Some of us prioritize going to church every Sunday. Some only go on Easter and Christmas. And others don’t go at all. Some of us believe in one god. Some believe in several gods. And others don’t believe in any god. I could go on and on, but the point is that our religious beliefs—their strength, their progression, their meaning—vary greatly from person to person.
Their roots, however, are one in the same, as they stem from our intuition and rational thinking… or so we thought.
A new study “Supernatural Belief Is Not Modulated by Intuitive Thinking Style or Cognitive Inhibition” from the universities of Coventry and Oxford, suggests that religious beliefs are not, in fact, rooted in intuition or rational thinking, but nurture and culture. This goes against the bulk of research on religion, which has time and time again attempted to show people with strong religious beliefs are more intuitive and less analytical.
To reach their findings, the researchers first visited one of the largest pilgrimage routes in the world: the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which is located in northern Spain. Here, they asked 89 pilgrims different questions about their religious beliefs and journey—such as how strong their beliefs are and how long they’d been on the pilgrimage—and evaluated their degree of intuitive thinking with a probability task, where the pilgrims had to make a logical or intuitive decision. Based on ensuing responses, the researchers found no relationship between strong religious beliefs and intuition.
In their second experiment, the researchers recruited 37 participants from the general public and then presented them with the same probability task—only this time mathematical puzzles were used to deplete analytical thinking. Still, the researchers found no link between levels of intuitive thinking and religious beliefs. Now it was time for the third and final test. Here, the team used brain stimulation to activate the right inferior frontal gyrus (an area of the brain that controls inhibition) in order to increase cognitive inhibition; they then measured whether it decreased religious beliefs or not. And while the brain stimulation did increase levels of cognitive inhibition, it did not alter levels of religious belief.
All three experiments failed to find a link between intuitive/analytical thinking, or cognitive inhibition, and supernatural beliefs. The researchers, therefore, concluded that other factors—such as nurture, culture, and education—are more likely to influence religious beliefs, despite the findings of past research. “What drives our belief in gods—intuition or reason; heart or head?” questions lead author, Miguel Farias. “There has been a long debate on this matter, but our studies have challenged the theory that being a religious believer is determined by how much individuals rely on intuitive or analytical thinking,” he says.
Regardless of your religious beliefs, Farias says that none of us are likely, “born believers in the same way we inevitably learn a language at an early age.” He goes on to say that, “what we believe in is mainly based on social and educational factors, and not in cognitive styles, such as intuitive/analytical thinking.”
Sources: “Supernatural Belief Is Not Modulated by Intuitive Thinking Style or Cognitive Inhibition” by Miguel Farias, Valerie van Mulukom, Guy Kahane, Ute Kreplin, Anna Joyce, Pedro Soares, Lluis Oviedo, Mathilde Hernu, Karolina Rokita, Julian Savulescu & Riikka Möttönen in Scientific Reports. Published online November 8 2017 doi:10.1038/s41598-017-14090-9
Coventry University “Religious Belief Not Linked to Intuition or Rational Thinking.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 8 November 2017.