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What Underpins Belief in God?

New research challenges the idea that intuitive thinkers are more likely to be believers.

Are some people born believers, while others are instinctive skeptics? Or is faith something we adopt, or reject, based on cues we pick up from our culture?

The question has been debated for centuries, but the intuitive-pull argument has gained favor in recent years. Psychological studies have concluded that people who tend to rely on intuition are more likely than analytical thinkers to have religious faith.

But new research strongly challenges that notion. In three quite different studies, it finds no link between one's cognitive style and religious belief, or lack thereof.

"Religious belief is most likely rooted in culture, rather than in some primitive gut intuition," lead author Miguel Farias of Coventry University said in announcing the findings. The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Farias and his colleagues were determined to avoid using the usual set of study participants (that is, university students). So for their first study, they approached an unusual and diverse group: people making a month-long pilgrimage across northern Spain.

Eighty-nine pilgrims (71 percent of whom were Christian, while another 20 percent were "spiritual but not religious") were given a test designed to determine whether they solved problems using intuitive or analytical thinking. The researchers found this predilection was unrelated to their self-proclaimed religiosity or spirituality, nor to a more concrete measure of devotion: the number of days they spent on the journey.

In the second study, 37 participants were instructed to solve a difficult problem—a manipulation that has been shown to overwhelm one's working memory and lead to more intuitive responses as a result. That proved true here as well, but "it still had no effect on how much, or how fast, one endorsed supernatural attributions," the researchers report.

For the third study, 90 participants underwent brain stimulation designed to increase "cognitive inhibition"—the mind's ability to tune out irrelevant stimuli. They found this mental focusing did not decrease supernatural beliefs.

Such beliefs "fulfill a need to predict and perceive the world, and to reduce uncertainty in the environment," the researchers conclude. "But this doesn't necessarily imply we are 'born believers' in the way we inevitably learn a language at an early age."

"What is actually suggested," they continue, "by the wealth of sociological, historical, and other data is that whether one has strong supernatural beliefs, or none at all, is primarily based on social and educational factors, and not on core cognitive dispositions."

We're all searching for answers. But this research suggests that whether we find them in religion is largely dependent on the society-specific assumptions we grow up with.