Belief in God involves suppressing analytical part of brain and boosting empathy

Belief in God occurs when we suppress the analytical part of our brain and engage the empathic network, but when we focus on the physical world we use the brain network used for analytical thinking, a team of researchers found. They also pointed out that nearly 90% of Nobel laureates in the 20th century were also religious – being both scientific and religious or spiritual is possible and very common.

Tony Jack, an associate professor of philosophy at Case Western Reserve, and colleagues explained in the journal PLoS ONE (citation below) that the conflict between religion and science probably has its origins in the structure of the human brain.

There have long been clashes between the use of scientific evidence versus faith to explain the world around us. Perhaps the most visible example of this clash today are the arguments between creationism and evolution.

Belief in God Albert EinsteinAlbert Einstein used several labels to describe his religious views, including agnostic, pantheistic, and religious non-believer. He once said: “It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere.” On another occasion, he said: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

The analytical and empathic brain networks

To believe in a universal spirit or supernatural God, humans appear to suppress the brain network used for analytical thinking and boost the empathic network, the authors say. When we think analytically about the physical world, we appear to do the opposite.



Research leader, Prof. Jack, who is also research director of the university’s Inamori International Center of Ethics and Excellence, said:

“When there’s a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd. 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.”

Joseph PriestleyJoseph Priestley (1733–1804), an English non-trinitarianism clergyman and chemist who wrote the controversial work History of the Corruptions of Christianity. He is credited with discovering oxygen. He also invented soda water.

Richard Boyatzis, distinguished university professor and professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve, said regarding religious versus scientific people:

“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.”

“Our studies confirmed that statistical relationship, but at the same time showed that people with faith are more prosocial and empathic.”



Empathy linked to religious faith

After carrying out a series of eight experiments, Prof. Jack and colleagues found that the more empathic people are, the more likely they are religious.

The authors say that finding may offer a new explanation for past studies that showed that women are more religious or spiritual than men – women have a stronger tendency towards empathic concern than their male counterparts.

The team found that atheists are more closely aligned with psychopaths – not killers, but the vast majority of psychopaths diagnosed as such – because of their lack of empathy for others.

Apart from Professors Jack and Boyatzis, the other authors of this paper were Scott Taylor, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Babson College, and Jared Friedman, a research assistant and recent graduate in Philosophy and Cognitive Science.

Stephen Hawking says there is no GodStephen Hawking said in 2014: “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation.”

The structure of the human brain

The study is based on the hypothesis that our brain has two opposing domains in constant tension.

In previous research, Prof. Jack’s Brain, Mind & Consciousness lab used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to show that the human brain has an analytical network of neurons that enable us to think critically, as well as a social network which gives us empathy.

When we are faced with an ethical dilemma or physical problem, our brains (if they are healthy) fire up the appropriate network while suppressing the other.

Prof. Jack said:

“Because of the tension between networks, pushing aside a naturalistic world view enables you to delve deeper into the social/emotional side.”

“And that may be the key to why beliefs in the supernatural exist throughout the history of cultures. It appeals to an essentially non-material way of understanding the world and our place in it.”

Regarding empathy, Mr. 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.”

100 Years of Nobel PrizesBaruch Aba Shalev wrote in his book ‘100 Years of Nobel Prizes’ that the vast majority of Nobel Prize winners from 1901 to 2000 believed in God. (Image: amazon.com)

Eight different experiments

The researchers carried out eight different experiments, each involving between 159 and 527 adults. Their aim was to examine the relationship between belief in a universal spirit or God with measures of moral concern and analytical thinking.

They found that consistently through all the eight experiments, the more religious the person, the more moral concern they showed. However, they did not establish any cause and effect.

The researchers found that both empathic concern and spiritual belief were positively associated with how often a person prayed, meditated or engaged in other religious or spiritual practices – but neither were predicted by church dinners or other social contact linked to religious affiliation.

