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. ChuckB

    You can't force a man who is a critical thinker to believe something, even if he wishes it to be true, if it is illogical.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Good post. I would love to believe in some all-powerful. merciful, and loving God. I simply cannot do so.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • johndaniels

      Ironically, the image of the thinking man is from 'Paradise Lost'... scultptured by Rodin. The man is in fact looking down into HELL....

      April 27, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  2. Eric

    Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      "...evidence of things not seen"

      Not clear on the concept.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  3. Plain Ol' Dreamer

    The cells of Life are the Kingdom Domains of God and we are but God's buildings as are are things living are so to be! We labour together with God by our dealing with all mannerisms of the diseased! We are fast becoming the triunphant benefisciaries of thought progressives that implore us in our ongoing searches throughout all Life's architectures! The Godly have given up to us all our needs and means to abate our ongoing manifestations for living our lives in as free as possible styles for living an abundant lifestyled way!

    1Corinthians 3:9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, [ye are] God's building.

    Of all scriptures please remember this one verse above all other verses!

    April 27, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  4. ac74

    Nietzsche sums it up nicely:
    “When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.”
    “Faith: not wanting to know what the truth is.”

    April 27, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • John

      Interesting. You believe there is nothing to believe in, yet where is your proof? If you have none, all you have is faith that you are right.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Where's YOUR proof there's ANYTHING to believe in, honey?

      April 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • John

      First, "honey"? Sarcastic and/or condescending name-calling is one of the things that undermines all attempts at logical debate.

      Second, you seem to have missed my point. My point is that I have faith because I have no proof. Ac74 stated he/she was absolutely sure there was nothing to believe in, which is a statement of faith in itself because God can be neither proven nor disproven.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I don't give a crap if you don't like my language, you nitwit. Get bent.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • Tom is in Middle School

      "Get bent"

      Now there is that Bart Simpson mentality we all come to love about you Tom. He was a perpetual child just like you.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Anyone who graduated from a decent high school would know that one can't prove a negative. The onus is on you, doofus, to prove there IS a God. It's not my job to prove there isn't one, as any sentient person would already know. I can no more prove there isn't a god than I can prove there aren't unicorns. The burden is on those who make the claim that a god exists.

      Don't like it? Tough ti!!y.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oooh, more ad hominem. That really serves your non-existent argument well, dweeb.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  5. Solitairedog

    "...that's what great research does..." it discovers that people who think for themselves rely less on belief systems. Wow, that's a shocker.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  6. Common Sense

    I'm not religious, but frankly, this article is a joke.

    "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."

    How the hell do you measure a decrease in "religious belief"? I'd like to know what units they used.


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

    So... doesn't that completely undermine the results?

    April 27, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • John

      I thought it was a bit suspect, too. When I look at the Thinker, or really anything, my belief in God remains unaffected. More to your point, I can't think of a valid scientific way to measure the strength of an opinion, nor does there appear to be any research as to how these same people felt an hour later or the next day.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • johndaniels

      True, this is a PSEUDO scientific study. There is no verifyable means to measure a reduction in faith, too many confounding variables, such as: Subject knowledge and purposeful responses. They are trying to measure cognition without using a biological approach to psychology; which makes it a pseudoscience. They need to emasure real biological effects, built upon real premises such as increased stimulation to religious faith tpoics.. which are VARIABLE based upon the individual subject; they are not constant measures among all human beings.

      They used outward stimuli and then posed questions that could have easiliy been discerned by subjects.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  7. Alisha

    well duh....you mean there is no scientific proof that we will all resurrect like Christ did? that is exactly how God designed faith, won't be proven, can't be proven, yet many still believe. That is how faith works. That is how religion should be. If these things could be proven in a lab they wouldn't require much faith would they? Spiritual things can only be understood and proven spiritually, through prayer for instance. Religions that are really just businesses or costumes for zealots, control freaks, or power hungry narcissists will not get God's stamp of approval in response to a sincere prayer. There may is a special hot place reserved for those that take advantage of well meaning followers. If you really want to know what to believe, prayer is required and a spiritual response from God. You won't get a spiritual response or result in a lab.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Brent Slensker

      WOW! Talking to your specific god/imaginary friend is a better way to understand religion!?!?..I am HORRIFIED by your logic. You sound RIDICULOUS!

      April 27, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • momoya

      Then why is god going to judge us?? He won't provide any proof to the millions of people that really want to know which of the millions of different views of god are correct and settle the debate once and for all.. That's stupid.. It's like god put everybody in a game without telling them the rules or even that they are playing a game.. Nobody knows what they're supposed to do, so it's just a surprise when you die, eh?. How stupid..

