Science Versus Religion: How the Brain is Hardwired to Think This Way

By Ana Verayo, | March 28, 2016

Science versus religion? The brain's structure reveals why we tend to think critically or empathetically.

Science versus religion? The brain's structure reveals why we tend to think critically or empathetically.

When it comes to science versus faith, the two have been considered as entirely opposing different worldviews that have been heavily debated for hundreds of years. However, in a new study, scientists reveal that humans are more inclined to choose faith over science and vice versa, as this conflict's origins can be traced back to the brain's structure. 

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Past studies reveal that the brain contains an analytical neural network that promotes critical thinking including a social neural network that supports empathy, based on data from functional magnetic resonance imaging. This tension between these two neural networks of the brain is called opposing domains hypothesis.

Whenever faced with a problem that involves critical thinking, the part of the brain that involves empathy is suppressed and when moral reasoning is required, the analytical processing becomes restrained.  The belief in a higher power promotes engagement within the empathetic network within the brain which can tune out the more analytical processes. Researchers say that thinking analytically about the physical world apparently has the opposite effect.

Now, researchers from the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and Babson College in Massachusetts carried out a series of experiments that involve between 159 to 527 adult participants. Those who are more likely to be religious have the tendency to show more great moral concern while researchers say that this does not result in a cause and effect.

In a similar manner, stronger analytical thinking has the tendency to discourage any sort of religious or spiritual belief, which means that this relationship is more correlational as opposed to causal.

According to lead author of the study, Tony Jack from the Case Western Reserve University, when there is a question of faith, this may seem absurd from an analytical point of view but the brain can also switch into this leap of faith in the supernatural, that can push aside critical thinking in order for humans to achieve a greater social and emotional insight.

The roles of these neural networks that clash or play with each other in the brain can also affect the beliefs of certain cultural and social trends across different groups. For example, women tend to be more empathetic than men where past studies demonstrated that women are more likely to be more religious or spiritual. 

This does not mean that religious individuals are any less intelligent that atheist or agnostic counterparts, researchers also state that almost 90 percent of Nobel Prize winners have some religious affiliations where the laureates possess some sort of faith. This new study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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