The Open and Shut (?) Case on Religious Thinking and Cognitive Closure

The Open and Shut (?) Case on Religious Thinking and Cognitive Closure September 25, 2014

It isn’t news that there’s an inverse relation between religious piety and innovative thought. Religion is a handbrake—whether it stops humanity from going uphill or downhill is the real question.

When a new study comes out telling us what we already know about secularity, my secular acquaintances do the I-told-you-so as the religious squint and look for flaws in the statistics.

The latest study, “Forbidden Fruits: The Political Economy of Science, Religion, and Growth,” is the most thorough study yet (see link below). Furthermore, it hits in the pocketbook: religion costs the economy.

Not to ruin the study’s punchline, but both internationally and in the US the secular spots are the innovative spots. And vise versa. In the US, religiosity drags down innovation in all but two of the old Confederate States of America.

What’s up with religion?

Full disclosure: I am a humanist. Most humanists don’t put much credence in the revelations of the various scriptures and traditions of religions. Many of us are agnostic or atheist. We tend to put our trust in reason and the scientific method, ways of thinking predicated on not knowing. We like mystery, because it gives us something to do on long afternoons. We like not knowing what we don’t know.

According to this latest study, the humanist brain is a good place to be if you happen to be an innovative idea. Why? Dr. Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist, has created the theory of “cognitive closure.” His theory examines the fact that some people are more comfortable with ambiguity than others. Humanists eat ambiguity for breakfast. We love it. But some folks search for a definitive answer, even if that answer is . . . well, clearly wrong—an answer with flaws even the believer can see (but chooses to ignore or compartmentalize).

That’s why Dr. Kruglanski gets the call when we try to understand the minds of terrorists. Some of us don’t need closure all that much. But many of us do—whatever the cost to our own reasoning abilities.

Yet, yet. But . . . the question that generated the US portion of the study was this: “are you a religious person, not a religious person, a convinced atheist, or don’t know?”

Those who identify themselves with their (mainline) religions as a primary descriptor will clearly pick “religious person.” But what about those who identify as pagan? Buddhist? The spiritual but not religious? Unitarian Universalists . . .

I happened to grow up in a religious tradition that absolutely required cognitive closure—the sort of folks who build creationist museums. Yet, as an agnostic humanist, I also would tick the box for “religious person.” I think a lot about my values and actions and I work hard to live out my values. To me that’s a religious person.

Yes, there is value in the mounting heap of studies that indicate that religion can be bad for society. But, dear researchers, please avoid cognitive closure! Some of us are spiritual but not religious. And some of us are religious but humanist, drinking ambiguity like an ever-flowing stream.

“Forbidden Fruits: The Political Economy of Science, Religion, and Growth” by
Roland Benabou, Davide Ticchi, Andrea Vindigni

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