Scientific Research : Why Do You Believe in God? : By PLOS Journals

 In Atheism, Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism

Why Do You Believe in God?

Relationships between Religious Belief, Analytic Thinking, Mentalizing and Moral Concern 


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Prior work has established that analytic thinking is associated with disbelief in God, whereas religious and spiritual beliefs have been positively linked to social and emotional cognition. However, social and emotional cognition can be subdivided into a number of distinct dimensions, and some work suggests that analytic thinking is in tension with some aspects of social-emotional cognition. This leaves open two questions. First, is belief linked to social and emotional cognition in general, or a specific dimension in particular? Second, does the negative relationship between belief and analytic thinking still hold after relationships with social and emotional cognition are taken into account? We report eight hypothesis-driven studies which examine these questions. These studies are guided by a theoretical model which focuses on the distinct social and emotional processing deficits associated with autism spectrum disorders (mentalizing) and psychopathy (moral concern). To our knowledge no other study has investigated both of these dimensions of social and emotion cognition alongside analytic thinking. We find that religious belief is robustly positively associated with moral concern (4 measures), and that 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. Using nine different measures of mentalizing, we found no evidence of a relationship between mentalizing and religious or spiritual belief. These findings challenge the theoretical view that religious and spiritual beliefs are linked to the perception of agency, and suggest that gender differences in religious belief can be explained by differences in moral concern. These findings are consistent with the opposing domains hypothesis, according to which brain areas associated with moral concern and analytic thinking are in tension.


In the last decade, a number of theorists and experimentalists have attempted to address the question of what psychological mechanisms give rise to religious and spiritual beliefs. Two major themes have emerged, one examining the relationship with analytic reasoning skills, and a second examining the relationship with social cognition. There is mounting evidence, both correlational and causal, which demonstrates that analytic thinking (as measured by tests of intelligence and critical thinking) discourages the acceptance of religious and spiritual beliefs [17]. One interpretation of these findings is that analytic thinking decreases belief because it encourages individuals to carefully evaluate data and arguments and/or override certain intuitively appealing beliefs [246].

Whereas analytic thinking discourages religious and spiritual beliefs, there is both theoretical and empirical support for the view that belief is positively linked to social cognition. A number of theorists have argued that the tendency to perceive agency and intentionality encourage belief in supernatural agents. Broadly supporting this view, a number of studies and theories have linked measures of empathy, social cognition, and emotion self-regulation—including measures of social and emotional intelligence—to religious and spiritual belief [822]. However, it is now recognized that social cognition can be subdivided into a number of distinct dimensions, both behaviorally and neurologically [2326]. Hence, it remains to be established which specific dimensions of social cognition are most strongly linked to religious belief.

Analytic thinking and social cognition not only have opposing effects on religious and spiritual belief, but it has also been hypothesized that these types of thinking may be in competition [242731]. For example, there is evidence that males tend to be stronger at systemizing, whereas females tend to be stronger at empathizing, and that high functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) represent an extreme form of imbalance between these two types of thinking [e.g., an extreme form of the male brain; 32]). If there is competition between analytic thinking and social cognition, then analytic reasoning may be negatively correlated with certain dimensions of social cognition across individuals. Hence, the negative relationship between analytic thinking and religious/spiritual belief might be explained by two factors: A positive association between an aspect of social cognition and religious belief; and competition between that aspect of social cognition and analytic thinking. It follows that it is important to establish the strength of the relationship between religious/spiritual belief and measures of social cognition and analytic thinking after taking into account relationships between those measures.

We have previously advanced a theoretical account of the mind-body problem inspired by the observation that ASD and psychopathy are associated with distinct deficits in social cognition [243335]. While the ASD phenotype is associated with a variety of behavioral manifestations, numerous researchers identify the primary characteristic of ASD as a deficit in mentalizing (e.g. theory mind and behavior decoding tasks; [32333536]). The psychopathic phenotype is also associated with a variety of personality characteristics, including impulsivity and aggression, however the primary personality characteristic of psychopathy has been identified as callous affect—an absence of emotional response to pain and suffering in others [37]. Psychopathy has also been associated with deficits in interpersonal connection, prosocial behavior and moral reasoning [333437].

