In recent years social psychologists have been studying religion extensively, finding what personality types are more likely to be religious and what effects religious beliefs have on a range of behaviours, including health, happiness, altruism and motivations.
A recent study compared christians and atheists – using responses on Twitter.
Different words, different mindsets
By analysing the words used when atheists commented on tweets from famous atheists and christians responded to tweets by famous christians, the study found that christians tend to use words reflecting “positive emotions, social relationships and an intuitive style of thinking”. Atheists, on the other hand, tended to use more critical, negative and analytical words.
The study also supports findings I’ve previously reported that believers tend to be happier, with better mental health than atheists.
Analytical vs intuitive
This result is not a surprise, as other studies have shown the same. This study found that people who are “highly individualistic, systematic thinkers, with a penchant for pragmatism” are more likely to be atheists, whereas christians are more likely to be agreeable and conscientious.
This Science on religion blog suggests that analytical thinking is suited to solving puzzles, making logical connections, and understanding causal chains of events. But intuitive thinking is better at making complex decisions where there is insufficient information, and in personal relationships, and so is better at “making social, romantic, or professional decisions”.
Which is better?
Analytical thinkers are likely to feel that their way is clearly best. Studies have shown that it is natural for people to “intuit” agency in events that may be purely natural (e.g. if we hear a strange noise on a dark night, we are likely to think at first that someone is there), but analytical thinking can help us analyse such situations and gain a better understanding.
However because analytical thinking is less useful in relationships, relying on it in many life situations will often not work out so well. The stereotype of the scientist who is brilliant in the lab but awkward in conversation may have some basis in reality. In fact studies show that intuitive thinking is overall more useful in life, and more often employed, than analytical thinking.
Which is better at thinking about God?
This is the big question (for this blog, at any rate).
If knowing the truth about God is a matter of logical analysis of causal relationships (such as may be found in some of the classic philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God), then analytical thinking will be most useful, and such thinkers are more likely to be atheists.
But if knowing the truth about God is more about relating to a personal God and perceiving God at work in everyday or unusual events, then intuitive thinking would be best, and such thinkers are more likely to be christians.
This explains a lot
In about 8 years of discussing and interacting with atheists on the internet, I have often been taken by how two apparently thoughtful people can come to such different conclusions, and with so much certainty. But these studies suggest that many christians think in quite different ways to many atheists, and use quite different criteria in making judgments.
This suggests to me a few lessons for all of us:
- If a personal God exists, he may be best known intuitively. If there is no God, this may best known by analytical thinking. If we are not careful, our characteristic mode of thinking may determine what we believe more than truth and evidence do.
- We need to be humble. Our inability to see the sense of the other viewpoint may be because we are using inappropriate thinking.
- Most of us have some ability to employ both types of thinking, we each just tend to favour one or the other. It may be wise to learn as well as we can to employ both modes when thinking about God.
- And at other times too, because it seems that analytical thinking tends to make us less optimistic and social, which is perhaps why christians are happier and have better mental health.
I am a christian, but I characteristically use analytical thinking. Evidence and the philosophical arguments for God are important to me. Which shows that all the above is characteristically, but far from always, true.
It is also why I value sharing time with intuitive thinkers, as a balance.
What do you believe, and what mode of thinking comes most natural to you?
I think I also have an analytical thinking style. I suppose you know what my religious views are. 😉
It’s an interesting study, though I wonder how representative it is. Twitter is more popular among people with a higher education. Is it possible that particular kinds of Christians and atheists are drawn more to Twitter? To what degree is there a cultural factor in play in their language (with emotion playing an important role in Evangelical and Charismatic Christianity)? Is it possible that responses are framed differently because of the cultural background? These questions come to mind! I suppose I have to look the study up for an answer.
I’m sure there are limitations in the study. People are so different and so many factors are involved in who we are and what we choose. But each study adds a little to the picture, and if they tend to give similar answers, then we can be more confident of the results.
And yes, I think Reformed, Presbyterian and some forms of evangelical christianity are more cerebral and analytic than others. So these results are tendencies rather than rules, and I tried to present them that way.
Thanks for your comment.
You sure this post isn’t just a ‘little’ self serving:)
I’m an analytical thinker, so of course I’m sure! 🙂
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