What mindsets lead people to become believers or nonbelievers? How do these mindsets function and develop within different kinds of societies with varying amounts of diversity and public religiosity?
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 1, “Religion is Intuitive,” below.Read Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: Hi, I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. I’m the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, and I’m thrilled to be sitting here with two of our former Sinai and Synapses fellows, Connor Wood and Jonathan Morgan, who not only are both former Sinai and Synapses fellows, not only both went through the Religion and Science Program at Boston University, not only are they both researchers for the Center for Mind and Culture, they’ve actually just published a chapter in a book together, focusing on individualism and intuitive and analytic thinking, and the implications of that – those two different ways of thinking, for both religion and science. And having read a little bit of their article, and they had a blog post on Patheos a few weeks ago, I’m excited to be able to talk to the two of them about their work and this new research that they’re doing. So Connor and Jonathan, welcome.
Connor Wood and Jonathan Morgan: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Geoff Mitelman: So why don’t you guys just start a little bit about some of the work that you are exploring, and a little bit about this new book chapter that you’ve published?
Jonathan Morgan: Yeah, I can start things off and then [I’d] be eager to hear from Connor as well. So I think part of what we’re writing about is [that] within the psychology of religion, or the cognitive science of religion, there’s this persistent finding that people who are more analytically-minded tend to be religious nonbelievers. They tend to be either atheist or have not very conventional views of God. And so this has been found across a bunch of different studies. I think the most recent meta-analysis had like 35 studies, over 15,000 people. It seems to be a pretty persistent trend of intuitive thinking being associated with religious belief and analytical thinking being associated with non-belief.
And so the finding is pretty persistent, but I think what Connor and I are really interested in is the explanation for like, trying to figure out why this association would hold. And so, in the past, a lot of the explanation has been dependent on this view of religious beliefs as these intuitive defaults, you know, like we have these cognitive predispositions towards theory of mind, perceiving agency and purpose in the world, and so these intuitive dispositions get sort of elaborated into religious belief. If you are an analytical thinker, part of the tendency of analytical thinking is to sort of reflect on, or be skeptical about, these intuitions, and so the theory was that this analytical thinking, this sort of causally is skeptical about these intuitive dispositions and then that leads to disbelief.
So I mean, that seems like a fairly straightforward explanation, and is probably part of what’s going on, but I think Connor and I, coming from a humanities background, have a rich appreciation of the sort of beliefs that religious beliefs are, and that they’re really connected to social groups and social dynamics. So it’s not just a propositional belief about the type of world we live in, but it’s also about who we affiliate with, and sort of, what we imagine about the world, and our connection to those groups. So I think that’s where Connor has really done a lot of work and sort of came up with this Social Foundations Hypothesis to look at how bringing the social dimension into the equation changes this relationship, or how we view this relationship.
Geoff Mitelman: And it sounds like it’s important – a lot of times when I teach, I’ll get a pushback about religion, because they conflate religion and faith and spirituality, but religion is really from the Latin, of “religio,” of a connector, that there is a social element of this that is arguably, I think, more important than any proposition or connection with the divine. Religion is, by definition, something that is social.
Connor Wood: That’s certainly what Durkheim said. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim famously said that religion is “eminently social,” and argued that rituals and religious beliefs help bind believers into a shared collective that he called a “moral community,” or a church. By moral community, that doesn’t mean like a good community, it means a community that shares specific moral understandings about how we’re supposed to behave towards one another, what kind of roles we’re supposed to take on, you know, how you’re supposed to treat the rabbi in your temple, in your community, how you’re supposed to treat people who are just coming out for a bar mitzvah.
These distinctions of roles sort of being unified into a coherent unity is what Durkheim talked about. And I think that is true. I wouldn’t say that people who have, like William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, who argued that – he didn’t really argue, he just kind of said, “look, I’m going to look at religion as an individual affair, as just what people believe in their inner core.” And I wouldn’t discount what he has to say about religion, either.
So just to finesse that point, I totally agree, and our chapter lays out that religion is deeply, deeply social, it’s a Durkheimian chapter, I think. But religion is so complex, and it just covers so many different areas and nooks and crannies and heights and depths within human life, that no single perspective really ever nails it down. The fact that I just said that does pin me as a humanities scholar, by the way (laughs).
So yeah, I think that our chapter sort of tries to bring in that Durkheimian understanding of the connection between religious beliefs and social commitments to help shed light on this relatively reliable, although weak, correlation between analytic thinking and irreligion – non-religion.
And so for example, we argue that when people make assertions about what they believe, like “I believe that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet” (that’s the Shahada of Islam – that’s the core belief of Islam), when people make that claim, they’re not just saying “I propositionally believe that there is a god named Allah and he sent Muhammad to be his prophet on earth.” They’re also saying “I accept X, Y and Z authorities,” “I accept the Qur’an,” “I probably accept the word, you know, the teachings of the imam that I know and the mosque that I attend,” “I probably believe X, Y and Z about how marriage should function, about how people should relate to their neighbors, what you can do with your extra income” (pay Zakat, the tithe).
So there’s a multivocality to these kind of beliefs that are not just – that make them not just one-pointed beliefs about a particular proposition, but a sort of signifier of all these other things that you have to probably believe and do and expect, in order to be part of a functioning religious community.