Atheists may be more intelligent -- but less empathetic -- than believers: study

A new study published in the online journal PLOS ONE has found that the conflict between science and religion is being fought by two opposing networks in the brain. By understanding just how these brain regions are duking it out may help to answer questions like, “Why are some people deeply religious while others think it is absurd to believe in the supernatural? Why do some choose to be creationists while others believe in evolution, despite observing much of the same evidence?“


The results of the study revealed, among other things, that while atheists seem to be more intelligent than religious people, they may be less emotionally astute and incapable of feeling as much empathy for others. This lack of empathy suggests that atheists have more in common with psychopaths than the spiritual, who, according to the authors, have a stronger sense of morality.

Researchers from Case Western Reserve University and Babson College carried out a series of 8 experiments designed to understand the relationship between religious belief and cognition. In each experiment, hundreds of participants were given questionnaires that measured analytical thinking and moral concern. The researchers consistently found that the more religious a person was, the more moral concern they displayed. Additionally, a positively relationship was found such that the more frequently a person prayed or performed other spiritual rituals, the greater their empathy. Additionally, less belief in religion was associated with higher intelligence scores on tests.

Previous research conducted by the same labs found that analytical thinkers are more religious than empathic people, who have greater social and emotional insight. Brain imaging studies revealed that there are two anatomically separate and distinguishable brain networks: a) the task positive network (TPN) that is activated by cognitively demanding tasks that have no emotional or social component—such as math, physics, and logical reasoning tests, and b) the default mode network (DMN) which is activated by social and emotional stimuli or moral reasoning.

The idea is that most people have one dominate network that essentially determines their thinking style, and whether or not they believe in religion. In the brains of religious people, the DMN is more active, which actively suppresses the activity of the TPN. As a result, analytical reasoning is ignored, making room for unchecked belief in the supernatural. When the reverse is true—the TPN is active and the DMN is suppressed—the analytical reasoning then squashes whatever supernatural beliefs might be clinging to survival.

As these two brain networks battle for dominance, they create tension in the mind, and it is this tension that creates the cognitive dissonance one experiences when attempting to integrate these two world views.

However, the ideal situation for an individual occurs when one’s brain is capable of accessing one network when the circumstances call for it, and the other network when it is more appropriately suited to meet the specific cognitive demands. For example, if you are taking an exam, trying to interpret research results, or solving some problem that requires hard logic, the brain should activate the analytical network and suppress the empathic network to ensure objective, non-emotionally-biased thought.

Conversely, in other situations that are more social in nature, or call for emotional intelligence—like when interacting with others at a cocktail party, or when faced with a moral decision—the brain should employ its empathic network. For example, when a person is arguing with their significant other about something trivial, the analytical system might want to continue the debate and pour over the facts, while the emotional system is smart enough to tell you to let it go so that you can kiss and makeup. The latter seems a lot more enjoyable than disputing details.

Principles from cognitive neuroscience suggest that the ability to switch from one network to another requires what scientists call “cognitive control”, an important function made possible by regions of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. If one has strong cognitive control due to healthy brain circuitry in these crucial areas, they will be able to better control what brain network—and what type of reasoning—they should use to think about or solve a problem.

The authors of the study believe that there can be a lot gained from using both networks in unison. The lead investigator said, “Far from always conflicting with science, under the right circumstances religious belief may positively promote scientific creativity and insight. Many of history’s most famous scientists were spiritual or religious. Those noted individuals were intellectually sophisticated enough to see that there is no need for religion and science to come into conflict.”