Everybody knows that it is perfectly acceptable to say anything you like about religion. Anything. Go on, try it. Nobody will care one way or the other. After all, for as long as the history of human civilization has been recorded, it has been characterized by nothing other than back-to-back episodes of pacifistic religious tolerance, featuring heart-warming collaboration across religions and between atheists and believers. I’m pretty sure about all of this. In fact, having racked my brain, I can think of absolutely no controversies at all. None whatsoever. Uh huh.
So when scientists investigate religion, they can proceed in the knowledge that everything they discover will be greeted by believer and atheist alike as representing little more than benign, banal, and dispassionate trivia. That’s why scientists never need to pussyfoot around the subject, or to give any thought to how they might choose their words in order to avoid causing offence.
But maybe things are changing. Take yesterday’s news linking different types of cognition with attitudes toward deities. According to a paper in the latest issue of top academic journal Science, certain patterns of thinking encourage people to be more or less religious. Across a series of experiments, a Canadian research team has found that thinking more analytically causes people to think less religiously. Hence the Daily Mail go with the no-holds-barred headline, “Why analytic thinking can destroy your faith in God (even if you’re devout)“. Stirring stuff indeed.
Some quick points though. The study did not show that people’s “faith” was “destroyed“. Rather, it showed that odd tricks designed to get people to think more analytically had the funny effect of also making them appear less religious in religion questionnaires. But first of all, it’s is an open question whether questionnaires can authentically measure religious “faith” (as opposed to, say, socially desirable responding or the wish to appear analytic in the eyes of survey-takers).
And second of all, we cannot be sure whether the tricks played by the researchers really did encourage participants to think “more analytically“. One of the tricks was to get participants to stare at a picture of Rodin’s The Thinker instead of a picture of the Discobolus of Myron. Participants who were shown The Thinker were less likely to say they believe in the existence of deities and angels than participants who were shown Discobolus. So the researchers concluded that analytic thinking affects religiosity. (I’m serious here. Don’t shoot the messenger.)
The research basically comes down to this assumption: staring at Rodin’s The Thinker makes you think more analytically. You know, because the statue-guy is, well, thinking. Really hard.
The other tricks involved asking participants questions about the cost of baseball bats, and showing them sentences printed in different fonts. (Once again, I am serious.) From such procedures do the Daily Mail infer that “analytical thinking can destroy your faith in GOD“. Time Magazine are little better; they believe that if you start thinking analytically, you’ll end up “losing your religion“. Meanwhile, LiveScience.com conclude that such thinking “can promote atheism“. Seriously guys. Statues? Baseball bats? Fonts?
The problem here relates to a scientific principle called construct validity. This is to the extent to which the research actually measured the idea (or “construct”) that it was intending to measure. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not entirely sure that this study has great construct validity…
But, to my mind, the most interesting aspect of the study is not so much the validity of its finding, but the title of the paper as it appears in the journal. Here’s what they went with:
Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief
Get a load of that. Thinking analytically promotes “religious disbelief“. The only problem is that the study didn’t measure disbelief. They measured religious belief, which is different. Because the absence of belief is not disbelief, it’s non–belief.
The study questionnaires asked people to rate their agreement with statements like “God exists” and “I believe in God“. In every case, the higher the score in the questionnaire, the more religious the respondent was. To measure disbelief you’d have to ask people to rate stuff like “God does not exist” and “I do not believe in God” and give high scores for agreeing with that. But that’s not what the researchers did in this study.
Therefore, a more appropriate title would have been something like this:
Non-analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Belief
Or maybe this:
Analytic Thinking Prevents Religious Belief
But perhaps these titles would have made “religious belief” sound like some kind of negative by-product that arises from a regrettable bad habit. An almost clinical outcome resulting from impaired mental capacity. A medical notion with a hint of stigma attached.
It seems the authors — or maybe it was the reviewers or the journal editors — decided upon a title that makes it sound like disbelief is the symptom, and analytic thinking the malaise. Hmmmm. Maybe they were trying to side-step potential criticism from readers who might otherwise take offence at the suggestion that religiosity is some kind of consequence of suboptimal thinking (as opposed to, say, the default state of all properly functioning human minds).
Whatever the process, what is certain is that we have a research paper in a top scientific journal whose euphemistically phrased title is both verbally clumsy and methodologically inaccurate.
Think about that, why don’t you.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.