A study carried out by psychologists at the University of British Columbia has concluded that tests which promote analytical thinking simultaneously reduce the level of religious belief in skeptics and devout believers alike.


The subjects of the study were given problem-solving tasks, shown a picture of Rodin's sculpture "The Thinker," and presented with a final questionnaires printed in a hard-to-read font.

The questionnaire, which asked them to what extent they agreed with statements such as “I believe in God” or “I don’t really spend much time thinking about my religious beliefs,” revealed a diminished level of belief compared to control subjects who had been given non-analytical tasks to complete.

Psychologists have long believed that humans rely on two different cognitive systems, one "intuitive" and the other "analytical," and previous research has pointed to a link between intuitive thinking and religious belief.

“Our findings suggest that activating the ‘analytic’ cognitive system in the brain can undermine the ‘intuitive’ support for religious belief, at least temporarily,” study co-author Ara Norenzayan explained.

The study's authors plan follow-ups to determine if the effects of these tests are temporary or permanent and whether the same result can be found among non-Western cultures. Meanwhile, however, the results of this first survey are bound to generate arguments as to its significance.

For example, Philip Ball, writing in Nature, objects that the authors of the study relied on a narrow definition of religiosity which “focused primarily on belief in and commitment to religiously endorsed supernatural agents,” such as angels, devils, and God.

"Almost all of the questions ... related to religion as a literalist folk tradition," he notes. "This is how it manifests in most cultures, but that barely touches on religion as articulated by its leading intellectuals: for Christianity, say, philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and George Berkeley. The idea that the beliefs of those individuals would have vanished had they been more analytical is, if nothing else, amusing."

Photograph of Musée Rodin taken by yair haklai on March 30, 2007. {{Attribution}} via Wikimedia Commons