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Do Believers in God Differ from Nonbelievers in Their Cognitive Style?

Updated on February 13, 2016
John Paul Quester profile image

Paul is a mostly retired academic; he holds advanced degrees in philosophy and psychology.

The Festival of Reason, France, 1793
The Festival of Reason, France, 1793 | Source

Cognitive Science and Religious Belief

Is there a relationship between cognitive style and religiousness? Do believers and nonbelievers think in somewhat different ways? If so: how, and why?

An interesting question, surely. Most of us, I presume, would agree that whether or not we become, or remain, believers in God may be affected by a number of socio-cultural factors: the dominant values and beliefs of the community we grew up in, our family's religious orientation, the kind of education we received, our experiences with religious organizations and their representatives, and the opinions of people we admire, to name but a few.

What about the role of more subjective factors, such as our personality and or our general orientation to the world: for example, whether we are extroverted or introverted, optimistic or pessimistic, and the like? And whether we tend to form our opinions by privileging one way of thinking over another? This latter question is addressed here.

Cognitive scientists have studied this issue in recent years, and some of their findings are noteworthy. To give you some idea of the way they approach it, I invite you to participate in a simple, informal test, which you may even find enjoyable.

Answer these Brain Teasers!

The questions reproduced below (1), were utilized in a study (2) that directly explored aspects of the thinking style-religiousness relationship. More about this later.

For now, I suggest you begin by rating the strength of your religious belief on a scale of, say, from 0 to 100, with 0 indicating total disbelief in a deity, 100 total belief. Having done that, answer the questions given below:

1. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? ____cents

2. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? _____minutes

3. In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? _____days

How Did You Arrive at Your Answers?

Did you answer: a) 10 cents, b) 100 minutes, and c) 24 days? If so, you arrived at your (incorrect) answers by relying primarily upon your intuitive sense of what the most likely solution to the puzzle was, rather than upon straightforward analytical reasoning.

By so doing, according to the 'Dual-Process' theory of human cognition (see, e.g., (1)), you approached these questions by engaging cognitive System 1 (S1), rather than System 2 (S2). In broadest terms, S1 and S2 are the two fundamental ways of processing information, which differ along a number of dimensions. S1 relies upon unconscious reasoning processes; S2 on conscious reasoning; S1 proceeds fairly automatically and requires little effort, whereas S2 requires a deliberate way of proceeding and considerable cognitive effort; S1 is fast whereas S2 is slow; S1 tends to be based upon analogical and associative thinking whereas S2 is mostly rule based; S1 is largely non logical, whereas S2 is strictly logical; S1 can also operate independently of language (as when we carry out perceptual judgments) whereas S2 is strictly language dependent. Also, within the long evolutionary history of our cognitive abilities, S1 may have developed earlier than S2. In a nutshell: S1 is essentially intuitive and fast thinking, whereas S2 is slow and deliberate analytical thinking.

These two systems coexist in our mind and can even run in parallel. Certain problems only engage S1 (as when for example we recognize a friend in a crowd); others can only be addressed by S2 (as when we carry out rule-dependent tasks such as computing the cubic root of a large number); yet others may trigger both, as is the case with the questions you answered.

In this latter kind of problems, reliance upon S1, which tends to be engaged first, can often lead to the wrong answers. It is only by overriding S1 and by adopting a S2 type of analytical thinking that the correct solution is found.

The correct answers to the test are: a) 5 cents (rather than 10); b) 5 minutes (rather than 100); c) 47 days (rather than 24). If you got them wrong (of course you may have answered differently than the 'intuitive', most often given incorrect answers reported here), a bit of straightforward analytical thinking will now enable you to arrive at a correct understanding of these teasers, perhaps followed by a 'How could I have ever missed that!!'

Religious Belief and Cognitive Style

Now, what does all of this have to do with whether or not one is a religious believer?

In recent experiments (2), psychologists presented a large number of undergraduate students with these same three problems, along with three scales which measured the level of religious belief of each participant to the study.

The findings disclosed a strongly significant negative correlation between reliance upon analytical thinking and religious belief. In other words, the more people made use of analytical thinking (S2) to override intuition (S1) in solving these problems, the less religious they were. This in turn suggests that analytical thinking may contribute to religious disbelief. These results were compatible with a previous study which addressed this matter in comparable fashion (3).

By the way: were your answers and your rating of the strength of your religious belief congruent with the results of this experiment? For instance: did you rate yourself as strongly religious and answered along more intuitive lines? Or: did you rate yourself as a non believer and answered at least some of the questions correctly?

Yet another study (4) which tested participants for their logical reasoning skills showed that religious skeptics made fewer reasoning errors than believers. Interestingly, this study along with similar others (see (4) for a review) ruled out age, sex, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, income level, education, year in university, university faculty, political views, religious commitment, a number of personality variables, and cognitive ability (as assessed by multiple measures), as factors responsible for the negative relation between reasoning performance and religious belief.

