Study: Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief
An exhibit of Rodin's "The Thinker."
April 27th, 2012
04:01 PM ET

Study: Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief

By Becky Perlow, CNN

(CNN) - When was the last time you sat down and questioned your decision to believe in God?

According to a new study, that simple act could decrease your religious conviction – even if you’re a devout believer.

In the study, published Friday in the journal Science, researchers from Canada’s University of British Columbia used subtle stimuli to encourage analytical thinking. Results from the study found that analytical thinking could decrease religious belief.

“Religious belief is intuitive - and analytical thinking can undermine intuitive thinking,” said Ara Norenzayan, co-author of the study. “So when people are encouraged to think analytically, it can block intuitive thinking.”

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Some of the more than 650 Canadian and American participants in the study were shown images of artwork that encouraged analytic thinking, while another group was shown images that were not intended to produce such thinking.

One of the images used to trigger analytic thinking was of Rodin’s statue “The Thinker.” A previous study showed that such images improved performance on tests that indicate analytic thinking.

In addition to the artwork images, the religion study used other stimuli to promote analytical thinking.

After exposure to such stimuli, researchers gauged participants’ religious beliefs through a series of questions. Subjects who had performed analytical tasks were more likely to experience a decrease in religious belief than those who were not involved in such tasks. That included devout believers.

“There’s much more instability to religious belief than we recognize,” said Norenzayan, noting that life’s circumstances and experiences, from traumatic events to joyous occasions, can lead people to become more or less religious.

“Religion is such an important part of the world and we have so little understanding of it,” he added. “So regardless of what you think about religion, it’s important to understand it because it’s so important in the world.”

Norenzayan is quick to mention that the experiments did not turn devout believers into total atheists. But he speculated that if people habitually think analytically, like scientists or lawyers do, it would lead to less religious belief in the long run.

Robert McCauley, director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture at Emory University, and author of "Why religion is natural and science is not," found the study particularly interesting because he thought it was difficult to make even a minimal change in religious belief.

“It’s not likely you would argue someone out of a religious belief very often because they don’t hold those beliefs on argumentative or reflective grounds in the first place,” said McCauley, who believes religious beliefs rely primarily on intuitive thinking.

Analytical thinking alone does not necessarily lead to a decrease in religious belief, emphasized Norenzayan.

“There’s a combination of factors [as to] why people become believers or nonbelievers - this is only one piece of the puzzle,” Norenzayan said, explaining that his team doesn’t think analytical thinking is superior to intuitive thinking.

“It makes the story we need to tell about religion and religious belief all the more complicated,” said McCauley. “That’s what great scientific research does – ask more interesting questions.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Culture & Science

soundoff (3,468 Responses)
  1. Some Dude

    In Canada, analytical thinking threatens religious beliefs. In America, analytical thinking is branded as racism.

    I think I'll go with Canada on this. 😉

    April 27, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  2. Dobro

    It's a no-brainer. When you think analytically, you actually use your brain and understand that the concept of the existence of gods should indeed be questioned.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  3. mathphile

    "In the study, published Friday in the journal Science, researchers from Canada’s University of British Columbia used subtle stimuli to encourage analytical thinking. Results from the study found that analytical thinking could decrease religious belief."

    Results from any study are never conclusive because the underlying hypotheses testing is flawed. Of course religion is a load of cr$p, but I would never trust anything "researchers" have to say.

    Some of the dumbest people I have ever met are researchers and academics or work in an educational organization. Very sad they are given so much media attention.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  4. denver2

    “It’s not likely you would argue someone out of a religious belief very often because they don’t hold those beliefs on argumentative or reflective grounds in the first place,”

    = you can't reason a man out of a position he didn't reason himself into.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  5. Oh really?

    1 Corinthians 1:18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

    So this "new study" by who – Athiests of America? Lol! What a joke.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • AthensGuy

      Canadians... read again

      April 27, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • northern light

      "So this "new study" by who – Athiests of America? Lol! What a joke."

