UPDATE: The Gervais and Norenzayan paper mentioned here should be considered inconclusive in light of later work. Go here for the explanation under “update.”
I’m not so sure that “The Big Think” (TBT) website deserves its name, as the Thinks there are often pretty small. But this headline caught my attention (click on screenshot to go to the site; h/t reader Ant):
“So what are the questions?”, you’re asking yourself. I’ll give you those in a second. First, a bit of background by the article’s author, Steven Mazie:
People who are more disposed to analytical thinking, the hypothesis goes, are less inclined to believe in a deity.
In 2012, in the journal Science, social psychologists Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan published the results of five studies suggesting this might be the case.
And so the questions, I guess, test whether you think analytically; and if you get them all right, I suppose you’re more likely to be a nonbeliever. (Maddingly, they don’t give you an “atheism score” or a correlation between number of correct answers and the proportion of nonbelievers.)
Well, try these:
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
This was the first thing I saw this morning when I woke up and looked at my laptop in bed; and even half asleep I answered all three questions correctly within one minute. I’m clearly a strong atheist! The answers seemed self-evident to someone familiar with math, but of course the questions are designed to prompt intuitive answers that are wrong.
I won’t give you the answers, though the Big Think piece does. Most of you will get them right—if you think about them. TBT goes on to say this:
The study these questions are drawn from was conducted using 179 Canadian college students. After completing the quiz task, the students were asked about their intrinsic religiosity, religious beliefs and beliefs in supernatural entities (including God, angels and the devil). The results followed expectations:
“[A]s hypothesized, analytic thinking was significantly negatively associated with all three measures of religious belief, rReligiosity = –0.22, P = 0.003; rIntuitive = –0.15, P = 0.04; and rAgents = –0.18, P = 0.02. This result demonstrated that, at the level of individual differences, the tendency to analytically override intuitions in reasoning was associated with religious disbelief, supporting previous findings.”
To translate: the more religious the undergrads were, the less likely they were to have demonstrated effective analytical reasoning on the three questions. And the better the students did on the questions, the less likely they were to have strong religious beliefs.
The study’s authors (and Mazie) relate the results to Daniel Kahneman’s classification of “System 1” (intuitive, fast) thinking, and “System 2” (slower, more analytical) thinking. Why, then, are more intuitive thinkers also more religious? Mazie notes:
The authors reason that since “religious belief emerges through a converging set of intuitive processes, and analytic processing can inhibit or override intuitive processing…analytic thinking may undermine intuitive support for religious belief.” Seeing people through the Kahnemanian lens thus “predicts that analytic thinking may be one source of religious disbelief.”
Well, that sounds good, though it’s fancy language for saying, “People who carefully work through their ideas rather than go with what they were taught to be true, or feel to be true, are less likely to be religious.” However, most people get their religious beliefs from their parents and peers, and I’m not sure that counts as an “intuitive process” rather than as simple indoctrination. I think the difference is the tendency to examine carefully what you think is true, and if that’s considered Kahneman-ian System 2, so be it.
Unfortunately, Gervais and Norenzayan had to add a caveat to their paper to make sure that people don’t think they’re anti-religion:
[W]e caution that the present studies are silent on long-standing debates about the intrinsic value or rationality of religious beliefs…or about the relative merits of analytic and intuitive thinking in promoting optimal decision making.
Some day those caveats won’t be needed for, of course, a belief that is thought through and examined from all sides is more likely to be correct. That’s the definition of rational thinking! You could probably do the same test, but correlating the answers with acceptance of homeopathic medicine, and find pretty similar results. But in that case it would be taken to show that the results are NOT silent on the rationality of homeopathic “beliefs.” Once again, we have to tiptoe around religion as opposed to other forms of irrationality. Mazie adds his own caveat, too:
There are many other reasons people might decide not to believe in God, of course, and it would be a mistake to construe religious believers as unreflective, shallow-thinking fools.
Most of us don’t think that anyway: there are smart religious people who hang on to faith for emotional reasons, or because they were taught it and find solace in it, or simply don’t want to dissolve a social network that involves religion. But seriously, are there really lots of reasons people don’t believe in God, or does it all boil down to this: “not enough evidence, and lots of counterevidence”?