Does “real thinking” reduce religious belief? [Updated]

Last week, one of The Atlantic‘s Study of the Day articles spurred a lively conversation on our Facebook Wall. To give you a sense of the study, see the following tweet, which I hope was the result of sloppy nonexistent copy-editing.

(Unfortunately, one can’t simply assume that poor editing can be blamed for this laughable tweet, because The Atlantic – once a reliable bastion of religion reporting in the secular media – has fallen on hard times. Witness, for example, this atrocious and error-ridden article about Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign, which GetReligion dissected a few weeks ago. How bad was the article? It describes Mark Driscoll as an “Emerging Liberal.”)

The study, of course, was not at all about “real thinking,” but about analytical thinking, which is one mode of thinking out of many. The study doesn’t surprise me. In Dan and Chip Heath’s book Made to Stick, they examine the impact of analytical thinking on charitable giving, and it’s not good. There’s a reason why charity campaigns use stories and not logical arguments.

While I’m not surprised at they study, I’m also not too troubled by it. The poorly written tweet – “real thinking reduces religious belief” – gets  the nature of thinking wrong, but I think the study coverage of the study gets the nature of religious belief wrong, too. Further, when considering claims of ultimate truth – whether religious or otherwise – one ought to be skeptical. Greater skepticism could have prevented many tragic decisions over the years. Skepticism, however, should not be our permanent position on every article of belief. There are things worth believing in with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Analysis is not the only way of thinking

There is a reason why we don’t plan romantic evenings around math conferences. Or try to teach a child to ride a bike with an explanation of rotational velocity. Analytical thinking is important and valuable, but it’s not the only way of thinking. Sometimes, it’s completely inappropriate to the situation and counterproductive.

For example, consider the act of writing. It’s extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to write anything of length while simultaneously editing yourself for spelling and grammar mistakes, much less fact-checking your claims as you write them. There’s a reason why they’re called “rough drafts.” If your goal is to write 500 words on your dissertation this morning, you’ll have to abandon the analytical mode of thinking for a while.

Analysis, in the wrong circumstance, can even be life-threatening. There’s a reason why trauma surgeons spend so many years increasing their knowledge and honing their skills. When the victims from a near-fatal car accident arrive in the OR, it’s time to act, not to analyze, except in the most basic where-is-this-blood-coming-from way. The rapid, intuitive response of a trained professional is not the absence of “real thinking” — it’s the pinnacle of thinking.

A final example: on Saturday morning, my three-year-old son asked me to wrestle with him for “100 minutes.” After negotiating it down to 7 minutes, we began our wrestling match. This kind of rough play is not just good exercise — it can also teach valuable social skills about the difference between play and violence, as well as strengthen my bond with my son. Was I “thinking” in the midst of all this? Of course! I was making sure my son had fun, watching that he didn’t endanger himself (or me!), searching my brain for awesome wrestling moves, while also keeping an eye on the clock so that his eight-year-old sister would get up and eat breakfast in time for her theater rehearsal. To suggest that none of this is “real thinking” is to ignore what it means to be human.

Belief is not mental assent

Second, the study measured religious belief with with a survey asking subjects about their opinions about religion. I know that a study like this one relies heavily on surveys, but we need to distinguish at all times the difference between a survey answer and a person’s real belief system. Mental assent is not the same as belief, particularly in the way in which the Bible speaks of belief.

For the past few years, my mental life, with regard to religious matters, has followed a predictable daily pattern. Early in the morning, I feel confident in my relationship with God and secure in my beliefs. In the evening, however, I face doubts and fears, and thoughts of my own mortality appear seemingly from nowhere, triggered by the most inconsequential moments.

Am I more of a “religious believer” in the morning than I am in the evening? A “better Christian” when I cheerily coast off the endorphin high I get as a morning person? Of course not! In fact, I’ve learned that these evening doubts should be occasions for prayer and reflective reading of Scripture. My experience with Scripture is quite different in these moments, precisely because I’m not reading it “analytically,” but with a strong sense of my need for God and my own inadequacy.

Having lived in the “Bible Belt” for virtually my entire life, I’ve learned not to trust what people say they believe about religion, and instead to pay attention to the whole of their lives. Growing up, everyone said they were a Christian, everyone said they believed Jesus died for their sins, everyone said they loved their neighbor as themselves — but for some people, it was just lip service.

So, this study claims that analytical thinking reduced the subjects’ levels of religious belief. Did anyone quit going to church because of their involvement with this study? Did any of them abandon a habit of Bible study and prayer? Did anyone quit giving money to the needy or stop volunteering? Did any of the subjects decline to partake in Communion on Sunday because they answered a few questions about Rodin’s The Thinker? If those types of things weren’t even tracked, then I’m not sure how much this study can really tell us about actual religious belief. [Update: As Caleb Kemere notes in the comments, the authors of the study are careful to limit their conclusions to the cognitive aspects of belief, which is wise. I wish the media coverage would make similar distinctions.]

Skepticism is not the enemy

Another way of viewing this study is that analytical thinking encourages people to be more skeptical. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are lots of crazy things out there that people can believe in, if they so choose. But this is true about nonreligious ideas, too, not just religious ones.

It all depends on what you do with your skepticism. If you’re skeptical about everything, all the time, regardless of the context, then skepticism becomes poisonous. When I first met Elizabeth Westwood at the University of Louisville, I would have been right to be skeptical that she could commit romantically to me. Today, after 13 years of  marriage, in the midst of raising three children together, with all the rest that we’ve been through, any skepticism on my part is a character flaw, not a sign of “analytical thinking.”

