Over the past few decades there has been an increasingly large literature on styles of thinking and cognitive biases (to which I am grateful to Jocelyn Stoller, a reader of this blog, for introducing me) in psychology, culminating in the marvellous book, which I recommend to everyone, by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow. If you want to understand about how we think, this is the best book for it.
Kahneman, in conjunction with his late colleague Amos Tversky, identified two cognitive systems in our minds, which they called, using prior terminology, System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the immediate response cognitive system – it doesn’t involve reflection or mediated judgement. It is how you know to avoid a thrown object or to recognise a face. System 2, however, is under some control and is something you are aware of as you employ it, and it takes effort.
Here’s how Kahneman defined the two (p20):
System 1 operates automatically and quickly with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.
Unfortunately, the questions are often expressed in “folk psychology” terms such as “intuitive” and “analytic”, which is both loaded and poorly expressed. System 1 is not intuitive; it is automatic. System 2 is not (always) analytic; it is, however, always an effort.
Why have I mentioned this? It is because of an unfortunately framed paper in Science: “Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief” by Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan [Science 27 April 2012: 336 (6080), 493-496. DOI:10.1126/science.1215647]. This paper claims, with evidence to back it up, that System 1 tends to support religious belief while System 2 tends to erode it. The Scientific American blog immediately framed this as “critical thinkers tend to lose faith”, which is implied in the paper, but is not exactly what is shown.
Of course this got picked up and played according to American social lines here by intellectual media, and was attacked by Trent Dougherty at Problogion here. This is a storm in a frame, rather than a substantive issue. Suppose somebody (say, Robert McCauley’s latest book, Why religion is natural and science is not) argued that we have a native disposition to take religious views because of our evolved cognitive machinery, while disbelief takes an effort? This doesn’t play into American dispute windows. Consequently, it gets a lot less attention, though it is by far a more interesting claim to make and investigate.
Norenzayan is no amateur in this field, but one might wish to ignore or eliminate these framing issues and look at what is important: cognitive styles are different in cost, in outcome and in usefulness, and with respect to religious belief, it is cheaper and quicker to adopt it than to reject it. This is especially the case if (as I think) one of the heuristics evolution has given us is to follow our surrounding culture because those who adopt it aren’t dead yet, so my adopting it won’t make me dead either.
As McCauley says, science is hard. I can become a fully functioning participant in a religion by age 7 or 8, but to become educated in science and critical thinking make take another decade or more. If critical reasoning leads to the abandonment of religious belief, it may be this is simply because it comes off a very high base of belief, and so any movement is likely to move the population away from that peak.
It does not follow either that religious belief is contrary to analytic thinking, or that disbelief is more critical than belief, although I happen to think in the modern social context that might very well be true as a generalisation. I know, personally, many critical religious believers and many uncritical disbelievers; the dynamic here is more about personal histories and styles than general movements.
I understand that scientists wish to get attention – all academics do that for their work. But expressing one claim (that religion is more a System 1 feature than a System 2 feature) in loaded terms (that religion is more “intuitive” than “analytic”) is, I think, a mistake best left to the journalists to commit.