These studies demonstrate yet another way in which our thinking tendencies, many of which may be innate, have contributed to religious faith. It may also help explain why the vast majority of Americans tend to believe in God. Since System 2 thinking requires a lot of effort, the majority of us tend to rely on our System 1 thinking processes when possible. Evidence suggests that the majority of us are more prone to believing than being skeptical. According to a 2005 poll by Gallup, 3 out of every 4 Americans hold at least one belief in the paranormal. The most popular of these beliefs are extrasensory perception (ESP), haunted houses, and ghosts. In addition, the results help explain why some of us are more prone to believe that others. Previous research has found that people differ in their tendency to see intentions and causes in the world. These differences in thinking styles could help explain why some of us are more likely to become believers.
Why and how might analytic thinking reduce religious belief? Although more research is needed to answer this question, Gervais and Norenzayan speculate on a few possibilities. For example, analytic thinking may inhibit our natural intuition to believe in supernatural agents that influence the world. Alternatively, analytic thinking may simply cause us to override our intuition to believe and pay less attention to it. It’s important to note that across studies, participants ranged widely in their religious affiliation, gender, and race. None of these variables were found to significantly relate to people’s behavior in the studies.
Gervais and Norenzayan point out that analytic thinking is just one reason out of many why people may or may not hold religious beliefs. In addition, these findings do not say anything about the inherent value or truth of religious beliefs—they simply speak to the psychology of when and why we are prone to believe. Most importantly, they provide evidence that rather than being static, our beliefs can change drastically from situation to situation, without us knowing exactly why.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.