Other studies have brought to light more differences between believers and non believers in their way of relating cognitively to the world. For instance, recent experiments (5) showed that believers in paranormal phenomena, and religious believers, were both more likely than non believers to find illusory human-like faces in artifacts or scenery than non believers. Along similar lines, another recent study (6) presented subjects with 2D animations of geometric objects moving either intentionally or randomly, and asked them to rate the level of intentionality of the animations. Compared with the skeptics, believers in the supernatural rated more random movements as intentional.

Based on these and related findings, some researchers have proposed that believers tend to be more inclined than skeptics to apply cognitive mechanisms originally developed for understanding people's beliefs, intentions etc. to the characterization of both physical and biological aspects of the natural world.

What Does It All Mean?

It is important first of all to be clear that the tendency to deploy modes of understanding and of interpreting perceptual data that are not appropriate for the correct execution of some cognitive tasks is by no means a prerogative of believers alone. The data only show that a larger proportion of people prone to so doing is found among believers than among nonbelievers. Most of us at one time or another will override the more rational side of our thinking in favour of intuitive, analogical modes of thought, and will see things that 'aren't there'.

Also, the available data suggest that these results are not to be understood by appealing to differences in 'smarts' between the two groups. This is so because overall cognitive ability is one of the many factors that, as noted above, have not been shown capable of accounting for the cognitive differences under examination here.

Furthermore, it could be argued that whereas the overriding of intuition may serve us well on many occasions, there may be other situations in which excessive reliance upon analytical thinking in lieu of a more intuitive approach may lead us astray. An earlier cognitive study (8) makes precisely this point.

It is critical to appreciate that questions about the origin of a belief (any belief) have no logically compelling implications concerning its truth status: the validity of a belief is to be assessed on its own terms, regardless of the way it was arrived at.

Specifically, the sort of findings discussed above have led some to suggest that religious and supernatural beliefs likely originate from a tendency to attribute mind- and human-like qualities to nature and what may transcend it. Incidentally, this is an old idea: even the ancient Greeks considered that their gods might simply be psychological projections of human traits upon reality at large. But again: even if it were indeed the case – and this is far from proven - that religious beliefs may have a basis in an anthropomorphic tendency that will serve us ill at times, this does not by itself authorize us to infer their absolute falsity.

The tendency to endow creation at large with mind like qualities may actually contain a kernel of truth, and be rationally defensible. One might point out the obvious fact that mind-endowed entities which are part of nature do exist: we humans. It is therefore not unreasonable to propose that mind-like attributes may be intrinsic to the universe at large.

Panpsychism, the philosophical doctrine according to which mind is not a late, accidental, and derivative by-product of matter, but is a non reducible, fundamental, omnipresent constituent of reality (manifesting itself at many different levels of complexity) was held by key Western thinkers. Indeed, panpsychism is making a sort of come back in our time (7), due in large part to the possibly insurmountable difficulties of accounting for the phenomena of consciousness on a strictly materialistic basis.

Ultimately, the choice to believe (or not to) in a spiritual world engulfing and sustaining our own can never be made upon a strictly rational or empirical basis alone, due to the inherent limitations of these approaches when dealing with questions about ultimate reality. Accordingly, a cautious reliance on certain kinds of religious experience, and upon our intuitive insight into the perennial questions have a legitimate role to play, along with analytical thinking and fact finding, in shaping our beliefs, one way or another.

A final caveat: whereas the empirical data reported above are potentially important in helping us understand what factors turns some of us into believers and others into skeptics, a great deal of theoretical and empirical work remains to be done to arrive at a satisfactory understanding of this complex subject.


(1) These questions were originally used in a different context in the following work: S. Frederick, J. Econon. Persp. 19(4), 25-42 (2005).

(2) W. M. Gervais and A. Norenzayan. Science, 336, 493-496 (2013).

(3) A. Shenhav, D. G. Rand, J. D. Greene, 141, J. Exp. Psychol. Gen., 423-428 (2012).

(4) G. Pennycook, J. A. Cheyne, D. J. Koehler, & J.A. Fugelsang G.. Psychon. Bull. Rev., 20, 806–811 (2013).

(5) T. Riekki,vM. Lindeman, M. Aleneff, A. Halme, and A. Nuortimo, Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 27, 150–155 (2013).

(6) T. Riekki1, M. Lindeman, and T. Raij. Soc. Neuros. 4, 400–411 (2014)

(7) D. Skrbina. Panpsychism in the West. MIT Press (2007)

(8) T. D. Wilson, J. W. Schooler. J. Pers. Soc. Psy., 60 181 (1991).

© 2016 Paul Quester


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    • John Paul Quester profile image

      Paul Quester 20 months ago from North America

      Glad you found it interesting. Thanks.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 20 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Extremely interesting. I am 100 on the scale. I am an intuitive thinker in general. But when you gave me analytical question my brain snapped into analytical thought pattern switching from S1 to S2. Certainly that must be somewhat normal. I must admit I had to think for a moment on the lilies.