Does belief require you to suspend analytical thinking altogether? Perhaps we only think this way because of the type of society we live in. Historically, an analytical thinking style hasn’t always pushed people away from religion, and many theologians had a different idea of religion’s role in society, bringing systematic rigor to understanding it and eagerness to resolving its inconsistencies. Bringing the different modes of thinking to situations we don’t necessarily expect could help bridge the gap between religion and science.
Sinai and Synapses Fellowship alumni Connor Wood and Jonathan Morgan have continued to have a fruitful collaboration long after their respective cycles of the program have ended. Now they have contributed a chapter to a new book, “The New Reflectionism in Cognitive Psychology: Why Reason Matters,” published by Routledge and edited by Gordon Pennycook. Rabbi Geoff Mitelman spoke with them in a 40-minute interview, which will be published in parts throughout this week. Read the transcript for Part 3, “Can You Be Both Religious and Analytical?,” below.Read Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: And the word that I keep coming back to in my mind is “trust,” in all of these different elements. That analytic thinking is very time-consuming, and a lot of mental energy. And intuitive thinking allows you to make faster decisions there, and if you’re saying “I’m going to trust this part of it, or this menu of different pieces,” it lightens the cognitive load, in the same way of being able to say I can trust that when I go to the ATM and I withdraw 20 dollars, that 20 dollars can then be used for the grocer down the street, and we don’t even have to interact in any kind of way, because there’s the trust of the institution, that Chase is going to ensure my money there. And I will trust what my religious authority is going to say about these different elements, or I am going to trust what the scientific community is going to say.
Now, how that manifests itself is slightly different in all those different elements, but the undergirding of all that is “I am going to trust the institution that I’m part of, and if I’m too distrusting of that, then society is going to break down.”
Jonathan Morgan: Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting way to think about it, because I think it points to how both of these sort of cognitive processing styles, cognitive reasoning styles, are actually about – they’re serving these very social functions. Like, it points to the way that they demonstrate which institutions we do trust and which we don’t trust.
And so part of what we’re saying is that there are some institutions [where] the institutional grammar kind of relies on this analytical mode of thinking, it relies on that reflective, very conscious, and slow mode of processing. And so if you trust that sort of institution, if you spend most of your time in that sort of institution, you’re going to become very accustomed to using sort of analytical modes of thinking for approaching the world. And if you trust and spend most of your time in an institution that’s relying much more on these sort of tacit norms, where the interactions aren’t mediated by a bank or government or the law, but instead are mediated by these sort of emotional connections that we have with people and each other, then you’re going to become accustomed to trusting intuitive thinking. Like, over the long run, that is the way that is the most beneficial for interacting within that community.
So I think that trust – what I hear within that is affiliation, like, where, who do we buy into? What is our connection? What is our identity?
And I think part of what I see within this chapter, and part of my driving interest in this sort of association, is reflecting in the past for a time when analytical thinkers remained religious and became these wild theologians, that, like, they were very attuned to inconsistencies within religious thought, and so were playing out and trying to resolve those problems, and creating very systematic, very rational portrayals of religion and defenses of religion.
And I think we exist within a cultural moment now, where if you’re an analytical thinker, you’re sort of faced with what feels like a contradiction of – you either have to suppress that and partake in your religious community without questioning and trying to like, address or reinterpret things, or you just move and join a scientific community. And to me, that seems like a sort of unnecessary forced choice.
And I think it really depends on religious context and cultural context – I think that forced choice plays out oftentimes for Evangelicals within the US. And so I think it will be interesting, as this research pushes cross-culturally, to see which context this association between religious belief and intuitive thinking – in which context that association holds, and where it is nonexistent, because analytical thinkers remain religious, just engage with religion in a different way.
Connor Wood: There was a paper that came out, maybe six months ago or so, right around the time that our chapter came out, that found that the relationship between analytical thought styles and non-religion is not always robust across cultures. And that’s work that Jonathan and our other co-author, Catherine Caldwell-Harris, have looked at – the way that analytical thinking plays out in religion in Turkey, which is a much more sort of uniformly religious culture in the United States, not only in being more religious, but in being all basically one religion.
So there are some – Jonathan might be able to speak to that better – but some of the findings in different cultures find that when you’ve got a culture where everybody just is in the same faith world together, in a society, being analytic doesn’t necessarily always make you less religious, because it’s almost just not an option. I mean, it’s not like there aren’t Turkish atheists – in fact, we know some, one of our colleagues is an atheist who’s from Turkey – but it’s just much more rare, and it’s not as live of an option, to use another term from William James.
Jonathan Morgan: Yeah, I think, just to speak briefly about that research, part of what we found is that this association was, in some ways, moderated. It depended on socioeconomic status. So it seemed like the wealthier, the better-off, your family was, the stronger that connection between analytical thinking and religious non-belief.
And so I think that points to a lot of the complex social functions that religion’s serving. That, you know, if you’re wealthy enough that you can rely on these other institutions, then you don’t necessarily have to – you know, that pathway becomes open towards nonbelief. But you can disaffiliate without any, like, strong ramifications or negative ramifications.
But if you aren’t as wealthy, aren’t as well-off, and you really need these affiliative networks to hold you up and to support you, then you know that, if you’re an analytical thinker or an intuitive thinker, you’re going to maintain that affiliation.
And that’s not to say that, you know, the more wealthy someone becomes, this becomes a necessary association – I think it’s still sort of dependent on this broader context of secularity, where, like, religious worldviews are put in opposition to scientific worldviews, so that you get to choose one or the other, and the middle ground is sort of eroded between them.