There is evidence that the deficit in mentalizing associated with ASD and the trait of callous affect seen in psychopathy are distinct. Individuals with psychopathy have normal or better than normal mentalizing abilities [38], a feature which helps explain their ability to manipulate others. Conversely, the ASD phenotype is not generally associated with callous affect, i.e., a deficit in feelings of empathic concern for others [3941]. The clinical dissociation between ASD and psychopathy is also reflected by a dissociation in the associated traits which is evident in the non-clinical population [3342].

We broadly characterize the social deficit associated with psychopathy as a deficit in moral concern [24]. The concept of moral concern is motivated by a basic distinction in moral philosophy between moral patiency and moral agency, which are associated with distinct moral sentiments of concern and blame, respectively [43]. Work in psychology also supports the view that perceptions of moral patiency are dissociable from (and sometimes in tension with) perceptions of moral agency [4446]. In addition, we have shown that certain moral judgment tasks which hinge on perceptions of moral patiency are impacted by personality characteristics associated with psychopathy (i.e., deficits in empathic concern) but not by individual differences in mentalizing (i.e., deficits in theory of mind) [31]. Based on a review of this work, we identify moral concern as a broad category which includes empathic concern, interpersonal connection, prosocial behavior and aspects of moral reasoning. It is important to note that individuals with high levels of moral concern will not necessarily behave more ethically in all situations. Indeed, some researchers have claimed that high levels of empathic concern can be a detriment to moral behavior [47]. Further, there is empirical support for the view that moral concern for others can lead to aggression in the context of perceived threat [48]

Our theory, the opposing domains hypothesis [242930], holds that our neural architecture has evolved in such a way that it creates a tension between analytic thinking and moral concern. This contrasts with Baron-Cohen’s model, which emphasizes a tension between analytic thinking and aspects of social cognition impacted by ASD (i.e. mentalizing). Empirical support for our theory derives primarily from work in neuroimaging. First, reviews of the neuroscience literature, including formal meta-analyses, support the view that these two broad domains (analytic thinking and moral concern) map onto two anatomically discrete cortical networks. The task positive network (TPN) is consistently activated by cognitively demanding non-social tasks, including mathematical, physical and logical reasoning tasks [294953]. Individual differences in these skills are associated with increased TPN activation during these tasks [5254]. The default mode network (DMN) is consistently activated by social and emotional cognition [5556]. Our hypothesized broad cognitive category of ‘moral concern’, suggested to us by the personality profile of individuals with psychopathy, maps well onto the known functions of the DMN. Greater activity in the DMN has been associated with more empathic concern [5759], social connection (i.e. reverse of prejudice and disconnection) [306065], prosocial behavior [606667] and moral reasoning [6870]. Notably many of these studies link individual differences in these characteristics to DMN activity [5759606667].

Second, it has long been known that the TPN and DMN exhibit an antagonistic relationship, in the sense that activation of one network corresponds with deactivation of the other network below resting baseline. Initially, it was observed that a broad range of cognitively demanding non-social tasks (which we characterize broadly as involving ‘analytic reasoning’) not only activate the TPN but also deactivate the DMN [5071]. It was later found that the TPN and DMN also tend to be in tension during ‘spontaneous cognition’, i.e. when the participant is not given any task [72]. This phenomenon is referred to as ‘resting anti-correlation’ between the networks. It suggests that competition between the networks is an emergent property of the network architecture of the brain. Finally, we have demonstrated that attention to engaging social stimuli not only activates the DMN but also deactivates the TPN. In a subsequent study[30] it was shown that this pattern of DMN activation and TPN deactivation was present for humanizing depictions of individuals, whereas dehumanizing depictions, which are associated with decreased moral concern, either involved decreased activity in the DMN or increased activity in the TPN. Taken together, these findings suggest that we are neurologically constrained from simultaneously exercising moral concern and analytic thinking.

