Does Religious Belief Help People Think in a More Complex Way?

One psychologist became interested in the question because many studies have associated religious belief with better health and greater longevity.

By Published on June 26, 2021

University of South Florida psychologist Jay L. Michaels, who has a background in experimental social psychology and quantitative psychology, designed a study to test that proposition: 

In the study, 630 adults from 48 countries completed a cognitive assessment in which they were asked to pick a phrase that best described a given behavior. They had the choice of picking a high-level description (which focused on why the action was performed) or a low-level description (which focused on mechanistic aspects of the action.) For example, one item asked whether ‘reading’ was better described as ‘gaining knowledge’ or ‘following lines of print.’

Religious Beliefs Interact with Big Ideas

They were also asked about their religious beliefs.

… participants who agreed with statements such as ‘I have often had a strong sense of God’s presence’ (intrinsic religiosity) and ‘Prayer is for peace and happiness’ (extrinsic-personal religiosity) were more likely to describe reading as ‘gaining knowledge,’ and this relationship was mediated by the strength of spiritual beliefs, such as the belief that God is an all-pervading presence.

But extrinsic-social religiosity (‘I go to church mainly because I enjoy seeing people I know there’) was unrelated to these patterns of thought. Moreover, among non-religious participants, there was no link between religious motivations and higher-order thought patterns.

These results may be accounted for in part by the fact that deeply religious people might interact with Big Ideas more commonly (Is there free will? Is there life after death? Do miracles occur?) And they may be aware of more complex arguments around these issues.

Religious Beliefs Associated with Better Health and Greater Longevity

Michaels first became interested in the question because many studies have associated religious belief with better health outcomes, including better surgical outcomes and greater longevity.

He is cautious about his conclusions because his team’s study demonstrated only correlation, not causation:

The main takeaway from this study is that people who are motivated to pursue religion or spirituality and integrate it fully into their life while finding it contributing to what they experience tend to think in more meaningful ways, Michaels told PsyPost

As with any research, my study has flaws, Michaels explained. It used a survey method, which means we cannot conclude religion and spirituality cause people to think in a more meaningful way. It’s merely a relationship. Future work that uses experimental techniques are needed to identify if there is a cause-effect relationship.

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A Cause-Effect Relationship?

That’s an important qualification. To take religion and longevity as an example, the fact that religious people live longer is well established. But is the cause of greater longevity the content of beliefs? Or is it the lifestyle associated with the beliefs?

That’s tricky. Religious groups tend to form communities in which lifestyle rules are common. Aged people who have the support of such a community will probably live longer. And if the group’s beliefs also forbid smoking, that alone would improve longevity over a broad population. On that view, the content of the beliefs is important only insofar as they are acted on and are relevant to health.

Michaels’ team’s study is one of many to challenge the view that religious belief harms the mind in some way.

The paper, Michaels, J.L., Petrino, J. and Pitre-Zampol, T. (2021), Individual Differences in Religious Motivation Influence How People Think. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 60: 64-82,, is open access.


For more breaking news about the interface of natural & artificial intelligence, visit MindMatters.AI. 

Copyright 2021. Mind Matters.

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