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God is in our gut

Intuitive thinkers tend to be more religious, study finds

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VANCOUVER -- A University of British Columbia study suggests analytical thinking can be harmful to religious faith.

The psychology report, published Thursday in the prestigious journal Science, reveals religious belief drops after subjects perform analytical tasks or are exposed to Rodin's sculpture, The Thinker.

However, UBC social psychologists Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan insist they are not debunking religion or promoting atheism. Instead, they are trying to figure out the psychological origins of spirituality.

The dynamic UBC research duo, who have earned international reputations for their groundbreaking studies into religion in the past six years, maintain all humans use two valuable types of thinking -- intuitive and analytical.

How much you rely on one kind of thinking over another generally determines how religious you are. People who are highly intuitive tend to be more religious.

Intuitive thinking helps people recognize the difference between the body and the mind, imagine life after death and discern purposes in the universe, said Will Gervais, lead author of the article, titled Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief.

In contrast, analytic thinking reduces intuitions of God, of an afterlife and of experiences of divine presence, say Gervais and Norenzayan, whose latest research surveyed 650 people, mostly from B.C. Some lived in other parts of North America.

"Our study builds on previous research that links religious beliefs to 'intuitive' thinking. Our findings suggest that activating the 'analytic' cognitive system in the brain can undermine the 'intuitive' support for religious belief, at least temporarily," said Norenzayan, an associate psychology professor.

The UBC pair began their project by measuring the "pre-experiment" religious convictions of subjects. They asked subjects to rate on a scale how much belief in such things as God or angels were important to them.

Then the subjects were primed to think analytically. They performed mathematical computations, answered questions posed in "hard-to-read fonts" and were shown a photo of Rodin's sculpture of a man in a reflective position.

Although subjects' levels of commitment to their religious beliefs generally went down after the analytical part of their minds kicked into gear, Gervais said that doesn't prove religion is irrational.

To support his point, Gervais cited the Danish existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who encouraged people to use their rational minds in shaping their spiritual convictions.

Kierkegaard also suggested, in the midst of analytical thinking, people often need to take "a leap of faith" to experience the universe's deeper transcendent mysteries.

Most people don't recognize there is a key difference between the "irrational" and the "non-rational," taught Kierkegaard.

The "irrational" describes that which is illogical and unreasonable. The "non-rational," on the other hand, refers to intuition; the sphere of the imagination, emotions and the arts.

Gervais and Norenzayan also want to stress heightened analytical thinking is not the only thing that might decrease a person's spirituality.

Three other factors come into play. One is that certain people may have "deficits in the intuitive cognitive processes" that allow humans to grasp spiritual concepts.

A second reason some people are not religious is they may live in strongly secular cultures, such as Canada and parts of Europe, which generally "lack cues" that support spirituality.

A third reason is they may reside in societies "that effectively guarantee the existential security of their citizens." To explain this final point, the authors refer to Phil Zuckerman, author of Society Without God, who has written about low levels of religious belief in Scandinavian countries with generous social-welfare programs.

This new article in Science does not mark the first time Norenzayan and Gervais have drawn wide media attention for research into religion.

In the past, they've shown: how early exposure to death makes people more religious; how atheist countries operate at higher levels of mutual trust than religious societies; and how religious people tend to be more generous.

They are also not finished with trying, as Gervais said this week, to discover why humans appear to be the only species who are religious.

Without arguing either that religiosity or atheism are superior, the two will soon publish another paper on experiments that reveal people who are adept at "reading the minds of others" are more inclined to be religious.

People who can psychologically intuit what another person might be feeling, Gervais theorizes, seem to be inclined to do the same in regards to what they consider a personal transcendent reality.

 

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 6, 2012 A2

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