We suggest that this structural feature of the brain underlies the long noted anecdotal tension between materialistic and spiritual worldviews. This linkage is supported by three observations. First, brain areas implicated in analytic thinking (TPN) support cognitive process essential for maintaining a naturalistic world view (e.g. thinking about objects, mechanisms and causes; [2949717377]), whereas the brain areas implicated in moral concern (DMN) are associated with thinking about phenomena which have traditionally been thought of as non-physical, namely minds and emotions [7883]. Second, brain areas associated with materialism (TPN) tend to be suppressed when brain areas associated with moral concern (DMN) are activated [297172]. This might explain the tendency to link mind with spirit, i.e. the view that minds and emotions are associated with the extra- or super- natural. Third, brain areas associated with analytic thinking are associated with religious disbelief [737484], and brain areas associated with moral concern are associated with religious belief [73] and prayer [8485].

The Present Research

In the studies reported here, we examine the relationship between belief in God and/or a universal spirit and individual difference measures that characterize the domains of cognition of theoretical interest (in particular analytic thinking and moral concern). Numerous findings cited above support the view that increased activity in the TPN and DMN is associated with individual differences in the relevant cognitive domains. However, it is important to note that these findings do not necessitate a negative correlation between individual difference measures of analytic reasoning and moral concern. The neuroimaging findings show there is a constraint on activating both brain networks at the same time. However, tests of empathic concern and of analytic thinking measure people’s ability within specific contexts. Engaging social stimuli are associated with activation of the DMN and deactivation of the TPN, whereas analytic problems are associated with activation of the TPN and deactivation of the DMN. Hence, there is no contradiction inherent in an individual excelling in both domains, provided they engage and disengage the DMN and TPN in a manner appropriate to the context. Indeed, it is plausible that this feature of the brain’s organization is present precisely so that analytic and empathetic thinking do not interfere with each other.

The tension between the brain networks is hypothesized to be behaviorally relevant when people are faced with ambiguous or mixed stimuli, which participants might respond to either by engaging analytic thinking or by engaging empathy. Our claim is that in these ambiguous cases, the balance of the individual’s abilities/tendencies will determine how likely they are to respond by engaging one network rather than the other. Our working hypothesis is that religious and spiritual stimuli provide such an ambiguous context.

Three hypotheses concerning the relationship between different measures of social and non-social thinking follow directly from the opposing domains model: (i) individual difference measures of analytic thinking and intelligence negatively predict belief in God or a universal spirit; (ii) even controlling for the link to analytic reasoning, self and peer-report measures of moral concern positively predict belief; (iii) individual difference measures of mentalizing are not significantly positively related to belief after controlling for links to analytic thinking and moral concern. To our knowledge, no single set of studies has simultaneously examined the relationship these three constructs share with religious and spiritual beliefs.

Studies 1–3 examine the opposing effects of measures of analytic thinking and moral concern on religious and spiritual belief. Studies 4–7 demonstrate that once the predictive effects associated with measures of analytic thinking and moral concern are taken into account, measures which either directly or indirectly assess mentalizing do not add any predictive power in the regression model. Study 8 demonstrates that the positive relationship between moral concern and belief is not due to socially desirable responding or the effects of social contact due to religious affiliation.

Ethics Statement

All studies were approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Case Western Reserve University. All participants provided consent to participate in the studies and were financially compensated. The financial compensation for participants in each study, detailed account of the procedures, and correlation and regression tables can be found in S1 Supporting Information. Attention check questions were included in all of the Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) studies. The supporting data sets for each study can be found in S1 Data.

Written consent was provided by the participants in Study 5. All other studies did not acquire consent, as these studies all employed Amazon Mechanical Turk, where the minimum age to register is 18 and no personally identifiable information is made available or linked to the participant’s responses. These procedures were approved by the IRB.

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