What Kind of Thinker Believes in God?

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?

Your answer to this question will help me guess whether you believe in God.

That statement may seem as counterintuitive as the correct price of the ball–$0.05–but with both, it all makes sense once you hear the explanation.

For many, the intuitive answer is $0.10, and they must override their first instinct if they hope to answer correctly. The question, along with two others, is part of the Cognitive Reflection Test, or CRT. (Full test at the end of the post.) The higher your score, from 0-3, the greater your tendency to reflect on spontaneous thoughts.

Psychologists who study the origins of religion say belief in God relies on several intuitions, including a teleological bias (the assumption that certain objects or events were designed intentionally) and Cartesian dualism (the belief that mind can exist independently of the body). So to become an atheist one must second-guess these automatic ways of thinking. And recently a number of studies have supported the idea that belief in God is influenced by cognitive style–how much of a second-guesser you are.

In a paper published last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Amitai Shenhav, David Rand, and Joshua Greene (all at Harvard), subjects took the Cognitive Reflection Test and answered several other questions. The number of intuitive (incorrect) responses they gave on the CRT was correlated with their belief in God and immortal souls and with whether they’d had a personal religious experience. It was also associated with change in religious belief since childhood, but not with family religiosity while growing up, indicating a causal relationship: Their nonreflective cognitive style led to their belief in God over time, rather than vice versa.

Causality was further demonstrated in another experiment. Subjects who’d been asked to write about a situation where intuition had worked well for them or where reflection had backfired indicated a stronger belief in God, compared with subjects who’d written about reflection working well or intuition failing. They’d been induced to put faith in intuition, and the Lord appeared.

In one other experiment, subjects’ intuitive responses on the CRT correlated with belief in God even while controlling for personality and IQ. So whether or not intelligence affects religiosity, cognitive style is an independent factor.

Another set of studies, published recently in Science, demonstrates more rigorously the causal relationship between cognitive style and belief in God. In the first experiment, Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia had Canadian undergrads take the CRT and three measures of religiosity. Analytical thinking (number of correct CRT answers) was correlated with low scores on all three religiosity measures. In the second experiment they manipulated analytical thinking by showing some subjects a picture of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker for 30 seconds, and showed other subjects Discobolus, that iconic sculpture of the Greek dude throwing a discus. Thinker-people then gave a lower rating of their belief in God than Disco-people (41 versus 62 on a 100-point scale).

The third experiment used a more subtle manipulation of analytical thinking so that subjects wouldn’t feel like the researchers wanted them to answer a certain way. (Most of us seek to please our experimental overlords.) The subjects performed a sentence unscrambling task, and for half the subjects some of the sentences included words like analyze and ponder. Compared with control subjects, these subjects then gave lower ratings of their belief in God, the devil, and angels. The fourth experiment repeated that basic finding but with a wider online sample of subjects. Finally, the fifth experiment used an even more subtle manipulation. It’s known that reading text in a difficult font puts people in a more analytical mindset, because it makes their thinking more slow and deliberate. Here, subjects gave lower ratings of their belief in supernatural agents (God, the devil, angels) when the questionnaire was printed in a difficult-to-read font.

Yet another recent paper found that better scores on the CRT are correlated not only with lower religious belief but also with lower belief in other paranormal phenomena—mind reading, witchcraft, omens, spirits, astrology. This finding, published in Cognition by Gordon Pennycook and colleagues at the University of Waterloo, echoes previous research linking an intuitive thinking style with various magical beliefs. See, for instance, herehere, and here. And they showed that paranormal beliefs were only weakly related to cognitive ability, consistent with previous research.

As I argue in my book, supernatural beliefs are intuitive, a default. Skeptics like me have to deliberately think our way out of our instincts. These studies pile more evidence onto the case. It is those people with a greater tendency to think reflectively who deny the existence of God and other magical phenomena. Everyone else (and presumably the reflective thinkers, too, before they reflect) just accepts that the universe has a mind of its own. Maybe we can’t prove this view to be wrong, but can prove this: Those who hold it are wrong on many other things, including the price of a baseball.

•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?
•If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how long does it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
•In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?
•Answers: Five cents, five minutes, and forty-seven days.

13 thoughts on “What Kind of Thinker Believes in God?

