SSC Journal Club: Analytical Thinking Style And Religion

[Content warning: religious people might feel kind of like this objectifies them and treats them as weird phenomena to be explained away.]

A major theme of this blog is: why do people disagree so intractably? And what can we do about it? Yes, genetics is a big part of the answer, but how does that play out in real life? How do those genes exert their effects? Does it involve human-comprehensible ideas? And how do society’s beliefs shift over time?

Gervais and Norenzayan (from here on “G&N”) write about how Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief. They make some people take the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), a set of questions designed so that intuition gives the wrong answer and careful thought gives the right one. Then they ask those people a couple of questions about their religious beliefs (most simply, “do you believe in God?”). They find that people who do better on the CRT (ie people more prone to logical rather than intuitive thinking styles) are slightly less likely to be religious. In other words, religion is associated with intuitive thinking styles, atheism with logical thinking styles. I assume Richard Dawkins has tweeted triumphantly about this at some point.

Then they go on to do a couple of interventions which they think promote logical thinking styles. After each intervention, they find that people are more likely to downplay their religious beliefs. In other words, priming logical thought moves people away from religion.

If this seems fishy to you, it seemed fishy to the Reproducibility Project too. They ordered a big replication experiment to see if they could confirm G&N’s study. The relevant paper was just published on PLoS yesterday, and we can all predict what happened next. Let’s all join together in the Failed Replication Song:

Actually, it’s a little more interesting than this. Let’s look at in in more depth.

G&N bundled five different experiments into their original paper. Study 1 was the one I described above; make people take the CRT, elicit their religious beliefs, and see if there’s a correlation.

Study 2 “primed” people (n = 57) by making them look at one of two sculptures; either Rodin’s The Thinker, or a classical Greek sculpture of an athlete. Their theory was that looking at The Thinker would prime analytic thought, and they “proved” it in a pilot study where it improved performance on a syllogistic reasoning test. Then they deployed it on the question at hand; people who saw a picture of The Thinker were less likely to admit belief in God than people who saw the athlete sculpture, p = 0.03, with a respectable effect size of d = 0.6. Therefore, priming analytical thought decreases belief in God. There is no YouTube video that can express my opinion of this study, and I am not even going to try to find one.

Study 3 tried something similar. They made people (n = 93) unscramble words, (the example they give is “high the flies plane” to “the plane flies high”). Some of these words were things about logical thinking, like “analyze” and “ponder”. Again, this was supposed to prime logical thought. Again, they did a pilot study to confirm that it worked (or maybe just because all those sentences about planes flying high had primed their brain to think about pilots). Again, when they made subjects do it and then assess their religious beliefs, they admitted slightly less belief in God, p = 0.04, d = 0.44.

Study 4 was a replication of Study 3 with a larger and more diverse sample (n = 148) and broadly similar results.

Study 5 was another variation on the same theme. Previous studies had shown that hard-to-read fonts prime analytical thinking, probably because they require lots of cognitive effort and time, so you’re already activating effortful parts of your brain instead of just making a snap judgment. So they asked people to rate their beliefs in God using two questionnaires; one in an easy-to-read font and one in a hard-to-read font. The people who got the hard-to-read questionnaire reported less religious faith (p = 0.04, d = 0.3)

Medieval Bibles looking like this probably caused the Enlightenment

The Reproducibility Project effort completed replications of Study 1 (the direct CRT/religion correlation), and Study 2 (the sculpture prime).

Their replication of Study 1 used 383 people (they were aiming for 2.5x the size of the original study for statistical reasons I don’t entirely understand, but fell very slightly short). It was essentially negative; on two out of their three measures of religion, there was no significant rationality/atheism correlation, and on the third it was much smaller than the original study, so small it might as well not exist. They nevertheless declined to publish these results for two reasons. First, because they were a “conceptual” rather than “direct” replication; they switched from the CRT to a slightly different test of reasoning ability because everyone on Mechanical Turk already knew the CRT (!) Second, because “subsequent direct replications of this correlation have pretty conclusively shown that a weak negative correlation does exist between these two constructs”.

I am really confused by this second point. Everyone else has found that there’s a relationship between rationality and atheism, your replication attempt finds that there isn’t, so you decide not to publish the replication attempt? Some might call this the whole point of doing replication attempts. I know that Reproducibility Project are good people, so I am just going to assume I am hopelessly confused about something.

Then they move on to their replication of Study 2, the one that they did publish. This is the one with Rodin’s The Thinker. Once again, they used a sample 2.5x the size of the original, in this case 411 people. This time it was a “direct replication” with everything done exactly the same way as G&N (they used college students to solve the MTurk saturation problem). They found no effect of sculpture-viewing on religion, p = 0.38, h^2 = 0.001. Of note, and really cool, they confirmed the quality of their study by simultaneously testing the same sample for an effect they knew existed, and finding it at the level it was known to exist. They did a bunch of subgroup analyses and adjustments for confounders, and none of them did anything to recover the effect found in the original study.

The Reproducibility Project doesn’t get around to replicating studies 3, 4, or 5. But Studies 3 and 4 have been investigated by a different group in a slightly different context (CRT on liberal/conservative) and they find that the prime doesn’t even work; people who do the rational word scramble task don’t do better on the CRT. And the effect used in study 5 has been spectacularly falsified by sixteen different replication attempts – that is, hard-to-read fonts don’t even make you more rational at all, let alone make you less religious because of that increased rationality. Maybe it’s time for another Traditional Social Psychology Song:

So, why is this interesting? Seven bajillion vaguely similar priming-related studies have failed replication before. Now it’s seven bajillion and one. Can’t we just sing the relevant snarky songs and move on?

Probably. But my problem is that I keep trying to maintain these lines between studies where I know where they went wrong, and studies that seem like the sort of thing that shouldn’t go wrong. And when I see studies that I think shouldn’t go wrong, go wrong, I like to take a moment to be suitably worried.

My usual understanding of why these sorts of studies go wrong is a combination of overly complicated statistical analysis with too many degrees of freedom, unblinded experimenters subtly influencing people, and publication bias.

These studies don’t have overly complicated statistical analysis. They’re really simple. Do a randomized experiment, check your one variable of interest, do a t-test, done.

And these studies don’t have a lot of opportunity for unblinded experiments to subtly influence people. The whole thing was done online. That seriously dampens the opportunity for weird Clever Hans-style emotional cues to leak through.

That leaves publication bias. I said the original paper contained five different studies, but for our purposes that isn’t true. If you count the pilot studies, it actually included seven. A brief description of the two pilots, summarized from the supplement:

Pilot 1: 40 people see either The Thinker or the athlete sculpture, then are asked to solve a series of syllogisms where the intuitively correct answer is wrong. The people who saw The Thinker got more answers right, p less than 0.01, d = 0.9.

Pilot 2: 79 people unscramble either words relating to reasoning, or words not relating to reasoning. They are then asked the trick question “According to the Bible, how many of each kind of animal did Moses take on the Ark?” (I didn’t know this was an Official Scientific Trick Question when I wrote about Erica using it in Chapter 5 of Unsong). The people who unscramble rationality-related words are more likely to get the correct answer, p = 0.01.

