Belief in a supernatural deity is associated with a suppression of analytical thinking in favor of empathic networks in the brain, a new study suggests. Conversely, analytical thinking –used to make sense of the physical world– is associated with disbelief in god. What’s interesting is that religious people were found to be more emphatic, meaning they identified more with the feelings and struggles of other people. As such, the perceived divide between science and religion may be rooted in brain wiring.

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“When there’s a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd,” said Tony Jack of Case Western Reserve University, who led the research. “But, from what we understand about the brain, the leap of faith to belief in the supernatural amounts to pushing aside the critical/analytical way of thinking to help us achieve greater social and emotional insight.”

The researchers devised a series of eight experiments, each involving 159 to 527 adults. This battery of tests included both self reporting and assessment on the researchers’ part of empathy, moral concern, analytical thinking, mentalizing or crystallized intelligence among others. For instance, participants were asked to rate how strongly they agree with statements like “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me”. Critical reasoning was measured using tests that asked questions like “If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets”. Religious and spiritual beliefs were measured using a single item measure: “Do you believe in the existence of either God or a universal spirit?” This question was answered on a 7-point Likert scale (1= not at all; 7 = definitely yes).

Consistently, the more religious the person the more moral concern that person showed. In fact, empathic behavior was more strongly associated with religiosity than analytical thinking was with disbelief (perhaps because the two aren’t mutually exclusive as the science/religion debate might suggest at first glance). This correlation seems to be supported by previous studies which found a gender bias among religious belief. Women, who score better at empathy than men, tend to hold more religious or spiritual worldviews than men. Maybe a reason of concern is that atheists showed less empathy.

It’s important to note that no cause-effect relationship was identified. Empathy and religion were associated only when the participants engaged in prayer, meditation or other spiritual practices. Church attendance or following a predefined dogmatic protocol alone did not predict empathic behavior.

Emotions and number crunching

The research builds upon a hypothesis that suggests the analytical and empathic networks in the brain are antithetical and in constant tension. Here I might add the findings of a previous study I reported for ZME Science, in which University of Kentucky researchers found that persons who rely more on intuition than analytical thinking are more likely to hold a creationist worldview in favor of the theory of evolution. Maybe there’s a connection between intuitive/empathic networks and analytical networks in the brain, though no evidence that I know of is published.

Another interesting study found a clear differences between the ‘skeptical’ and ‘believing’ brain after participants were asked to imagine a scenario while their brain activity was scanned. For example, imagine you just had a job interview. You walk down the street, and see a poster of a business suit. How would that make you feel? What does that poster mean? Those who were supernatural inclined said the poster evoked an omen — a sign that they would get a job! As for the skeptical persons, it didn’t mean anything in particular. One region of the brain (the right inferior frontal gyrus) “was activated more strongly in skeptics than in supernatural believers,” the researchers noted.

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“Because of the tension between networks, pushing aside a naturalistic world view enables you to delve deeper into the social/emotional side,” Jack explained. “And that may be the key to why beliefs in the supernatural exist throughout the history of cultures. It appeals to an essentially nonmaterial way of understanding the world and our place in it.”

One possible outcome of the present study might disturb some: “at least part of the negative association between belief and analytic thinking (2 measures) can be explained by a negative correlation between moral concern and analytic thinking,” the researchers write in the study’s abstract published in the journal PLOS ONE. Previously, Jack’s lab found that when the analytic network is engaged, our ability to appreciate the human cost of our action is repressed. The reverse is also true; when we’re presented with a social problem, we use a different brain network than the one use to solve a physics problem, for instance. A CEO who is inclined to see his employees as ‘numbers’, for instance, won’t relate with their feelings and may be inclined to make immoral judgement if these satisfy an analytically valid goal.

Empathy, religion and atheism: what’s the relation?

This begs the question: Is religion making people more empathic or is atheism doing the opposite?

“While we can’t answer this definitively, it is interesting to note that empathy rates, as measured using the same principle measure we use, have fallen off dramatically in college students in the last few decades,” Jack told ZME Science.

College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago, Jack points out, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait, a 2010 study reports.

“We speculate this is due to increased emphasis on technology and less emphasis on religion.  It is notable that many messages present in religion are focused on empathy,” Jack added.

I would argue, however, that this is not the case. It’s about the “me” culture we’re living today — fast times, superficial connections and full blown consumerism. More than 9 in 10 Americans still say “yes” when asked the basic question “Do you believe in God?”, according to Gallup. This is down only slightly from the 1940s, when Gallup first asked this question. Belief in God drops below 90% among younger Americans, liberals, those living in the East, those with postgraduate educations, and political independents. As the study points out, just saying “you believe in (a) god” is not enough to earn you empathy points — you need to mean it: pray, meditate, think of doing good to your community, as well.

But it seems this is true for both sides of the coin. If you use an iPhone or some other advanced tech and are, say, an atheist, that doesn’t make you an analytical thinker — the same way going to church doesn’t necessarily make you religious.

“We are certainly not claiming it is impossible to be an ethical atheist. But it is clear that atheism is linked to reduced empathy. This is a modest correlation. There are certainly ethical atheists, and there are certainly unethical religious individuals,” Jack says.

The present evidence seems to suggest that truly religious folks are more empathic than largely analytical persons. This may be true, but there’s nothing to suggest that analytical thinkers are less ethical. A 2010 study found  those who did not have a religious background still appeared to have intuitive judgments of right and wrong in common with believers.

“For some, there is no morality without religion, while others see religion as merely one way of expressing one’s moral intuitions,” said Dr Marc Hauser, from Harvard University, one of the co-authors.

Another study, conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois, Chicago, the University of Cologne in Germany, and the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands reached the same conclusion: religion doesn’t make people more moral.

There’s something else I would also like to touch upon: the zeal for science. When a scientist makes a discovery, using all the analytical tools at his or her disposal — among which one’s greatest asset, the intellect — the experience of unraveling a mystery can be highly spiritual for some, without leading to supernatural thinking. Some of them toiled day and night not just to advanced their careers, but out of pure love for mankind: perhaps the noblest testimony to empathy.