Creation religion medicine

No, it’s not a typo; this study on religious belief took an unconventional tack. The investigators, Will M. Gervais and Ara Norzayan of the University of British C0lumbia in Vancouver, Canada, looked at religiosity from the other side, so to speak. What makes a non-believer? Could it shed light on makes a believer? The study’s title “Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief” (Science, April 27, 2012) gives away the punch line. Yet, I think it’s worth looking at the study in more detail; it is fascinating.

How do you rate people’s religiosity and rationality?

Here is how.  (The table is taken from the paper published in Science magazine).

Table 1. Summary of measures used. Asterisk (•) denotes reverse-score items. Try to answer them, and see where you stand in terms of rationality and religiosity.

Analytic thinking task.                                                                    

1. 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?  Intuitive answer: 10 cents.   Analytic answer:  5 cents

2. If it takes 5 machines 5 min to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? Intuitive answer: 100 minutes.  Analytic answer: 5 minutes

3. 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?   Intuitive answer: 24 days. Analytic answer: 47 days

Intrinsic religiosity

My faith involves all of my life.

I try hard to carry my religion over into all my other dealings in life.

Nothing is as important to me as serving God as best I know how.

My faith sometimes restricts my actions.

One should seek God’s guidance when making every important decision.

My religious beliefs are what really lie behind my whole approach to life.

*It doesn’t matter so much what I believe as long as I lead a moral life.

*Although I am a religious person, I refuse to let religious considerations influence my everyday affairs.

*Although I believe in my religion, I feel there are many more important things in life.

Intuitive religious belief,

I believe in God

When I am in trouble, I find myself wanting to ask God for help

*When people pray they are only talking to themselves

* I just don’t understand religion

* I don’t really spend much time thinking about my religious beliefs

Belief in supernatural agents, 

God exists

The devil exists

Angels exist


The experimental results

Not surprisingly, the tendency to analytically override intuitions in reasoning was associated with religious disbelief.

But this kind of study does not prove causality, it just shows a correlation. To demonstrate causality one has to show that by increasing the level of analytical thinking, religious thinking is diminished. To that end, the investigators introduced in the subsequent 3 studies experimental manipulations (called priming) to elicit analytic thinking. As an example, in one study they showed the subjects of the experimental group a picture of Rodin’s “The thinker”, and the control group a neutral picture of “the discus thrower”. The picture of “the thinker” subtly primed the subjects to increase their rational thinking; the “discus thrower” did not.

The discus thrower



The thinker


The studies used Canadian college students and one was replicated in American adults recruited through the internet.

The results of these experiments were consistent with each other and across national and demographic groups (Canadian students and American adults): rational thinking diminishes religious thinking.


What’s going on in the brain?

According to dual-process theories of human thinking there are two distinct but interacting systems for information processing. One (System 1) relies upon frugal heuristics yielding intuitive responses. What heuristics refers to is experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery; where an exhaustive search is impractical, heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution. Examples of this method include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, or common sense. The other system (System 2) relies upon deliberative analytic processing. Although both systems can at times run in parallel, System 2 often overrides the input of system 1 when analytic tendencies are activated and cognitive resources are available.

Why do we have System 1 to begin with? Because it has survival value. When animals are confronted with an emergency there is no time to analyze the situation and all the parameters that feed into it. Decisions have to be made instantaneously, and the rule of thumb is the best available tool. If you are a dog and the cat arches its back and hisses at you, better be careful, because the rule of thumb would tell you that the cat is not in a friendly mood. If a stranger is approaching you with a big stick, an educated guess would be that he doesn’t mean to invite you to dinner. System 2, the deliberative process, is by and large unique to us, humans. It probably is the one thing that distinguishes us as human beings.

I talked to God

This refrain was used by con artists and religious charlatans, beautifully portrayed by Sinclair Lewis in his 1926 novel Elmer Gantry. Today’s Elmer Gantrys are much more dangerous; these are politicians who consult God about running for the Presidency, or pray to Him to help them rationalize a fateful decision that can send thousands of young soldiers to their death. When they “talk to God”, they are talking to themselves, hearing what they wanted to hear in the first place.

How can we protect ourselves from such chicanery? By consciously subduing our System 1 thinking and fortifying our System 2 deliberative and critical thinking.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.