Religious Faithfuls Lack Logic, Study Implies

Christophe Lehenaff/Getty Images

A rare and controversial study merging science and faith suggests that analytic thinking, a process that favors reason over intuition, promotes religious disbelief.

Canadian researchers used math puzzles and "priming," a technique that plants  subtle suggestions in pictures and text, to persuade more than 650 believers and non-believers to think analytically. They then used surveys to probe religious beliefs, from faith in God to the power of prayer.

"If you can get people to engage in analytic thinking, whether it's by looking at pictures or showing them difficult-to-read text, analytic thinking promotes religious disbelief," said Will Gervais, a PhD student in psychology at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the study published today in the  journal Science. "This indicates that analytic thinking is one of many factors affecting people's religious beliefs."

In the first of five tests, people who solved a math problem analytically rather than arriving at the intuitive answer were more likely to report religious disbelief. For example: 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 answer is $0.10; the analytic answer is $0.05.

In the second test, subjects were randomly assigned to look at one of four images. Those who viewed Rodin's "The Thinker," which was previously found to prime analytic thinking, reported having weaker religious beliefs. The third and fourth tests used words like "think," "reason," and "rational" to prime analytic thinking, which was also linked to religious disbelief.

In the fifth test, 91 people who rated their religious beliefs on a survey in a hard-to-read font were more likely to report religious disbelief than 91 subjects given the same questions in an easy-to-read font. The difference in font is a subtler way to prime analytic thinking, Gervais said.

"If people find something hard to process, it engages analytic thinking," he said. "It's a neat manipulation."

Intuitive thinking, a mental shortcut that bypasses reason, is linked to stronger religious beliefs.

"It's largely intuitive processes that let people form religious beliefs," said Gervais. "If you're surrounded by a lot of other religious people publically demonstrating their faith, you're more likely to develop those beliefs."

The study does little to calm the culture clash between science and religion.

"Religion versus science; believers versus atheists; our evidence doesn't say much about those debates," said Gervais. "But it sheds light on one cognitive factor that may influence where people stand on those debates.

It also challenges the notion that religious beliefs are set in stone.

"People have this impression that they're really core, central beliefs that don't change. But we know people's religious beliefs can vary across situations and across their lifespan," Gervais said.

But devout believers may be shocked to hear their faith can wax and wane with tricky tests.

"I suppose some people might find it surprising," Gervais said, "that really subtle experimental manipulations might be able to temporarily alter religious beliefs."