A few Sundays ago, our church looked at the story of Thomas from John 20:24-29. Thomas is famously known as “Doubting Thomas,” because of his reaction to the news of Jesus’ resurrection:

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

That’s not the end of the story, however.

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Our pastor suggested that Thomas should instead be called “Believing Thomas.” He doubted when it was appropriate for him to doubt. When Jesus appeared to him, however, he believed.

Asking questions is not wrong, and it’s not a sin to react to impossibly good news with skepticism. The Gospel is, quite frankly, too good to be true. How can we deserve such grace? Could God actually die for us? Could we be raised to life with him?

Asking hard questions, in fact, can be a critical moment in a person’s spiritual life. It can mark the moment you begin to take ownership of your faith, rather than coasting off the beliefs of your parents, your friends, or your church. But much depends on whether you’re asking the hard questions because you want answers, or whether you’re asking them as a knee-jerk response masquerading as “analytical thinking.”

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    John W. Morehead commented on May 1, 2012 Reply

    Critical thinking and religious belief can and does co-exist. The problem is that many religious believers do not think so or praxis the synthesis, and skeptics perpetuate the alleged dichotomy. For these reasons I am looking forward to the forthcoming book Can Critical Scholarship and Faith Co-Exist?

    Jay Woodham commented on May 1, 2012 Reply

    “So, this study claims that analytical thinking reduced the subjects’ levels of religious belief. Did anyone quit going to church because of their involvement with this study? Did any of them abandon a habit of Bible study and prayer? Did anyone quit giving money to the needy or stop volunteering? Did any of the subjects decline to partake in Communion on Sunday because they answered a few questions about Rodin’s The Thinker? If those types of things weren’t even tracked, then I’m not sure how much this study can really tell us about actual religious belief.”

    Mike I think you hit on the head with that paragraph. The actual study is behind a paywall I presume so I don’t know how they are defining religious belief as opposed to other “intuitive beliefs.” And just how are they defining analytical thinking? How long a time span was this reduction observed over? Was the “reduction” concerning actual articles of belief (Jesus rose from the dead) or more over things like: “I was going to pray about that used car I was going to buy, but now that I looked at some pictures of Rodin’s sculpture I’ll look on first”?

    The coverage of the article has not been very analytical or skeptical; regardless of what’s actually in it.

    Andy Walsh commented on May 1, 2012 Reply

    I don’t have access to Science currently, but based on some descriptions of the methodology it seems like there might be an alternative hypothesis.

    In the study, a group of subjects were asked about their religious beliefs, then primed for analytical thinking with words and images associated with analytical thinking, then asked about their religious beliefs again. This group reported fewer religious beliefs the second time, while unprimed subjects did not.

    As this piece alludes to, there is a growing popular sentiment that religious beliefs are incompatible with “real thinking.” Isn’t it also possible that the priming actually had the effect of reminding the subjects of this sentiment, leading them to answer they way they thought they were “supposed to” the second time around? Thus, they weren’t changing their answers because they had thought critically about their religious beliefs, but rather because they were trying to make their answers more acceptable given the new context in which the questions had been framed.

    Caleb Kemere commented on May 2, 2012 Reply

    I’m somewhat troubled that in a blog/email list targeted to scholars (and on the FB wall), no/little reference was made to the original source in a case like this. I think it was a really interesting set of experiments (particularly the comparison of reported belief when asked in a simple or difficult-to-read font). The suggestion made in this post, that other aspects of “belief” related to “intuitive thinking” (i.e., regarding “love”) might be influenced by “analytical thinking” is certainly interesting. In fact, the authors seem reasonably humble about their results, and would probably not disagree with this assessment –

    “In closing, we urge caution in interpreting three key implications of the present results. First, although these findings were robust to variation in ethnic and religious backgrounds in the current samples, and in study 4, to variation in other demographic characteristics (20), it is important to examine the generalizability of our findings further across a more diverse range of populations and cultural contexts in future research (26). Second, although these results indicate that analytic processing promotes religious disbelief, we again emphasize that analytic processing is almost certainly not the sole cause of religious disbelief. Disbelief likely also emerges from selective deficits in the intuitive cognitive processes that enable the mental representation of religious concepts such as supernatural agent beliefs (10, 11, 13, 27), from secular cultural contexts lacking cues that one should adopt specific religious beliefs (1, 28, 29), and in societies that effectively guarantee the existential security of their citizens (30). The present results suggest one possible cognitive source of religious disbelief, and join a growing literature using experimental techniques to test hypotheses regarding the cognitive, motivational, and cultural origins of religious beliefs (31). Finally, we caution that the present studies are silent on long-standing debates about the intrinsic value or rationality of religious beliefs (32, 33), or about the relative merits of analytic and intuitive thinking in promoting optimal decision making (34). Instead, these results illuminate, through empirical research, one cognitive stage on which such debates are played (35).”

      Micheal Hickerson commented on May 2, 2012 Reply

      Thanks, Caleb. You’re right – I should have referred to the original study, and I should have also made it clear that my issues were not really so much with the study itself, as with the media and blog coverage of the study.

    Jay Woodham commented on May 2, 2012 Reply


    That’s a very good word, and I’m glad you posted a quote from the actual study. I’m not surprised it’s as tentative as it is. I’d still be interested to know just what sorts of beliefs they were classifying as religious.

    Studies are rarely as dramatic as the press releases make them out to be. Sometimes the worst offenders are “pop-science” sites like sciencedaily or physorg in creating such mis-impressions. I’m glad those sites exist, but I always treat them with a grain of salt.

    I think one thing ESN can do in cases like this is use our understanding of the research/university world to communicate to the church and the broader world just how tentative the sciences are most of the time


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