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