      The study was done by "normal people who thnk rationally".....it was obviously not conducted by anyone who is remotely religious......hence the term ..."study".....religious people do not "study"... as in ...."think"....they just believe with blind faith...there is little point in them having a brain.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  6. Emanuel Burgos

    Harvard graduate here and I absolutely enjoyed challenging all those liberal professors with my critical thinking. Indeed, it was my critical thinking that lead me to a stronger faith.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • AthensGuy

      sorry for you, for believing in the "indemonstrable, unverifiable and irreproducible"

      April 27, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • momoya

      Which professors did you convert to your faith and how?

      April 27, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • FrankinSD

      Religious thinking is systematic, not critical. Someone at Harvard should have explained the difference to you. Or, did someone try and fail?

      April 27, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • VikasD

      Sorry that they don't require basics of logical thinking in order to graduate from Harvard.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • northern light

      "Indeed, it was my critical thinking that lead me to a stronger faith."

      You would have to have very deep faith to belive in things that defie physics and the laws of nature.

      But I guess if you are a god and make the rules ...you can suspend them at your liesure....like stopping the sun moving across the sky.....turning water into wine....and lets not forget the real biggy.....raising people from the dead.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • DownSouth

      Why do you believe "liberal" and religious are mutally exclusive?

      Ever heard of Ghandi? Reinhold Niebuhr? Martin Luther King? They were all very "liberal," in the 20th-century sense of the term, and highly devout.

      It's only in the past 50 years that religious has become associated exclusively with conservative.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Kevin

      My father graduated from Harvard and is similarly foolish.

      April 27, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
  7. K

    If we use analytical thinking to reason our faith, then we are ultimately trying to box what we do not understand into what we do understand. What we do understand is ever changing and fluid; influenced by popular thought and media as well as “discoveries” in science and technology. The belief in what we cannot see seems to take less faith than the belief in what the human mind has conjured up through years of “research” and “conjecture” based on our EXTREMELY limited view of the cosmos and geological history as a whole. In other words, true analytical thought realizes the true insignificance of the human mind as a whole, thereby denouncing one’s faith in it. I have more faith in a creative being than a “created” being due to pure analytical thought. We are but a speck of sand in the sprawling beach of the cosmos; who are we to close the book on a creative being… literally? Who among any of us claims to have the eyes to see into every nook and cranny of the universe and decide, “There is no creative being here.” Come on people. Thousands of people have gone gladly to their deaths for some “fantasy?” No, there is something more to it, but intellectual elites cannot comprehend it within the realm of Almighty Science, and so therefore those people must be “less –evolved," or "extremists"

    April 27, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • momoya


      It's not about atheists, it's about believers.. God believers cannot show one, tiny, little scrap of evidence.. Why should others believe in your god when you can't prove it at all?. C'mon, do you really think unicorns exist just because they're pretty and no one has looked inot every nook and cranny and proved there are none?

      April 27, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • DownSouth

      There's much to agree with in your comment.

      For the New Atheist, and the particular brand of stealth fundamentalism they practice, it's as if the critiques of Hume and Kant never even existed.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • northern light

      @ momoya

      Stop bringing up that tired old story about the unicorns.

      We all know why there are no unicorns....the real story is......

      When Noah loaded the arc the unicorns were off playing with the dinosaurs and they all missed the boat.....simple.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  8. DownSouth

    Rationality is a piece of metaphysics. With the apotheosis of man and nature, science became the new God.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Kevin

      complete gibberish.

      April 27, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  9. Al the atheist

    Thank God I am atheist! It is really great to see that the movement toward to rational thinking and away from these destructive belief systems (religions) appears to be on the increase. Religion spoils everything to paraphrase the late and great Christopher Hitchens.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Oh really?

      "Thank God I'm an Athiest" For real? Yeah, that's rational. Lol

      April 27, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • DownSouth

      What the New Atheists--Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, etc.--offer is the same thing that religous fundamentalists offer: a retreat into stupidity.