      LOL, god had to sacrifice himself to himself to appease himself so that he doesn't torture too many billions in his eternal torture pit because a rib-woman listened to a talking snake and did something wrong before she even knew what "wrong" was and so everybody has an invisible disease in an invisible body part (sin/soul).... and oh, i just can't go on with such foolishness.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Alisha

      sorry Brent, you haven't really thought it through yet. If there is a God he may answer your sincere prayer, if there is no God, or if you don't believe in God, you won't get an answer, it is that simple. Of course it sounds ridiculous to pray or talk with something that you don't believe exists. Good luck in your quest, spiritual quest or scientific quest, hope you find what you are looking for or not.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Alisha

      It's really not that bad Momoya. If you live a good life, treat others well, you will be just fine in the next life. Don't torture YOURSELF. My Christian faith teaches that if you make good choices you can make your religious choices after you die. Otherwise, as you stated, it WOULD be completely unfair as most people who live on earth never even hear the name of Jesus Christ. I don't believe we will be judged on things we are not aware of, punished for sins we did not commit or judged against standards we never knew of.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • fred

      I would be interested in what kind of religion that is and what is the source for nice people making decisions after death.

      April 27, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • A Cannon

      reply to Fred: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that after Christ was cruxified and died his spirit went to the spirit world to begin missionary work to the spirits who died not knowing about his sacrifice for us, not knowing about his gospel (think of the millions of babies that die or Asians or Africans through the ages that never heard the name Jesus Christ). The Bible teaches us about this missionary work to the spirits of the dead (1st Peter 3: 18-22, and 1st Peter 4: 6) Those souls or spirits will learn of Christ and accept his sacrifice in the next life. That is why his spirit went there after his death and before his resurrection (3 days). Jesus Christ continues that missionary work in the spirit world today.

      April 27, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
    • fred

      A Cannon
      Thanks for that insight I never thought of it that way !

      April 27, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  8. Jack Sonberg

    The study fails to distinguish between belief and faith. Belief may or may not be based on evidence subject to analytical thinking. Faith can be independent of facts.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Brent Slensker

      Faith is also quite likely to go AGAINST observable evidence too...

      April 27, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • ChuckB

      "Belief may or may not be subject to evidence . . . ," and "Faith can be independent of facts." Evidence and facts are synonyms. Belief that is not subject to evidence is independent of facts, i.e., faith is confidence that what your believe in is true.

      April 27, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  9. Jason

    So how do they explain people like C.S.Lewis, who was an atheist turned Christian and one of the greatest thinkers of the past century. THe truth is this, for the many folks out there who are simply religious and go to church form time to time to call themselves spiritual, yes, their faith will easily sway with the wind because they haven't truly come to terms with why they believe what they believe. This is not only true of religious, but also of secular. Our faith in anything can change if we aren't grounded in it, whether it be a belief in God or a belief in how to diet, or how to care for our car. Anytime someone more educated comes along and gives us a different path, we will have to wrestle with it, because we didn't know that much in the first place. However, if you find someone who has been truly changed by God and has established their faith through study and seeking after God, they are going to stay strong. The problem is that most religious folks are shallow in the faith they claim.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Alisha

      Jason, You made some interesting points. Thanks for your comments.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • kxkxsh

      I love how atheists are always citing scientific studies. Since I've been born, there have been quite a few "final answers" from science..... the General theory of relativity, the special theory of relativity, the string theory, the Quantum theory, the Big Bang, and I'm sure all you reading here watched the Discovery and HIstory Channel programs that stated that now scientists are saying that all observable phenomena is like the surface of a lake and the majority of existence is below the surface. They still have not explained Black Holes. At least real scientists have the intellectual integrity to say they are still studying the matter. I don't blame anyone for not respecting religion, it hasn't done a great job of making the case for God or following Christ's words. But if you're going to be "analytical" at least start from point A, which is God is NOT religion!

      April 27, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      There have never been any "final answers from science", you idiot. Science continually seeks further understanding. There has never been any "final answer" except in your minuscule brain pan.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  10. nofluer

    The first thing that has to be done before any kind of study is done is to separate "religion" from "faith." The two terms are diametrical opposites and are mutually exclusive. Since that wasn't done here, these "studies" are meaningless. As to logic, I'm an accountant and a Christian. I became a Christian as the result of logical study of the issue of God/no god and religions and the relative logical merits of disbelief in a god. I was not raised in any religion or faith. After extensive personal studies, both in University and independent, I determined that lack of belief in God was not logical.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • JeramieH

      Do tell.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer


      April 27, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Brent Slensker

      I'd say you have a problem with logic in the first place...So, do tell, which god did you end up picking??..Did you also develop a belief in Fairies and Goblins too??!

      April 27, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • ac74

      Rationalizing eh? Be honest with yourself...

