Did religion make me a skeptic?

As I reflected on Steven Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” I was struck with a notion that had never before crossed my mind: could it be that my view on human nature during my formative years contributed to a cognitive style that would eventually lead me to question my faith? Or, simply put, did religion make me a skeptic?

The Setup

The primary argument of Pinker’s book is that the political left too often ignores our innate tendencies and erroneously acts as if people’s behavior can be molded entirely through their social context (hence the blank slate). He suggests that this kind of thinking is in part responsible for the brutal social engineering programs of Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and the like. On this point, I think he is on the mark. It is foolishness to reject the existence of human nature or expect that entire societies will abandon their very nature. On the whole, human nature will win out.

That said, Pinker is concerned with the broad social implications but never addresses what it means if an individual comes to recognize their human nature and strives to proceed accordingly. If human nature is predominantly revealed in our “fast thinking” (System 1), as it would seem to be, and this can sometimes be overridden by our “slow thinking” (System 2), then the implication is that those who learn to recognize these tendencies and who train themselves to rely on System 2 as much as possible are more likely to make decisions which are driven by empirical information and are thus less influenced by human nature [1]. These people are said to have an analytic cognitive style.

It seems to me that I am among this group and that it is largely responsible for the path I currently walk; and I am not alone. The war cry of the skeptic is a promotion of critical thinking, reason and logic. Studies have shown a negative correlation between analytic cognitive style and religious belief and the vast majority of deconversion stories I encounter focus on the person’s critical assessment of the evidence. Even so, most Christian apologists would advocate a liberal reliance on reason and careful analysis. Though these very same apologists claim that unbelief is rooted in some deeper moral objection, it is evident to me that the primary force behind loss of faith is a thoughtful reflection on the data.

The Twist

I was raised to believe in the Pauline struggle; to believe that I had a sin nature (flesh) which was at war with my spirit and that this war could be won by aligning my will with God’s. My instincts were corrupt and needed to be held in check. Living by the flesh comes easily and naturally, so be on guard. In psychological terms, I was taught to recognize the tendencies of System 1 and employ System 2 to overcome them. When this background is applied to the theory presented above, it would suggest that my Judeo-Christian perspective on human nature may have been partially responsible for my cognitive style. In other words, it may be that I question my faith because my faith taught me to question myself.

On the other hand, it could just be my nature. I would even venture to say that it is likely that I am naturally inclined toward a critical approach. History tells us that the religion we’re born into is likely to stick with us and a myriad of research tells us that our personalities are most strongly dictated by our genetics. But what if there’s more to it? If there’s any truth to the idea that the development of our cognitive style could be influenced by our childhood perspective on human nature, and that those with an analytic cognitive style are less likely to embrace religion, then the implicit result is not just swimming in irony; it’s drowning in it.

So, did religion make me a skeptic? Honestly, I doubt it…. but what’d you expect?


[1] Keep in mind that System 1 and System 2 are just tools for describing different modes of thought, not actual mental systems. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept then there are some decent introductions here:
NY Times review of Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow”
Scientific American: Of Two Minds When Making a Decision
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14 thoughts on “Did religion make me a skeptic?

  1. Hello Travis,

    The teaching of “original sin” or one having a “sin nature” is not Biblical truth.

    ^

    Search: The Cognition, Religion and Theology Project’ led by Dr Justin Barrett

    A three-year international research project, directed by two academics at the University of Oxford, finds that humans have natural tendencies to believe in gods and an afterlife.

    sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110714103828.htm

    ^

    Also, “intuitive” and “analytical” thought processes, inregards to religious belief do not have to in opposition. Refer to psychologytoday.com/blog/unique-everybody-else/201209/reason-versus-faith-the-interplay-intuition-and-rationality-in-sup

    Roy

  2. “I was raised to believe in the Pauline struggle; to believe that I had a sin nature (flesh) which was at war with my spirit and that this war could be won by aligning my will with God’s. My instincts were corrupt and needed to be held in check. Living by the flesh comes easily and naturally, so be on guard. In psychological terms, I was taught to recognize the tendencies of System 1 and employ System 2 to overcome them. When this background is applied to the theory presented above, it would suggest that my Judeo-Christian perspective on human nature may have been partially responsible for my cognitive style. In other words, it may be that I question my faith because my faith taught me to question myself….

    So, did religion make me a skeptic? Honestly, I doubt it…. but what’d you expect?”

