God is intuitive

By Razib Khan | September 20, 2011 11:15 pm

Update: An ungated version of the paper.

I used to spend a lot more time talking about cognitive science of religion on this weblog. It was an interest of mine, but I’ve come to a general resolution of what I think on this topic, and so I don’t spend much time discussing it. But in the comments below there was a lot of fast & furious accusation, often out of ignorance. I personally find that a little strange. I’ve been involved in freethought organizations in the past, and so have some acquaintance with “professional atheists.” Additionally, I’ve also been a participant and observer of the internet freethought websites since the mid-1990s (yes, I remember when alt.atheism was relevant!). In other words, I know of whom I speak (and I am not completely unsympathetic to their role in the broader ecology of ideas).

But the bigger issue is a cognitive model of how religiosity emerges. Luckily for me a paper came out which speaks to many of the points which I alluded to, Divine intuition: Cognitive style influences belief in God:

Some have argued that belief in God is intuitive, a natural (by-)product of the human mind given its cognitive structure and social context. If this is true, the extent to which one believes in God may be influenced by one’s more general tendency to rely on intuition versus reflection. Three studies support this hypothesis, linking intuitive cognitive style to belief in God. Study 1 showed that individual differences in cognitive style predict belief in God. Participants completed the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT; Frederick, 2005), which employs math problems that, although easily solvable, have intuitively compelling incorrect answers. Participants who gave more intuitive answers on the CRT reported stronger belief in God. This effect was not mediated by education level, income, political orientation, or other demographic variables. Study 2 showed that the correlation between CRT scores and belief in God also holds when cognitive ability (IQ) and aspects of personality were controlled. Moreover, both studies demonstrated that intuitive CRT responses predicted the degree to which individuals reported having strengthened their belief in God since childhood, but not their familial religiosity during childhood, suggesting a causal relationship between cognitive style and change in belief over time. Study 3 revealed such a causal relationship over the short term: Experimentally inducing a mindset that favors intuition over reflection increases self-reported belief in God.

Recall that in many social domains where neurotypicals rely on innate, intuitive, and “fast” cognition, high functioning autistic individuals must reflect and reason. I don’t have access to the original paper, but there’s a nice piece in Harvard Gazette on the research. Here’s the last sentence: ““How people think about tricky math problems is reflected in their thinking — and ultimately their convictions — about the metaphysical order of the universe,” Shenhav said.”


Comments (22)

  1. Richard D. Morey

    The sizes of the correlations aren’t particularly impressive (to me). The amazing thing to me is how much endorsing “I’ve had an experience that convinces me that God exists” is responsive to the question before it. You can change the proportion endorsing that statement by 20%, just by either asking them to write positively or negatively about a time when they were “carefully reasoning through a situation.” That’s a pretty big effect.

  2. ben g

    Have you read Robert Wright’s Evolution of God? He has a discussion of cognitive sci of religious belief in the back which I found pretty sensible. What do you think of what he writes there, and the book in general?

  3. I used Google and found the paper. It sounds interesting. Joshua Greene is an interest of mine. His website has som pretty interesting material.


  4. Miguel Madeira

    I think that there is a bit of ambiguity with the concept of “intuitive” – in the context of “intuition vs. reflection”, has the meaning of “the first idea that comes to the mind without having to think about that”; but, when they say “Some have argued that belief in God is intuitive, a natural (by-)product of the human mind”, are using “intuitive” in the sense of “natural and hard-wirde belief”.

    But the two are different things – talking Portuguese is intuitive for me (while writing in English requires some reflection), but is not natural or innate (some small changes in the History of some centuries ago, and i will probably talking in Arabic or Spanish). In the same way, beliving in God could be intuitive for someone who was educated in a religion that this don’t necessarly mean that is “intuitive” in the sense of “natural”.

    “Moreover, both studies demonstrated that intuitive CRT responses predicted the degree to which individuals reported having strengthened their belief in God since childhood, but not their familial religiosity during childhood, suggesting a causal relationship between cognitive style and change in belief over time.”

    This could go in favor of what really bieng “intuitive” is not belief in God, but belief in what your parents and social environment teached you.

  5. Charles Nydorf

    Speaking autobiographically I can remember always finding the concept of God to be counter-intuitive.

  6. Darkseid

    fascinating, for sure. i’ve never heard it articulated quite that way and it makes sense. it’s interesting to think about which brain regions are relied upon for either type of thinker. do the logical thinkers have stronger connections running from frontal lobes? one might need this to keep our emotions from taking over. however, Joseph Ledoux has proved that “emotion” is required to make decisions in the first place. he always cites the man with brain damage who would take half an hour to decide what sandwich to order.
    i don’t know who frightens me more: those few who clearly think reflectively yet still believe in gods or those many who think intuitively and never question what they believe in the first place.
    i do know that nerds tend to be more logical and open minded so, if you need good advice, just ask a nerd (not the L.A.R.P. kind, though;)

  7. John Morrison

    I would call the intuitive belief in God, and the belief opposed to the concept, or person divine, as ‘hard wired’
    It reminds me of the right handed and left handed debate. I would think that conformity or equality here would impair human debate and excellence.
    When I reflect on the complexity of my own body, I confess that I believe in God.
    My faith in Jesus Christ came after a cognitive decision, which was reinforce by emotional experience I would call joy.

