The debate between what causes a person to choose a belief system, focusing on either religion or science is a complex one. A Religion is defined as a ‘set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency’. It tends to involve having faith in concepts, such as the afterlife, that cannot be proved nor disproved. Conversely, science is defined as the ‘systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation’. It is often based on empirical evidence which is gained from conducting experiments, the evidence is believed to be fact, until it is replaced by a more suitable theory. Psychologists are interested in exploring the cause of such a stark contrast in belief.
The decision making process which dictates which belief system a person adopts can be separated into two cognitive processes. The first process relies upon intuition and is used by animals, as well as humans. The second process had evolved exclusively in humans and is based upon analytical thinking to logically solve problems. 179 Canadian undergraduate students were asked specifically designed questions and then scored on how they reached their answer, using either analytical or intuitive thought processed, Gervais & Norenzayan (2012). An example question is ‘Q: If a baseball and bat cost $110, and the bat costs $100 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?. According to the results of the study, more analytical thinkers were likely to reply $5 and disbelieve religion. Whereas people who use their gut instinct answered $10 and were more inclined to religious beliefs. But because this result is a correlation, it does not infer causation. The same researchers used interventions, which contained stimuli that subconsciously inferred to analytical thinking, for example showing them words such as ‘reason, analyze, rational,” rather than control words “hammer, shoes, brown,”. will tend to increase analytic reasoning measured on a subsequent test. The participants were given tests of analytic thinking immediately afterward, and scored more highly and were much more likely to be disbelievers in religion.
However, a person may rely more upon their gut instincts to answer questions, but other individual differences within a person’s life, could be the major contributing factor as to whether they believe in religion or are an atheist. For example, a child could be brought up within a family which strongly believe in Christianity and despite being an analytical thinker, they will still believe in religion, due to the influence of their family. The results from a study, which asked 509 parents about their views on religion, found that parents’ currently held beliefs are often consistent with beliefs they encouraged in their children. For example, stronger religious beliefs were associated with stronger encouragement of religious beliefs and weaker encouragement of scientific beliefs, Braswell & Rosengren & Berenbaum (2012).
Overall, a person’s belief in either science or religion can be influenced by their cognitive decision making processes, although an individual’s life experiences will also have a considerable impact on the belief system that they choose.
Braswell, G. S., Rosengren, K. S., & Berenbaum,H. (2012). Gravity, God and ghosts? Parents’ beliefs in science, religion, and the paranormal and the encouragement of beliefs in their children. International Journal of Behavioral Development. 36: 99.
Gervais,W. M., & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief. Science. 336, 493-496. DOI: 10.1126/science.1215647