“Now that I think about it, I’m not that religious after all”

According to a much-trumpeted new study, rational thinking has a negative effect on the strength of religious belief.

Well, gee, really? Isn’t that the whole idea behind rational thinking? Do we really need a new study to tell us this? Many religious leaders and almost all atheists readily agree that religious belief is more a feeling than a thought, more emotion than analysis.

“To Keep the Faith, Don’t Get Analytical” was published online April 26th by Science as a summary of an article in the latest issue of the magazine.

The study showed that people who had been primed for “analytical” thought (e.g., by being shown a photo of Rodin’s “Thinker”) rep0rted themselves to be slightly less religious than did subjects who had been primed for “intuitive” thought (e.g, by being shown a similarly-composed photo of a discus thrower). Correcting for previously self-reported religiousness had no effect on the study’s results.

There has been other research of this type. The Nature article cites Joshua Greene’s similar work at Harvard, where subjects who tended to solve problems intuitively reported stronger religious feelings than did those who solved problems analytically.

Again, why is this news? Hasn’t everybody and her brother already written about the emotional basis of religion? From personal awakenings to cult rituals to state religions, just about everyone agrees that just about everyone who has a religious experience feels it more than thinks it.

So I’m a bit surprised that the current study has been getting such wide press. I can understand the local interest, since the research comes from the nearby University of British Columbia. But is this one study really news?

Most of the coverage ignores one of the study’s major weaknesses: it’s yet another “WEIRD” study. The subjects were university students and online volunteers. In other words, they were Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Does their slight tendency to show a small reduction in the strength of their expression of religious faith have much to say about the religious foundations of the non-WEIRD majority of humanity? Ironically, the challenge to WEIRD behavioural psychology also came from UBC. I guess these guys don’t share much among departments.

And another criticism, leveled by several bloggers and editorialists on both extremes of the religion question, points out that the UBC research presumes a definition of “God’ that’s “default Christianity,” with anthropomorphic characteristics and power to intervene in nature and to reward and punish.

Still, despite these flaws, I keep coming back to the simplest criticism — the study demonstrates the obvious.

Many neuroscientists and social scientists  have published research suggesting that (1) our fundamental participation in the world is through  a group of feelings prompted by homeostatic perceptions, (2) we have an evolved tendency to ascribe agency to the unknown events of nature, (3) our basic social structures are created and maintained by a cooperation-inducing”groupthink,” and (4) religion is a very good as this “social glue.”

In none of these publications does anyone claim that reason dominates our emotional underpinnings. In fact, many writers describe reason as only a very minor player in motivating behaviour. First come emotions, then comes behaviour, then comes thinking with its post hoc rationalization.

Even if you don’t buy the more extreme versions of reason as merely a “me too” latecomer, there is just too much evidence that some version of “intuition first” is true to believe that religious faith comes from theology instead of our desires for meaning, security, and belonging. Faith came first; later, scholars invented theology to explain its existence.

By chance, there is another current news report that reinforces the idea that rational thought comes second to emotion, and that the two kinds of cognition serve different, often competing purposes.

Science Daily published “Thinking in a Foreign Language Helps Economic Decision-Making” on April 25th. The article reports a study from the University of Chicago that shows that people make more rational business decisions when they think in a foreign language.

It appears that thinking in a foreign language “provides a distancing mechanism that moves people from the immediate intuitive system to a more deliberate mode of thinking.”  Because thinking in a second language requires more analytical thought, the brain is “primed” to use reason rather than emotion when deciding if an economic risk is worth taking. Without the priming, even though the risk is statistically attractive, fewer subjects are willing to take the chance.

This difference seems to be due to a process similar to that which occurred in the brains of the UBC study subjects. Solving a math or word problem, thinking in a foreign language, even looking at a photograph of Rodin’s “Thinker” — all of these activities “trigger” the prefrontal cortex’s rational skills. And when this happens, it appears, emotions are slightly dampened, leading subjects to favour rational over emotional motivations in the first case and to overcome natural risk aversion feelings in the second.

And, as a related ScienceDaily article reports, there are other marketing studies that show the same tendency. In one such test, subjects reported advertising slogans in their own language to be more emotionally appealing than identical slogans in another language. It appears that translating or otherwise processing the foreign language slogan “kicks in” the rational brain centres in the by now familiar way.

I could go on, for the evidence for reason’s secondary influence on primary emotion is large and growing — not to mention something that we’ve all known intuitively for as long as people have been assessing their own motivations and behaviours.

So while the UBC study fits the pattern, it’s not really news at all.

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