Rationality Undermines Religion? Yes, Maybe, and No


“Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief.” So says recent research coming out of the University of British Columbia, reported in the prestigious journal Science. Even something as innocuous as viewing an image of Rodin’s Thinker seems to increase rational processing, which appears in turn to undermine belief.

The story has been spun in multiple directions by various blogs and periodicals, so, wanting to get to the truth of the matter, I paid to retrieve the article from behind the subscription paywall. The research seems sound, albeit very short-term-oriented. Its implications are not so simple.

Every responsible psychological research report, including this one, expresses cautions regarding conclusions to be drawn. Correlational studies in particular have to be interpreted with care. Even experimental (non-correlational) studies like this one can be confounded by unexamined variables and by experimenters’ assumptions. These researchers’ beliefs about religion are telegraphed in the introductory section of their report:

Available evidence and theory suggest that a converging suite of intuitive cognitive processes facilitate and support belief in supernatural agents, which is a central aspect of religious beliefs worldwide. These processes include intuitions about teleology, mind-body dualism, psychological immortality, and mind perception.

There’s something important missing from this list. It’s indicative of something lacking in psychological research, in Christianity itself, or both. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Other publications’ reactions have been interesting.  In an ironic reversal, Time Magazine published a more responsible summary than two prestigious science periodicals, which seem to hint that the research shows faith is irrational. When I looked at Nature.com, which darkly asked, “Is rationality the enemy of religion?” I thought I was going to find the same thing there again. Early paragraphs supported that expectation, but I was pleased to see in it a note of sensibility later on:

Almost all of the questions in Gervais and Norenzayan’s study related to religion as a literalist folk tradition — an aspect of lifestyle. This is how it manifests in most cultures, but that barely touches on religion as articulated by its leading intellectuals: for Christianity, say, philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and George Berkeley. The idea that the beliefs of those individuals would have vanished had they been more analytical is, if nothing else, amusing.

Someone had thought through what’s certainly missing from the UBC research analysis, and from a host of other reports: there are forms of belief that could well be supported, not undermined, by rational thinking. (I will be speaking specifically of Christian religious belief from this point forward.)

The UBC research team missed that possibility, but I don’t hold them entirely to blame. When I was in psych grad school I would have been astounded to hear Thomas Aquinas or Bishop Berkeley mentioned in the hallway. To hear them brought up in the classroom would probably have shocked me so badly, it might have landed me in a different kind of psychological institution altogether. (I’m a little shocked today to see Kant and Hume included among Christianity’s leading intellectuals, but that’s another matter.)

At the risk of overgeneralizing, psychologists know what previous research has shown them, and not much else. In a research paper in grad school I tried to make reference to a credible source of information not based in published social research; and goodness sakes, you’d have thought I’d quoted from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The TA was Not Pleased. (The professor never knew about it: the TA protected him from being tainted by my work.)

Anyway, I’m actually perfectly willing to accept that previous studies have shown that religion is mostly intuitive. I think for many (most?) Christians it really is mostly intuitive, and for many it’s strictly a cultural thing. As long as large proportions of Christians’ religion is like that, that’s exactly how it will appear under psychologists’ nomothetic research lens. It will look as if it’s mostly intuitive or cultural.

But that doesn’t mean Christianity is only intuitive or cultural, or that it has no strong rational component. I think it likely shows instead that for many believers, the rational side of their faith may not have been adequately equipped and supplied. Here’s what I mean. When some people read Richard Dawkins it engages their rational faculties and they have doubts about their beliefs. When I read Richard Dawkins it engages my rational faculties and my beliefs are strengthened. The difference is that I’ve done enough study to see how sophomoric his arguments are.

If many Christians’ belief is mostly intuitive, that doesn’t make it wrong, and it doesn’t make necessarily make it weak. It does make it needlessly vulnerable.

And that reveals what I take to be the real message of this research for Christians: not that the faith is wrong—the research could not demonstrate that even if it were—but that for many of us, our faith could stand a much stronger rational component. We need to study more, test ourselves intellectually more, think more. Leaders—pastors and teachers in particular—need to challenge their classes and congregations more. We need to love our God with all our minds.

As it says in Nature, “Gervais and Norenzayan’s findings should help to combat religion as an indolent obstacle to better explanations of the natural world. But it can’t really engage with the rich tradition of religious thought.”