So how do you get publication bias on seven different but related experiments performed in the same lab?

That is, if there’s a 5% chance of each experiment coming out positive by coincidence, then the chance of all of them coming out positive by coincidence at the same time is 0.05^7 = about one in a billion.

Yet the alternative – that these people performed a hundred-forty different experiments and reported the seven that worked – isn’t very plausible either. In particular, consider the two studies that combined a pilot with a main experiment. Unless there wasn’t even a pretense of doing anything other than milking noise, this had to be a single pilot study, followed by a single main experiment, with both of them being positive. And again, the chances of this happening by coincidence are really low.

So what happened? A commenter brings up that they used different measures of religious belief in each study, for unclear reasons. Is it possible that they used all three of their measures for everyone, and took whichever worked?

I’m not sure. And this has cemented something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately – a move from “this study’s probably not flawed because X” to “I should always be concerned that studies may be flawed, until they replicate consistently”. Probably there are some people who know enough statistics that all of these patterns make sense to them. But if you’re at my level, I would recommend against trying to play along at home.

Or as someone on Twitter (sorry, I lost the link) put it recently: “Peer review is a spam filter. Replication is science.”


There’s a loose end here which deserves some attention – the Reproducibility Project’s claim that “subsequent direct replications of this correlation have pretty conclusively shown that a weak negative correlation does exist between [reasoning ability and low religious belief]”.

I want to talk a little about these other studies. This is going to be kind of politically incorrect – it’s always sketchy to say science has proven that people only believe certain things because they’re irrational. So in order to keep tempers low and maintain the analytical frame of mind we need to deal with this logically, please stare at this picture of The Thinker for thirty seconds.

Done? Good. Pennycook et al (2016) does a meta-analysis of all the work in this area. He finds thirty-five different studies totaling over 15,000 subjects comparing CRT scores and religious beliefs. Thirty-one are positive. Two of the remaining four detected an effect of the same magnitude as everyone else, but didn’t have enough power to prove it significant.

The remaining two negative studies are delightful and deserve to be looked at separately.

McCutcheon et al’s is titled Is Analytic Thinking Related To Celebrity Worship And Disbelief In Religion?. Unsatisfied with just asserting that irrational people become religious, they expand the claim to add that they become the kind of person who’s really into celebrities. They do manage to find a modest link between irrationality and score on the “Celebrity Attitudes Scale”, but the previously-detected irrationality-religion link fails to show up. This is a little worrying because it’s a paper that got published on the strength of a separate finding (the celebrity one) and incidentally failed to find the religion link, which means it’s a rare example of something being publication-bias-proof.

The other one was Finley et al’s Revisiting the Relationship between Individual Differences in Analytic Thinking and Religious Belief: Evidence That Measurement Order Moderates Their Inverse Correlation. They find that if you measure rationality first and then ask about religion, more rational people are less religious, and theorize that doing well on rationality tests primes irreligion. But if you measure religion first and then ask about rationality, there’s no link. Among 410 people, those in the CRT-first condition produced a rationality-atheism correlation significant at p = 0.001; those in the religion-first condition got nothing, p = 0.60. I don’t see a direct comparison, and the difference between significant and nonsignificant isn’t necessarily itself significant, but just by eyeballing this is obviously a big deal. This is also worrying, because it’s another example of a study that found an exciting finding and so got published despite failure to replicate the result at issue.

But Pennycook responds by pointing out seven other studies in his meta-analysis that ask for religion before testing rationality yet still get the predicted effect. In fact, overall there is no noticeable difference between religion-first studies and rationality-first studies. Some others assess rationality and religion on different sittings, and still get the same results. Also, now it looks like priming doesn’t affect your religiosity or rationality. So Finley’s paper has to be wrong, which means it’s yet another example of strong p-values in a large sample size in the absence of any real effect.

At this point we’re left with 31 good studies finding an effect and 2 good studies not finding it. Most of them converge around an effect size of r = – 0.20. Pennycook does the usual tests for publication bias, and as usual doesn’t find it. I think at this point maybe we can conclude this is real?

A few other things worth looking at:

Is this effect true only in college students and mechanical Turkers? No. Browne et al look at 1053 elderly people’s CRT scores and religiosity, and find the effect at the same level as everyone else.

(they also find that women do much worse on the CRT than men. I looked to see whether this is a common finding, and indeed it is; in a sample of 3000 people taking a 3-question test, men average about 1.47 and women about 1.03, p < 0.0001. This remains true even when adjusting for intelligence and mathematical ability. I'm not sure why I've never seen any of the sex-differences crowd look into this seriously, but it sounds important. If you have a strong opinion about this, please stare at the above image of The Thinker for another thirty seconds before commenting)

Is this effect simply an artifact of IQ? After all, there’s some evidence that IQ increases irreligion, and CRT score correlates heavily with IQ (see eg this book review). This is the claim of Razmar & Reeve, who do a study that finds that indeed, it’s not that more rational people are less religious, it’s that smarter people are both more rational and less religious. But Pennycook responds with a boatload of research finding the opposite; the gist seems to be that both IQ and CRT are independently correlated with irreligion, but the CRT correlation is stronger than the IQ one. Trying to tease apart the effects of two quantities that are correlated at 0.7 sounds really hard and I am not surprised that people can’t figure this out very well.

(This paper brings up another interesting fact – on a lot of these tests, religious people take less time to solve problems, even when both sets of people get the right answer. This reminds us that high-CRT shouldn’t be considered strictly better than low-CRT in the same way that high-IQ is strictly better than low-IQ. It’s more like tradeoff between System 1 fast and heuristic-laden thinking, vs. System-2 slow and deliberative thinking. This tradeoff seems to exist, at different points in different people, regardless of their IQ.)

The paper says:

Importantly, the degree to which cognitive ability versus style are predictive of religiosity has theoretical consequences. As discussed by RR, a primary relation with cognitive ability is consistent with the idea that people naturally gravitate toward ideologies that match their level of cognitive complexity. Thus,according to this position, religious ideologies are less complex than secular ones, and, as a consequence, more likely to be held by less cognitively complex individuals. In contrast, a primary relation between cognitive style and religiosity is consistent with the idea that Type 2 processes are selectively activated by religious disbelievers to inhibit and override intuitive religious cognitions. Importantly, under this formulation, religious disbelief does not necessarily require a high level of cognitive ability



Overall my takeaway from reading some of this stuff is:

1. “Analytical cognitive style”, ie the slow logical methods of thinking that help you do well on the CRT, probably increases likelihood of being an atheist and decrease the likelihood of being religious, even independent of IQ with which it is highly correlated. The effect size seems pretty small.

2. IQ probably also increases likelihood being an atheist and decreases likelihood of being religious, even independent of CRT with which it is highly correlated. The effect size seems very small.

3. Openness To Experience probably has complicated effects that make people less fundamentalist but more spiritual.

4. These are all long-term trait effects. There’s no good evidence that “priming” analytical thinking style can make you more or less religious in that exact moment. Probably the effect size here is zero.

5. Gender differences on the CRT are higher than gender differences on almost any other test and this seems to be underexplored.

