I had an amused reaction to this paper titled Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief by Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan (Science vol. 336, p. 493-496, 27 April 2012) based on a set of studies that looked at the correlation between analytic thinking abilities and beliefs in god. The authors use the language of System 1 and System 2 thinking to describe intuitive and analytic reasoning respectively, terms that that I have discussed in some detail earlier here and here.
The authors say that available evidence suggests a link between dependence on intuitive cognitive processes and belief in god and the supernatural. (I have omitted citations in the quotes for clarity.)
According to dual-process theories of human thinking, there are two distinct but interacting systems for information processing. One (System 1) relies upon frugal heuristics yielding intuitive responses, while the other (System 2) relies upon deliberative analytic processing. Although both systems can at times run in parallel, System 2 often overrides the input of system 1 when analytic tendencies are activated and cognitive resources are available.
Available evidence and theory suggest that a converging suite of intuitive cognitive processes facilitate and support belief in supernatural agents, which is a central aspect of religious beliefs worldwide. These processes include intuitions about teleology, mind-body dualism, psychological immortality, and mind perception. Religious belief therefore bears many hallmarks of System 1 processing.
One of the experiments they did involved asking subjects to solve three simple math puzzles:
- 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? ____cents
- If it takes 5 machines 5 min to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? _____minutes
- In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? _____days
Each of the puzzles suggests an immediate intuitive answer that can be seen to be wrong if people pause for a bit and use analytic thinking. They found that those who answered the questions correctly were more likely to disbelieve in god.
The overall conclusion based on the results of this and the other experiments they did was stated as follows:
[T]he hypothesis that analytic processing—which empirically underlies all experimental manipulations—promotes religious disbelief explains all of these findings in a single framework that is well supported by existing theory regarding the cognitive foundations of religious belief and disbelief.
Of course, the authors recognize that factors other than analytic thinking can also encourage disbelief, saying “Disbelief likely also emerges from selective deficits in the intuitive cognitive processes that enable the mental representation of religious concepts such as supernatural agent beliefs, from secular cultural contexts lacking cues that one should adopt specific religious beliefs, and in societies that effectively guarantee the existential security of their citizens.”
The idea that analytic thinking reduces religious belief will likely provoke a “Well, duh!” response in most of this blog’s readers. But it will be discomfiting to theologians and other sophisticated religious apologists because they pride themselves on being analytical thinkers. Studies such as this that suggest that they are more driven by intuitive System 1 thinking will no doubt be annoying to them.