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Math the Gateway Drug to Atheism

Posted by Ethan Clow on May 4, 2012

Are you good at math? You might be an atheist. At least in theory. I’m terrible at math and I’m an atheist.

But a new study is making the rounds these days regarding your ability to do math and whether or not your an atheists. Or to put it more accurately, how likely you are to be a non-believer. The study produced out of UBC by Psychologist Will Gervais, the author of the study about trusting atheists which we discussed in a previous episode.


This new study which Gervais conducted with fellow psychologist Ara Norenzayan, posed some analytical math questions to subjects. The hypothesis was that people who answered with more analytical answers, opposed to more innate and intuitively which would predict a religious believer.

If a baseball and bat cost $110, and the bat costs $100 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

The wrong answer — the one you come up with when you don’t put any thought into it or simply go with your gut, which is what I would do, so don’t feel bad. — would be $10.

The right answer — which requires a bit of analysis — would be $5. (The bat costs $105.)

The study has certainly caught the public’s attention with numerous write up in science blogs and newspapers.

The study, which looked at 179 Canadian undergraduate students, showed that people who tend to solve problems more analytically also tended to be religious disbelievers. This was demonstrated by giving the students a series of questions like the one above and then scoring them on the basis of whether they used intuition or analytic logic to reach the answers. Afterward, the researchers surveyed the students on whether or not they held religious beliefs. The results showed that the intuitive thinkers were much more likely to believe in religion.

Now being good skeptics, what do we have here? Correlation but do we have causation? Turns out we do.

To test for a causal relationship between analytical thinking and religious disbelief, the researchers devised four different ways to promote analytic thinking and then surveyed the students to see if their religious disbelief had increased by the interventions that boosted critical thinking.

Basically they tried to see if they could prime subjects for analytical thinking which would then increase the subjects disbelief. Subjects would be shown various images which previous psychological studies had shown a connection to increasing performance on analytical problems. Sort of like the way listening to classical music or certain kinds of art can prime the viewer to behave a certain way.

Subconscious suggestions about thinking apparently gets the cognitive juices flowing and suppresses intuitive processes. The researchers confirmed this effect but also found that the self-reported religious disbelief also increased compared with subjects shown a different image before being tested that did not suggest critical thinking.

The same result was found after boosting critical reasoning in three other ways known to stimulate logical reasoning and improve performance on reasoning tests. This included having subjects rearrange jumbles of words into a meaningful phrase, for example. When the list of words connoted thought (for example, “think, reason, analyze, ponder, rational,” as opposed to control lists like “hammer, shoes, jump, retrace, brown”), manipulating the thought-provoking words improved performance on a subsequent analytic thinking task and also increased religious disbelief significantly.

So okay, what about all the non-believers like me out there who are saying “hold on, I suck at math” Of course the thing is, math is only one area where one can be analytical. As I’m sure we can all agree, sitting down and thinking rationally about a topic, math, history, science, art… that will stimulate the cognitive juices and this effect of decreasing religious belief would be seen as well, regardless of the field of study.

What’s also interesting about this, especially with all the press its getting, is the reaction from various religious groups and people. I saw one interview where the religious proponent suggested this wasn’t an issue of science vs religion because science can only answer questions of what is, compared to religion which provides a moral compass to civilization. Not surprisingly I rather disagree with that assessment.

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One Response to “Math the Gateway Drug to Atheism”

  1. Hehe, …moral compass? Not by a long shot!

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