      April 27, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  11. Dood

    Anyone read Thomas Aquinas's "Summa Theologica"? If anyone was a critical thinker it was he, incorporating Aristotelian philosophy into support for a Supreme Being. Although this no "proof" of God's existence there are many more that point towards support of a God than those that don't.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      No, there aren't.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • Mike Franklin

      It takes as much faith to disbelieve in a supreme being as it does to believe. This is because, first of all, one cannot disprove the existence of anything. We're not smart enough and haven't even looked around our own celestial neighborhood very well. We just don't know what's 'out there'. Secondly, proof of anything is still an article of faith. We believe what we are told by science as much as those who believe what they are told by clergy. we trust that we are not being misled. Faith is, therefore, part of almost every single aspect of life. It simply depends on what we 'choose' to believe.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • JeramieH

      Logical fallacy: Appeal to authority.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Uh. Actually no. He was relying on "holy scripture" and the knowledge (or lack of) of his day.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  12. Mike Franklin

    Analytical thinking can cause one... when they are younger, know everything and are immortal, to conclude the the universe happened by a big bang and life came from the evolution of pond slime. It all works very nicely. But as many get older and take the time to analyze this existence we call our lives, we can (and sometimes do) come to a different conclusion. But... those don't make it to these little media reports because it is a very personal thing that we discover. We generally find meaning from within and then, know better than sharing it.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  13. Hadenuffyet

    The bigger question , why does CNN foster discontent among the masses with supposition that can never be proven nor disproven .It is at best a stalemate.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      So? Why should such a debate be avoided?

      April 27, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • Robairdo

      The masses are sick and tired of religious dogma, especially from the right. As a Liberal Christian I got feed up with them 20 years ago when I left the Catholic Church.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • John

      I don't believe God (and I use the term to cover all deities) will ever be either proven or disproven to everyone's content. Because of this, I think healthy debates should be fostered. The problem is not that most people are firmly rooted in their opinions, but that many can't seem to tolerate that others don't believe the way they do. Same issue with politics. Too much name calling and far too many accusations and dogmatic statements, half of which are taken out of context.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • ac74

      In today's world all organized religions stir conflicts and pit one against another. They all should be dumped, just like humanity did away with slavery.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • John

      ac74, an atheist world doesn't guarantee peace, either. Consider what Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung did to the Soviet and Chinese people, respectively. If atheism can also pit people against each other, how is it better than religion? What justifies it staying while religions go? If you have another reason, let us debate it, but your logic on this one is flawed.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  14. denroy

    Doh – questioning the big fairy tale may shake your faith? Astounding revelation

    April 27, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  15. Cielo

    My analytical thinking did 2 things: led me AWAY from organized religion and 2. it brought me CLOSER to a more spiritual path. I DO believe; just NOT the crap that churches SAY you should.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  16. Robairdo

    I still have faith in Christ but not in relgion. The so called religous should spend more time reading the word of Christ and less time judging others.

    Christ was apposed to the Relgious Right of his day, the Rabbi's. He called them all "HYPOCRITE, HYPOCRITE, HYPOCRITE"

    April 27, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  17. rich

    Humanity is slowly working it's way toward a second renaissance with how they identify themselves and the the great mystery of being sentient. I believe this will be helped with advent of the information age. When you ask a person these days if they are religious, the answer is often, "I'm more spiritual than religious". I feel there is value in that path, If the person is sincere and learns to find the voice of creation inside him/her. Although, any one practicing a religious belief, and can do so humbly without prejudice and contempt towards others who don't share those beliefs, would be living a righteous life. All the best

    April 27, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  18. Robairdo

    Science flies you to the moon.
    Religion flies you into buildings.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Wow ! ! ! I like that.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Jason

      Nice stereotype. I guess you wouldn't know that religion is also responsible for leading research in children's cancer (St. Jude), having the two largest hunger relief agencies in the world (Compassion International, World Vison), and make up a majority percentage of the homeless shelters, soup kitchens, battered women's shelters, and orphanages in the US and all over the world. Not trying to win you over or anything, but it seems that your being a bit one sided. Not everything about religion is dead and destruction as you claim.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Well Jason, considering that the masses are brainwashed and most people believe in one of the religions. . .yeah, chances are that most of the charities are going to be founded and maintained by believers since there are many more of them than non-believers. Does that make sense to you?

      April 27, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • Tom's twin sister Jill

      Science flies Christians to the moon.
      (Buzz Aldrin)

      April 27, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • kxkxsh

      Again, God is not religion.

      April 27, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  19. Horus

    This is news? Look at any science field. The people working in those fields are far less likely to be religious.

    Taking a good objective look at any religion leads one to the obvious conclusion that it is very unlikely to be true.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  20. Robairdo

    I'm shock really. Less the ignorant you are the less religious you are! How can that be.

    April 27, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      I am shock too. Worse the English you speak, less the English you can't speak. How can this be.

      April 27, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
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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.