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Analytic Thinking Promotes Qualified Belief, not Disbelief

Some colleagues in psychology at UBC recently published a study that suggests that analytic thinking tends to promote religious disbelief. Before we nominate them for this year’s Richard Dawkins Award for Proving Atheists Are Smart and Believers Are Dumb, however, let’s look a little closer at what they found–and didn’t.

What they found is that when subjects’ analytical thinking was triggered, they tended to reduce their scores on scales of religious belief. High scores off the top of their heads, intuitive scores, scores reported in an unreflective state, were lowered when subjects were pressed to think more analytically.

So did the psychologists find what they say they found, namely, that analytic thinking promotes disbelief? They did if they found that people moved from the “8-10” end of the scale to the “4 or below” end of the scale: from enthusiastic belief to deep doubt or even strong disbelief. But that isn’t what they found.

What they found was what you might expect they would find when they move people from “System 1” type of thinking–intuitive, spontaneous, unreflective thinking–to “System 2” type of thinking–analytical, careful, deliberative thinking: qualified belief.

In System 1 thinking, if you ask someone, “Do you believe in God?” believers will say, “Yes!”

If you then say, “But do you believe in God with equal fervency all the time? What about the problem of evil? What about when God has disappointed you? What about all those good, smart people who don’t believe as you do?”

If he then replies, “You’re right. I guess I don’t believe in God after all,” then we have analytic thinking promoting religious disbelief. Or you would have it even if he just says, “Wow. I never thought of it that way. I guess I have no idea whether to believe in God or not.”

In terms of the study, you would have people who first score 9 or 10 dropping to 5 or even zero. But they don’t report findings like that.

What they found instead is what you’d expect they found. People who initially answer in the intuitive mode, which is prone to easy, binary answers, will say, “Yes” or “No.” But when you engage their analytic side, they will say, “Well, actually, I do believe in God, but sometimes I’m confused by how God acts, and puzzled by some of God’s instructions, and distressed by some of God’s commands” and now the 9 or 10 moves to a 6, 7 or 8.

The great world religions have no problem with this phenomenon since none of them promote unthinking allegiance but instead provide an abundance of reasons why their system is credible while also allowing that there are challenges to belief no matter what system you adopt. The great traditions are about faith based on knowledge, or even about simply just seeing reality as it is, not about fanaticism that shuts its ears to any argument to the contrary.

So there is nothing in this study to connect religious belief to silly, unreflective people and religious disbelief to smart, reflective ones. Instead, there is a welcome challenge for everyone to think hard about just what you believe, and why–and how much.


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