  1. Hi Matt, Steve from Cambridge, England here. I really enjoyed The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking. I think you make a very convincing, and engaging, case for the extent to which ‘magical thinking’ is enmeshed in western culture; but also for its paradoxical role in maintaining the social order. I also think you’re right to maintain a firmly sceptical stance in relation to any belief system that claims to have it all figured out. Nonetheless I think there’s a deep irony at the heart of your book. I think the more the scientific, rational mind seeks to understand the universe and distance itself from the ‘irrationality’ of religion/mysticism (Dawkins being perhaps the best example) the less capable it is of grasping the fundamental truth as I see it that life is a trick of the grandest proportions – an ‘optical delusion of consciousness’ – played on us all. Which is not necessarily to take a teleological position – to suss that something very deeply ‘magical’ is at hand in the workings of nature and the human mind does not answer the enduring question of why this is so. Which is why I personally, despite a lifelong interest in the science vs. religion debate, remain agnostic about whether the conjuror him/her/itself is God. But I would firmly recommend two books that have tipped me towards a theistic view: the late Anthony Flew’s ‘There is a God – How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind’, and James Le Fanu’s ‘Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves’. Pure magic. Regards, Steve.

  2. Hi, Steve. Thanks for those two recommendations, and for the compliments on my book!

    I’m curious: What do you mean by this: “life is a trick of the grandest proportions – an ‘optical delusion of consciousness’ – played on us all.”


    • “In its quest to discover how the patterns of reality are organised, the story of modern science hints at a picture of a set of nested Chinese puzzle boxes, each one more intricately structured and wondrous than the last. Every time the final box appears to have been reached, a key has been found which has opened up another, revealing a new universe even more breathtakingly improbable in its conception. We are now forced to suspect that, for human reason, there is no last box, that in some deeply mysterious, virtually unfathomable, self-reflective way, every time we open a still smaller box, we are actually being brought closer to the box with which we started, the box which contains our own conscious experience of the world. This is why no theory of knowledge, no epistemology, can ever escape being consumed by its own self-generated paradoxes. And this is why we must consider the universe to be irredeemably mystical.” Robert Hamilton, Earthdream – The Marriage of Reason and Intuition. I think Einstein – the ‘optical delusion of consciousness’ – grasped this fundamental truth about the nature of reality. But his childlike curiosity/relentless scientific mind compelled him to keep opening the boxes.. And we’re all the richer for his endeavours of course. But his legacy aside, I’m struck by how many of the great scientists over the course of history – Newton being another obvious example – have intuited a Grand Organising Design in nature that transcended the powers of human reason. It’s as if there’s something about the classical – empiricist/materialist – scientific mindset that blinds the thinker to the conjuring trick played by consciousness itself – we don’t see reality as it is but as we are.. And since, from a mystical perspective, we are all one/consciousness is the fundamental ground of being, the subject/object separation is mere illusion or ‘maya’. But what a grand illusion/delusion.. This is why I’ve always been as fascinated by magic as I have by mysticism – I see the trick but I still can’t figure out how it’s done..

  3. 1. The malleability of people’s answers seems to suggest that the issue is not a matter of ‘belief’ per se as much as the mode in which we express or interpret our beliefs.

    2. We should probably be careful in applying this belief system cross-culturally. We might very well be able to do that, but a lot of optical illusions are culturally specific. So we can’t take such generalizations as a given. I couldn’t find the materials and methods for the experiment (maybe I’d need to purchase the full text) so I don’t know what population was studied.

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  8. Do atheists ever hope they are wrong? I would assume there are as many answers to that as there are atheists but wouldn’t a loving, caring creator be a good thing?

  9. Hi Matt, What studies were done to assess the belief in God among people who have had near-death and spiritually-significant experiences? I would think their belief in God would be extremely high and would not be swayed by tests, as the source of their belief is experiential instead of intellectually-based. Thanks.

    • Hi Mark,
      Many studies show that paranormal beliefs and experiences are correlated, but causality is difficult to parse. Experiences could cause beliefs and/or beliefs could cause experiences and/or additional factors such as personality could (and likely do) cause both. I don’t know of any studies measuring belief in God in the same people before and after spiritually transformative experiences; it would be difficult to get approval to induce NDEs in study subjects. In general, I think belief in God is arrived at through intuition, culture, and experience, rather than logical reasoning, though some philosophers and religious scholars have gotten there with the help of rational reasoning too. (Rationality is flexible.)

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