6. Just because a paper has relatively simple statistics that are hard to fake, doesn’t mean it’s likely to replicate.

7. Even given (6), just because a paper is an online survey with little room for experimenter effects, doesn’t mean it’s likely to replicate.

8. Even given (6) and (7), just because a paper has many different studies that all confirm the same effect, doesn’t mean it’s likely to replicate.

Extra bonus takeaway: I was too quick in dismissing the CRT’s ability to convey extra interesting knowledge beyond IQ, and I should look into it more and maybe get Stanovich’s book. Also, there’s some similar research on CRT and politics which I should probably look into, although I don’t even know how long I’m going to have to stare at that Thinker picture for that one.

Extra extra bonus takeaway: I should include CRT on next year’s SSC survey.

211 thoughts on “SSC Journal Club: Analytical Thinking Style And Religion

  1. Gareth Rees

    Table 2 of Gervais and Norenzayan shows an effect size (Cohen’s d) that decreases as the sample size increases. The smallest study (#2) has n=57 and d=0.59 while the largest study (#5) has n=179 and d=0.31. (For comparison, the attempted replication had n=941.) Put the four studies in a funnel plot and you’ll see a pattern that could be explained by publication bias.

    I don’t have any special insight into how Gervais and Norenzayan did it, but it is striking that they have three measures of religious belief and three interventions, but report carrying out only four of the nine possible study designs.

  2. Cold Black Mirror

    Religious believers come away, justifiably, with a black eye if we claim that our experience of God meets any reasonable person’s criteria for immediate acceptance. We’re on less shaky ground, and not necessarily doing the go/no-go referendum on God at all, when we postulate entire sets of questions which exist outside the problem domain of empirical verification. At least, with the tool sets we currently possess. Best case: as our powers of observation improve, whether through superior tech or superior insight, who knows what phenomena we will be observing in future? The entire question could go “tomato/tomAHto” before we are done.

    Rationalists do us a disservice when they imagine that they are only in dialogue with fundamentalists who believe that the world is 6000+ years old. “Inherit The Wind” is a great movie — we did the play in high school — but the religion on display is a straw man at best and an ill-conceived parody at worst. Not that it doesn’t exist (cough! Hillsboro).

    Persons who have done calculus, software engineering, physics (cf. Georges Lemaitre) understand the value and demands of hard empirical reasoning. The historical record provides excellent examples of those for whom this did not amount to a prima facie case for atheism.

    Rebuttals welcome, as they only do a service to the larger discussion.

  3. Alex Zavoluk

    Do any of these studies control for education level, or perhaps something that might help distinguish between Red Tribe/Blue Tribe more strongly? “Ability to do basic arithmetic” seems like a requirement for doing particularly well on the CRT, and adult religiosity is correlated very highly with what you were raised to believe.

    I also don’t tremendously trust priming studies in general, nor the idea that immediate short-term effects correspond to actual, real life effects.

    1. Deiseach

      “Ability to do basic arithmetic” seems like a requirement for doing particularly well on the CRT

      That’s me stuffed, so! While I’m perfectly happy to accept the correlation in my case, is it really so clear-cut that “not great at arithmetic” equates to “therefore irrational” for others?

  4. dingolover6969

    Oh hey, The Arrogant Sons of Bitches! Nice to see one of my niche interests represented here!

  5. amoeba

    It would be handy to have a link to the description of the replication attempt that was *not* published: – it took me some effort to find it.

    Also, I am not sure this can be described as the work of “The Reproducibility Project”. The Reproducibility Project was a specific project that ended up with a paper in Science in 2015 They used the framework to work on their project, and this reason-vs-religion-replication was hosted on too, but other than that it has a separate set of authors and is not connected to “The Reproducibility Project”, or I am missing something?

  6. vollinian

    Is it just me or does atheism kinda make you feel cynical and a bit insecure? Maybe even a tad bit depressed? (I’ve never been the furiously militant, yell-insults-at-believers type)

    To clarify, I didn’t de-convert from any religion. The issue of god has had my interest from when I was a young teenager, so the psychological development and all that self-development jazz maybe intensified such feelings (well they weren’t really strong anyways).

    I look at my religious friends then and now and appreciate their frequent appreciation for things and their thankfulness (though I disagree with who they’re thanking). The communty aspect of most religions is indeed quite convenient and welcoming to many people, and the sense of security and community (perhaps not built on something that is “true” but desired by many) is quite noncentralized among non-believers, if you catch my drift.

    1. Deiseach

      I think for some people atheism might, literally, save their lives (those suffering from scrupulosity who are in very intense ‘are you saved? do you know for sure? because if you’re not…’ denominations). For some more people, being happily, unreflectively atheist/non-religious is fine and normal and no big deal, that’s the way the world is nowadays. For some people, yes it may be about being obnoxious about how much smarter than the dumb sheeple you are 🙂

      Just as for some people, being religious is just ‘what one does’ but isn’t much more than skin-deep or cultural, or is a way of being obnoxious about how much smarter than the dumb sheeple you are.

      There probably are fewer “I’ve really thought seriously about this and investigated and I have to accept that I’m now atheist/religious” people out there than the majority, and for both of those sorts, there’s the ‘zeal of the convert’ about going around trying to convince everyone else that look, this is the way, no really!

    2. blacktrance

      Data point: I’m an atheist and my experience is the opposite. If anything, atheism is empowering because it doesn’t prescribe anything you’re supposed to do or any group you have to belong to.

      1. Error

        Can’t it be both? Decisions you can make for yourself are decisions you must make for yourself, and may be wrong. Moral freedom is a responsibility — sometimes a heavy one.

        1. blacktrance

          It’s more similar to choosing ice cream for yourself vs passing on the choice to somebody else. You’re more likely to end up with what you like if you do the former.

          1. Rosemary7391

            I’m not sure that’s a great comparison. There’s no way that my choice of ice cream will impact on you, even if you don’t want ice cream. There are many ways in which moral choices of one person will impact others, in both good and bad ways. You might get what you like, but it might not work out all that well for those around you!

          2. blacktrance

            Being an egoist, I don’t see the two as fundamentally different. The decision might be more important and more complicated if it involves others, but the basic choice procedure is the same as with ice cream.

  7. Plucky

    Full disclosure: I’m a Christian of a Calvinist bent, and also someone with a very analytical mental style (data analysis is my job)

    First, on the issue of ‘priming’, “no result” ought to be the proper one. For anyone even remotely analytical, you know whether or not you’re religious. Priming operates on beliefs and assumptions that are implicit and unexamined, or on instincts which are (normally) suppressed by conscious effort or education. That does not describe religious beliefs. Religious beliefs can be illogical, traditional, cultural, or insincere, but they are known and explicit. What’s the theory that would predict that ‘priming’ a ‘rationality’ association would expose or cause a genuine belief in atheism? That a signal designed to appeal to the sub-conscious would trigger an association between analytical rationality and atheism that the subject didn’t know he actually had? And that this would prompt the subject to all of a sudden “realize” that his conscious belief in religion was wrong but his subconscious belief that atheism was rational would get him to change his answer? There’s a lot of catch-22 going on in such a setup.