    Very interesting point. I think Paul’s appeal to system 2 thinking can indeed lead to your skepticism and the flourishing intellectual pursuits in Christian society – including science. Although paul often challenges the wisdom of his time I do not think he is challenging wisdom in general. Instead he is challenging system 1 type thinking that at the time clearly would conflict with Christ’s command to love your enemies etc.

    You say:
    “Studies have shown a negative correlation between analytic cognitive style and religious belief and the vast majority of deconversion stories I encounter focus on the person’s critical assessment of the evidence.”

    But i wonder whether these studies are conducted in places where people generally believe in religion. So if someone became a Christian in a world where atheism was the norm (or Hinduism was the norm vice versa etc) I bet you would see that person uses more system 2 thinking than the general population. I think this study might be more of a matter of who will go against the grain. Paul of course lived at a time where Christianity was not the norm. So he had to rely on system 2 thinking to spread the faith. Christ is “the logos” so of course logical processes are going to be championed.

    Does the inclusion of paranormal beliefs disprove what I say above. I don’t think so. I mean some beliefs are rejected for for good reason.

    • “I think this study might be more of a matter of who will go against the grain.”

      Interesting point. If our intuitions are predominantly shaped by our culture then this would make sense. As Roy’s link noted, however, there does appear to be some innate tendency toward supernatural beliefs, so that may need to be figured in some how. Note that the full paper is available on researchgate, where you can see details on the study population and the partitions of study variables. There might already be something in the paper that addresses your suggestion.

      • Also, please search the Net for opposing views. The notion of “original sin” and “sin nature” are not true Biblical teachings. We did not inherit Adams sin. You are NOT being FORCED to sin, because it is your so called NATURE to SIN.

        Also, please search “discernment”, what it is and how to get it.

  3. Hi Travis,

    I have only now stumbled on your blog, and only because you visited one of mine. I wanted to make a brief comment about a couple of matters in your post.

    You point out (correctly) that “Studies have shown a negative correlation between analytic cognitive style and religious belief’. And most of us believe analytical thinking is the best. Yet studies show that intuitive thinking is generally better when dealing with complex issues where it is difficult to gather and assimilate all the data – see Analytical thinking vs. religion. I too tend to be an analytical thinker, but it is worth asking whether questions about God are more like science, where analytical thinking is best, or more like complex questions involving large amounts of subtle data? perhaps, as that reference suggests, we need both.
    You also say “History tells us that the religion we’re born into is likely to stick with us” but I believe this is a half truth, at least for christianity. Consider these three facts:

    (i) Christianity has grown from a few followers to billions. It could only achieve that by making lots of converts.
    (ii) Today, christianity is declining in most countries with a christian past, and it is in countries with a very limited christian past (in Africa, South America and parts of Asia) that it is growing fast.
    (iii) I have constructed a spreadsheet model with the best population data I could find (see Are many christians converts?), and this suggests that about half of committed christians living today come from non-christiuan backgrounds, and about a third of “cultural christians” are from non christian backgrounds.

    So it appears that perhaps the situation isn’t as clearcut as often claimed.

    None of this may impact on your main points, but I hope it is of interest. Thanks.

    • Hi unklE,
      Thanks for visiting. I’ve run across your presence on various blogs but just recently visited your site. The recent articles regarding your perspective on the Old Testament are an interested read.

      it is worth asking whether questions about God are more like science, where analytical thinking is best, or more like complex questions involving large amounts of subtle data

      I think that this is an interesting question to ask, but it also carries a difficult conundrum: is God the chicken or the egg? That is, do we use our intuition to reach God because that’s just how it works, or because God is a product of our intuition? My young children will intuit the presence of monsters as a response to darkness but that does not mean that they are there.

      I also looked at the abstracts of the studies referenced in the “analytical thinking vs religion” article (which is a worthwhile read). One study compares individual preferences of “liking something” to expert opinion or actual results. I fully appreciate why intuition is preferred in that case. The decision is about how to realize a particular feeling rather than how to discriminate between the accuracy of different facts. The second study demonstrates that people who have alexithymia (essentially a diminished intuition) won’t pick up on the long run advantage of something. They use the Iowa gambling task, which is rigged so that certain options consistently result in more frequent wins. In this case, the issue isn’t that the best result cannot be obtained analytically. The issue is that misdirected or haphazard analysis does not work as well as intuition. I strongly suspect that if that same study was done and the alexithymia group was told to use tally marks to track their performance and the other group was told to only use their intuition, then the alexithymia group that used tally marks and discovered the advantage of the decks analytically would end up doing better than the intuitive group. It’s not that analytical thinking is wrong in this case, it’s just that wrong analysis gives wrong results.

