Analytic Thinking Promotes Qualified Belief, not Disbelief

Some colleagues in psychology at UBC recently published a study that suggests that analytic thinking tends to promote religious disbelief. Before we nominate them for this year’s Richard Dawkins Award for Proving Atheists Are Smart and Believers Are Dumb, however, let’s look a little closer at what they found–and didn’t.

What they found is that when subjects’ analytical thinking was triggered, they tended to reduce their scores on scales of religious belief. High scores off the top of their heads, intuitive scores, scores reported in an unreflective state, were lowered when subjects were pressed to think more analytically.

So did the psychologists find what they say they found, namely, that analytic thinking promotes disbelief? They did if they found that people moved from the “8-10” end of the scale to the “4 or below” end of the scale: from enthusiastic belief to deep doubt or even strong disbelief. But that isn’t what they found.

What they found was what you might expect they would find when they move people from “System 1” type of thinking–intuitive, spontaneous, unreflective thinking–to “System 2” type of thinking–analytical, careful, deliberative thinking: qualified belief.

In System 1 thinking, if you ask someone, “Do you believe in God?” believers will say, “Yes!”

If you then say, “But do you believe in God with equal fervency all the time? What about the problem of evil? What about when God has disappointed you? What about all those good, smart people who don’t believe as you do?”

If he then replies, “You’re right. I guess I don’t believe in God after all,” then we have analytic thinking promoting religious disbelief. Or you would have it even if he just says, “Wow. I never thought of it that way. I guess I have no idea whether to believe in God or not.”

In terms of the study, you would have people who first score 9 or 10 dropping to 5 or even zero. But they don’t report findings like that.

What they found instead is what you’d expect they found. People who initially answer in the intuitive mode, which is prone to easy, binary answers, will say, “Yes” or “No.” But when you engage their analytic side, they will say, “Well, actually, I do believe in God, but sometimes I’m confused by how God acts, and puzzled by some of God’s instructions, and distressed by some of God’s commands” and now the 9 or 10 moves to a 6, 7 or 8.

The great world religions have no problem with this phenomenon since none of them promote unthinking allegiance but instead provide an abundance of reasons why their system is credible while also allowing that there are challenges to belief no matter what system you adopt. The great traditions are about faith based on knowledge, or even about simply just seeing reality as it is, not about fanaticism that shuts its ears to any argument to the contrary.

So there is nothing in this study to connect religious belief to silly, unreflective people and religious disbelief to smart, reflective ones. Instead, there is a welcome challenge for everyone to think hard about just what you believe, and why–and how much.

15 Responses to “Analytic Thinking Promotes Qualified Belief, not Disbelief”

  1. D.J. Brown

    Well said. Thank you for calling out folks who make simplistic statements in public. Too many people believe everything that is touted as a scientific conclusion.

  2. Josue

    Thoughts:

    Being open to – no, acknowledging – forces greater than yourself fosters deeper analytic thinking and critical engagement.

    This study presupposes that religious belief is an option, and not a de facto reality. I tend to think that we’re all religious; I think Judeo-Christianity especially offered us this insight. Who’s to say secularists aren’t religious? That the Scandinavians they cite aren’t comfort/state-worshippers?

    The mind and body are separate? Guess ‘monism’ is ruled out.

    Favorite line: “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.” Hilarious. Who says flinging poo isn’t….nevermind.

  3. TJ

    Well put, this study really got a lot of press because of its flashy headline.

    While I agree with your take, I also think there is some food for thought for our churches in this. Too often, we allow, or in some instances encourage, people to believe in God without question. Truth is though, there is nothing wrong with questioning, with wrestling with issues and coming to a reasoned answer and defense for your faith. I am not surprised at all that someone who on the surface replies “yes” to a question asking them if they believe in God, might be less sure once reason comes in to the mix. We need to raise up Christians whose faith has a foundation that includes reason.

  4. Dennis D

    Oh, the irony. Analytical thinking promotes some self-doubt among religious believers but apparently very little among those eager to form tendentious interpretations of psychological research.

  5. whitzerland

    Your “link” to the the study is merely a link to an article on the study. It appears as though you haven’t actually read the actual study because your conclusions are misguided. Also, your sentence structure is lacking.

    • jdsundara

      “It appears as though you haven’t *actually* read the *actual* study…”

      Repetition, much?
      So much for “you sentence structure is lacking,” eh?

      • John Stackhouse

        It’s always a fair question to ask what a critic has read. I read the initial news release, prepared by the UBC press office in concert with the investigators. Then I read their article itself. Then I read several interviews with them. What I haven’t read, and what I’d like to read, is not available: the raw data. But what is available I have read.

        As for my sentence structure, well, I just do the best I can….

        • Whitzerland

          Mr. Stackhouse, I think I was way out of line so I apologize for that. I assumed you were in the UBC system (due to your comment about them being your colleagues) and had access to the study produced in the April 27 issue of Science. I generally take issue with news articles on behavioral/cognitive science studies because the data is complex and needs to be interpreted by an expert in the field. No disrespect for the journalists out there, but I generally don’t value their one sentence interpretations of scholarly, scientific data.
          As for the grammar comment, that came off as petty and immature and I’m sorry for that, as well.

          • John Stackhouse

            Many thanks for your gracious reply. I share your concern about signal degradation from original study to published article to press release to popular journalistic summary. I wasn’t sure quite which source to cite, since I couldn’t refer people to Science itself (because of its subscription policy). But I’m glad to reassure you that my qualifying of popular (mis-)interpretations of the study was based on what I trust are reasonable grounds.

            Thanks for reading and for taking my work seriously enough to raise a serious question.

            • Steve Wilkinson

              This kind of thing is really common in the popular science press. In listening to Reasons.org’s podcasts, they are constantly comparing the actual journal articles to what comes out in the news stories. The journalists typically know what will make the story ‘hot’ and add all kinds of comments, sometimes even contradicting the scientific findings, in an attempt to draw conclusions which will sell the story. The problem is that the general public, then, still gets this warped impression because they aren’t in the loop of what is really being discovered, but instead the view the journalist is pushing.

  6. Qualified belief | Delaney Foresight

    […] people think analystically they are less likely to express strong religious beliefs.  According to John Stackhouse What they found is when people “move from “System 1″ type of thinking–intuitive, […]

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