“Analytical thinking promotes religions disbelief”… but which religion?

A few weeks ago, Science magazine published an intriguing study.

First, the study assesses the participants (all undegraduates from the University of British Columbia) for their performance on tasks that involve thinking analytically. They then correlate this performance to measures of “religiosity”. They found that the better the analytical performance, the lower the “religiosity”.

This is a correlative study, however. So the real interesting part of the study is how they try to find out if there is a mechanistic link – the holy grail of science nowadays – between analytical thinking and religious belief. The way to do that is to conduct manipulative experiments.

How do you manipulate someone’s analytical faculties?? Apparently, this study used three main ways. First, they used a visual “primer” to tip the observer into the analytical mode. Apparently, someone who sees the famous “Thinker” scuplture is sort of induced into an analytical mode, performing better at analytical tasks, versus those in the control group that see some other random sculpture. They found that the treatment results in reduced reported belief in God (on a scale of 0-100) compared to the control group!

A second way is to make the participant first work on a word-unscrambling problem to make a jumbled sentence make sense. In the treatment group, some of the key words to be unscrambled are related to analytical reasoning: analyze, reason, ponder, think, rational. The control group have unrelated keywords. Walah! After these primers, the treatment group perform better in the analytical test and, yes you’ve guessed it, report lower belief in God after the task compared to before.

The third method was even more esoteric than the first! By making the participants read two different kinds of font (yes, FONT), the treatment one that is difficult to read and a control one that is easier, the treatment font actually prods the participant into higher analytical performance mode! Once again, the treatment also results in lower post-treatment reported belief in God compared to pre-treatment reporting.

Unfortunately, this study obviously severely restricted what constitutes “religious belief”: in the correlative part of the study, all three measures of “religiosity” involve “God”. This precludes any inference on subjects that are of non-theistic faith, e.g. Buddhism.

My guess is that practising Buddhists would perform very differently in the experiment from what the researchers found here.

Some may retort that Buddhism perhaps isn’t even a religion. So a religionĀ must involve a god or gods? Buddhism as it stands is organized religion, with its clergy, and lay people that we term devotees. There are rituals, devotions, prayers. True enough, the heart of the practice is contemplation, meditation, living a blame-free, socially responsible life, etc. But as a result, people find meaning in their lives, alter the trajectories of their paths, and see it as a way to a kind of “salvation”. This is religion.

Applying the same test on Buddhist participants might find how “intuition” and “analysis” can coexist in the Buddhist community. Perhaps it may even turn out that Buddhism, with its myriad of Dharma doors, cater to both the intuitive and the analytical: participants that perform well on the analytical test tend to be those that are involved in more “analytical” practices such as mindfulness meditation, while those that don’t fare that well may be more involved in faith-based practices such as mindfulness of Buddha names or chanting… Just thinking out loud.

The scientific world, however, is too occupied with certain monotheistic faiths on such surveys and experiments because that’s where most religious people in the scientifically productive countries are standing, and where the nature of the faith conflicts with science the keenest.

The researchers noted (in their supplementary online material) that

…religious affiliation (comparing two of our largest available subgroups: Christians vs. all other religious affiliations) did not moderate effects. Thus we do not discuss… religious affiliation further.

I’m not surprised. If Buddhism and others get subsumed under a category of “non-Christian” religions together with other theistic and mono-theistic faiths, then no wonder that any possible uniqueness of Buddhist participants would be masked. Then again, how many Canadian undergraduates would be Buddhist? So it would probably not be reasonable to expect the researchers to be able to gather a sufficient sample size to test this minority religion.

So for good or ill, Buddhism as a religion has been overlooked in these investigations.


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