Some researchers theorize that mentalizing – interpreting human behaviour in terms of intentional mental states such as purposes, needs or desires – has a positive association with belief. In this study the researchers found no such association.

Max PlanckMax Planck (1858–1947) a German theoretical physicist whose work on quantum theory won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918, once said: “It was not by accident that the greatest thinkers of all ages were deeply religious souls.”

As in other studies, the eight experiments showed that analytical thinking discourages acceptance of religious or spiritual beliefs.

However, the statistical analysis of data gathered and analysed from all eight experiments suggests that empathy is more important for religious belief than analytic thinking is for disbelief.

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

Prof. Boyatzis said:

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

Using both analytic and empathic networks

We are built to engage and explore using both networks, the authors wrote.

Prof. Jack said:

“Far from always conflicting with science, under the right circumstances religious belief may positively promote scientific creativity and insight.”

“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.”

Richard DawkingsRichard Dawkins, an English ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and writer, once said: “The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and towards atheism. Complex, statistically improbable things are by their nature more difficult to explain than simple, statistically probable things.”

The authors refer to the book 100 Years of Nobel Prizes, written by Baruch Aba Shalev, which found that of the 654 Nobel laureates from 1901 to 2000, almost 90% belonged to one of twenty-eight religions. The remaining 10.5% were either freethinkers, agnostics or atheists.

It is possible to be religious and a very good scientist, Prof. Jack explained. In fact, religious eminent scientists are the norm.

The authors agree with the New Atheists that suspension of analytical thinking – at the wrong moment – can be dangerous, and point to how religious differences have led to wars and persecutions throughout history.

Prof. Jack said:

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

Prof. Jack and colleagues suggest, however, that taking a carefully considered leap of religious faith appears to be an effective route for boosting emotional insight.

This study, like previous ones, found that overall, religious belief is linked to greater compassion, more social inclusiveness, and greater motivation to engage in pro-social actions.

Rules to avoid conflict

According to Prof. Jack, conflict can be avoided if we remember 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.”

The researchers plan to find out whether people who increase their empathy then become more spiritual or religious, or whether it is the other way round.

In an Abstract in the journal, the authors wrote:

“These findings challenge the theoretical view that religious and spiritual beliefs are linked to the perception of agency, and suggest that gender differences in religious belief can be explained by differences in moral concern.”

“These findings are consistent with the opposing domains hypothesis, according to which brain areas associated with moral concern and analytic thinking are in tension.”

Citation: Why Do You Believe in God? Relationships between Religious Belief, Analytic Thinking, Mentalizing and Moral Concern,” Anthony Ian Jack, Richard Eleftherios Boyatzis, Jared Parker Friedman and Scott Nolan Taylor. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0149989. 23 March 2016. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0149989.

Video – Science vs. Religion

In this Keele University video, Tom McLeish is joined by Coel Hellier, Professor of Astrophysics at Keele University. These eminent physicists, one a Christian, the other an atheist, launch a conversation where faith meets science.

19 Comments
  1. Rev. Kenneth M. says

    Those who chose to follow the laws of science do so at their peril.

  2. Ken Hutley says

    Dear ‘reverend’, you are a ‘funny’ man. Look further along the road and look around, the picture is much grander than you can imagine. Enjoy your journey. Another Ken

  3. Andy says

    Those who choose to ignore reality do so in pure ignorance dear Rev. Will your god save thousands of starving children in Africa tonight Rev ? NO – only humans can…

  4. Anonymous Fred says

    Rev. Ken is a perfect example of too much empathy network being used, at the cost of the analytical side of his brain. Too many times in our history, such people – too much empathic network or too much analytical network – have been in charge and caused endless suffering to humankind.

  5. Jose Carrasquillo says

    Other studies suggest we only use a portion of our brains ..Is that science or a divine Creator’s intentions so we don’t kill ourselves any quicker then we already are.. I’m with the Rev

  6. warptek says

    I almost read the headline “Belief in liberalism involves suppressing analytical part of brain and boosting empathy”. The headline is interchangeable, it may as well have been.

