Friday, 27 April 2012

Does critical thinking lower belief in the supernatural?

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Does looking at The Thinker make
you less likely to believe in God?
Are those who engage in analytical thinking less likely to believe in God? Many atheists will no doubt see this as self-evident, and now they may have some scientific evidence to back it up.

In a paper published in the journal Science (news summary from Science here, full paper here), Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, report the results of their research into the relationships between intuitive and analytical thinking and religious belief. Previous research has suggested that intuitive thinkers are more likely to hold religious beliefs, so Gervais and Norenzayan set out to test the hypothesis that "analytical thinking might encourage disbelief":
"To test this idea, the duo devised several ways to subconsciously put people in what they considered a more analytical mindset. In one experiment with 57 undergraduate students, some volunteers viewed artwork depicting a reflective thinking pose (such as Rodin's The Thinker) while others viewed art depicting less intellectual pursuits (such as throwing a discus) before answering questionnaires about their faith. In another experiment with 93 undergraduates and a larger sample of 148 American adults recruited online, some subjects solved word puzzles that incorporated words such as "analyze," "reason," and "ponder," while others completed similar puzzles with only words unrelated to thinking, such as "high" and "plane." In all of these experiments, people who got the thinking-related cues reported weaker religious beliefs on the questionnaires taken afterward than did the control group.

In a final experiment, Gervais and Norenzayan asked 182 volunteers to answer a religious questionnaire as usual, while others answered the same questionnaire printed in a hard-to-read font, which previous studies have found promotes analytic thinking. And indeed, those who had to work harder to comprehend the questionnaire rated their religious beliefs lower."
So what does this tell us? The Science news story has a comment from Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who suggests there are limitations to the findings:
"All they have shown, and all that can be shown, is that when you're thinking more critically you reject statements that otherwise you would endorse. It tells you that there are some religious beliefs people hold that if they were thinking more critically, they themselves would not endorse."
For a counterpoint, it's also worth reading Philip Ball's post for Nature, in which he advises approaching the study itself with some analytical thinking.
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