"Long before it's in the papers"
March 24, 2016


Science-religion conflict may lie in our brains

March 24, 2016
Courtesy of Case Western Reserve University
and World Science staff

The con­flict be­tween sci­ence and re­li­gion may orig­i­nate in our brain struc­ture, re­search­ers have found.

Clashes be­tween the use of faith ver­sus sci­en­tif­ic ev­i­dence to ex­plain the world dates back cen­turies and is per­haps most vis­i­ble to­day in the ar­gu­ments be­tween ev­o­lu­tion and crea­t­ion­ism.

To be­lieve in a god or uni­ver­sal spir­it, peo­ple seem to sup­press the brain net­work used for an­a­lyt­i­cal think­ing and en­gage the em­pa­thet­ic net­work, re­search­ers say. When think­ing an­a­lyt­ic­ally about the phys­i­cal world, peo­ple ap­pear to do the op­po­site.

In fact, the in­vesti­ga­tors say, the two brain net­works sup­press each oth­er, which may ex­plain why some of us tend to ex­tremes.

“When there’s a ques­tion of faith, from the an­a­lyt­ic point of view, [faith] may seem ab­surd,” said Tony Jack of Case West­ern Re­serve Un­ivers­ity in Cleve­land, 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 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, al­so of Case West­ern, 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 pro-so­cial and em­pathic.”

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, they added. 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 re­search is based on the hy­poth­e­sis that the hu­man brain has two op­pos­ing do­mains in con­stant ten­sion. In ear­li­er re­search, Jack’s Brain, Mind & Con­scious­ness lab used a brain scan­ning pro­ce­dure, func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance im­ag­ing, to show the brain has an an­a­lyt­i­cal net­work of neu­rons that en­ables us to think crit­ic­ally and a so­cial net­work that en­ables us to em­pa­thize. When pre­sented with a phys­ics prob­lem or eth­i­cal di­lem­ma, a healthy brain fires up the ap­pro­pri­ate net­work while sup­pressing the oth­er.

“Be­cause of the ten­sion be­tween net­works, push­ing aside a nat­u­ral­is­t world view en­ables you to delve deeper in­to the so­cial/e­mo­tion­al side,” Jack ex­plained. “And that may be the key to why be­liefs in the su­per­nat­u­ral ex­ist through­out the his­to­ry of cul­tures. It ap­peals to an es­sen­tially non­ma­te­rial way of un­der­standing the world and our place in it.”

Fried­man said, “Hav­ing em­pa­thy does­n’t mean you nec­es­sarily have an­ti-sci­en­tif­ic be­liefs. In­stead, our re­sults sug­gest that if we only em­pha­size an­a­lyt­ic rea­son­ing and sci­en­tif­ic be­liefs, as the New Athe­ist move­ment sug­gests, then we are com­pro­mis­ing our abil­ity to cul­ti­vate a dif­fer­ent type of think­ing, namely so­cial/mor­al in­sight.”

“These find­ings,” Fried­man con­tin­ued, “are con­sist­ent with the phil­o­soph­i­cal view, es­poused by (Im­man­u­el) Kant, ac­cord­ing to which there are two dis­tinct types of truth: em­pir­i­cal and mor­al.”

The re­search­ers ex­am­ined the rela­t­ion­ship be­tween be­lief in God or a uni­ver­sal spir­it with meas­ures of an­a­lyt­ic think­ing and mor­al con­cern in eight dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ments, each in­volv­ing 159 to 527 adults. Con­sist­ently through all eight, the more re­li­gious the per­son, the more mor­al con­cern they showed. But no cause and ef­fect was es­tab­lished.

They found that both spir­itual be­lief and em­path­ic con­cern were as­so­ci­ated with fre­quen­cy of pray­er, medita­t­ions and oth­er spir­itual or re­li­gious prac­tices, though with not the so­cializing as­pects of re­li­gious af­filia­t­ion such as church din­ners.