That’s good rational thinking.

6 Responses

  1. Fabulous essay. Especially appreciated the mention of ‘idiographic/nomothetic’ principles which I always sensed but never saw defined.
    Great stuff and much appreciated. Let us all use our minds to glorify God. After all, God made us with an incomprehensible capacity to undertand his creation. I do believe that sloth is the besetting sin of this age.

  2. Mike Gene says:

    I would strongly caution against accepting such a study at face value until it is independently replicated:

    Positive results in psychology can behave like rumours: easy to release but hard to dispel. They dominate most journals, which strive to present new, exciting research. Meanwhile, attempts to replicate those studies, especially when the findings are negative, go unpublished, languishing in personal file drawers or circulating in conversations around the water cooler. “There are some experiments that everyone knows don’t replicate, but this knowledge doesn’t get into the literature,” says Wagenmakers. The publication barrier can be chilling, he adds. “I’ve seen students spending their entire PhD period trying to replicate a phenomenon, failing, and quitting academia because they had nothing to show for their time.”

    These problems occur throughout the sciences, but psychology has a number of deeply entrenched cultural norms that exacerbate them. It has become common practice, for example, to tweak experimental designs in ways that practically guarantee positive results. And once positive results are published, few researchers replicate the experiment exactly, instead carrying out ‘conceptual replications’ that test similar hypotheses using different methods. This practice, say critics, builds a house of cards on potentially shaky foundations.


  3. Tom Gilson says:

    Good point. They call it the file-drawer problem: studies that don’t show positive results get filed rather than published. I’ve certainly felt that pressure in research. I had one manager argue me down when I reported a non-result, telling me I had to be wrong, and that he wanted to re-do the study until it showed the positive correlation he wanted it to show.

  4. Nick says:

    Contrary to what you state and suggest, I don’t believe these researchers would for one moment question the existence of an enormous body of protective rationalisation as a religious component that has been constructed over the centuries, and showing no signs of stopping, just to justify this core converging suite of specific intuitions.

    The key difference is that these particular kinds of cognitive illusions (as partially listed and from the results of separate research) are demonstrable based on verifiable research that produced scientific supportive evidence whereas the rationalisations for an intuitive belief in supernatural agent(s) have not had any such similar support. This has nothing to do with an alleged manifestation of a research bias being selective about it’s subject matter as only intuitive (it clearly isn’t exclusively so, as a matter of historical record) and makes no difference to their findings even if it were, in true strawman fashion, held to be true of their conceptions.

    “If many Christians’ belief is mostly intuitive, that doesn’t make it wrong,…”

    In fact the case is worse, not that this form of belief is simply intuitively understood and then (potentially) rationalised, but it is intuitive about a core suite of ‘hard-wired’ cognitive illusions. This indeed is as close to making it wrong as we can currently understand and with a corresponding lack of evidence-based reasoning makes it also not shown right, in addition to specifically being shown fundamentally faulty at core. However, the same supportive research does highlight that increased rationality, although here shown to diminish reported religious belief, and even self-reported atheism, will not fully eradicate these core adaptive illusions from our intuitions about the nature of universe either. No doubt this too will be brought in as the missing ‘proof’ of the existence of god or other religious beliefs that is humanly so felt to be needed.

  5. Tom Gilson says:


    You assume that these hard-wired ways of thinking are illusions. Psychological research cannot show them to be so. If there is a hard-wired system for believing in God and/or purpose and/or design in the universe (and there certainly appears to be), it could be an evolutionary spandrel, an adaptation formerly useful but no longer, or something intentionally wired into our systems by God.

    In fact I think the illusion theory is just as wrong as the viewpoint that free will and consciousness are illusory. But you ignored everything I wrote about a rational component to Christian belief. Not “rationalized,” but rational.

  6. mercadee says:

    that’s bugged me. I don’t mind studies about religious thought. It’s not like studies critical of religion kill God. However, the methodology sucked. It’s almost like the study was like, “Hey, if you choose a Coke, you’re a fundy Christian turd, but if you choose a Pepsi, you’re a perfectly rational atheist.” I think immature middle schoolers can do better than something that reminds me of that folded paper prediction game we played as kids.