God Is Not Natural

Intuitive or analytical thinking fade before social influence

An Oxford and Coventry universities study challenges a growing trend that has attempted to show that believing in the supernatural is something that comes to us ‘naturally’ or intuitively.

God, religion, faith

God, religion, faith

Scientists have previously reported religious people tend to be intuitive and less analytical and that analytical thinkers are less religious. Not so, say scientists in Scientific Reports.

Religious beliefs are not linked to intuition or rational thinking, according to research by the universities of Coventry and Oxford.


There are no more religious people one might think than those who take part in the Camino de Santiago, a network of paths to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in Galicia, northwestern Spain. Pilgrims taking part in the Camino de Santiago took part in the brain stimulation experiment that showed no link between intuitive/analytical thinking or cognitive inhibition (an ability to suppress unwanted thoughts and actions) and supernatural beliefs. Instead, the academics conclude that other factors, such as upbringing and socio-cultural processes, are more likely to play a role in religious beliefs.

The study—published in Scientific Reports—was the first to challenge a growing trend among cognitive psychologists over the past 20 years that has attempted to show that believing in the supernatural is something that comes to us ‘naturally’ or intuitively.

The team started by carrying out an investigation on one of the largest pilgrimage routes in the world—the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.

They asked pilgrims about the strength of their beliefs and the length of time spent on the pilgrimage and assessed their levels of intuitive thinking with a probability task, where participants had to decide between a logical and a ‘gut feeling’ choice. The results suggested no link between strength of supernatural belief and intuition.

In a second study, where they used mathematical puzzles to increase intuition, they also found no link between levels of intuitive thinking and supernatural belief. In the last part of their research they used brain stimulation to increase levels of cognitive inhibition, which is thought to regulate analytical thinking.

This involved running a painless electrical current between two electrodes placed on the participant's scalp, to activate the right inferior frontal gyrus, a part of the brain that controls inhibitory control.

A previous brain-imaging study had shown that atheists used this area of the brain more when they wanted to suppress supernatural ideas.

The results showed that while this brain stimulation increased levels of cognitive inhibition, it did not change levels of supernatural belief, suggesting there is no direct link between cognitive inhibition and supernatural belief.

The academics say that it is “premature” to explain belief in gods as intuitive or natural.

Instead, they say their research supports a theory that religion is a nurture-based process and develops because of socio-cultural processes, including upbringing and education.

“What drives our belief in gods— intuition or reason; heart or head? There has been a long debate on this matter but our studies have challenged the theory that being a religious believer is determined by how much individuals rely on intuitive or analytical thinking,” says lead author Miguel Farias. “We don’t think people are ‘born believers’ in the same way we inevitably learn a language at an early age. The available sociological and historical data show that what we believe in is mainly based on social and educational factors, and not on cognitive styles, such as intuitive/analytical thinking. Religious belief is most likely rooted in culture rather than in some primitive gut intuition.”

Miguel Farias, Valerie van Mulukom, Guy Kahane, Ute Kreplin, Anna Joyce, Pedro Soares, Lluis Oviedo, Mathilde Hernu, Karolina Rokita, Julian Savulescu, Riikka Möttönen. Supernatural Belief Is Not Modulated by Intuitive Thinking Style or Cognitive Inhibition. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-14090-9
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