The conflict between science and religion may have its origins in the structure of our brains, researchers at Case Western Reserve University and Babson College have found.
Clashes between the use of faith vs. scientific evidence to explain the world around us dates back centuries and is perhaps most visible today in the arguments between evolution and creationism.
To believe in a supernatural god or universal spirit, people appear to suppress the brain network used for analytical thinking and engage the empathetic network, the scientists say. When thinking analytically about the physical world, people appear to do the opposite.
"When there's a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd," said Tony Jack, who led the research. "But, from what we understand about the brain, the leap of faith to belief in the supernatural amounts to pushing aside the critical/analytical way of thinking to help us achieve greater social and emotional insight."
Jack is an associate professor of philosophy at Case Western Reserve and research director of the university's Inamori International Center of Ethics and Excellence, which helped sponsor the research.
"A stream of research in cognitive psychology has shown and claims that people who have faith (i.e., are religious or spiritual) are not as smart as others. They actually might claim they are less intelligent.," said Richard Boyatzis, distinguished university professor and professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve, and a member of Jack's team.
"Our studies confirmed that statistical relationship, but at the same time showed that people with faith are more prosocial and empathic," he said.
In a series of eight experiments, the researchers found the more empathetic the person, the more likely he or she is religious.
That finding offers a new explanation for past research showing women tend to hold more religious or spiritual worldviews than men. The gap may be because women have a stronger tendency toward empathetic concern than men.
Atheists, the researchers found, are most closely aligned with psychopaths--not killers, but the vast majority of psychopaths classified as such due to their lack of empathy for others.
The new study is published in the online journal PLOS ONE. The other authors are Jared Friedman, a research assistant and recent graduate in Philosophy and Cognitive Science who will begin his PhD in organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve in the fall, and Scott Taylor, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Babson College.