  7. warptek says

    And sadly enough, you’re here posting this blatant attempt at demeaning his faith instead of feeding a starving child.

  8. Andy says

    And faith claims to be the answer yet is fails in every aspect.. Surely the all powerful, all loving God of man would step up ? You know.. Care ? So blatant, Yes.. Obvious.. Yes.. Blatantly obvious … Yes… Truth.. Yes. Do you kind of understand where this is going ? NO.. So sadly you make the blatantly obvious comment that clearly undoes what it is that you choose to believe.. So answer the question – will God choose to feed the starving children in Africa tonight ???? Surely compared to creating the universe in such grand scale, feeding a few million children would be a mere non event compared to creating billions of stars in billions of galaxies.. In potentially billions of universes.. Do you feel blatant now I wonder ?

  9. Andy says

    So using just a percentage of our brain suggests a divine creator ? Please explain in more detail ? I would be interested to understand how you can even justify a correlation.. Please outline – I am so very interested,,,,,,, I want to understand..

  10. Andy says

    Before you even try to respond to my post.. Will your god save thousands of children starving right now in Africa ? Will he ? Answer this simple straight forward blatant question first warptek ?

  11. Andy says

    The headline is perfectly fine.. Interpretation is based on standing..

  12. Andy says

    Dear warptek – I will save you time.. Your god will not choose to save millions of starving children in Africa tonight.. WHY ? Either he does not care and has no interest – or he does not exist ? I wonder ?

  13. Wally says

    The studies which suggest we only use a portion of our brains are old and have been debunked. We use all our brain. Evolution doesn’t maintain body parts which aren’t used. Blind cave fish is a good example of this.

  14. LeStori says

    Yet you only have too have a quick look at world now and past to doubt this research as anything other than seriously flawed. Either that or empathy does not in itself lead to the outcomes we might expect.

  15. warptek says

    Andy, you’ve become completely unhinged. Please seek medical attention. I was baiting you. You clearly fell for the bait. I only did that in order to illustrate that atheists think they know all the answers but in fact don’t know jack shit about anything. No one, not even religionists can answer every question about God nor claim to know his mind, or even know whether he exists 100%. I’m willing to even admit that. But atheists on the other hand claim to know 100% he doe’s not exist. Proclaiming absolutes as if they themselves are omniscient like God. There is nothing to debate here. You are not a master of philosophy nor am I and further not even interested in changing your fact based opinion. Be ignorant in your absolute dogmatic beliefs while I continue to have an open mind and just leave it at that. This argument is nothing more about who has the last word. I don’t give 2_________ (fill in the blank).

  16. Andy says

    Probably unhinged.. Baited, likely. However, while religion in the form of collective worship is practiced in our schools and religion has a standing in our government then I will continue to be unhinged. I would rather be an unhinged atheist that an unrealistic agnostic. No I do not want the last word – I will however challenge religion when someone claims that the path of science puts them at peril. Why is it OK to take ‘a pop’ at science however when a scientist challenges it is not OK ? You can’t have it both ways.. Actually, in some eyes I suppose you can, depends on your perspective.

  17. Burt Hicks says

    Do you suppose He hasn’t made the same wrong assumptions you have? Obviously if YOU were God there would be no suffering in the world, because YOU would not have given the greatest gift to mankind: free will. YOU would insist that YOUR creation obeyed you without question every moment. Yep, we’d never have made it past Cain/Abel, let alone the Flood.

  18. Andy says

    Very astute to suggest we would not have made it past Cain/Abel and the flood – how can you make is past something that did not exist nor occur as transcribed by the Egyptian, sorry Christian Bible. If god is so powerful and all knowing – how could he incorrectly assume ? What makes the christian god any better than the thousands of other gods worshipped ? Other than the brutal way it was spread around the world..

  19. warptek says

    Well, clearly I cannot have a discussion with someone of your supreme intellect. I’m not worthy.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.