      For a couple of great critiques of New Atheism, google "Darwinian Fundamentalism" by Stephen Jay Gould and "Same Old New Atheism" by Jackson Lears.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • momoya

      @Down South

      Have you read any Dan Barker?

      April 27, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • DownSouth


      Nope, but I'll look him up.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @DownSouth –
      How exactly are the ideas and works of Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, and Harris "a retreat into stupidity"? They all seem (seemed, in the case of Mr. Hitchens) kind'a smart.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • northern light

      @ Al
      "Religion spoils everything "

      The phrase actually was
      Religion "Poisons" Everything......it has a much better "bite" to it.

      And yes Hitch was great ....and god is not great.....cause there ain't one.....but there sure was a Chris Hitchens.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • DownSouth


      For starters, you might try reading the two essays I cited, "Darwinian Fundamentalism" by Stephen Jay Gould and "Same Old New Atheism" by Jackson Lears.

      And if you really want to get into the simple-minded reductionism of the New Atheists, you might try some of the critiques by the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson and the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

      The New Atheists' scientific Utopia, like Erewhon, is nowhere.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @DownSouth – "For starters, you might try reading the two essays I cited..."

      I've read them: Lears' is a well written and reasoned philosophical treatise; Gould's really has nothing to do with "atheism". I've also read some Haidt (enjoyable). I still don't see how dissent leads you to the conclusion that the works of Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, and Harris are "a retreat into stupidity". It seems your assertion greatly over-reaches.
      You do realize that Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, and Harris grind axes other than "atheism"...right?

      April 28, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  10. ThinkingMan

    Hello, I am a Stanford biology student and am deep believer in God.
    I do not contend with the findings proposed here.
    However, you must understand that journalism tends to over-extrapolate the meaning of findings beyond what the experiment warrants. It also must be noted that this article has been written with a set of biases that comes through in the reading not so subtly.
    I know that I am not going to convince anyone here. But I have thought about the question of God for years and have read about the topic.
    The point is this. Argumentation is useless when it comes to God. Based on this article, if one decides to take a metaphysical argumentation against God, it's not going to make any sense.
    All argument starts from the existence or non-existence of God, and based on this basic belief, anything can be explained through logic. Logic and apologetics is solid on both sides.
    So, I plead with you look inside you deeply beyond any book can do for you. Go through a painful process of introspection, and then ask yourself whether or not you are okay with yourself. Then, look around and ask? Are we here by chance?
    Consider biology and astrophysics and chemistry. Not at the cheap popular stuff, but the real hard science at its full force.
    I have done this, and I know that there is God.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • ThinkingMan

      I apologize about the sloppy writing....I really am a better writer than this

      April 27, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • momoya

      I find the following statement you made to be incredibly short-sighted and dumb.

      "All argument starts from the existence or non-existence of God, and based on this basic belief, anything can be explained through logic. Logic and apologetics is solid on both sides."

      NO.. Not "all argument starts from the existence or non-existence of god," as is plainly obvious..
      NO.. Not "anything can be explained through logic," as we have lots of mystery right now–there is a continuing need for science.
      NO.. Logic and apologetics is not "solid on both sides," since logic and apologetics are not comparable.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @ThinkingMan – "I have done this, and I know that there is God."
      No, ThinkingMan, you don't...you only believe there is a god. There is a difference. If you actually are a biology student at Stanford, I'd wager only a few more semesters of study will not only have you understanding the difference, but also questioning, and perhaps discarding, your belief.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Genius throughnthrough

      Well, if god made everything, who made god?

      April 27, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Colorcheck

      Dear Thinking Man,
      I am sure you are a great biology student, but polish up your knowledge on journalism...where is this article biased??? do you see at any point the journalist say " in my opinion?" He or she merely quoted the sources, supposed subject matter experts on the topic. Some food for thought.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Dr. Biologist


      I'm a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford (Biology). Does that fact inform you or anyone else about my capacity for critical thought? No. It does not. Nor does your explicit statement about your student status. Indeed, to imply otherwise is fallacious. Don't do that.