While oth­ers the­o­rize that men­tal­iz­ing—in­ter­pret­ing hu­man be­hav­ior in terms of in­ten­tion­al men­tal states such as needs, de­sires or pur­pos­es—has a pos­i­tive as­socia­t­ion with be­lief, the re­search­ers found none.

Like oth­er stud­ies, these ex­pe­ri­ments found that an­a­lyt­ic think­ing dis­cour­ages ac­cept­ance of spir­itual or re­li­gious be­liefs. But the sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis of da­ta pooled from all eight ex­pe­ri­ments in­di­cates em­pa­thy is more im­por­tant to re­li­gious be­lief than an­a­lyt­ic think­ing is for disbe­lief.

So why can the con­flict be­tween sci­ence and re­li­gion be­come so strong?

“Be­cause the net­works sup­press each oth­er, they may cre­ate two ex­tremes,” Boy­atzis said. “Rec­og­niz­ing that this is how the brain op­er­ates, may­be we can cre­ate more rea­son and bal­ance in the na­t­ional con­versa­t­ions in­volv­ing sci­ence and re­li­gion.”

The re­search­ers say hu­mans are built to en­gage and ex­plore us­ing both net­works.

“Far from al­ways con­flicting with sci­ence, un­der the right cir­cum­stances re­li­gious be­lief may pos­i­tively pro­mote sci­en­tif­ic cre­ati­vity and in­sight,” Jack said. “Many of his­to­ry’s most fa­mous sci­en­tists were spir­itual or re­li­gious. Those not­ed in­di­vid­u­als were in­tel­lec­tu­ally soph­is­t­icated enough to see that there is no need for re­li­gion and sci­ence to come in­to con­flict.”

They re­fer to Bar­uch Aba Shalev’s book 100 years of No­bel Prizes, which found that, from 1901 to 2000, 654 No­bel lau­re­ates, or nearly 90 per­cent, be­longed to one of 28 re­li­gions. The re­main­ing 10.5 per­cent were athe­ists, ag­nos­tics or free­thinkers.

“You can be re­li­gious and be a very good sci­en­tist,” Jack said.

The re­search­ers agree with many athe­ists that sus­pen­sion of an­a­lyt­i­cal think­ing—at the wrong time—can be dan­ger­ous, and point to the his­tor­i­cal use of re­li­gious dif­fer­ences to per­se­cute or fight wars.

“Although it is simply a dis­tor­tion of his­to­ry to pin all con­flict on re­li­gion,” Jack said. “Non-re­li­gious po­lit­i­cal move­ments, such as fas­cism and commu­nism, and quasi-sci­en­tif­ic move­ments, such as eu­gen­ics, have al­so done great har­m.”

The re­search­ers sug­gest, how­ev­er, that tak­ing a care­fully con­sid­ered leap of re­li­gious faith ap­pears be an ef­fective route to pro­mot­ing emo­tion­al in­sight. Theirs and oth­er stud­ies find that, over­all, re­li­gious be­lief is as­so­ci­ated with great­er com­pas­sion, great­er so­cial in­clu­sive­ness and great­er mo­tiva­t­ion to en­gage in pro-so­cial ac­tions.

Jack said the con­flict can be avoided by remem­bering sim­ple rules: “Re­li­gion has no place tell­ing us about the phys­i­cal struc­ture of the world; that’s the busi­ness of sci­ence. Sci­ence should in­form our eth­i­cal rea­son­ing, but it can­not de­ter­mine what is eth­i­cal or tell us how we should con­struct mean­ing and pur­pose in our lives.”

To dig deeper in­to be­lief, the re­search­ers are plan­ning stud­ies to learn if peo­ple who in­crease their em­pa­thy then in­crease their re­li­gious or spir­itual be­lief, or vi­ce versa.

* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend

y Sign up for


On Home Page         


  • Stu­dy que­stions much-hyped bene­fits of moder­ate drink­ing

  • Bi­zarre find­ings on Ameri­cans: Less reli­gion but more after­life be­lief


  • Study links global warming, war for first time—in Syria

  • Smart­er mice with a “hum­anized” gene?

