The Data on Science and Religion

This post is a guest contribution by Amy Dapper, the proprietor of Evolve It!, a blog about (sometimes) cool (mostly) science-y things. Amy is a PhD student at Indiana University studying evolutionary theory.

Religious beliefs, or more likely disbelief, tend to be a hot topic on science blogs, particularly those with a evolutionary bend.  However, when these topics come up there is often more opinion than science, which is why I was excited to see an research article in last weeks edition of Science titled ‘Analytical Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief’ [1].  The article, authored by Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, uses a series of five studies to build a causal link between analytical cognitive processes and religious disbelief.  I thought it would be fun to delve into the science behind their audaciously titled article for my guest post here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense.

The authors approach understanding the cognitive underpinnings of religious belief and disbelief using the dual-process theory of human thought.  This theory posits that we use two distinct and separate systems for reasoning.  The first, creatively termed System 1, is intuitive and produces a rapid response based only on prior knowledge and experience.  Previous research has found that individuals who rely more heavily on this intuitive cognitive system are more likely to believe in supernatural entities, and thus tend to have stronger religious beliefs [2]. On the other hand, System 2 is rational and produces a slower response based upon logic and reasoning that, when employed, often overrides the conclusions of System 1.  The authors hypothesize that, in contrast to System 1, this analytical cognitive system promotes religious disbelief.

Their first study establishes a correlational relationship between analytic thinking and religious belief by asking participants to answer three clever questions that have an immediate intuitive, but incorrect, answer and a correct answer that requires deeper analytical processing.  These questions, and their answers, can be found in the table below.  The study participants then answered a survey about their religious beliefs.  The results show that participants that arrive at the correct, analytical answers to the first set of questions also tend to exhibit more religious disbelief in their responses to the survey.

Excerpt from Table 1

Study 1. Analytic thinking task (5) Intuitive
A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? ____cents 10 5
If it takes 5 machines 5 min to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? _____minutes 100 5
In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? _____days 24 47

The next four studies build a clever, and surprising, causal link between employing analytic thinking and  expressing religious disbelief. In these studies, participants either received a subtle priming stimuli intended to activate analytic thinking or a similar control stimuli.  In study 2, participants either viewed four images of Rodin’s The Thinker exhibiting a pensive pose or the control image of Discobolus of Mayron throwing a discus.  In studies 3 & 4, the participants constructed sentences from sets of words meant to induce analytical thinking, such as ‘think’, ‘reason’ or ‘ponder’, or with control words, such as ‘hammer’, ‘shoes’, and ‘jump’.  In study 5, the participants were simply asked to answer the survey in a difficult-to-read font, which has been shown to increase analytic thinking, or an easy-to-read font.  Amazingly, in all four studies, the participants exposed to the analytic stimuli showed significantly higher degrees of religious disbelief when surveyed.

The Thinker and Discobolus

source: Wikimedia

So – what do these results mean?  Does viewing intellectual art or using fancy fonts really make someone more likely to reject religious views?  In other words, can you really believe that such seemingly trivial stimuli can alter participant’s beliefs on such a personal and important topic? Making up one’s mind about the meaning of these results may be a prime example of the struggle between one’s own intuitive and analytical cognitive systems.


[1] Gervais, Will M. and Ara Norenzayan (2012) Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief. Science 336: 493-496. DOI: 10.1126/science.1215647

[2] Shenhav, Amitai, David G. Rand and Joshua D. Greene (2011) Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. DOI: 10.1037/a0025391


4 comments on “The Data on Science and Religion

  1. I think, out of all the experiments described, the font-based method is most convincing to me.

    The word and image prompts are confounded with a whole lot of cultural baggage—even though non-belief is stigmatized in the US, there’s a strong cultural association between rational thinking and non-belief, which I am pretty sure that even a lot of fundamentalist evangelicals would admit to holding. (The actual experiments were done with Canadian undergrads, so figure, if anything, a Western culture where that associaiton is probably stronger.)

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  4. […] ago today I wrote my first post here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!.  The post, titled ‘The Data on Science and Religion‘, discussed a article in Science that investigated whether analytical thinking promoted […]

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