The relationship between religion and science has been a subject of study since the beginnings of the human kind. According to recent studies the belief in a superior entity is directly related to the suppression of analytical thinking in the brain’s network, favoring empathic networks.

Anthony Ian Jack is an associate professor in the department of philosophy at Case Western University, Jack is also the lead author of the study titled Why Do You Believe in God? Relationship between Religious belief, Analytic Thinking, Mentalizing and Moral Concern  

Research has shown that people with strong opinions about an issue, particularly those involved in advocacy organizations, tend to view balanced media coverage of the topic as biased or hostile to their own positions.
Credit: Science and Religion

Previous research to Jack’s study, suggests that the human brain has an analytical neural network that allows critical thinking and has a social network who supports empathy. The tension between the two networks is known as the opposing domains hypothesis.

Jack’s recent study suggests that when believing in a supernatural deity the analytical network of the brain is suppressed. Analytical thinking, which is commonly used to make sense of the physical world, tends to be associated with the disbelief in god.

The researchers based the study on eight experiments, involving each 159 to 527 adult subjects.  The tests studied empathy, moral concern, analytical thinking, mentalizing, among other subjects regarding brain functionality.

Some of the self-reporting parts of the tests included evaluations on their critical reasoning, among the series of interrogations subjects were asked to answer questions as “ I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” or more technical questions as “ If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets”

The research also studied religious and spiritual beliefs using a single item measure as “Do you believe in the existence of either a god or a universal spirit?”. The subjects answered on a scale of 1 to 7.

Results of the study showed that the more religious the person was, a more moral concern that person showed. The empathic part was more associated with religiosity compared to the analytical thinking. Previous studies had found a correlation between gender and belief. Women, who scored best at empathy than men, were more likely to hold a religious belief.

Even though researchers found no cause-effect relationship in the subjects brain. Empathy and religion were associated only when the participants were involved in spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer or others.  Church attendance or following dogmatic protocol didn’t predict empathic behavior.

“Because of the tension between networks, pushing aside a naturalistic worldview enables you to delve deeper into the social/emotional side and that may be the key to why beliefs in the supernatural exist throughout the history of cultures. It appeals to an essentially nonmaterial way of understanding the world and our place in it” Explained lead author of the study Anthony Jack.

Even though the study suggests religious subjects tended to be more empathic, it doesn’t suggest that analytical subjects were less or nonempathic. A study published by the Telegraph in 2010 found that people who didn’t have a religious background still had intuitive judgments in right and wrong and empathic behaviors.

Source: PLoS One