I am not sure how much I want to make of this – indeed, I am not sure I want to make anything of it - but Science Now recently ran a short piece to the effect that analytical thinking may “cause [people’s] religious beliefs to waver, if only a little.” More specifically, the author, Greg Miller, describes a number of studies that show that when people are made to think analytically, they are slightly less likely to express a religious belief than when they think intuitively.
The article cites a recent study by Amitai Shenhav, David G. Rand, and Joshua D. Greene, in which volunteers were asked to answer questions that seem to have an immediately obvious answer, but that answer is flatly wrong. One example:
A bat and ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
The way the question is phrased, it cries out for the answer $0.10; that is the intuitive answer. The correct answer, the analytical answer, is $0.05. (Trolls, please try to figure it out for yourselves before asking for help.) People who gave the intuitive (and wrong) answers in general reported stronger religious beliefs, even when the results were controlled for IQ, education, and so on.
If the study by Shenhav and his colleagues suggested that intuitive thinking encourages religious belief, or at least correlates with it, a more-recent study by Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan suggested that analytical thinking might discourage religious belief. Specifically, the authors devised different tactics to put their subjects into an analytical frame of mind. Even as trivial a device as having subjects view photographs of either of two statues, Rodin’s Thinker and a discus thrower, seems to have an effect on the subject’s reported religious beliefs: Those who viewed the Thinker were slightly less likely to report a religious belief than those who viewed the discus thrower.
Science Now quotes the psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University as distinguishing between what the subjects believed and what they said they believed; some people, says Kahneman, actually hold beliefs which, “if they were thinking more critically, they themselves would not endorse.” The statement may not be as cynical as it sounds; I would like to think that at least some people will change their minds when given new information or presented with compelling new arguments.
Finally, these results potentially cast doubt on a claim I made in another posting on Panda’s Thumb:
Nevertheless, both atheists and creationists (some of them, anyway) want to think that science necessarily leads toward atheism or agnosticism. It is hard to say, but it seems more likely that skeptics or freethinkers, who may be already inclined toward disbelief in God, are more likely to become scientists or, perhaps, science teachers.
The recent studies hint that science (or analytical thinking) may in fact encourage disbelief, though the effect is possibly not strong.