      So, in short, intuition can be better when the goal is obtaining a feeling or when our analysis is misdirected. This is not at all surprising. When we turn the question to God, then we might frame it as “Is God only understood by ‘feeling’ him?”, or “Is there no way to properly analyze the information about God?” If the answer is yes in either case then it would appear that the system is rigged against those of us who tend to operate analytically. That’s not very comforting. And if this is the case, how would we know? We can’t analyze it.

      Regarding the adoption of our religious upbringing, your analysis is very interesting. My statement about sticking with the religion we’re born into was largely driven by the fact that religious demographics tend to change slowly so that, as a whole, people groups retain their culture’s religion. Even in your analysis we see still see that the majority of Christians (> 50%) were raised in it. In the context of this post I was using this as a counter-point to the central question that I had raised. I was pointing out that the majority of those who were brought up to believe in a struggle between flesh and spirit do not become skeptics of their faith, so maybe this upbringing has nothing to do with it.

      • Hi Travis,

        I think you downplay the research a little – after all, selecting the right course of study is something more than “individual preferences of “liking something””, but will have a substantial basis in people’s actual capabilities, which can be at least partially assessed scientifically. So I still think my comment was fair – we should use both types of thinking, definitely as appropriate to the situation, but probably both in most situations. So thinking only analytically about God may be quite limiting.

        ““Is God only understood by ‘feeling’ him?”, or “Is there no way to properly analyze the information about God?” If the answer is yes in either case then it would appear that the system is rigged against those of us who tend to operate analytically.”

        I suggest that both types of thinking are appropriate to thinking about God. Analytical thinking may be better for reviewing the historical, scientific and philosophical issues, both types of thinking may be best for assessing personal experience (our own and others’), and intuitive thinking may be best for compiling all this into a big picture assessment (because intuitive is often best for assimilating complex, incomplete and sometimes apparently contradictory information).

        So I don’t think the system is rigged against analytical thinking, but I think it may be “rigged” against those who refuse to step outside of analytical thinking when appropriate, especially if they do that to avoid uncomfortable thoughts. (Just to make it clear, I’m not unsubtly pointing at you, or anyone else in particular, here, just generalising.) I’m suggesting that just as some believers hold on to intuitive thinking (= faith?) and get criticised by analytical non-believers, the opposite point can equally validly be made.

        Thanks.

      • unkleE,
        It turns out that the research referenced by the “Analytical Thinking vs Religion” article just isn’t the good stuff. The Wilson 1991 study that was referenced does in fact appear to be focused on personal preferences (or “liking something”, as I put it) but it is the 2006 study by Dijksterhuis and Nordgren that appears to be the seminal work on the topic. Having read up on this a bit more, I still have some reservations about how this is applied to the God question.

        The biggest issue for me has to do with the way that we know the right answer. The study results depend on specifying the right answer independently from the answers given by the participants. For example, the participants would have to choose an apartment or a car and the options would have a certain percentage of positive features. The “right choice” for the participant is the one with the most number of positive features that line up with their preferences. This was then compared with their actual choice. Here’s my problem: by definition, the “right choice” can be determined by a systematic analysis that will give better results than intuition. So it’s not that the question is best answered by intuition, it’s that intuition is better than analytical thought under the circumstances where the respondents are not equipped with the proper techniques and tools for the analysis. There have also been a several follow-ups to this study that have been unable to repeat these results. In one case, they found that an analytical process was better than the intuitive choice when the participants were allowed memory aids. That said, Nordgren’s meta-analysis from 2011 that looked at 92 studies suggests that there is some sort of effect at play (0.224 effect size, which is usually classified as a “small” effect).

        From what I’ve encountered so far on this topic the researchers suggest that the analytic style most likely becomes inferior because people get hung-up on a subset of the details and miss the cumulative advantage of the big picture. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a proper analysis. An analysis that takes everything into account shouldn’t have this problem. So when it comes to the God question, it seems like there’s only a parallel if there actually is an analytical method for arriving at the right answer. It’s not that there’s some special domain of knowledge that is best reached through intuition, it’s that an analytical process may do worse than intuition when the analysis isn’t done the “right way”. I’m hard pressed to find real-life examples where intuition is relied upon as the gold standard. It always seems that the final authority is some sort of analysis. If the God question truly is best answered by intuition then it’s the only scenario I know of that fits that mold.