  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find


  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

The conflict between science and religion may originate in our brain structure, researchers have found. Clashes between the use of faith versus scientific evidence to explain the world 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. In fact, the scientists say, the two brain networks suppress each other, which may explain why many of us tend to extremes one way or the other. “When there’s a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, [faith] 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 University in Cleveland 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, also of Case Western, 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 pro-social 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, they added. 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 research is based on the hypothesis that the human brain has two opposing domains in constant tension. In earlier research, Jack ‘s Brain, Mind & Consciousness lab used a brain scanning procedure, functional magnetic resonance imaging, to show the brain has an analytical network of neurons that enables us to think critically and a social network that enables us to empathize. When presented with a physics problem or ethical dilemma, a healthy brain fires up the appropriate network while suppressing the other. “Because of the tension between networks, pushing aside a naturalistic world view enables you to delve deeper into the social/emotional side,” Jack explained. “And that may be the key to why beliefs in the supernatural exist throughout the history of cultures. It appeals to an essentially nonmaterial way of understanding the world and our place in it.” Friedman said, “Having empathy doesn’t mean you necessarily have anti-scientific beliefs. Instead, our results suggest that if we only emphasize analytic reasoning and scientific beliefs, as the New Atheist movement suggests, then we are compromising our ability to cultivate a different type of thinking, namely social/moral insight.” “These findings,” Friedman continued, “are consistent with the philosophical view, espoused by (Immanuel) Kant, according to which there are two distinct types of truth: empirical and moral.” The researchers examined the relationship between belief in God or a universal spirit with measures of analytic thinking and moral concern in eight different experiments, each involving 159 to 527 adults. Consistently through all eight, the more religious the person, the more moral concern they showed. But no cause and effect was established. They found that both spiritual belief and empathic concern were associated with frequency of prayer, meditations and other spiritual or religious practices, though with not the socializing aspects of religious affiliation such as church dinner. While others theorize that mentalizing—interpreting human behavior in terms of intentional mental states such as needs, desires or purposes—has a positive association with belief, the researchers found none. Like other studies, these experiments showed that analytic thinking discourages acceptance of spiritual or religious beliefs. But the statistical analysis of data pooled from all eight experiments indicates empathy is more important to religious belief than analytic thinking is for disbelief. So why can the conflict between science and religion become so strong? “Because the networks suppress each other, they may create two extremes,” Boyatzis said. “Recognizing that this is how the brain operates, maybe we can create more reason and balance in the national conversations involving science and religion.” The researchers say humans are built to engage and explore using both networks. “Far from always conflicting with science, under the right circumstances religious belief may positively promote scientific creativity and insight,” Jack said. “Many of history’s most famous scientists were spiritual or religious. Those noted individuals were intellectually sophisticated enough to see that there is no need for religion and science to come into conflict.” They refer to Baruch Aba Shalev’s book 100 years of Nobel Prizes, which found that, from 1901 to 2000, 654 Nobel laureates, or nearly 90 percent, belonged to one of 28 religions. The remaining 10.5 percent were atheists, agnostics or freethinkers. “You can be religious and be a very good scientist,” Jack said. The researchers agree with the New Atheists that suspension of analytical thinking—at the wrong time—can be dangerous, and point to the historical use of religious differences to persecute or fight wars. “Although it is simply a distortion of history to pin all conflict on religion,” Jack said. “Non-religious political movements, such as fascism and communism, and quasi-scientific movements, such as eugenics, have also done great harm.” The researchers suggest, however, that taking a carefully considered leap of religious faith appears be an effective route to promoting emotional insight. Theirs and other studies find that, overall, religious belief is associated with greater compassion, greater social inclusiveness and greater motivation to engage in pro-social actions. Jack said the conflict can be avoided by remembering simple rules: “Religion has no place telling us about the physical structure of the world; that’s the business of science. Science should inform our ethical reasoning, but it cannot determine what is ethical or tell us how we should construct meaning and purpose in our lives.” To dig deeper into belief, the researchers are planning studies to learn if people who increase their empathy then increase their religious or spiritual belief, or vice versa.