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Are religious people less logical?

April 23rd, 2017

Most people like to think they are logical, and have good reasons for their choices – including their choice of believing in God, or not. But modern atheists often accuse christians (and believers in other religions) of not basing their beliefs on evidence and reason.

And it’s a plausible argument, for psychological studies have suggested that analytic thinking tends to lead to religious disbelief, whereas intuitive thinking tends to support belief. For example, in 2012 well known psychologists Will Gervais & Asa Norenzayan published the results of studies that apparently showed that Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief. Many other studies have produced similar results.

But more work has been done on this, with interesting results.

Some recent studies

Perhaps Gervais and Norenzayan weren’t right after all

A recent study reproduced Gervais and Norenzayan’s work with a larger sample and found that their results did not justify their conclusion. Rightly interpreted, there was no correlation. And Gervais went public to agree they had been wrong.

Well, maybe so, maybe not

But while one paper turned out to be wrong, many other papers support the conclusion: for example, Atheists and Agnostics Are More Reflective than Religious Believers: Four Empirical Studies and a Meta-Analysis (2016) looked at a lot of data and concluded that religious people are slightly less “analytical” than the non-religious, although the authors admit the correlation is weak.

When I looked at the paper, I found the correlation was so weak that a person’s mode of thinking was only a 3% factor in their propensity to have religious belief. Obviously other factors, whether individually or combined, are much more important. I am told that such small correlations are common in the social sciences, which does make me wonder.

Perhaps these studies are not so reliable after all

In the last couple of years, an important argument has erupted in the academic psychology field. A comprehensive study tried to reproduce the results of 100 previous studies, in what is a test of the science of psychology, because reproducibility is one of the basics of science. But the study was only able to reproduce 40% of the studies, which was a surprise and even a shock to many in the field.

This has led to many casting doubt on how academic psychology is done, while others defend the research and attack the paper which started the argument. But it seems, for now, we must view the results of some of these studies with some care.

So, where does this all leave us?

The effect we are talking about is small but real

Religious people are, overall, slightly less likely to be analytical in their thinking. Or, put it the other way (because I don’t think anyone knows which is the cause and which is the effect), people who think more analytically are slightly less likely to be religious.

But the effect is very small, and many other factors have a greater impact. Broad generalisations are likely to be overstating the evidence.

Analytical thinking isn’t necessarily preferred

Analytical thinking is more reflective, but it isn’t necessarily better. As I have discussed previously, intuitive thinking is equally necessary, and in some situations (e.g. complex situations where there is insufficient time or information to fully analyse), intuitive thinking may be better.

But analytical thinking also has social implications. Connor Wood, who researches the science of religious belief, has commented: “Analytical thinking is, basically, non-social thinking. …. it does translate to less investment in social institutions ….”

A christian reflection

As a christian, I am very interested in all this research. Even if its results are sometimes doubtful, and even if the effects it finds are often small, it is helpful to understand how different people think, and at least some reasons why they behave and choose the way they do.

I don’t feel at all concerned that religious people are slightly less analytical in their thinking (though when I did the simple three question test that forms the basis of many of these studies, I was 100% analytical, for what that’s worth). It takes all kinds to make a world, a culture or a church. Analytical thinkers are good to follow evidence and develop plans and ideas, while intuitive thinkers are more likely to be socially engaged and empathetic, and more able to make some more complex decisions. Perhaps this is one reason why religious people are generally more prosocial than average.

Photo: Wikipedia

9 Comments

  1. You are commenting on the use of reason and evidence, rather than on the use of logic. Those are not the same. In my experience, disagreements are usually over meanings and evidence rather than over the mechanics of logic.

    I caution against sweeping generalizations.

    Yes, religious people do worse at reason and evidence. But it was not always so — which is why I caution against the sweeping generalization. There were times in the past, where religion was the way to get ahead in society. So pragmatists were religious. I’m reminded of “The Vicar of Bray”.

    In current times, religion might be a benefit is some circles, but not in society in general. So pragmatists who are religious for personal reasons tend to not advertise their religion. The result is that among those who do advertise their religion, there seems to be a poorer use of reason and evidence.

    The point I am making is that it isn’t religion, as much as it is whether one is part of the trend-setter group. And then, of course, there is always the question of whether our standards of good use of reason and evidence are really just based on what the trend-setter group does.

  2. Hi Neil,

    I guess there is a distinction between formal logic and reason, but the dictionary definition of “reasonable” includes “logical”, so I think they are acceptable synonyms for most purposes.

    I’m not sure I agree that being part of a trend-setter group is the key to being reasonable, but I do agree that the characteristics of any subgroup of society will depend a lot on the sort of people attracted to that group, and that this will likely apply to religious people.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. As you know, I doubted the interpretation of the study’s results before, and while this doesn’t quite touch on my reasons back then, I think this does show the pitfalls of relying too much on a hard science approach too fast, without proper in-built checks. It was a rather novel test design.

  4. Yes, I think these two phrases of yours illustrate the difficulty – “hard science approach” and “rather novel test design”. Human beings and their minds and behaviour are not always as amenable to a strict scientific method as are rocks or planets.

    I think this stuff is both interesting and useful, but we need many studies to establish firm conclusions.

  5. A balance between religious beliefs and logical analytical thinking is needed. Both of these are equally important to thrive in today’s world.

  6. Maybe we could throw in our five cents and translate the entire Bible to Lojban? :o)

    On a (slightly more) serious note, I think one interesting angle for investigating the relation between logical thinking and religion is looking at what a religion’s or denomination’s ideals are and how they correspond to behaviour. Taking conversion as an example, Evangelicalism models its ideal type on Paul’s Damascus experience and values emotion, while (Sunni) Islam has an ideal of conversion (maybe also others) that involves rational argumentation as a key element. It would be cool to check whether there are actually qualitative differences in emotions at several points during periods of conversion or whether that’s more down to different values and ideals selecting different aspects of a rather similar experience. And whether there is any difference in longitudinal studies.

    [ ‚Äč/nerd]

  7. You are an ongoing source of education for me! I hadn’t heard of Lojban before, but I looked it up and I get your point. I didn’t know that Sunni Islam has that emphasis, and I agree with you that studies like you suggest would be interesting. Are you familiar with the Science on Religion blog? It is one of my favourite sources of facts about religion.

  8. I used to read the blog, but I don’t visit any Patheos blogs any more because the hosting site has become too spammy.

    (Of course, studying people while they are converting or about to convert is far from an easy task. It’s probably a bit of an utopian suggestion from me, though studying religious seekers probably does raise one’s chances.)

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