Leave it to the press to play up a deeply flawed study showing that only unthinking people believe in religion. According to the Los Angeles Times today, “Those who think more analytically are less inclined to be religious believers than are those who tend to follow a gut instinct, researchers conclude.” The journal Science published the study, which suggests that intuition tends toward religion, but that rational thought tends toward atheism.
How was this crucial study conducted? Students were asked to perform “three thinking tasks,” one with an intuitive (wrong) answer, the other with an analytic (right) answer:
For example, students were asked this question: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The intuitive answer — 10 cents — would be wrong. A little math on the fly reveals that the correct answer would be 5 cents.
After answering three of these questions, the students were asked to rate a series of statements on belief, including, “In my life I feel the presence of the Divine,” and “I just don’t understand religion.” Students who answered the three questions correctly — and presumably did a better job of engaging their analytical skills — were more likely to score lower on the belief scales.
Why does being decent at math have to do with non-belief in God? It doesn’t. Correlation does not equal causation. And the researchers knew that. So they went a step further: they showed students a picture of Rodin’s The Thinker. Those who saw the picture tended to express less belief in God. This experiment had a grand total of 57 subjects.
Another version of the experiment had 182 students filling out a religious questionnaire. Some received a questionnaire with a difficult font; others received an easy font. Those with a difficult font answered less religiously; those with the easy font answered more religiously.
This, of course, proves nothing. Perhaps it shows that people tend toward atheism when faced with obstacles they don’t like. Perhaps it shows that fans of Rodin don’t like church classes. But even if the study shows exactly what it said it does, it doesn’t show that, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “Thinking can undermine religious faith, study finds.”
The study itself states, “these findings do not speak directly to conversations about the inherent rationality, value, or truth of religious beliefs.”