      Matriculation into the best universities in the world does not ensure utilization of critical thought, despite the generally true assertion that such student s have the capacity for more advanced critical thinking.

      As for your comment that logic and apologetics "are on both sides," well, that is laughably false. You are a young student, and being at Stanford, one can hope that you will be exposed to knowledge on analysis that will raise your self-awareness of what you know versus what you think you know. You may yet find yourself disabused of your current beliefs and the assumptions upon which they are based. You are after all, seeking an education, so perhaps you might keep that in mind as you continue your time at Stanford.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • northern light

      "Then, look around and ask? Are we here by chance?"

      To put put it very simply so there is no misunderstanding.........YES.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Thank you. Yes, we ARE here by chance and luck. We adapted to this environment, not the other way around.

      I wonder what the "true believers" will say when and if other inhabited universes are found. How WILL they explain our "special" status?

      April 27, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • fred

      Tom Tom
      “Jesus said I have sheep that are not of this fold” which is assumed to refer to the Gentiles. If we find “others” the Bible has that covered. OMG, before you thought it the Bible had an answer.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  11. asdf

    Tomorrow's headline: "Researchers: Water Is Wet."

    April 27, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • mikhail

      love it!

      April 27, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  12. Orso

    No s#it Sherlock.
    I could have saved them a lot of time and money if they had asked.

    April 27, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  13. shoddymill

    I've done a LOT of critical thinking on this subject, especially of late. It was transforming, and intense enough to give birth to a blog. I won't attempt to re-create it in this space, but you can read it here–especially the second post:


    April 27, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  14. Muneef

    I just mentioned what I thought had to be mentioned...That GOD in his books asked us to give thoughts.
    Any way I see many are upset since my comments might ruins their plans of driving you into religious disbelief... So good night and good luck to you with disbelievers...

    April 27, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  15. Press to Digitate

    Critical thinking – and due diligence – CAN lead one to abandon the cartoonish religions of Abrahamic scripture, based, as they are, on parables, anecdotes, allegory, and metaphor, generally plagurized from earlier religions. BUT, keep thinking past that, and you dont wind up an atheist, because that requires more blind faith than anything else. Fundamentalist scientific materialism "requires you to believe that the entire universe suddenly sprang into existence from nothing, by itself, for no purpose; in other words, the limit case for credulity" (-McKenna).

    Instead, an objective examination of the broad scope of evidence leads us to the realizations that A) The Soul is a transcendental quantum object, unlimited by 4-D spacetime, and independent of biology; B) That this spiritual state is our True Nature, and survives bodily death, generally to reincarnate in a subsequent body; C) This Quantum Consciousness reigns supreme over the physical environment, commanding probability, whenever we can wrestle our subconscious into controlling it; and D) Our Soul is but a fractal element of the Infinite – God existing in Superposition, manifest in all of us. These tenants are the essence of eastern philosophy, and have been empirically confirmed by the latest discoveries in Quantum Physics and Neuroscience. They lead to an evidence-based spirituality which derives from critical thinking, and is not threatened by it.

    Bottom Line: God is within You, and You are within God; inseparable, and in no need of 'mediation' by any Messiahs or "Priest Class". Our separation is an illusion of the flesh. There is only one of us here....

    April 27, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • momoya

      Your A, B, C, and D are not proven, but merely "allowable" with current understanding of physics.. It is disingenuous to claim them as demonstrated fact.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • Genius throughnthrough

      I propose a new law to protect babies I have thought about creating, therefore, I must create them and women must comply. Step right up supermodels.....

      April 27, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • oscar lorin

      Dear Press-

      Big bang theory DOESNT hold that the universe came into being from nothing; only that we don't know what came before. Maybe a catastrophic compression of a previous cycle, maybe a bubble on the side of another universe that we can't see. It would make sense of this universe if it were just a godlike fart...

