What Underpins Belief in God?

November 9, 2017

New research challenges the idea that intuitive thinkers are more likely to be believers.

Are some people born believers, while others are instinctive skeptics? Or is faith something we adopt, or reject, based on cues we pick up from our culture?

The question has been debated for centuries, but the intuitive-pull argument has gained favor in recent years. Psychological studies have concluded that people who tend to rely on intuition are more likely than analytical thinkers to have religious faith.

But new research strongly challenges that notion. In three quite different studies, it finds no link between one’s cognitive style and religious belief, or lack thereof.

“Religious belief is most likely rooted in culture, rather than in some primitive gut intuition,” lead author Miguel Farias of Coventry University said in announcing the findings. The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Farias and his colleagues were determined to avoid using the usual set of study participants (that is, university students). So for their first study, they approached an unusual and diverse group: people making a month-long pilgrimage across northern Spain.

Eighty-nine pilgrims (71 percent of whom were Christian, while another 20 percent were “spiritual but not religious”) were given a test designed to determine whether they solved problems using intuitive or analytical thinking. The researchers found this predilection was unrelated to their self-proclaimed religiosity or spirituality, nor to a more concrete measure of devotion: the number of days they spent on the journey.

In the second study, 37 participants were instructed to solve a difficult problem—a manipulation that has been shown to overwhelm one’s working memory and lead to more intuitive responses as a result. That proved true here as well, but “it still had no effect on how much, or how fast, one endorsed supernatural attributions,” the researchers report.

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