Thinking Styles and Religious Belief

Jonathan Morgan

Left and right brain hemispheres sketchy doodlesDid you know you have two minds?  Over the past decade, psychologists and cognitive scientists have been slowly building a consensus around this idea.  They talk about it in different ways.  Some say we have a rational mind and an intuitive mind.  Others argue (and I think they’re right) that both minds are rational, so it’s better to say “reflective” and intuitive.  Regardless of what you call them, the theory is becoming more and more persuasive.  It’s established enough to earn the psychologist Daniel Kahneman a Nobel Prize in economics!  He, by the way, just called them System 1 and 2- not super creative.  If this is how our mind is organized, where do religious beliefs, or religious experiences, fit in?

Before getting to the place of religion in the brain, it’s worth describing what I even mean by two different minds.  The theory is that we have an evolutionarily older mind that can process information incredibly quickly.  You can think of this mind, the intuitive and fast mind, like gut feelings- they’re not always right but they’re pretty good most of the time.  The other mind, the reflective and slow mind, works through conscious thoughtful reflection.  Like when you do a math problem- that process of sitting and figuring it out is engaging the reflective mind.

It’s tempting to think about these as rational versus emotional, or conscious versus unconscious, but it’s not quite that simple.  The theory has to do with different ways of processing information and it turns out that both minds can be conscious or unconscious.  Likewise, both have blends of emotion and reason.  That’s a really brief and dirty sketch of a complex theory.

I bring up the theory, because there are growing attempts to understand how religion fits into this picture of the mind.  Is religious belief an intuitive process or is it more reflective?  Even asking the question like this assumes a lot about what religion is, but I’ll get to that.

Evolutionary scientists Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, came out with an article last year in Science that bluntly states “Analytical Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief.”  The research, which draws on the theory above, sought to study the effects of the two systems on religious belief.

In a series of studies they had participants do different tasks to activate their reflective mind.  For example, in one study students were asked to rearrange sentences that contained words like “analyze,” “reason,” or “rational.”  Apparently that’s sufficient to prime the reflective mind. Then they were given surveys asking about their religious beliefs.

The findings showed a modest decrease in reported religious belief after being primed with these analytical tasks.  Gervais and Norenzayan are careful to not draw overly direct associations- they don’t talk about the rationality or value of religious beliefs.  Norenzayan’s past work makes me trust that he isn’t making overly simplified statements about religion.  But this research fits with a growing body of scientists who are arguing that religious belief is part of the intuitive, evolutionarily older system.

At first glance this might seem fitting.  It certainly fits with some other data, like the really low rates of religious affiliation within scientific disciplines.  But these findings are also a bit narrow-minded for a couple of reasons.

Perhaps the most frustrating reason is that the claims arise from the larger myth that seems to persist in the sciences and common thought- that rationality will dispel the myth of religion.  This myth is part of an overall story that puts science at the pinnacle of evolution:  fish to lizard to mammal to monkey to human with spear to human with religion to human with lab-coat.  Don’t get me wrong, I love science and lab-coats, but this picture of who we are and who we are meant to be is a little too simple and homogenous.  Plus it’s just wrong.

It’s wrong for a host of reasons.  First, it ignores all the highly rational forms of religion- think of Thomas Aquinas or the deep tradition of debate among Buddhist monks.  Like everything we do- some parts of religion are intuitive and some parts are rational.

Second, it misconstrues religious belief as if it were meant to be empirical statements about the world.  This isn’t to say that empirical facts don’t push on religious beliefs.  You can’t believe the world was created 6,000 years ago- sorry but that’s just silly.  But this view of religion does ignore the way that religious beliefs, texts, and rituals evoke emotional responses about value and meaning (Remember, emotion sits in both the intuitive and reflective systems).  If religion were a proto-science then these claims might make sense; but we need to start recognizing that, in most cases, religion isn’t attempting to be science and therefore isn’t going to change into science with a smattering of rational thought.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t try to figure out how religious beliefs and practices work in the mind.  We have so much to learn about who we are as little blobs of the universe that can create meaning and symbols.  Figuring out how religion fits within the two systems of the mind would be an important step to understanding ourselves.  But if we’re going to figure that out, we have to avoid such biased views of religious belief, which paint a rather simple and boring picture of who we are as people.

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