A new study has just come out that argues that analytical thinking weakens religious belief, while at the same time, intuitive thinking may strengthen religious feelings.
Though the article comes out in Science today, this idea has been hypothesized for the last few years. For example, last September neuroscientist Joshua Greene and colleagues at Harvard University
…asked hundreds of volunteers recruited online to answer three questions with appealingly intuitive answers that turn out to be wrong. For 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?”
Although $0.10 comes easily to mind (it’s the intuitive answer), it takes some analytical thought to come up with the correct answer of $0.05. People who chose more intuitive answers on these questions were more likely to report stronger religious beliefs, even when the researchers controlled for IQ, education, political leanings, and other factors.
In the same study, another group of volunteers wrote a paragraph about a time in their lives when either following their intuition or careful reasoning led to a good outcome. Those who wrote about intuition reported stronger religious beliefs on a questionnaire taken immediately afterward.
So why might critical thinking lessen religious belief? Why might intuitive thinking strengthen it? And what are the implications for the religious community?
First, from the critical thinking side, it seems obvious as to why analytic thought might lessen religious belief. After all, when you start to think critically, you stop accepting things purely “on faith.” So when people look at their texts or beliefs through a critical lens, they naturally begin to question the religious tenets that they held throughout their lives.
And yet religion is not just intellectual — it is designed to be predominantly emotional and spiritual. It is supposed to make us feel things — it is supposed to generate a sense of awe and wonder, build connections to others, elevate our compassion for those in need, and make us work to right the wrongs in this world.
So what does this mean for religion today? It means that for our world today, religion has to strive to be both intellectually sophisticated and emotionally resonant.
If religion is simplistic, or dogmatic, or anti-scientific, then as soon as new information or new ideas arise, it will shut itself off from the outside world. And as soon as it closes the door on new ideas, religion will stop being relevant.
And if religion is stale, or boring, or uninspiring, then no one will want to be part of it.
But if religion speaks to our deepest longings, if it inspires us to become better people, and if it can embrace not only faith but doubt, as well, then it will have the potential to become a great force for good in this world.
As Mayor Cory Booker said in a post on The Christian Left:
“Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.”
Yes, critical thinking may lessen religious belief, and yes, intuitive thinking may strengthen it. But we have to remember that “religious belief” is not a value in and of itself.
Instead, the real question is how we use our religious beliefs to improve ourselves and our world.