    For people so fully intuitive that their religious beliefs might be prime-able, the analytical style must be so foreign that ‘priming’ them by something that supposedly is associated with analytical thinking probably signals something else entirely to them, and probably no more than an expectation of how they are expected to answer. The only times priming might show up is when the priming changes the perceived social acceptability of an answer, i.e. that someone religious feels that they should deny it, or (more likely I’d guess) that someone secretly irreligious feels safe saying so.

    On the correlation of CRT/IQ to irreligion, I would not at all be surprised for it to hold up, but I think it’s largely a result of contemporary culture (which would naturally be mostly invariant across all the studies). There was a good 1200 years or so where practically everyone intelligent and analytical in the West went into theology. I’m not well-enough informed about the history of other religions and cultures to avoid glibness, but I would not be surprised to find analogous situations. Islam certainly has had its share of analytical types.

    If you are either analytical or intelligent, at some point (usually somewhere age 15-20) you come to the realization that you are different from most people on something as basic as the way you think, and naturally you think (with reasonable justification) that your mode of thought is superior. This time of life also tends to be the time of max egotism and max need to establish an independent identity. This “independent identity” is culturally dependent- the broader culture in general values and prizes uniqueness, self-definition, and being “different” over an explicit ideal to emulate. The concept of adolescent rebellion is so baked into our contemporary culture that we go to elaborate lengths constructing strawman-norms for teenagers to rebel against, precisely so that they can conform to expectations we actually have (It’s an odd sort of conformism we have). Contemporary society also, very, very much values intelligence (which is sensible given that intelligence is the single most economically valuable commodity in the world), and finding an effective way to signal your intelligence at the age of 17-18 is a challenge with life-altering stakes.

    In my experience (admittedly anecdotal), most atheists come into their atheism around this age, when it solves, for a certain kind of person, a number of psychological, social, and aspirational needs: It differentiates someone, in their own mind, from the majority of people around them who are both dumber and sloppier in their thought, most of whom are religious because (at least until perhaps very, very recently) most people are religious (We Christians don’t do ourselves any favors by emphasizing the emotional, experiential side to people of that age to to exclusion of more rigorous theology, so plenty of people never learn that the latter exists). They will inevitably find people similar to themselves, with whom they’ll form a clique (sometimes online) whose defining principle is “We are smarter than Them” (which will both be mostly true and entirely self-justifying), for which atheism becomes an easy shorthand. People have a remarkable ability to adapt their beliefs to their interests. For some, there’s the added frisson of rebelling against an actual norm instead of the strawman-variety. From there, it just becomes part of the atheist’s identity, which they themselves feel is intimately bound up in their self-conception as being both intelligent and rational. To me, that’s the tell- dispute the the natural, fundamental association, and plenty of atheists will respond as if you’ve attacked a sacred belief.

    This is a long way of saying that you can replicate the IQ/CRT studies all you want, and you’ll probably find a real, durable correlation. There are plenty of culture-specific incentives for intelligent, analytical people to adopt atheism today. In some professions irreligion has become so normative that to be religious carries a career-burdening stigma. But unless you can figure out how to structure such a test cross-culturally you won’t be able to differentiate the cultural incentives from anything intrinsic to rational thought. The test itself is inherently Western in conception because it presumes, even to atheists, a monotheistic conception. Try that test in other cultural contexts, non-western if possible, before reaching any sort of cross-cultural conclusions

    1. Mr. Breakfast

      Priming operates on beliefs and assumptions that are implicit and unexamined, or on instincts which are (normally) suppressed by conscious effort or education.

      I would quibble that priming purports to operate this way. Some theories in Social Psychology and Sociology depend on these hidden beliefs and assumptions, and researchers in those areas went looking for an experimental tool which would reveal such things. It is not settled that the “priming” approaches that they developed actually reveal hidden attitudes which the subject would hold independent of the priming.

    2. skef

      There was a good 1200 years or so where practically everyone intelligent and analytical in the West went into theology. I’m not well-enough informed about the history of other religions and cultures to avoid glibness, but I would not be surprised to find analogous situations. Islam certainly has had its share of analytical types.

      Medieval philosophy is still studied, and has enthusiasts, in contemporary philosophy departments in part because of how many of the questions explored in theological terms are more generally applicable. What was being “worked out” was often quite general.

      In that light, and given the culture of the time, it’s difficult to judge how many of those who “went into theology” were atheists.

  8. Rogelio Dalton

    If priming is real, then surely every website with a comments section should prominently feature a photo of Fred Rogers right above the reply box.

  9. ascientificchristian

    I would argue that the negative correlation of CRT and religiosity is caused by the presence of an underlying variable, and that the difficulty in replication is caused by the lack of appropriate controls for this underlying variable. And, I would suggest that tribal affiliation (such as living in an urban/rural setting, or identifying as Democrat or Republican, etc) is the relevant underlying causal variable.

    This hypothesis is mostly founded upon my own experience of being a highly religious person who has moved from a rural, Republican, religious environment to an urban, liberal, secular environment. Because I’m a strong Christian, I know other strong Christians in my current urban environment, and we’re mostly the sort of people that I would expect to score highly on a CRT. However, the religious folks in the rural area I moved from are mostly folks I would expect to score low on a CRT. Given there are more rural religious folks than urban religious folks, the negative correlation is produced. Furthermore, the religious folks I know in my current secular environment are very, very aware of the ways in which we’re abnormal, and it’s a common shared experience to have anxiety about depicting our religious views in a way that protects us from being ostracized by our tribe.

    Just to be clear: I don’t think the true underlying variable is rural v. urban; rather, that rural and religious are both markers of one tribal identity, and urban and secular are markers of another tribal identity. I’m not sure how one would go about controlling for these variables, but I won’t be surprised by troubles with replication until a way to control for tribe affiliation is put into common practice.

  10. Briefling

    Anybody else think the underlying populations are probably changing over time?

    Social media use has gone up massively over the last several years. That means the average person now gets lots of high-throughput stimulus, in a way that he didn’t used to.

    And it would make perfect sense to me if stimulus overload leads to a kind of “immunization” against priming effects.

  11. TomA

    None of this is surprising. Proclivity for religious belief is an ancient evolutionary trait. When our species evolved complex language skill, we acquired the ability to pass wisdom from generation-to-generation using words and repetition in order to reprogram the brain’s wetware. As we became more civilized, this methodology formalized as “religion” and it has persisted because it works. When our young become imbued with hard-earned wisdom at an early age, they significantly improve their survival prospects and robustness; hence the eventual genetic encoding.

    Advanced cognitive skill is a very recent phenomenon (and hence is a mutation from the norm). Memetic evolution moves very fast relative to it’s genetic progenitor, but it still takes time to make the transition.

    All of that said, we wouldn’t be where we are today if not for the mechanism of religion to enhance this process.

  12. John Schilling

    “They find that if you measure rationality first and then ask about religion, more rational people are less religious, and theorize that doing well on rationality tests primes irreligion. But if you measure religion first and then ask about rationality, there’s no link.”

    If the Lizardman Constant is understood to be mostly agreeableness among respondents, it may well be that asking rationality-type questions clues in the respondents that the person asking questions “wants” them to agree that religion is just a bunch of superstitious nonsense. I’d expect anyone in a secular-ish society to have encountered rationality and atheism in close enough company, often enough to skew responses at least a little bit in that direction, and we’re seeing a small effect.

