We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, May 31, 2012

How We Think About God Matters

A team of Harvard researchers have found (here) that those who rely on intuition more than reflection tend to show more confident belief in God and to report more experiences they attributed to God.  In the summary of their research, they state:
Three studies—two correlational, one experimental—showed that intuitive thinking predicts belief in God. Study 1 showed that people who exhibit thinking styles that are more intuitive and less reflective are more likely to believe in God and to believe in God with greater confidence. These results held while variables related to education, socioeconomic status, and political orientation were controlled. Study 2 showed that these results held while cognitive ability and personality were controlled. In both studies, we found that cognitive style predicted self-reported changes in belief since childhood but was uncorrelated with religious influences during childhood. This suggests that cognitive style is not only predictive of one’s beliefs but also a critical factor in the evolution of one’s beliefs over time. Consistent with this hypothesis, we demonstrated a causal relationship between (induced) cognitive style and belief in God in Study 3, showing that the induction of mindsets favoring intuition (or opposing reflection) significantly increased self-reported belief in God.
People who step back and think more intensely about the "question of God" tend to be less sure about God while those who "go with their gut" tend to be more certain in their belief in God.  In other words, people who have a tendency to question and to doubt show a tendency to question and doubt beliefs about God.  The researchers make it clear that this is not a matter of intelligence but of what they call "cognitive style," that is the way we think.

These findings are hardly surprising.  In a sense, all they seem to amount to is to confirm that people who question and doubt actually do question and doubt.  Still, they are a helpful reminder that have important implication for preachers and pastors.  Pastors will themselves tend to be either more intuitive or reflective, and they need to remember that many of their parishioners are the opposite.  If, for example, a pastor is one who reflects, then issues of doubt and making sense of faith in the contemporary context will be important; but those issues may well not be so important to many members of the congregation she serves.  Indeed, one would expect that—all other things being equal—those who  are more intuitive will predominate in the congregation on an average Sunday morning.  An intuitive pastor, conversely, will more likely fail to address key issues concerning the difficulties of believing in the 21st century.