Saturday, April 28, 2012

Religion and analytic thinking

In response to my post about out-of-body experiences, my skeptical friend Jon sent me a link to a wonderful article just posted on the Scientific American website, by Marina Krakovsky, called "Losing Your Religion: Analytic Thinking Can Undermine Belief."

The article describes research by two University of British Columbia psychologists, Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, research that indicates both that analytic thinking correlates with unbelief and that it "actually causes disbelief." For example, experimental subjects asked to answer test questions about religious belief that were printed in a hard-to-read font -- presumably requiring analytic effort to actually read it -- expressed less religious belief than those who answered the same questions printed in a regular font.

Even better, experimental subjects who looked at a photo of Rodin's sculpture The Thinker expressed less belief in God in a subsequent test than those who had first looked at a picture of another sculpture, Discobolus, which portrays "an athlete poised to throw a discus." Apparently The Thinker has become, in our culture, "an iconic image of deep reflection" -- just seeing it, another experiment indicated, "improved how well subjects reasoned through logical syllogisms."

The impact of the image of The Thinker is engaging all by itself. Does it make us more likely to think that the natural thing to do is deep thinking, by some mechanism of "framing"? Does it cause us to want to be deep thinkers, out of admiration or guilt? Does it cause us to feel that deep thinking will be fun rather than burdensome? Does it overcome our sense of inability to think this way? Whatever the mechanism, it's nice to see it at work -- and it seems worth thinking (deeply) about how to bottle this effect and use it more often.

But what about the point of these experiments, that analytic thinking and religion don't go well together? Well, actually, that's not precisely what the experiments show. For example, in the sculpture-viewing experiment, apparently the belief scores varied widely, whether the subjects had seen The Thinker or Discobolus. The average belief scores for the two groups were indeed quite different: 61.55 on a 100-point scale (100 presumably being utter faith) for the Discobolus viewers, and 41.42 for the Thinker observers. But 61.55 isn't overwhelmingly high, and 41.42 isn't overwhelmingly low: there seems to have been a lot of belief among those whose analytic inclinations had just been stimulated, and a lot of unbelief among those who received no such impetus.

So it seems more precise to say that analytic thinking tends, somewhat, to undermine religious belief, and I don't have any trouble conceding that proposition. Moreover, if a score of 100 represents a kind of belief in which analytic faculties are essentially turned off, I agree that that's not a life thinking beings should embrace (though moments of religious ecstasy or enlightenment are quite another matter).

But as to the potential argument, a much more sweeping one, that clear analytic thinking compels disbelief, I have two responses. The first is that I'm not certain that human beings altogether emancipated from intuition (the friend of belief, evidently) can be imagined. Intuitive thought processes, and emotionally-shaped thought processes, are integral to our mental lives, and if they are valuable for us in the ordinary moments of our lives it seems possible they're of some use in thinking about the truth of religion as well.

The second is that it's not clear to me that clear thinking does support the conclusion of disbelief. Personally I don't understand the idea of a universe without a beginning or a source, a first mover. I admit that the idea of an unmoved first mover (one of the old characterizations of God, I believe) is paradoxical too, but it seems to me that it is analytically appropriate to infer the existence of something/someone beyond our logic to explain why our logic fails us.

That's a pretty thin rationale for religion, I admit. I'd be much happier to see a miracle (and, by the way, it seems to me that if you did see an actual, straight-out miracle -- the burning bush, or the loaves and fishes -- that would be a very good logical reason for belief). But for that I'm still waiting ....

No comments:

Post a Comment