    But then there are the studies that asked the religion questions first, and still found the linkage. Could still be some subtle prompting in the way they were asked, but we’d have to see the full question set and even then we’d mostly be reading tea leaves.

  13. Error

    Something I’d like to see: Rather than trying to correlate religiosity with rationality, try compartmentalization instead.

    If I’m reading the OP right, the effect size of analytical thinking styles on religiosity is really small. I don’t think that should be surprising, though — I think most people’s (non)-religious identification comes from social reasons, not logical ones. Belief as attire is the rule rather than the exception, even for atheists. To the extent that that’s true, one would expect the effects of rationality to be small — because it’s not being applied to the question at hand.

    Hypothesis: Religious belief requires compartmentalization, specifically the separation of beliefs about God from aliefs about how the world works. Atheism doesn’t. Prediction: Lack of compartmentalization will correlate with atheism more strongly than rationality does. Confidence: 75%. I feel like the effect size should be fairly large, but I don’t understand statistics enough to put a number on it.

    I don’t know if such an experiment has been done, and if it has, I don’t know if it’s been replicated. But it would be interesting.

    1. Protagoras

      Hmmm. I’m a philosopher at least partly because I’m an intellectual dilletante; I’m interested in many, many different things, and philosophy largely lets me get away with that, because it is almost always possible to connect almost anything to philosophy in some way. Which is to say I think philosophy rewards people for not compartmentalizing. And, of course, it’s well known that philosophers have a very high percentage of atheists, considerably higher than even among scientists or other well known atheist heavy groups. Would like to see more rigorous research, but I think there may be something to this theory.

  14. wintermute92

    I’m increasingly convinced that there’s a very specific failure pattern for this sort of topic, which we should be suspicious of no matter how bias-immune the actual study looks.

    Namely: lots of novel social psych results involve finding a robust correlation between two traits, then use some priming/modification technique to modify one, observe the other changing, and suggest that they’ve found something actionable and maybe causative.

    Over and over, we see that the initial correlation may or may not hold up, but the secondary result of short-term modification collapses completely. Virtually every priming failure, but also things like the growth mindset studies where a two-hour lesson in study habits appears to be the most powerful education breakthrough in history. Actually most educational patterns, as SMBC brilliantly lampooned with the comic about engineers disassembling blocks.

    The usual conclusion here seems to be that priming is dubious, which I suspect is true. But my second inclination is to see this and just scream Goodhart’s Law! at everyone. If you find a natural proxy for something (e.g. analytical thinkers are less religious), then modify that proxy (pushing religious people to act more analytical), you’ll probably just destroy its predictive value on the real trait it was correlated with. This should be a very common result, since there are so many non-causative metrics for things. But either by publication bias or study failures, we get this endless stream of failed-replication ‘causative’ results.

    I’m at the point where I disbelieve “X and Y correlate, prime X, modify Y” on reflex unless the evidence is incredible.

    1. the verbiage ecstatic

      I also have the intuition that “there’s a very specific failure pattern for this sort of topic, which we should be suspicious of no matter how bias-immune the actual study looks.”

      The way I would articulate it — which I think may be the same thing you are saying — is that a lot of social psychology studies don’t seem to actually be doing science. My understanding of “science” is: “why does X happen?” -> causal theory with predictive powers -> testable hypothesis -> experiment -> rejection / refinement of theory. I think if you ask a social psychologist, they would say that things like “priming”, “growth mindset”, etc. are the theories. But to me, they don’t sound like causal theories that answer a “why does X happen” question… they just sound like interesting phenomena. Whether or not priming is real or not (and I’d actually rather take an example of something that does replicate well, for the point I’m making), it doesn’t really explain anything; it might exist as a thing, but what’s the question that “priming” is the answer to?

      The metaphor that comes to mind is those funny color distortions you can get if you press on an LCD screen. Yes, if you press on it, you’ll see those colors, and they form regular, predictable patterns, and if you research them you can probably learn to make correct predictions about those patterns, and you can publish peer-reviewed papers with good P-values about those patterns. But if your goal is to understand how LCD screens work, or predict what they’ll display when you’re not pressing a finger on them, you could spend a lifetime studying those patterns and make no progress.

      Likewise, whether or not priming or growth mindset are real phenomena (I don’t have any more insight here than other regular SSC readers), I don’t think discovering things about them gets you closer to answering questions such as “how does the human mind work?” or more mundanely “is this student going to succeed in this class?” They just aren’t predictive theories about those questions. So, no matter how well-designed the research program is, it’s never going to make real breakthroughs… the best case outcome is we’ll have better vocabularies for describing some interesting patterns that occur when you press on the human mind in a certain way.

      1. HeelBearCub

        But if your goal is to understand how LCD screens work, or predict what they’ll display when you’re not pressing a finger on them, you could spend a lifetime studying those patterns and make no progress.

        This seems like a poor analogy, as the ripples produced when you touch an LCD screen are directly related to their fundamental nature.

  15. Wrong Species

    Have they ever done these rationality tests outside of WEIRD cultures? My guess is that the link between epistemically rationality and IQ is a lot weaker in cultures that don’t train you for it.

  16. Deiseach

    Yeah, looking at the title of the paper from Gervais (and that makes me think of Ricky Gervais who is vocally atheist) and Norenzayan – “Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief” – and reading what they actually did, I think they are overstating their position.

    A much better title would be “Analytic Thinking Is Associated With Religious Disbelief”, because they don’t seem to have measured religiosity before their analytic test question. I mean, if they measured religious belief/attitudes first, gave their subjects the analytic test, then measured their religious belief/attitudes afterwards, and found a change from “more to less religious”, then they could say “promotes” because that would have been a definite change. But that is more of a long-term study, isn’t it? Measure religiosity first, then over a period of a couple of weeks have the subjects regularly show up for analytic testing, then at the end re-measure religiosity and see if there was any change.

    The priming stuff is a different question and with all the questioning over “does priming work?” certainly isn’t helping the original study, where they assert “so we settled in our minds that analytical thinking reduces religious belief, then we primed people to think analytically and yep, the effect held up!” but the questions about priming mean we and they can’t know that they did what they claim they did: prime people to think analytically.

    Look at what they claim happened:

    In sum, a novel visual prime that triggers analytic thinking also encouraged disbelief in God

    How did they manage that?

    Study 2 used a visual priming paradigm in which a sample of Canadian undergraduates rated their belief in God (from 0 to 100) after being randomly assigned to view four images (samples provided in Fig. 1) of either artwork depicting a reflective thinking pose (Rodin’s The Thinker; N = 26) or control artwork matched for surface characteristics like color and posture (Discobolus of Myron; N = 31)

    And what happened after our young Canadians looked at either one of the two statues?

    In the present study, as hypothesized, viewing The Thinker significantly promoted religious disbelief [t(55) = 2.24, P = 0.03, Cohen’s d =0.60; Table 2].