  8. Blake

    In defense of intuition, I find it interesting that Shenhav, Rand, and Greene chose one of the relatively rare instance-types where intuitions mislead. In reality, the experiment would’ve worked just as well if the intuitive answers were the right ones and the ones derived from reflection were wrong. Consider this quote from Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, in his defense of intuition (and related cognitive faculties):

    “In this regard, the sensus divinitatis resembles perception, memory, and a priori belief. Consider the first. I look out into the backyard; I see that the coral tiger lilies are in bloom. I don’t note that I am being appeared to a certain complicated way (that my experience is of a certain complicated character) and then make an argument from my being appeared to in that way to the conclusion that in fact there are coral tiger lilies in bloom there. (The whole history of modern philosophy up to Hume and Reid shows that such an argument would be thoroughly inconclusive.) It is rather that upon being appeared to in that way (and given my previous training), the belief that the coral tiger lilies are in bloom spontaneously arises in me. This belief will ordinarily be basic, in the sense that it is not accepted on the evidential basis of other propositions. The same goes for memory. You ask me what I had for breakfast; I think for a moment and then remember: pancakes with blueberries. I don’t argue from the fact that it seems to me that I remember having pancakes for breakfast to the conclusion that I did; rather, you ask me what I had for breakfast, and the answer simply comes to mind. Or consider a priori belief. I don’t infer from other things that, for example, modus ponens is a valid form of argument: I just see that it is so and, in fact, must be so. All of these, we might say, are starting points for thought. But (on the model) the same goes for the sense of divinity. It isn’t a matter of making a quick and dirty inference from the grandeur of the mountains or the beauty of the flower or the sun on the treetops to the existence of God; instead, a belief about God spontaneously arises in those circumstances, the circumstances that trigger the operation of the sensus divinitatis. This belief is another of those starting points for thought; it too is basic in the sense that the beliefs in question are not accepted on the evidential basis of other beliefs.”

    It would be interesting to do the test over again and instead ask about the legitimacy of inductive reasoning (which is intuitive, but can’t be defended rationally/non-circularly) or the legitimacy of the proposition that you are not a brain in a vat (which is intuitive, but can’t be defended rationally), or the legitimacy of solipsism etc. etc. etc.
    Imo, Reflective people, *insofar* as they are at odds with those who give intuition benefit of the doubt, might get lucky here and there… but in reality, more often than not, I think they are the ones who miss out and get the wrong answer.

    P.S. Plantinga and others would argue that reflective thought does in fact get you to God as well, even if most laymen (esp. Christian laymen) don’t do it with respect to their theism.

  9. Clark

    I was going to bring up that ambiguity over intuition as well. For instance in physics one could argue that most of ones undergrad efforts is replacing “common sense” intuitions with intuitions based upon the actual physics. You do tests of even students who have been studying physics for a while and their intuitions of things like falling objects are still wrong.

    How much of that is due to evolutionary pressures leading to a default cognitive apparatus leading to “common sense” intuitions and how much is just what one learns from society (and unfortunately cartoons) is hard to break out. However breaking out those effects seems pretty important.

    Regarding Wright I’ve not read him although I have read the books Razib mentioned in the other thread. (In fact I first encountered Razib doing a reading club on cognitive science where In Gods We Trust was first suggested to me) I think they make a pretty compelling case although there are still a lot of issues one has to tease out.

    The other issue which I think Miguel starts to get at is that cognitive structure isn’t just an issue of genes. Rather the brain is developing as children learn thus the environment has a big impact on brain development. (Look at feral children who basically can’t learn language if not educated in time) Now of course it’s not an absolute “fixed” vs. “dynamic” situation the way it’s sometimes portrayed. Even things difficult to change (say due to childhood trauma) can be modified. And there are studies now suggesting that adults can learn language better than thought. (Remember the old claims about learning language before 9 and after 9) So it’s much more a continuity rather than structure vs. data. Still when teasing out the place of intuitions all this makes it quite complex since it is hard to separate environment from what’s innate to humans due to evolution.

  10. Cathy

    I had my one and only ‘God definitely exists’ experience in high school calculus, when we were learning about the derivatives of sin and cos. So I’m not sure how I fit into this particular framework.

  11. Bob Dole

    Is it out of the question to speculate that perhaps humans have evolved? I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean that people with more reflective/reductionist approaches to the world (an innate cognitive trait, perhaps stemming from CNVs of ancestral genes?) might be more likely to reproduce in a secular society.


    Also, Lord Byron’s head was 2200cc and his daughter, Ada Lovelace, wrote the first computer program (after translating a paper on Babbage’s difference engine). Just sayin… We may have gotten physically weaker as a species, but we’ve also been doing more caesarians as of late.