      • Hi Travis, thanks for that extra info. It seems we have three questions to discuss.

        1. Modes of thought.

        You argue against intuition being “the gold standard”, but that isn’t a viewpoint anyone is suggesting. The two viewpoints under discussion are (i) analytical thought is best and (ii) both modes of thought are useful. You seemed originally to be assuming that (i) was true, whereas I suggested (ii) was better. And each of the three websites you shared also support (ii). One study showed that for the question they were considering, both modes were roughly equally effective. But the 92-study meta analysis clearly showed that intuitive (‘unconscious’ in their terminology) has a small but definite advantage in many different situations, including where the issues are complex, and where there are many choice options.

        1. When might intuitive be better or at least equal?

        We all agree that analytical is better for some questions. The more complex a question gets, the more likely that intuitive does better.

        My guess would be that intuitive is necessary when forming relationships, especially important ones. Of course we won’t marry someone who our analytical thinking knows to be totally opposed to everything we stand for and believe in, but in less obvious situations, there is very little for analytical thinking to actually measure and analyse but there are many different subtle aspects to account for.

        A good test case is questions relating to humanity and ethics. Typically, analytical approaches to these areas are reductionist. We can’t measure consciousness, so analytical thinkers tend to say our sense of self is just an emergent property of the physical brain, or sometimes they deny it exists at all. Likewise analytical thinking can’t find any objective basis for ethics, so many analytical thinkers opt for evolutionary ethics, which of course can allow almost anything. I suggest analytical = reductionist in these areas is less human and less likely to find the truth than an intuitive assessment of our own experience that we really do exist as conscious beings and some things really are right and wrong.

        1. What might be best for thinking about God?

        I am mostly an analytical thinker about God, but many people are not, including (IMO) many non-believers. Both modes of thought are useful I suggest. Analytical thinkers like me will mostly decide whether to believe or not on the basis of philosophical arguments (whether rigorous or in embryo), historical assessment, etc, while intuitive thinkers will base their conclusions more on a perceived relationship with God, how things work out in practice, etc. But most people will use a bit of both – and I suggest they will be the better for it. Surely if any question is complex with many options, our total worldview is one of them.

        If belief in God is not just a matter of sheer facts, but also something where there is a personal being at the “other end” just as there is at this end, then using analytical thinking is going to distort this end by being too reductionist, but it is also going to be inappropriate for some aspects of the other end as well. For example, I have heard several famous atheists, clearly employing analytical thinking, say that even if God appeared in front of them and did tricks, they wouldn’t believe because they would prefer to conclude that their brain was playing tricks on them, That seems to me to be analytical thinking gone mad.

        I think there is heaps more to be said here, too much for a blog comment (sorry for taking so much space), but I conclude that your examples support my point quite well. Thanks for the opportunity to discuss this.

      • In cases where the resources are available for a proper analysis, even if the situation is complex, I’m hesitant to say that intuitive answers can be preferable. I would rather suggest that we need to be careful in our analyses to make sure that we do them correctly. I have no problem with the prospect of relying on intuition where a proper analysis isn’t possible (e.g., relational or emotional questions) but we also need to acknowledge that unguarded intuition can lead us astray.

        I suggest analytical = reductionist in these areas is less human and less likely to find the truth than an intuitive assessment of our own experience that we really do exist as conscious beings and some things really are right and wrong.

        I’m inclined to disagree but time will tell. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what comes out of the Human Brain Project and other similar endeavors. We’ve only just begun to understand how the brain works and it will be very interesting to watch how this progresses in the coming decades. The ramifications could be enormous.

      • Hi Travis, I think that’s all I want to say. You are drawing more sceptical conclusions about intuitive thought than the 92 studies do, but I hope you remember the studies when making judgments on the supposed benefits of analytical thought. Thanks for the discussion.

      • I appreciate the comments unkleE. I hope I’m interpreting the research correctly and am not being overly skeptical about intuitive thought. Keep in mind that there is a wealth of research showing the value of analysis over intuition in the majority of situations where data can be analyzed. Also keep in mind that many of these studies focused on personal preferences and constrained the resources available to participants for their analysis. Collectively this is useful and interesting research but the implications can be taken too far, as many would contend Malcolm Gladwell did in Blink.

      • Yeah, I’m pushing for a balanced approach, not a one-sided approach. It is those who totally support analytical thought who are over-stating the case. I appreciate your attitude, but thought you were getting a little out of balance. Thanks.

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