Nature, Nurture and God: The Science Behind Religious Belief


Faith is a great mystery of life. For some, religion is the very basis and purpose of existence, whereas for others, it is the stuff of delusion. But what determines who is and is not a believer in religion and other supernatural phenomena? Is it our family, our friends, or are some people simply ‘born believers’?

Intuition vs Analysis

For some time, reigning psychological theory has held that belief in the supernatural is determined by the extent to which an individual relies on intuitive, rather than analytical thinking. Broadly speaking, intuitive thinking is characterised by emotion-led decision making, whilst analytical thinkers tend to rely more on logic and rational processing.

There is some evidence to suggest that, when it comes to supernatural belief, people who rely more on intuitive ‘gut feeling’, rather than analytical logic, may be more likely to believe in the supernatural. One 2012 study from UBC even found that when analytical thoughts are artificially increased under experimental conditions, levels of supernatural belief concurrently decrease.

Some psychologists believe that most people are born with a predisposition towards supernatural belief. Pascal Boyer’s ‘naturalness of religion’ theory holds that human beings are cognitively biased towards belief in the supernatural, and that non-believers are only able to sidestep this process by mentally inhibiting certain functions of the brain.

This body of thought suggests that the likelihood of our holding religious belief is primarily related to the innate make-up of our brains. Are we analytical or are we intuitive? Do we make decisions with the head or with the heart?


Nature vs Nurture

However, a recent study has found evidence to suggest that our relationship with faith and superstition is not so simple. Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the research demonstrates that the link between innate cognitive thinking styles and likelihood of religious belief is not so clear cut.

The research focusses on a cohort of 89 people aged 16-67 undertaking a pilgrimage in Northern Spain. Researchers asked the participants questions to determine their strength of faith, and then had them complete probability and maths tests to assess the levels of intuition or logic in their decision-making. Contrary to previous studies, the researchers found no link between levels of faith and intuitive thinking style.

In the second part of the experiment, the researchers used painless electrical currents to stimulate the area of the participants’ brains associated with cognitive inhibition – this portion of the brain has been found to be more active in individuals arguing in defence of atheism.

And in this case, the research showed that, even when this portion of the brain was stimulated, participants continued to demonstrate the same levels of religious conviction.

These results challenge the body of thought which suggests that belief in the supernatural is natural and somehow pre-wired into certain areas of the brain. And so, if faith is not the product of innate cognitive traits, then what does determine whether we are or are not believers?


More Questions

This area is still shrouded in uncertainty. The researchers suggest that, rather than being pre-determined, faith might be more dependant on social environment, education and upbringing. They suggest that it is premature to assume that belief in the supernatural is the product of nature rather than nurture, and that more research is needed before we can make any firm conclusions.

So is faith the product of nature, nurture, or a bit of both? We don’t yet know for sure, but one thing is certain: as with so many elements of both science and religion, things are clearly a great deal more complex than they seem.

A version of this article was originally published in The Oxford Mail


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