    But how do we know that that is what happened? We don’t know what their religious beliefs were before they looked at the statues! It might be a huge coincidence* that the less religious Canadians got to see The Thinker! Unless you can say “A was more religious before, and less religious after, looking at a photo of The Thinker which is a priming tool to induce analytical thinking”, you can’t say “looking at this photo makes you more analytical and less religious”.

    *I agree that it would be one heck of a coincidence, and that something is going on, but I’m not convinced it’s as “a + b = c” as this study lays it out. Possibly Canadian university students are already selected to be less religious** than the general public, so you’re starting with a pool of test subjects who are already less inclined to religiosity (and may, despite all you say about not figuring out the test, have a notion that their professors are not likely to be too inclined to Bible-bashing themselves, so they’re giving the answers they think are acceptable – ‘yeah I’m not that big on religion, it’s okay I suppose, literal angels and devils? nah I don’t believe that stuff’).

    **If we accept “more educated/higher IQ = less religious” and “going to university = more educated/higher IQ”.

    1. DavidFriedman

      I agree that it would be one heck of a coincidence

      How big a coincidence it would be is what the p value is a measure of. P=.03 means that the probability of getting that strong a result by pure chance is .03.

      1. Deiseach

        I’d still like to see a selection of studies done over a wider range of populations than “university undergraduates”. As I said, I imagine that population already leans towards low religiosity, so you’re not starting from a neutral basis.

        It sounds as if something is going on with the priming pictures, but I’m hornswoggled if I can tell what. I can’t accept that “look at a picture of someone engaged in intellectual activity, do a test, take a survey and look, less religiously-inclined than someone who looked at a picture of someone engaged in physical activity, did the same test, took the same survey” is all that is going on, or that it’s that simple.

        Maybe it is, but as I said, I’d like to see this test jiggled about a bit: do the “how religious are you?” questionnaire first, take samples of different populations, etc.

  17. Jaskologist

    Regarding the Replication Crisis in general:

    I’m primed/biased to believe that social sciences are generally garbage, so my natural impulse is to believe it when studies come out saying that nothing replicates.

    Where I get stuck is that a social science study saying “social science studies fail to replicate 60% of the time” looks to me a lot like a study saying “I am lying.” Why should we believe the replication study? What makes it likely that this particular study is in the 40%?

  18. keranih

    Am I the only one who thinks these “priming with a photo” studies bear an uncomfortable resemblance to homeopathic treatments which create healing water by putting the water bottle overnight next to the Chinese pictograph for “peace”?

    1. Enkidum

      Well you’re obviously not the only one who is skeptical of priming, but there is a clear causal link in the photo case (or any other priming step) that there isn’t in the water one. That is, looking at pictures (or whatever) causes stuff to happen in your brain. Your later actions are caused by stuff happening in your brain. I assume both these claims are uncontroversial.

      The claim in the priming literature is that brain stuff of the first type influences brain stuff of the second type in ways that you are not consciously aware of. Which is certainly hard to prove, but I think in at least some cases we have established it very well.

  19. Dr Dealgood

    So how do you get publication bias on seven different but related experiments performed in the same lab?

    That is, if there’s a 5% chance of each experiment coming out positive by coincidence, then the chance of all of them coming out positive by coincidence at the same time is 0.05^7 = about one in a billion.

    Yet the alternative – that these people performed a hundred-forty different experiments and reported the seven that worked – isn’t very plausible either. In particular, consider the two studies that combined a pilot with a main experiment. Unless there wasn’t even a pretense of doing anything other than milking noise, this had to be a single pilot study, followed by a single main experiment, with both of them being positive. And again, the chances of this happening by coincidence are really low.

    I’m not a statistician, but from what I’ve seen firsthand this doesn’t feel right.

    Labs are constantly doing pilot studies, and I do mean constantly. Rotation students and technicians IME tend to get assigned projects which either involve trying to replicate an interesting result from the recent literature or finding preliminary evidence on a tentative hypothesis the PI had. Only a small fraction of these move forward to become publishable research.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if a social science lab, where the most expensive resource is researcher man hours and not reagents or equipment, could perform one hundred and forty such experiments over a few years.

  20. The Nybbler

    On the male/female difference between in the three problem test, I suspect the issue is familiarity. Trick questions involving doubling and “X producers in X time make X products” are pretty common in brainteaser-type books that boys are more likely to have read than girls. So instead of testing cognition vs intutition, the test ends up also being affected by whose intuition has been trained by similar problems.

    As to why boys are more likely to have been interested in brainteasers than girls… figure that out and you’ll be eternally lauded by one group and probably lynched by another.

      1. The Nybbler

        Done right, that’s a PhD thesis on its own I suspect. Certainly you’d want far more than 3 questions of various different sorts, to at least dilute familiarity with the particular patterns used. Avoiding (or at least balancing) gender-coded questions like the “bat and ball” one is probably a good idea, but I doubt it’s as significant as some make it out. If the problem is as I suggested, that men are more likely to have trained their intuition on the particular problems than women, that might be reduced by pre-testing your questions in a timed scenario; if people aren’t given time to think you might be able to weed out bad questions. Of course this is a lot of work and you can only use each study group once.

        1. ss4johnny

          I agree.

          I looked over the CRT questions and I didn’t think it would hold up in any rigorous fashion. That it is only three questions is a problem because you keep showing people the questions, then they might have seen them before. I had seen all these questions before (though the second one still tripped me up). What I would probably do is take traditional IQ test questions and then mix in some tricky ones randomly. I’m salivating over doing a multi-level item response analysis of it. You would then be able to test things like: if you do well on the tricky questions are you more or less likely to do well on the normal questions? How does this effect differ between men and women?

          In addition, they are all math questions. They might be measuring a gender aversion to tricky math questions, rather than what they think they are measuring.

    1. Deiseach

      Women do worse in the CRT test, women are known to be more religious – it all fits! 🙂

      I would definitely have done worse on the CRT test when I was younger, I did better now, but that’s because I know (now) that these are ‘trick’ or non-intuitive questions, so I need to think about them and not accept the first answer that springs to mind. My religious belief hasn’t really changed in the intervening years.

  21. Dan

    Ive been putting off reading Thinking Fast and Slow for a few years, but its creeping closer to the top of my pile. Should I just wait 10 years until the dust settles on this replication project or is it worth diving in with certain caveats (and what would they be?)? This is a serious question, not being flippant.

    1. keranih

      So long as you balanced it with readings on various other dual-process-thought theories, you’ll probably be fine.

      The two-phase thinking theory seems pretty robust, so they are likely onto something.

      1. Dan

        Thanks for the link – I actually think I had read that at some point and had been carrying it in the back of my mind.

  22. enkiv2

    Do we have information about the length of time each person is tested during these studies, and the variance between them — or the time of day when people took these tests? If the system 1 vs system 2 explanation is correct, then anything that could shift someone in favor of system 1 will skew results — including hunger, frustration, fatigue, and boredom. You would be less likely to find strong correlations due to this on mechanical turk since people are at home, performing tasks at a time they have chosen for comfort.

  23. mr_capybara

    I’ve never seen these sorts of experiments before (new to the whole “rationality” / SSC scene), but a priori they don’t pass the smell test. The whole post here discusses about how priming may or may not make people be less religious.

