellect. Both are vital, but the higher intellect is said to rule over the lower. Relying on pure logic alone is epistemologically hazardous, since it doesn’t encompass all of reality.

The writers and thinkers behind these arguments would probably shrug, then, at the paper by Gervais and Norenzayan. It would seem to them as redundant and self-evident as a paper arguing that the eyes are not good instruments for listening to music with, or that one should not attempt to play badminton holding the racket with one’s feet. “Of course analytical reasoning conceals spiritual realities from consciousness,” they’d say, disinterested. “That’s what it does. Say, what’s for lunch?”

But these claims won’t necessarily convince someone who sees religious thought as basically deluded. What seems obvious is that there is a discrepancy in prestige between analytical and intuitive thinking in our culture, and that part of the flurry surrounding Gervais’s and Norenzayan’s paper may be because of this. Perhaps this status differential is as it should be – intuitive thinking really can lead us astray, especially when applied in situations for which it is not the optimal strategy. But the literature on decision-making suggests that intuitive, emotionally laden judgments are crucially valuable in many circumstances; indeed, sufferers of alexithymia (as well as their exasperated friends and loved ones) can quickly tell you that a decision-making apparatus severed from emotional data is profoundly maladaptive.

Full disclosure: as a researcher who studies religion in its many forms across cultures, I tend to err on the side of taking seriously the billions of people across the world who say that religious experience is a fundamental part of their lives. I also think it’s interesting that the people who claim that religious believers are deluded or misled by their intuitions tend to be white, highly educated, and privileged. Analytical reasoning in our culture is usually associated with higher status (and, interestingly, with males), while intuition is subtly dismissed as being for people lower down on the social ladder (and females). This is a dynamic I chafe at. If I am in a developing country and a local resident tells me she thinks there is a jaguar in the woods today, I would be a fool not to trust her. She knows those woods. If she then tells me God seems to her to be part of her life, who am I to tell her that she is stupid, lacking in analytical thought, and deluded? What do I know of the world as she lives in it? Am I an expert in her spiritual landscape?

The famous skeptic and paranormal debunker Martin Gardner, one of the founders of the Skeptical Inquirer, was paradoxically a strong theist. He wrote about math for a living, and introduced millions of Americans to the beauty of probability, the Fibonacci sequence, many famous mathematical brain teasers. He died in 2010. During his lifetime, there were very few other human beings alive who could safely claim to have better analytical reasoning skills than him. Rather than continue to press my point, I’ll close this post with a quote from this brilliant man, who mastered analytical reasoning but deeply understood the value of other modes of thought:

No more can be said. The leap of faith, in its inner nature, remains opaque. I understand it as little as I understand the essence of a photon. Any of the … possible causes of belief … may be involved in God’s way of promoting the leap. I do not know, I do not know!


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