Study Reports that Religious Thinking Shuts Down Rational / Scientific Thinking - Thoughts?

There is an interesting study that has been floating around, referenced in articles such as The Conflict Between Science and Religion Lies in Our Brain, that religious / spiritual /emotional thinking shuts rational / scientific thinking. This has led some to jump to conclusions such as the idea that religious people are stupid (there is an association between lower intelligence and religious belief) or that atheists are sociopaths (there is an association between lack of empathy, a key component of sociopathy, and atheism).

It is easy to jump from associations to causation, which is an analytical fallacy. And the article points out that over the last hundred years or so, 90 percent of nobel prize winners have had religious belief, while only 10 percent were agnostic or atheistic.

This study actually does not really bother me, though it needs to be corroborated with other studies and does not equate to causation. Still, though I have a Biology degree and appreciate Science, I am more of a holistic thinker / theologican / practictioner, seeing the value in both "reason" and "emotion."

This is where this study has, I believe, practical application. Modern apologetics seeks to "prove the Bible" with "evidence that demands a verdict." Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic or Lord--now, tell us what you believe RIGHT NOW--and I have set a logical trap for you, forcing a person to come to the conclusion that a person is not prepared to come to EMOTIONALLY or SPIRITUALLY / heart wise. This is ultimately counter productive for most people as an entry level question, actually forcing them to just say, whatever, dude, or actively hardening their hearts.(And there are other options intellectually than these three.)

I think that modern apologetics can be confirming for Christians, but if used in the above manner, is not very helpful for most non-Christians. My personal experience--corroborated by research-- is that intellectual barriers to faith may be the stated reason for non-belief, but that the underlying causes are at the least, much more complex than that. What causes a break through to belief is a movement of the heart and emotion. And modern apologetical arguments can then provide enough justification for that person to not think that they have to be an idiot to become a person of faith. That in their own minds they can remain a "Reasonable" individual.

This study deals with associations, so it is improper to assign causation rather than theories. However, it may be that when we isolate the head from the heart, or vice verse, it leads us down a path that takes us away from God. From modernism, we are negatively geared against "working up the emotion" (particularly in the Restooration Movement, a movement that occurred at the height of the Modern movement). We don't want anyone to get "caught up in the moment" and just make an "emotional decision." (Of course, inherent in this criticism is the--correct--idea that in order to move most people towards a life changing decision, the heart/emotion must be engage.) But we ought to be equally skeptical of "purely rational" decisions that do not engage the heart/emotion. These are unlikely to be truly life changing or long lasting as well.

God made us to love God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength--our whole being--not in slices. To me, this type of study corroborates this belief. Both intellectual pride and emotional immaturity can lead us away from God. But the intellect and emotion properly guided--and most likely, balanced or at least both significantly engaged--can lead us to God. And from a conversion standpoint, if we want to reach people for Christ, we must give them compelling "reasons" that go beyond the head to engagement of the heart and emotion, such as the hope that we have in Christ, meaning and purpose in life, help and hope for relationships, etc. These are not superfluous, they are key in moving people towards God and reaching (and retaining) people for Christ.

And in order for people to come to God, they must have faith--which, by its nature, goes beyond evidences. We have reasons for our faith, but if we claim that we can absolutely prove our beliefs beyond a shadow of a doubt--well, that would cease to be faith, would it not? And the Bible says that without faith, it is impossible to please God.


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Comment by James Nored on March 28, 2016 at 4:43pm

Thanks, Ron! I appreciate the feedback and that you found this refreshingly different in approach and tone. You are a great encourager, my friend. Many blessings!

Comment by Ron Furgerson on March 28, 2016 at 4:34pm

Thanks to you James and the others commenting on this post.  It is so refreshing to read thoughtful and respectful comments regarding this topic which is so frequently the object of fierce, hateful, and ultimately very divisive debate.  Well done. <>/p>

Comment by James Nored on March 28, 2016 at 12:41pm

Absolutely, Stan. This is why so much of our preaching misses the mark. Conclusions do not move people to action. Touching the heart and the emotion does.

Comment by sgranberg on March 28, 2016 at 12:29pm

The opening quote by Daniel Calne is excellent. So often we expect our preaching to have that propositional focus towards mental assent then wonder why no one acts.  Emotions are powerful motivators that we need to engage if we want to see people move to action.

Comment by James Nored on March 28, 2016 at 11:05am

Thanks for the thoughts and engagement, Bruce. I love C.S. Lewis, and find much of his apologetic work still helpful today. The "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord" question that he framed and was later popularized can be used as a weapon, or redeemed.

Here would be a helpful framing. Rather than saying (as in popular, modern apologetics)--you have three choices with Jesus. He was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord--now which is it?? You could say the following:

"C.S. Lewis was an atheist. And he had a lot of things that led him to this conclusion. He lost his mother at age nine. He witnessed the horrors of World War I. He rightly had questions about how there could be a good, almighty God with such evils. He respected the teachings of Jesus, as many people do. But soon this created a conflict in his mind as well. Because Jesus did not just teach about loving people and treating them with respect--something most people agree with. He taught that he was God--or at least that is what his followers said that he said. So Lewis asked the question, Was Jesus crazy? If not, then how could he be this great teacher and also be a megalomaniac? Lewis finally concluded that Jesus was indeed who he said that he was, the Son of God and 'Lord.' Some have said that Jesus was either liar, lunatic, or Lord. I have always kind of reacted against that somewhat, because I have thought of plenty of other options--like perhaps he was a great teacher, but his followers made up the stories about him claiming to be God. Or he went crazy later in his life, but his original teachings were really good. But Lewis' faith journey does bring up a good question--how do we separate Jesus' moral teachings from his other teachings about himself and God? What do you think of C.S. Lewis' faith journey and the questions that he asks?"

