Sep 23, 2011
In a recent study, we found that people who rely more on intuition are more likely to believe in God than those who are more likely to reflect on and re-evaluate their intuitions. We also found that prompting people to think about a successful experience using intuition resulted in higher reported belief than thinking about a successful experience with careful reasoning. We had two main explanations for why intuitive thinkers might be more likely to believe in God.
One reason has to do with a growing body of work that suggests our propensity as humans to believe in God results (either directly or indirectly) from a number of natural intuitions we have about the way the world works. For instance, we tend to automatically assume that things were designed for a purpose (even when they occur by chance); that other entities around us can have beliefs, emotions, and intentions (even when inanimate or inorganic); and that our minds exist separate from our bodies, and therefore must continue to do so after our bodies expire. These kinds of individual intuitions (which can be adaptive) don’t require a belief in God, but many have argued that without them, we would have been less likely as a species to develop such a belief. So if you think of all these more basic intuitions as pushing us as a species toward believing in God, then individuals who tend to reflect or push back against intuitions more generally might likewise be more likely to push back against those particular intuitions that support belief in God. And the reverse might be true of more intuitive thinkers.
The other possibility has to do with the suggestion that God can actually provide intuitive explanations for how and why events came to occur, when the actual explanations are too complex for us to work through at the time or are simply counterintuitive (such as when they are based on random chance). These kinds of intuitive explanations (e.g., involving “God’s will”) are particularly salient to us when those events have personal significance, like the unexpected death of a loved one. So the second possibility is that intuitive thinkers are more likely to apply God to situations that require intuitive explanation, and reflective thinkers are less likely to use intuitive explanations in those situations and therefore less likely to make use of God’s explanatory powers.
These two explanations for our results are by no means mutually exclusive. They could both be true, and could even reinforce one another. Whether either or both of these possibilities explain our findings will be better resolved with future research.
Amitai Shenhav is a graduate student in psychology at Harvard University.