Faith v. Reason – the battle rages on in our brains

The role of religion in an increasingly secular world continues to be a hotly debated topic. There are other articles on my website discussing the effects of religion and spirituality on human behaviour and on the human condition, but a new scientific study suggests that children raised in religious societies perform less well in maths and science than their atheist counterparts.

Researchers and psychologists from Leeds Beckett University and the University of Missouri believe that standards in science subjects would be raised if religion was kept out of education – something with which, perhaps surprisingly, I wholeheartedly disagree! Lessons on religion promote understanding between cultures and a wider view of the world – so long as humanism and atheism are included in the lessons.

But it seems that the more religious the country, the lower its student’s performance in these two key areas. In some American states, Creationism is still taught over Evolution in schools. This is wrong, and for obvious reasons. Religion must not be permitted to subvert scientific reason and knowledge. Science and mathematics is key for the success of modern societies.

The study showed there was a negative correlation between the amount of time children spent on religious activities and time spent on their educational attainment. The findings support the idea of a ‘displacement hypothesis’ that occurs when children spend more of their time studying the Bible or the Koran, and less time studying science.

To examine this relationship, the scientists looked at data from a number of international assessments on religion and education. For countries educational performances, they looked at data from the Programme for International Student Assessment and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Then, they combined this information with data on religious practices, using the World Values Survey and the European Social Survey.

On a scale of 0 to 10, they rated 82 countries on a ‘religiosity score.’ From the countries analysed, the five least religious countries were shown to be the Czech Republic, Japan, Estonia, Sweden and Norway – all of which have very high educational standards. One must also take into account that the culture in these countries stresses academic achievement and religion does not play a big part in education.

The five most religious countries were Qatar, Indonesia, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. I’m presuming figures were unavailable for Saudi Arabia and Iran. The UK ranked at 14 while the United States came in at 51.

In the majority of countries – including the UK – women were found to be more religious than men, but this was not found to affect differences in their educational performance. However, levels of economic development and time spent on religious education did play a role in students’ attainment.

The research was published in the journal, Intelligence.

Given the strong negative link between religiosity and educational performance, governments might be able to raise educational standards – and thus standards of living – by keeping religion out of schools and out of educational policy making. The success of schools and education in general directly translates to more productive societies and higher standards of living.

In a study conducted by psychologists the University of Rochester, researchers found that those with high IQs had greater self-control and were able to do more for themselves and so didn’t need the support of religion. The authors also say that they have better self-esteem and were able to build more supportive relationships. The study defined religion as involvement in some or all parts of a belief.

These conclusions were the result of a review of 63 scientific studies about religion and intelligence dating between 1928 and 2016. In 53 of these there was a reliable negative relationship between intelligence and religiosity – in only 10 cases was the relationship positive.

Even among children, the more intelligent a child was, the more probable it was they would shun the church and the same trend persisted in old age. The study defined intelligence as the ‘ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience.’

In their conclusions, the researchers said that ‘most extant explanations (of a negative relation) share one central theme – the premise that religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and is therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who know better… Intelligent people typically spend more time in school, a form of self-regulation that may yield long-term benefits… More intelligent people getting higher level jobs and better employment and higher salary may lead to higher self-esteem, and encourage personal control beliefs.’

Intelligence naturally leads to greater self-control, self-esteem, perceived control over life’s trials and tribulations, and supportive relationships, thereby negating the need for religious belief.

Research carried out In the UK showed another drawback of being religious, or at least being Christian – official figures show that nearly one in four people with no religious belief live in homes headed by someone with a senior executive job or a place in one of the professions. But well under a fifth of Christians are employed in the best-paid and most influential jobs or are married to someone who is. This is according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The last census, carried out in the UK in March 2011, showed a fall in the number of people that call themselves Christian.

The battle between science and religion is being waged in our own brains – and it’s a real physical punch-up!

Research from Case Western Reserve University and Babson College found that people who believe in a deity, or a spiritual force, suppress the brain’s ability for analytical thinking by suppressing the neural network that allows this. Instead, the brains empathetic network is activated. Any kind of leap of faith, any kind of belief in the supernatural pushes aside our ability to think critically or analytically. The upside is that it helps us achieve greater social and emotional insight. Put simply, this could be one of the evolutionary reasons for religious belief.

The researchers conducted eight experiments with between 159 and 527 adults. They found evidence that more empathetic people were also more likely to be religious. This confirms previous findings that women tend to be more religious and spiritual than men and this can now be explained by their greater empathy.

The bad news is that it provides evidence that atheists are more likely to be psychopathic – lack of empathy being one of the prime traits.

The researchers also concluded that religious people tend to be less intelligent. It is possible that intelligence is not as important to religious people because they are more likely to put their trust in God. Religious people are more pro-social and empathetic.

The team looked at fMRI scans that showed human brains have both analytical and social networks that enabled empathy. Humans are wired to use both networks as required. A maths problem or an ethical problem would trigger one network while suppressing the other. It’s worth noting that 90% of Nobel Laureates believe in God, so we can assume that empathy does not interfere with scientific understanding.

As humans, we have to learn when to take that leap of faith and when to use our thinking brain. Science and the laws of physics enhance out understanding of the world, but our sense of wonder, our sense of awe, however illogical, makes life worth living. But we have to make sure that the two networks do not suppress each other so much they create extremes – we need to remain balanced.


Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.