UPDATE: I want to clarify one thing here. My principle target was not the authors of the study (which I have no intention to read, as I judge that doing so has negative expected utility). Rather, my principle target was the editors of SA. The author of the article is a minor target (its bad reporting) but she probably gave the editors what she had every right to expect they wanted. Here is what I would have said in a calmer moment:
“People have been implying that the content of this article casts aspersons on the rationality of religious belief. I assert that that is false and confused. I dare (double dog dare) anyone to construct a cogent argument from the content of this article which casts aspersions on the rationality of religious belief. I assert that it cannot be done. I also find the article greatly misleading in multiple ways and perhaps culpably so.”
I still think it is worth recording my initial reaction, though, so that friends who posted this article in ways that implied that it did cast aspersions on the rationality of religious belief–there were too many to write individually–can see the palpable frustration with which such misdirection causes people like me: Christions living in a very secularized environment where people they really like often say or do things very hurtful (though not intentionally, of course). There are many ways in which it is not easy to be a Christian in academic philosophy. Being an unprotected minority is frustrating, anxiety-inducing (I received threats as a result of this post), and sometimes deeply discouraging. [Any other Christians who feel this way should redouble their efforts to reach out to other minorities and simply set aside in good faith the fact that those minorities have advocates in a way that we do not, for we have our own Advocate.]
That venerable publishing outlet of the Secular-Industrial Establishment the Scientific American at least once had decent journalism and intelligent writing. That started to slide at least a decade ago, and though there are still some occasional gems, there is also plenty of tripe. To wit: this article called–utterly misleadingly–“How Critical Thinkers Lose Their Faith in God: Religious belief drops when analytical thinking rises.
Rarely have I been so annoyed as by this piece. And it is a token of a type that is all too prevalent. I judge, and hope I do not regret it, that the removal of the snarkiness would not be worth the effort. I don’t like being drawn into such rhetoric, but it is not irrelevant that the piece made me *angry*. Anger is an emotion that can be appropriate or inappropriate and upon reflection, I think anger is an appropriate emotional response to this nonsense. #notproofread #lateforconference
I should be clear that some of the nonsense is in the article itself but not all of it. A big part of it is “around” the article: that the study would be run the way it was, that so many important questions go unasked, the propagandistic title, the responses to and uses of it etc. It is a complex sociological phenomenon, and I think it best to concentrate on specific claims. I am headed off to LOGOS and will likely not follow up on this here. If I’ve committed fallacies or material errors, so be it: let people point them out and save the rest. My principal intention is only to be a road bump to create a little discomfort and, thus, thought. I’ll go through it line-by-line to keep focus during the rage.
“Critical thinker” is normally taken to contrast with “UNcritical thinker” in equivalent sense to “gullible” or “stupid” person. But the contrast here is with people who are more intuitive and immediate thinkers in contrast to *discursive* reasoners. It would be a mistake to confuse intuitive thinkers with bad thinkers. Some of the best philosophers, mathematicians, and business geniuses are intuitive thinkers. In fact, intuitive thinking is very closely tied with genius.
“In 2011 Amitai Shenhav, David Rand and Joshua Greene of Harvard University published a paper showing that people who have a tendency to rely on their intuition are more likely to believe in God.” So we might as well conclude that atheism is counter-intuitive, right? Well, I do think that, but I think that would be bad reporting. It would be bad reporting which was symmetric about the axis which divides it from the actual reporting.
“They also showed that encouraging people to think intuitively increased people’s belief in God.” So, again, theism is an intuitive idea, right? I think so, but that would be a bad way to report this: one which would reflect a pro-religoius bias. Instead, they went with the anti-religious bias. Don’t we *want* people to think intuitively? Isn’t that better than the alternative? Then it is a good thing to think that way. So good thinking is positively correlated with belief in God. Awesome.
“Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia found that encouraging people to think analytically reduced their tendency to believe in God.” That is, changing the way they naturally think, which is intuitively, which is a perfectly good way to think.
“Gervais and Norenzayan’s research is based on the idea that we possess two different ways of thinking that are distinct yet related.” Note there is no prioritization implied here. There is no suggestion that one way is better than another.
“Solving logical and analytical problems may require that we override our System 1 thinking processes in order to engage System 2.” And it just as often requires the opposite. In fact, I think I could make good argument that the analytical system is just a complex of System 1 stuff, but that would take us far afield. The bottom line here is that logical problems break down into individual basic premises (not lemmas) and rules of inference, both of which rest on definition or intuition. Aristotle pointed this out a little while ago.
“Gervais and Norenzayan examined whether engaging System 2 leads people away from believing in God and religion.” And did it ever occur to them to test whether taking analytic types and teaching them to think intuitively–they could use it!–would lead them TO belief in God. In business, people pay good money for courses in how to think more intuitively.
This is a standard priming test. You prime people with one task to measure its impact on a second. But there is a more fundamental priming before they even walk in the door: culture. And thanks to the cultured despisers of religion in America–like, say, the folks at Scientific American–the narrative of “religion vs. reason” is firmly embedded in the minds of most Americans, religious or not. That it is mostly a myth is not to be expected to prevent the effect they measure. Only they never provide a defense of their interpretation of which event they’ve measured.
The Font one is interesting, and I’d like to see the numbers. However, this is hardly a lucid example. Reading an unclear font might also piss people off and evoke anger which might lower religiosity. I’ll bet we could come up with dozens of other explanations–none of them controlled for in the experiment–of the result. This result is at best suggestive enough to warrant further tests to control for the dozens of other explanatory properties. It is hardly justification for some of the smug responses to this I’ve seen.
“Why and how might analytic thinking reduce religious belief?” Oh I can’t wait to hear this! LOL First, though, note the obvious opportunity for ambiguity. This ambiguity has been seized upon with glee by the CDRA (Cultured Despisers of Religion in America (it’s practically an NGO, so they might as well have an acronym)). People have been treating the assertion that “analytic thinking reduce religious belief” as something along these lines “Good critical thinking (the term used in the title), i.e. use of logic and reasoning and facts and science and stuff, reduces religious belief.” That may well be so, and an Augustinian worldview would predict it, but nothing in this story suggests it. There is not a hint of a whiff of a suggestion that the religious attitudes measured in the second part of the experiment are one whit more well-founded on logic and argument than their more religious counterparts. This is a classic priming test, and so relies completely on the unconscious effects of the priming.
“analytic thinking may inhibit our natural intuition to believe in supernatural agents that influence the world” Wait, I thought that was the datum?!
Now look back at the title. What a joke. There is not even a suggestion in the SA article about loss of faith in God. It is not even mentioned.
The title is a thinly veiled CDRA (let’s pronounce it “ceedra”) marketing ploy. With the NAEF (New Atheist Embarrassment Front) making fools of themselves at every opportunity I can’t blame the propaganda wing of CDRA for trying for more subtle methods. It will not, however, pass without comment. The Emperor had better hope for warmer weather.