  12. Have you read Robert Wright’s Evolution of God? He has a discussion of cognitive sci of religious belief in the back which I found pretty sensible. What do you think of what he writes there, and the book in general?

    only skimmed the book. it’s plausible. the cognitive stuff is what really interests me, and what i think we have a good handle on. higher order theorizing about religious cultural structures is a little less solid, though i think that’s where you have to go to characterize the phenomenon.

  13. i think a better way to characterize things is that perhaps religion and religious beliefs are part of ‘evoked culture.’ in other words, high cognitive architecture is biased toward eliciting these sorts of beliefs (or developing them) in the process of normal social existence. but it’s a higher order emergent property of short-term cultural evolution.

    as an example of the tendency toward religion, consider the north korean regime. this long-lived ostensibly communist society has basically deified the the kim family.

  14. Salvador Pineda

    This is just another example of how supposedly “gut” feelings and intuitions of the natural world are actually found to be far from accurate. For example, the traditional notion of good and evil turns out to be vastly inaccurate in light of the Milgram experiments, Standord Prison study, and evolutionary psychology. Believing that there is a higher power behind the forces of nature may indeed be intuitive but it does not make it true in any sense. This seems to be very obvious if given some considereation, but apparently many people fail to see this, hence the unquestioned acceptance of religion and belief.

  15. Charles Nydorf

    Bad intuition is sometimes the result of education as when an attempt is made to teach Newton’s laws of motion before students study calculus.

  16. Alam

    Besides cultural dynamics, how about traits one is born with? Personality traits?

  17. ben g

    “i think a better way to characterize things is that perhaps religion and religious beliefs are part of ‘evoked culture.’ in other words, high cognitive architecture is biased toward eliciting these sorts of beliefs (or developing them) in the process of normal social existence.”

    That’s Wright’s take on why people are religious, too. In the appendix of his book he lays out his summary of the cognitive science. Here is most of it, would be interested in what you (and everyone else) agree/disagree with:


  18. leviticus

    The intuitive vs. reflective cognitive style raises the question how many closet Atheists, or Atheists in denial, were there down through the centuries? Because of a lack of career opportunities, it is very plausible that some of these individuals sought a career in the church. Life in a monastery or in a small, non-challenging parish, might be tempting for socially inept sorts. Judaism and Islam offered similar opportunities for individuals. As long as you didn’t openly challenge the central tenets of the faith, you would be permitted to discuss how many angels could dance on the head of a needle. At least that’s something. The corpus of Christian literature trying to rationalize God’s existence, and the explosion of 19th and 20th-century intellectual activity denouncing religion, once it was safe to do so, indicates that something was being pent up in years previous.

    Simultaneously with this freeing up, we see the development of low-church Protestantism, which does not have a space for quiet skeptics or rational thinking. If you read the conversion narratives of the Great Awakening era types, or read more current literature, you see that Emotionalism and Intuition are crucial, there is little patience for the rationalizing of the earlier church fathers. This is not the relatively easy-going Catholicism of Erasmus or High Anglicanism, which provided some space for people, whose cognitive abilities are reflective as opposed to intuitive.

    It seems that, thanks to the intellectual freedom made possible by the Enlightenment, the two types of cognitive approaches went their separate ways, and there is no longer any middle ground. Counter-intuitively, the Enlightenment, as made manifest in the American Congress, is also responsible for creating tolerance. But how long will this last? Perhaps I make the point too strongly, however.

  19. Clark

    I’m not sure I buy the divide between types of religion and cognitive style. There’s no doubt that for many in the Great Awakening (and side movements like transcendentalism) emotion and intuition played a huge role. However a big part of it was also pretty rational in terms of doing theology and critiquing other people’s behavior or beliefs in light of ones rational studies. (Rational here not meaning empirical obviously) I actually think the transcendentalists like Emerson highlight that complementary move but I think Emerson’s approach was in some ways characteristic of a lot of the religious seekers I’ve read about of the era. (Which isn’t to say there weren’t many clearly on the emotional line with little reason)

    Of course I’m far, far from an expert or even necessarily well read on the era. It just seems from even my superficial knowledge that things were a bit more complex than that.

  20. leviticus

    First, I apologize for a glaring error in my above post, “Congress” should read “Constitution.”

    Clark raises a good point, the story was messy. The 18th and 19th centuries in the US were a complex period, of constant intellectual flux and experimentation. My point was the old, established structures, such as state religions, which had united everyone under an uneasy banner, were gone. People were free to go their own way, which they did.

    Skepticism, sometimes politically and emotionally driven cynicism of the sort that motivated scoffers at the early camp meetings, appeared alongside what could honestly be called cults demanding devotion to alpha type charismatic leaders. Reading Clark’s post, Ethan Allen immediately came to mind as a perfect example of an early American skeptic. Was his skepticism caused by sober reflection or was it the anguish of a troubled man who never reconciled himself to his father’s death?

    I’d only say that while culture, politics and social class play a deterministic role, in an open system like the US, I suspect cognitive style and religious choice are strongly correlated. To use an indigenous dichotomy, it’s a case of “head religion” vs. “heart religion”


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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