Now some would object to this framing--that it gives too much fuel to the opposition, by giving other options than liar, lunatic, Lord. I would contend that actually it strengthens the question, for it shows that you are rejecting simplistic framings. And you are naming the objections or other options that others actually have going through their heads. By so doing, you allow people to explore the question in a non forceful, disarming way. And when their heart and emotion is engaged to want to follow Jesus, you have laid some intellectual groundwork for them to do so without feeling like they are throwing away their brains.

Comment by Timothy Tien on March 28, 2016 at 10:40am

Bruce:  You make an important point.  One thing that doesn't work well, at least in my apologetic experience since college, is arguing science from the Bible, since the latter is not a scientific text.  

I often jump to Acts 6:7, where all these priests did not follow Jesus during His public ministry, nor on Pentecost, but only once they saw a diverse group of believers take care of their at-risk population (widows with no surviving family) more effectively than anyone else, including the established religious order.  The church is not called to science, history or philosopy--even though these are all elements of a greater truth.  It is us jumping off the pages into the people.  One great step forward for our churches around the world would be to go from the least ethnically and socioeconomically diverse groups to the most diverse, and for us to love more effectively than other groups.

As the Bible stands up well in the face of scientific advancement, certainly when compared to other ancient literature, so the church can hopefully stand up well versus other institutions, be they governments, NGOs, corporations, and even families.

Comment by Bruce Bates on March 28, 2016 at 10:22am

James, thanks for this very good post.  I thought your comment on the "logic traps" was very good.  As a Christian community, I still see us putting way too many of these out there.  As far as fruit from them, do these ever work?  I am not sure they do.  I love all the evidences there are for belief (archaeology, logic, history, philosophy, etc.) but I think they have to be offered as gifts, as a blessing, not as chains.  Paul was clear about this in 1 Corinthians.  What is the value of a truth claim presented poorly?  It's just more noise.  That is a truth that trumps some other truths.

Comment by Timothy Tien on March 28, 2016 at 9:58am

For me, science provides knowledge on what is measurable.  Faith can and must begin where empiricism ends.  Just because we lack the tools or intellect to measure something (no time machine, yet), or the scientific consensus is entrenched (say, around margarine as a healthier alternative to butter in the 70s), doesn't mean that faith for the spiritual dimensions and the future are not required.  And a healthy respect for science, plus wisdom for the limits of science.  Just as monarchy and church government were once idols accepted by large swaths of westerners, now science (the cultural idea, not necessarily the method) is a big idol for us.  Just look at how wrong Bill Nye was about Deflategate.

Comment by James Nored on March 28, 2016 at 9:48am

Timothy, thank you for your excellent thoughts and interaction with the post. I very much appreciate Kuhn's work, as it shows how much faith is actually involved in scientific paradigms, and how these paradigms are held on to even in the face of conflicting evidence. Even overwhelming evidence is not usually enough to convince of a new paradigm. There is simply too much at stake. It usually takes a new generation to "believe" in the new paradigm.

The irony in this debate is that works like Kuhn's show that a pure divide between reason/science and emotion/faith is not what actually happened historically, and likely is not even possible. The search for God particle shows how driven even scientists are in affirming their beliefs.

The church should not fear science. Unfortunately that has been recemn history, but was not so for much of history. Thanks for the thoughts!

Comment by Timothy Tien on March 28, 2016 at 9:19am

"Religious thinking" and "scientific thinking" are somewhat conflicting, somewhat complementary, yet somewhat similar when people are the ones doing the thinking.  Thomas Kuhn's 'Structure Of Scientific Revolutions' liken breakthrough thinking in science to religious developments (say, Easter).  The establishments, whether scientific or religious, are threatened by advancement and so work against progress and label leaders with new ideas as heretics.

Practically speaking, the thinkers of today tend to be more atheistic, quite different from Renaissance thinkers of the past (Da Vinci, Copernicus, Galileo, Pascal, Newton come to mind) who were theistic.  Perhaps the inflection point in history coincides with Hume, who ironically was nurtured in the strident Calvinist society that begat the Scottish Enlightenment.  In any case, religious practice today is inversely correlated to IQ.  Of course, there are exceptions.  Eric Falkenstein, a brilliant and once atheistic economist, was recently driven to the God of the New Testament by the advancem... in the last few decades.

With respect to Karl Popper, Christ and His followers make many falsifiable statements which are also faith statements.  But as you point out, faith is a constant.  For whatever we know, we also have the "known unknowns" of our day as well as the "unknown unknowns".  As with democracy and capitalism, we have an imperfect Standard Model of physics, which needs to be thrown out for something better, but neither the quantum nor the relativity camp has a viable replacement ready.  Hypothesis, theory and conjecture are fancy science words for faith.  The Higgs-Boson hypothesis took at least $14 billion of faith in action to detect.  And for me, who took his last physics course as an undergrad in the 80s, I must believe CERN in faith, as much as I believe Peter and John in their testimonies concerning the ministry of Christ.

One problem with the church today is fear (in general) and fear of science (for this topic).  How many pastors are preaching on Matthew 19 as it pertains to intersex and transgender people?  I don't know a single one.  Is it ignorance?  Yes, but one borne out of fear.  It is easier to say to church donors and volunteers "I don't know" if the topic comes up, and certainly not to bring it up if one is a pastor who provides for spouse and children.  Donald Trump is less worrisome to me than fearful leadership of the church.

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