    However, speaking as someone who grew up quite devoutly Catholic but who is now an atheist, that’s not the sort of thing that gets primed away. If you truly do believe in God, you’ll just say that.

    So to me, these studies test whether priming may have an effect on people saying they’re religious. But in order to waffle about whether or not there’s a God, you almost have to not really be religious to begin with. If someone is religious, the priming won’t have any influence whatsoever. So if the goal is to see why those people are religious, this study doesn’t say anything about it.

    1. Loke

      These studies aren’t trying to test only for “devout” religious belief, though — but, I guess, something more like “openness to the idea of the supernatural” in general. The theory is that finding people who are kind of on the fence as to whether God exists, and determining what environmental variables make them lean one way or the other, might tell us something about the beliefs of people who are always firmly on one side or the other.

  24. Ignazio Ziano

    Pennycooket al. only use the Egger test to check for publication bias. However, there’s better techniques that can sniff out advanced p-hacking ( P-curve by Simonsohn et al: ; R-index by Schimmack the Egger test might not find out. BTW, the first thing I thought about when I saw the first study’s p-vals was p-hacking: given a”true effect”, the chance that those p-values appear like that (all between .01 and .05, with .03 and .04 especially suspicious) is pretty low.

  25. vollinian

    Someone please correct me, but did the “about” page and “top posts” page merge? The resulting page is reaally brief. I’m sorry I might have missed it before.

  26. radar

    I lurked on Less Wrong and here for a few years before I became a Christian. I guess I just don’t care as much about how smart I am anymore, whereas I used to implicitly consider that a strong part of my identity when I was an atheist.

    I wonder if that’s a factor in the results: are atheists more prone to consider the CRT important to their self-worth? Or do they consider the self-image of being smart or above average as more crucial?

    I’ve gained a lot more in my social skills in the past two years than in any other area. I used to be uncomfortable in a room with people I didn’t know, and now I greet everyone coming in the doors at our church.

    1. vollinian

      Whatever rational thinking skills you’ve read on LW or any criticism of religion certainly didn’t prevent you from becoming a Christian. As you’ve dauntlessly stated your religiosity, may I ask if the social/communitive aspect of churchgoing served as one of the major reasons you’ve became a Christian? As opposed to believing that a biblical God ontologically exists?

      Responding to you question about atheists, I think that it’s impossible to boil down the diverse group of non-believer to vane people. It’s pretty meaningless to ask whether they value being smart more.

      It’s the same kind of questions that ask whether feminists put their victimization first.

      1. radar

        It started out as a social thing, because my roommate was a youth pastor. But it’s not just that anymore. Even though I still go through periods of self-doubt and struggle, for me it’s a personal and living relationship with Jesus, not just something ontological.

        1. Enkidum

          As Scott says at the top, apologies for the treating-you-as-a-weird-objectness of this post…

          Presumably even if your religion isn’t just something ontological, it is nevertheless something ontological. That is, your main interest in your religiosity may be in terms of your personal relationship with Jesus, but nevertheless you do believe certain statements about God/Jesus/etc from the Bible or other sources are true claims. (E.g. the universe was created by God, Jesus is in some sense the son of God, he died in Palestine and his death gave us the possibility of redemption, etc.)

          And for someone like me, those ontological claims are always going to be the sticking point. I cannot imagine what it would take for me to view most of them as even coherent, never mind true.

          1. Mark

            ‘The opposite of faith is certainty’ – if belief means that we live as if something were true, rather than knowing with certainty that it is, then religiosity is a logical consequence of skepticism.

          2. Enkidum


            If by “religiosity” you mean believing in things that you do not have absolute 100% rock-solid proof for, then we’re all religious, as outside of logical/mathematical structures, we don’t have such proof of anything. If I’m religious for believing that the ground below me isn’t going to melt away when I step on it, then religion is a completely vacuous term.

            The point is that religious people believe specific things, to do with gods and the afterlife and the nature of existence and sin and so forth. Which are, from the perspective of an outsider, really weird, and without any kind of justification. Perhaps there are correspondingly weird things in my belief system, but if so I’d hope to find out about them and get rid of them.

          3. Mark

            I think ‘other minds’ are a good example of this – do we act as if other people have perceptions because (1) we have slam-dunk evidence/arguments that they do (2) we prefer to think that they do (3) because that’s the common sense explanation (limiting our skepticism).

            I should say that (2) is the reason why somewhat skeptical people believe in other minds (and when it is against their interest to believe in them, they often don’t.)

          4. Enkidum

            I’m genuinely having trouble to figure out what you’re arguing for here. Is the claim really that very few people are solipsists (or believe everyone else is a zombie, or whatever), therefore religious beliefs are sensible?

            A standard line against this is that you seem to have extraordinarily high standards for proof, and extraordinarily low standards for justification. That is, no, we don’t have “proof”, in some sense of the word, that other minds exist. But we don’t have “proof” in that sense of anything at all. (I’m also not sure why “other minds” are any better an example than “the floor isn’t about to melt away”, but that’s a side issue.)

            So I agree that we don’t have “proof” of other minds, or whatever example you choose to give. That does not mean that all beliefs are equally justified. I can believe all I want in Russel’s teapot, but such a belief should not be taken seriously.

          5. Mark

            So, where does the justification for a belief come from?

            I would say that the reason why we don’t take Russel’s teapot seriously is that it isn’t a very compelling story, emotionally.

          6. Enkidum

            Do you mean emotional compellingness is the justification for all beliefs, or just the justification for ones which we don’t have any evidence for?

            If you think it’s the former, then I don’t really know what I could say in response, other than “huh?”.

            If the latter, then… I guess I would say that emotional compellingness may be one of (or the main) reasons why we believe in things we have no evidence for. But this is a terrible reason, and we should try not to believe anything about such things.

            (And no, I don’t think the existence of other minds, or for that matter Russel’s teapot, qualifies as something about which we have no evidence for.)

          7. Luke the CIA Stooge

            In regards to other minds:

            0, 1, and infinite are the only numbers that require no justification. Given 1. Presumably to be concerned about the problems of other minds you have to believe at least one mind exists (yours) and 2. given you are quite unique (only observed mind in the universe) , then the mere observation that other humanoid lifeforms exists is not sufficiently strong evidence to prove that you are merely one of an potentially infinite number of minds in the multiverse.

            So it really does seem like a coin flip as to whether other minds exist or you are the only one with 2 (your belief in your own uniqueness) being the the deciding factor. (It’s hard to believe your a unique godlike individual when your cleaning toilets for a living)

            I always thought it would be quite hard to be super rich/successful and not be disturbed by the problem of other minds: like if your Donald Trump you not only have good philosophical evidence your mind might be the only one, but undeniable observed evidence that you are a unique case in the set of human life.

            What does one do when both the evidence and the philosophy both suggest that your completely alone?
            Worst no rich/successful people seem to think much about it so if you become rich/successful and you do think about it then you really have to consider you are a unique conciousness in the universe.
            Is it any wonder the Roman emperor’s went insane.

          8. Mark

            For us (in this culture), a belief cannot be appealing if it contradicts observed reality.

