Many people with religious convictions feel that their faith is rock solid. But a new study finds that prompting people to engage in analytical thinking can cause their religious beliefs to waver, if only a little. Researchers say the findings have potentially significant implications for understanding the cognitive underpinnings of religion.

Psychologists often carve thinking into two broad categories: intuitive thinking, which is fast and effortless (instantly knowing whether someone is angry or sad from the look on her face, for example); and analytic thinking, which is slower and more deliberate (and used for solving math problems and other tricky tasks). Both kinds of thinking have their strengths and weaknesses, and they often seem to interfere with one another. "Recently there's been an emerging consensus among [researchers] … that a lot of religious beliefs are grounded in intuitive processes," says Will Gervais, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada and a co-author of the new study, published today in Science.

One example comes from a study by neuroscientist and philosopher Joshua Greene and colleagues at Harvard University, published last September in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. They asked hundreds of volunteers recruited online to answer three questions with appealingly intuitive answers that turn out to be wrong. For example, "A bat and ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?" Although $0.10 comes easily to mind (it's the intuitive answer), it takes some analytical thought to come up with the correct answer of $0.05. People who chose more intuitive answers on these questions were more likely to report stronger religious beliefs, even when the researchers controlled for IQ, education, political leanings, and other factors.

In the same study, another group of volunteers wrote a paragraph about a time in their lives when either following their intuition or careful reasoning led to a good outcome. Those who wrote about intuition reported stronger religious beliefs on a questionnaire taken immediately afterward. If intuitive thinking encourages religious belief, as Greene's study suggested, analytical thinking might encourage disbelief—or so Gervais and his adviser, social psychologist Ara Norenzayan, hypothesized.

To test this idea, the duo devised several ways to subconsciously put people in what they considered a more analytical mindset. In one experiment with 57 undergraduate students, some volunteers viewed artwork depicting a reflective thinking pose (such as Rodin's The Thinker) while others viewed art depicting less intellectual pursuits (such as throwing a discus) before answering questionnaires about their faith. In another experiment with 93 undergraduates and a larger sample of 148 American adults recruited online, some subjects solved word puzzles that incorporated words such as "analyze," "reason," and "ponder," while others completed similar puzzles with only words unrelated to thinking, such as "high" and "plane." In all of these experiments, people who got the thinking-related cues reported weaker religious beliefs on the questionnaires taken afterward than did the control group.

In a final experiment, Gervais and Norenzayan asked 182 volunteers to answer a religious questionnaire as usual, while others answered the same questionnaire printed in a hard-to-read font, which previous studies have found promotes analytic thinking. And indeed, those who had to work harder to comprehend the questionnaire rated their religious beliefs lower.

Because people were randomly assigned to the analytical-thinking and control groups, and because the results were consistent across all their experiments, Gervais says it's very unlikely the findings could result from one group being more religious to begin with. Moreover, in two of these experiments, the researchers administered religious belief questionnaires to the participants a few weeks beforehand and found no difference between the groups.

The effects of the analytical-thinking manipulations were modest. "We're not turning people into atheists," says Gervais. Rather, when the questionnaire responses of all subjects in an experiment are taken together, they indicate a small shift away from religious belief.

"It's very difficult to distinguish between what a person believes and what they say they believe," says Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate at Princeton University who has done pioneering work on the contributions of intuitive and analytical thinking to human decision making. "All they have shown, and all that can be shown, is that when you're thinking more critically you reject statements that otherwise you would endorse," Kahneman says. "It tells you that there are some religious beliefs people hold that if they were thinking more critically, they themselves would not endorse."

To Gervais and Norenzayan, the findings suggest that intuitive thinking, likely along with other cognitive and cultural factors, is a key ingredient in religious belief. Greene agrees: "Through some combination of culture and biology, our minds are intuitively receptive to religion." He says, "If you're going to be unreligious, it's likely going to be due to reflecting on it and finding some things that are hard to believe."

"In some ways this confirms what many people, both religious and nonreligious, have said about religious belief for a long time, that it's more of a feeling than a thought," says Nicholas Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. But he predicts the findings won't change anyone's mind about whether God exists or whether religious belief is rational. "If you think that reasoning analytically is the way to go about understanding the world accurately, you might see this as evidence that being religious doesn't make much sense," he says. "If you're a religious person, I think you take this evidence as showing that God has given you a system for belief that just reveals itself to you as common sense."

ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of the journal Science

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GALLERY: SCIENTISTS' THOUGHTS ON GOD
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  • Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

    "The impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for 
the existence of God." <strong>Clarification</strong>: <em>The full quote, from <a href="http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-8837" target="_hplink">one of Darwin's letters</a>, carries a different sentiment. A young admirer <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16949157" target="_hplink">asked Darwin about his religious views</a> (the original inquiry is lost), and the great naturalist answered: "It is impossible to answer your question briefly; and I am not sure that I could do so, even if I wrote at some length. But I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide."</em>

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958-

    "So you're made of detritus [from exploded stars]. Get over it. Or better yet, celebrate it. After all, what nobler thought can one cherish than that the universe lives within us all?" --American astrophysicist and science commentator

  • Stephen Hawking (1942-)

    "What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn't prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary." --English physicist and cosmologist

  • Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

    "Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual...The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both." --American astrophysicist

  • Francis Collins (1950-)

    "Science is...a powerful way, indeed - to study the natural world. Science is not particularly effective...in making commentary about the supernatural world. Both worlds, for me, are quite real and quite important. They are investigated in different ways. They coexist. They illuminate each other." --American physician-geneticist and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute

  • Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)

    "Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time" --American biochemist and science fiction writer

  • Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

    <strong>Clarification</strong>: <em>While the <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/17/science/17einsteinw.html" target="_hplink">New York Times noted</a> that "Einstein consistently characterized the idea of a personal God who answers prayers as naive, and life after death as wishful thinking," he also "described himself as an 'agnostic' and 'not an atheist.'" One ambiguous quote, from <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=58HQXMp1ESwC&pg=PA92&lpg=PA92&dq=einstein+phyllis+wright&source=bl&ots=zn6BlmXlY4&sig=DxDgqkMMwMaJ9pgUVmgwih4WbQE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=2NY6T6euHIbr0gHC4PivCw&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAjgK#v=onepage&q=einstein phyllis wright&f=false" target="_hplink">Einstein's response to a letter from a sixth-grade student named Phyllis Wright</a>, reads "Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe - a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive."</em> --German physicist, created theory of general relativity.

  • Max Planck (1858-1947)

    "It was not by accident that the greatest thinkers of all ages were deeply religious souls." --German physicist, noted for work on quantum theory

  • Erwin Schroedinger (1887-1961)

    "I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experiences in a magnificently consistent order, but is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, god and eternity." --Austrian physicist, awarded Nobel prize in 1933

  • Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

    "In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining...I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world." --British biophysicist renowned for her work on X-ray diffraction.

  • William H. Bragg (1862-1942)

    "From religion comes a man's purpose; from science, his power to achieve it. Sometimes people ask if religion and science are not opposed to one another. They are: in the sense that the thumb and fingers of my hands are opposed to one another. It is an opposition by means of which anything can be grasped." --British physicist, chemist, and mathematician. Awarded Nobel Prize in 1915

  • Richard Feynman (1918-1988)

    "God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand." --American physicist, awarded Nobel Prize in 1965

  • Wernher Von Braun (1912-1977)

    "I find it as difficult to understand a scientist who does not acknowledge the presence of a superior rationality behind the existence of the universe as it is to comprehend a theologian who would deny the advances of science." --German-American rocket scientist

  • Richard Dawkins (1941-)

    "The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and towards atheism. Complex, statistically improbable things are by their nature more difficult to explain than simple, statistically probable things." --British evolutionary biologist

  • Nevill Mott (1905-1996)

    "Science can have a purifying effect on religion, freeing it from beliefs of a pre-scientific age and helping us to a truer conception of God. At the same time, I am far from believing that science will ever give us the answers to all our questions." --English physicist, awarded Nobel Prize in 1977

  • Fred Hoyle (1915-2001)

    "A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question." --English mathematician and astronomer.

  • Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

    "Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor - but they have few followers now" --British science fiction author and inventor

  • Walter Kohn (1923-)

    "I am very much a scientist, and so I naturally have thought about religion also through the eyes of a scientist. When I do that, I see religion not denominationally, but in a more, let us say, deistic sense. I have been influence in my thinking by the writing of Einstein who has made remarks to the effect that when he contemplated the world he sensed an underlying Force much greater than any human force. I feel very much the same. There is a sense of awe, a sense of reverence, and a sense of great mystery." --American theoretical physicist, awarded Nobel Prize in 1998

  • Sam Harris (1967-)

    "Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious." --American neuroscientist

  • Victor J. Stenger (1935-)

    "With pantheism...the deity is associated with the order of nature or the universe itself...when modern scientists such as Einstein and Stephen Hawking mention 'God' in their writing, this is what they seem to mean: that God is Nature." --American physicist