Why are some people more religious than others? Answers to this question often focus on the role of culture or upbringing. While these influences are important, new research suggests that whether we believe may also have to do with how much we rely on intuition versus analytical thinking. In 2011 Amitai Shenhav, David Rand and Joshua Greene of Harvard University published a paper showing that people who have a tendency to rely on their intuition are more likely to believe in God. They also showed that encouraging people to think intuitively increased people’s belief in God. Building on these findings, in a recent paper published in Science, Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia found that encouraging people to think analytically reduced their tendency to believe in God. Together these findings suggest that belief may at least partly stem from our thinking styles.
Gervais and Norenzayan’s research is based on the idea that we possess two different ways of thinking that are distinct yet related. Understanding these two ways, which are often referred to as System 1 and System 2, may be important for understanding our tendency towards having religious faith. System 1 thinking relies on shortcuts and other rules-of-thumb while System 2 relies on analytic thinking and tends to be slower and require more effort. Solving logical and analytical problems may require that we override our System 1 thinking processes in order to engage System 2. Psychologists have developed a number of clever techniques that encourage us to do this. Using some of these techniques, Gervais and Norenzayan examined whether engaging System 2 leads people away from believing in God and religion.
For example, they had participants view images of artwork that are associated with reflective thinking (Rodin’s The Thinker) or more neutral images (Discobulus of Myron). Participants who viewed The Thinker reported weaker religious beliefs on a subsequent survey. However, Gervais and Norenzayan wondered if showing people artwork might have made the connection between thinking and religion too obvious. In their next two studies, they created a task that more subtly primed analytic thinking. Participants received sets of five randomly arranged words (e.g. “high winds the flies plane”) and were asked to drop one word and rearrange the others in order to create a more meaningful sentence (e.g. “the plane flies high”). Some of their participants were given scrambled sentences containing words associated with analytic thinking (e.g. “analyze,” “reason”) and other participants were given sentences that featured neutral words (e.g. “hammer,” “shoes”). After unscrambling the sentences, participants filled out a survey about their religious beliefs. In both studies, this subtle reminder of analytic thinking caused participants to express less belief in God and religion. The researchers found no relationship between participants’ prior religious beliefs and their performance in the study. Analytic thinking reduced religious belief regardless of how religious people were to begin with.
In a final study, Gervais and Norenzayan used an even more subtle way of activating analytic thinking: by having participants fill out a survey measuring their religious beliefs that was printed in either clear font or font that was difficult to read. Prior research has shown that difficult-to-read font promotes analytic thinking by forcing participants to slow down and think more carefully about the meaning of what they are reading. The researchers found that participants who filled out a survey that was printed in unclear font expressed less belief as compared to those who filled out the same survey in the clear font.