      And if it stretches credulity to have a universe come into being from apparently nothing, why is it easier to believe that a far more complex and unobservable god could come into existence from nothing - or even more bizarre, have no beginning or end?

      As for the article, well, all I can say is "D'oh". This is a blinding insight for someone?

      April 27, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Jay

      I appreciate that these are your beliefs, but I wouldn't call it objective the way that you jump so quickly from stating that it is difficult to "believe that the entire universe suddenly sprang into existence from nothing...", which is a fair statement, to possibly trying to "prove" that we live forever, and that your religious beliefs are correct. In my opinion, you can't be a very analytical thinker and be even remotely certain of what you appear to be certain of.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  16. veronica13

    Somebody should've let Einstein know about this.

    April 27, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Dan

      Einstein was an agnostic non-theist, who used the term god poetically to refer to nature. He specifically said he rejected the belief in a personal god. See Walter Isaacson's biography.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Marcus

      He did know that... that is why he was a non-beliver

      April 27, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Veronica13

      Funny how the athiests come out of the woodwork to say "yes, I'm right" as if they consistently need some kind of reassurances. Further, what another says about Einstein does little to show his thinking. Read what Einstein himself said about religion and God and make an informed decision.

      April 27, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  17. Bob

    "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." – Arthur C. Clarke

    Pretty sure anyone able to fire a gun during Jesus' time would have been thought of/treated as a God.

    Or at least a witch...

    April 27, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    April 27, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • AthensGuy

      so do olive oil and lemon juice on a salad. so what?

      April 27, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  19. Jeannie

    Ah, yes. Another "Christians are stupid" study. I wonder how many smart Candians let their tax money/tuition money be wasted on some professor's attempt to justify his unbelief.

    April 27, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • kris

      it isn't a matter of Christians being stupid, it is a matter of the way in which humans think. critical thinking is necessary to figure things out; to think outside the box for a solution; to question things. religion teaches people not to question things. it teaches them to accept what they are told, therefore those people don't think analytically. Analytical thinking leads people to facts, something that the bible holds no truth to. The point isn’t that people of faith aren't stupid, it is that they are plainly ignorant. Now, I am sure you are about to have a conniption fit, but before you do, seriously think about what it is that I am saying. I am not trying to generalize the Christian community by saying anyone who believes in god is dumb. But it is a fact that those who chose to believe in god chose to limit themselves to the truths of the world by hindering their education. and by keeping people ignorant to the world around them, others can easily manipulate and steer you in the direction they choose.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • AthensGuy

      see... critical thinking (which demands attentive reading) works.... the study was geared "against" christianity. It was geared against nothing. It measure the outcome of stimuli. that's it

      April 27, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • AthensGuy

      was NOT geared against christianity

      April 27, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • northern light

      "I wonder how many smart Candians let their tax money/tuition money be wasted on some professor's attempt to justify his unbelief."

      About 95% less than the number of Americans that elected George Dubya Bush.......twice.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  20. typicalwhitemale

    Critical thinking destroys liberalism and political correctness, which are the new religions in this country.

    April 27, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      Keep saying that, and maybe magic flowers will grow out of your nose.

      April 27, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Steve

      Libs/egalitarians have much more in common with religious fundies than they realize, or care to admit.

      Both suffer from extreme reality-aversion, and both are merciless with heretics, as history has demonstrated abundantly.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • Jerry Phillips

      Thank God for new religions... the old ones really suck! Wake up and look at the real world! Even you are an ultra-liberal compared to only 100 years ago. Conservative beliefs are for the most part fear based beliefs that your father or priest told you about. As knowledge advances we know there is no boogey man. Wake up and enjoy the new and exciting liberal based world view! It is liberating. You do not have to fear hell even though you, more than likely, live in a self-created one already!!!

      April 27, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • Steve

      Thanks, Jerry, but this conservative atheist doesn't need your new religion, having seen the dreadful "wonders" it's worked.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • Conartist

      Somehow you left out Right Wing nutcases who demonstrate no thinking whatsoever.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.