Why do many people believe in gods and other supernatural beings? The cause has long been subject of scientific debate. It is intuition, reason heart or head?
Scientists have now challenged the theory that has attempted to show that believing in the supernatural is something that comes to us ‘naturally’ or intuitively.
Previous studies have suggested people who hold strong religious beliefs are more intuitive and less analytical, and when they think more analytically their religious beliefs decrease.
However, according to a new study we are not born believers.
Researchers from the universities of Coventry and Oxford state other factors, such as upbringing and socio-cultural processes, are more likely to play a greater role in religious beliefs.
This conclusion is based on a study which included tests on pilgrims taking part in the famous Camino de Santiago and a brain stimulation experiment. The results show there is no between intuitive/analytical thinking, or cognitive inhibition (an ability to suppress unwanted thoughts and actions), and supernatural 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.
Researchers 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.
“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,” leading author Miguel Farias said.