Faith not linked to intuition or rational thinking, study shows

The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage culminates at the Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The cathedral houses a shrine to the apostle Saint James the Great. Photo by José Antonio Gil Martínez/Flickr

Nov. 9 (UPI) — New research suggests people’s religious beliefs are not directly influenced by intuition or rational thinking. Instead, a person’s faith is most closely linked with their upbringing and socio-cultural background.

Previous studies have hypothesized that religious beliefs are intuitive and that a person’s faith is diminished when they’re required to use analytical thinking. But a team of neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers from Coventry University and Oxford University found little evidence for such a connection.

The latest research, published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, included an investigation of people making the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. The pilgrimage encompasses a network of routes through France and northern Spain leading to a shrine to the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.

Researchers interviewed pilgrims about the intensity of their faith and the time spent on the pilgrimage routes. They also assessed each pilgrim’s intuitive thinking using a probability test, which called on participants to choose between a logical choice and a “gut response.”

The results of the experiment revealed no link between intuitive thinking and predilection for belief in the supernatural.

In follow up tests, researchers attempted to boost intuition using a series of mathematical puzzles. The tests also failed to show a link between faith and intuitive thinking.

“What drives our belief in gods — intuition or reason; heart or head?” lead study author Miguel Farias said in a news release. “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.”

In the final part of the study, researchers surveyed study participants about their faith after stimulating parts of the brain linked with cognitive inhibition, the ability to tune out stimuli. Previous studies have shown atheists rely on increased activity in the right inferior frontal gyrus when suppressing supernatural beliefs. The tests showed increased cognitive inhibition had no effect on religious beliefs.

Researchers say their findings show humans are born believers. Humans don’t come to faith intuitively the same way we take naturally to language learning.

“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,” Farias said. “Religious belief is most likely rooted in culture rather than in some primitive gut intuition.”


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