Thursday, 9 November 2017

Religion Is Not Natural

The Camino de Santiago de Compostela
source: Wikipedia (CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Why do we believe in gods? Religious belief not linked to intuition or rational thinking, new research suggests

Are people born with the propensity to be religious, as some studies seem to have shown?

It is even claimed in some religious apologetic circles that somehow being religious is the natural state, either an evolved genetic predisposition, or, in fundamentalist creationist apologetics, that God intelligently designed us to be religious (obviously it couldn't have evolved, that would be heretical!).

Strangely, this god intelligently designed us to be religious but couldn't make us all have the 'one true religion'.

Of course, the bottom line is that somehow, atheism is unnatural, even perverse and definitely not something God intended.

The basis for that view of the origin of religiosity is based on the idea that religious belief is based on intuition rather than rational, analytical thinking (the Intuitive Belief Hypothesis). Certainly, arguments for creationism are invariable intuitive or more accurately, incredulitive, "I don't understand it, or can't believe it, therefore God!"

Now a new study by academics from Coventry and Oxford universities casts considerable doubt on this view and suggests that intuitive vs analytical thinking actually don't have much bearing on religious belief.

According to this news item from Coventry University:

Religious beliefs are not linked to intuition or rational thinking, according to new research by the universities of Coventry and Oxford.

Previous studies have suggested people who hold strong religious beliefs are more intuitive and less analytical, and when they think more analytically their religious beliefs decrease.

But new research, by academics from Coventry University’s Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science and neuroscientists and philosophers at Oxford University, suggests that is not the case, and that people are not ‘born believers’.

The study – which included tests on pilgrims taking part in the famous Camino de Santiago and a brain stimulation experiment – found no link between intuitive/analytical thinking, or cognitive inhibition (an ability to suppress unwanted thoughts and actions), and supernatural beliefs.

Instead, the academics conclude that other factors, such as upbringing and socio-cultural processes, are more likely to play a greater role in religious beliefs.

What drives our belief in gods – intuition or reason; heart or head? There has been a long debate on this matter but our studies have challenged the theory that being a religious believer is determined by how much individuals rely on intuitive or analytical thinking.

We don’t think people are ‘born believers’ in the same way we inevitably learn a language at an early age. The available sociological and historical data show that what we believe in is mainly based on social and educational factors, and not on cognitive styles, such as intuitive/analytical thinking.

Religious belief is most likely rooted in culture rather than in some primitive gut intuition

Miguel Farias, Lead author
Brain, Belief, & Behaviour Lab, Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science,
Coventry University, Coventry, UK
The study by academics from Coventry University’s Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science and neuroscientists and philosophers at Oxford University, was published yesterday in Scientific Reports. The team started their research by interviewing pilgrims on one of the longest pilgrimage routes in the world – the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, in northern Spain.

Known as the Camino, pilgrim trails from all over western Europe converge on northern Spain then follow one of two routes: the southerly, or French route, and a northern route which more or less hugs the north coast of Spain. Both end at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the far north-west.

Traditionally, anyone who completes the Camino is absolved of all sin and receives a certificate to say so. An entire and very lucrative industry has grown up around serving the needs of pilgrims on route to absolution.

Pilgrims on the Camino were asked about the strength of their beliefs and the length of time spent on the pilgrimage and were assessed for their levels of intuitive thinking with a probability task, where they had to decide between a logical and a ‘gut feeling’ choice. The results showed no link between strength of supernatural belief and intuition.

According to the Intuitive Belief Hypothesis, supernatural belief relies heavily on intuitive thinking—and decreases when analytic thinking is engaged. After pointing out various limitations in prior attempts to support this Intuitive Belief Hypothesis, we test it across three new studies using a variety of paradigms, ranging from a pilgrimage field study to a neurostimulation experiment. In all three studies, we found no relationship between intuitive or analytical thinking and supernatural belief. We conclude that it is premature to explain belief in gods as ‘intuitive’, and that other factors, such as socio-cultural upbringing, are likely to play a greater role in the emergence and maintenance of supernatural belief than cognitive style.

For the first study participants were asked to chose one of two bowls containing transparent and coloured beads from which to try to pick a coloured bead:

Illustration of the two bowls participants had to draw from while blindfolded. The task was to decide, before being blindfolded, where to attempt drawing a color bead from. The smaller bowl (B) always presented a 10% probability of getting the color bead, while the larger bowl (A) varied between a 6–9% probability.
Participants were presented with two different bowls containing a number of transparent and color beads. The smaller bowl always presented a 10% probability of getting the color bead (one out of ten beads), while the larger bowl varied between a 6-9% probability (six to nine out of 100 beads; see Fig. 1). The probabilities in the large bowl were varied according to a Latin Square design (examples of two sequences of presentations of color beads were: 6-9-8-7 and 7-6-8-9). Participants were explicitly told the odds of the color to the transparent beads in each bowl, and were then asked to choose one to try drawing the color bead from. After they made their choices, we used a dark cloth to hide the contents of the bowl from the individual and shook the bowl to move the beads. There were 4 trials for each participant. Each participant was offered a chocolate bar for taking part in the study.

To score the trials, we assigned a score of 0 to the analytical choice, a score of 1 to a 9% probability of drawing the color bead from the large bowl, 2 to an 8% probability, 3 to a 7% probability, and 4 to a 6% probability. The smaller bowl was always the analytical choice, but intuitively one may have felt more inclined to choose the larger bowl, as it presented a greater number of color beads (a number of participants reported this in the original study and this was replicated in our study). Thus, a higher score indicated a more intuitive response.

A second study using mathematical puzzles to assess intuition, again found no correlation between religious belief and intuitive thinking.

Finally, the team used painless electrical stimulation to stimulate the right inferior frontal gyrus of the brain of subjects. Previous studies have shown that this area of the brain is active when Atheists suppress superstitious thoughts. Although this brain stimulation increased cognitive ability, it did not change the level of supernatural belief, again suggesting that there is no link between cognitive ability and religious belief.

This study, whilst not in itself definitive suggests it is at least premature for psychologists to conclude that religion is intuitive or natural. Rather, this study suggests that it is a nurture-based process and develops because of socio-cultural processes, including upbringing and education.

In other words, religions don't come naturally but are cultural impositions. No wonder then that religions invest so much effort into inculcating children with religious ideas and behaviours before they have time to develop the necessary critical thinking skills.

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