Study: Critical Thinkers Less Likely to Believe in God

A new report suggests critical thinking may play a role in atheism.


A new report suggests people who think analytically are less likely to believe in God.

Published Thursday in the journal Science, the report found that people were more likely to express weaker faith in God after answering math questions that required analytic thinking.

[See the latest political cartoons.]

"Most of the people who have ever lived believe in a religion of some kind," says Will Gervais, the author of the paper and a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia. "But there are nearly half a billion nonbelievers. We're trying to understand what leads some people to believe and other people to disbelieve."

Scientists believe humans think about new information in two distinct ways—intuition, or gut feeling, and analysis of the new information. In five separate experiments, Gervais and his team triggered analytical thought patterns in a number of ways—in each experiment, a control group consistently rated their belief in God as higher than people who had recently performed sentence-forming exercises, looked at a statue of someone deep in thought or solved complicated mathematical word problems.

In a final experiment, people who answered a belief questionnaire worksheet in a font that was hard to read rated their belief as "less strong" than people whose worksheet was legible.

[Read The Vatican Should Exalt Catholic Nuns, Not Upbraid Them.]

After each "analytic thinking" exercise, participants were asked questions such as whether they believed in God, whether their faith affects their day to day life, and how important religion is to them.

The results might help explain why scientists are among the least religious. According to a 2009 Pew poll, only about half of scientists believe in God or a higher deity, compared to more than 80 percent of the general public.

"The results don't speak directly to it, but it could explain why people who receive extensive training in fields that require deep analytic thinking might tend to be among the least religious," he says.

Although critical analysis of life's origins might be one thing that convinces atheists to lack faith in God, Gervais says there are many other reasons that need to be explored.

"There are definitely other factors," he says. "Cultural learning plays a big role—when you're growing up, do you see other people engaged in public displays of faith?"

[Read Kopimism, Sweden's Pirate Religion, Begins to Plunder America.]

People who are unable or unwilling to believe in the supernatural are also likely to be atheists.

Gervais says the study takes no sides in the ongoing culture war between religion and science. It wasn't meant to determine where we came from, but instead where the war itself came from.

"We can't shed light on the ultimate answers. Instead, we're interested in figuring out where these disconnects come from," he says. According to the report, the results are meant to "illuminate, through empirical research, one cognitive stage on which such debates are played."