Simon Laham's blog.
Why do we believe in God?
According to recent research by Amitai Shenhav and colleagues at Harvard, soon to appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, those of us who are more inclined to trust our intuitions may also be more likely to believe in God.
These researchers measured participants’ tendencies to engage in intuitive reasoning using the CRT, the Cognitive Reflection Test. This test is made up of questions like this:
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? $0.10 is what will likely spring to mind. The question is designed to prompt this intuitive, yet incorrect, response. (The correct answer: $0.05). To the extent that one happily follows one’s instinctual responses, one scores rather poorly on this test. Those who distrust their intuitions, and instead reflect more deliberatively on their responses, tend to score higher.
Shenhav and colleagues correlated scores on the CRT with belief in God. What they found was that one’s tendency to rely on intuition was predictive of one’s belief in God.
They followed this correlational study with an experiment, manipulating participants’ trust in intuition and examining the causal effects on belief. Some participants were encouraged to think positively of intuition, others to think negatively of it. Consistent with their correlational findings, those participants induced to view intuition in a positive light reported more confidence in their faith in God.
For Shenhav and colleagues, these findings suggest that belief in God is grounded in intuitive cognitive styles. We, as humans, come with a set of mental ticks that predispose us to belief in gods – we tend, for example, to see intentions and purposes where none may exist and happily posit the existence of minds in the absence of bodies. These ticks are largely automated, and to the extent that we fail to reflect on their operation, we tend to believe in a higher power.