            But, there is an emotional element to all beliefs. Accordance with reality is a form of emotional appeal, not something entirely different.

            If belief is ‘living as if something were true’, then what does a belief in Russell’s teapot mean? Very little. What does belief in other minds, God, an afterlife mean? A lot.

            I think when you say we have evidence for other minds, you mean that the theory doesn’t contradict observed reality, and possibly for reasons of parsimony/aesthetics is to be preferred. I think you could make a similar claim about the apparent consistency of reality being better explained by an ‘overmind’, than by some unknown and unknowable non-mental thing.

          9. Enkidum

            @Mark, ok, we’re I think at the point that I thought this conversation was going from the start.

            You might be able to argue that there are good grounds for some sort of supernatural being about which we know (and can know) nothing at all other than that it created the universe. (I don’t actually buy that for a second, but for the sake of argument let’s suppose I do.)

            But any actual religion involves more than that. It involves believing that the particular rituals and books and so forth of that religion are somehow connected to that being. There are specific tenets of faith that go way, WAY, beyond purely abstract logical argument. The idea that the Bible is a special book, or that Mohammed is the last prophet, etc. That’s really what I was getting at in my initial post. Those are not the kind of beliefs that one can arrive at through pure reason, they are precisely the kind of truth claims that beg for empirical evidence. And they’re the ones that most immediately prevent me from being able to seriously consider religion.

          10. vollinian

            I think that people like radar (the original commentor) don’t start to go to church because they reasoned that the barbaric biblical God must ontologically exist, so the realm of philosophy doesn’t affect their choice that much.

            The church is more like a social club that gives them a sense of community and security, and they can identify strongly with this “tribe” (with other devout people performing small rituals like sunday masses).

            They don’t really think that there’s an old man in the sky who smites anyone he finds irritating. They will rationalize anything that comes their way because they don’t go to churches because of the common philosophical or theological certainty of a higher being that is arrived at through logic and logic alone.

            That’s why I argue that throwing reasons why a biblical God is ontologically unsound is not that useful.

            If their religious beliefs don’t interfere with say how they treat their psychiatric patients nor prompt them to self-detonate, and they are enjoying their community, should we bother reasoning them put of their “beliefs”?

          11. Winter Shaker


            I think that people like radar (the original commentor) don’t start to go to church because they reasoned that the barbaric biblical God must ontologically exist, so the realm of philosophy doesn’t affect their choice that much.

            I am rather fond of this hypothesis (though not a subscriber to the death-eaterism that that website is generally pushing) about how one comes to trade off a bit of one’s epistemic rationality if the deal being offered by a religious community is good enough that it makes instrumental-rationality sense to join it.

    2. vollinian

      @Winter Shaker

      Huh okay. Thanks for the link. What death-eaterism is the site pushing?

  27. Nancy Lebovitz

    I’m just tossing in something I liked a lot from Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler– a book about modern paganism. This is from an earlier edition, not the recent revised edition, and from memory. I don’t know whether it’s in the revised edition.

    She said that people with all the religious temperaments are being born all the time– monotheist, atheist, polytheist, mystic…. She didn’t offer an explanation. There may or may not have been a discussion about the ways culture makes it easier or harder to express one’s religious temperament.

    Temperament isn’t a complete explanation– there are people who change category, but I think it’s fairly rare. Letting Go of God by Julia Sweeney is interesting because she gradually deconverts herself from benign Catholicism to atheism. So far as I know, this is very unusual compared to people who change their belief because of having been mistreated by a religion or an irreligion. (I know someone who became religious at least in part because of having abusive atheist parents.)

    1. Protagoras

      I’m kind of interested in which patterns of change. I never had any problems with my church. I believed in Christian doctrines when I was a little kid, more or less because everybody knew they were true. As I grew older, I obviously started picking up on the fact that not everybody accepted them after all, and those who questioned them included some pretty smart people I respected. So I stopped accepting them unquestioningly. And as I learned more the doctrines came to seem increasingly silly, so I stopped believing them. I still rather like pretty much everyone from my church that I ever knew; at no point did hostility toward them enter into the picture. But that’s just my experience. I wonder what the actual percentages are of people who abandon a religion because of mistreatment, as you put it, vs. people who change for other reasons (I’ve heard of people changing for love, which I could imagine doing, but have been either fortunate or unfortunate, as you prefer, to not have yet been in a serious relationship with anyone devout).

    2. dariuou

      My retreat from religiosity has been very much about mistreatment. My best attempts to follow the teachings of my church led directly to the most miserable years of my life, I still haven’t recovered. My attempts to get over those years using the teachings of the church just made things worse, things started getting better when I got on Less Wrong and have continued to improve as I’ve been removing the tendrils of religion from my mind. There was even one time Bayes theorem helped through an existential crisis brought on by reading some of the words of the church leaders.

      Most of my siblings have left the church as well, there are six of us, one is still strong in the church, another is lukewarm, and the rest of us have pretty much left. I know that for most of us mistreatment has been the biggest factor.

      I have however tried to hold onto my spirituality. I always had a very strong personal relationship with god, and that felt separate from the teachings of the church. I’ve sometimes wondered if a big aspect of smarter people tending towards atheism is a lack of that feeling of having a personal relationship with god. Some of my friends I’ve talked to have mentioned that they have never felt any sort of connection to a higher power. Perhaps having a higher IQ is correlated with being less susceptible to religious experiences.

  28. Mark

    A few years ago I was asked the question:

    Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

    I could see which way other people had answered, and I could see that the majority of them were answering in a way that seemed wrong to me.

    So, in this situation, is it more rational for me to give *my* rational answer, or for me to consider the fact that the majority of people are answering in a different way, and that I might not be as good as them at thinking rationally (or that there might be more variance to my individual answer)?

    So, key questions:
    1) How good am I at thinking rationally in comparison to some group of people that I could just follow?
    2) Is there a danger that the group I’m following consists of many people just following?
    3) Is glorious intellectual failure preferable to drab, workmanlike, success?

    People who relish intellectual failure (3) reduce the danger of (2) and make following others (as in (1)), the correct decision for all but the most intelligent.

    So, if we live in a culture where some not-insiginifcant number of people like thinking, I would say that, on average, the most rational people would just spout the conventional wisdom (unless they can demonstrate extreme intelligence, in which case the conventional wisdom should spout them).

      1. Protagoras

        Yes. If Anne is married, then because she’s looking at George, a married person is looking at an unmarried person. If Anne is not married, then because Jack is looking at Anne, a married person is looking at an unmarried person. I am curious as to Mark’s reasoning.

      2. Mark

        The answer is Yes – you have to try and keep both pieces of information in mind at the same time, rather than thinking about them as separate statements.

        (BTW – I gave the same answer as you, apparently the majority of people tend to think there isn’t enough information, but the group of answerers I was looking at must have been highly skilled at this kind of problem, and gave the correct answer)

      3. JulieK

        Anne must be either married or unmarried.
        If she is married, a married person Anne) is looking at an unmarried person (George).
        If she is unmarried, a married person (Jack) is looking at an unmarried person (Anne).
        So the answer is yes.

      4. Rachael

        Thanks! *kicks self*

        I’ve been familiar with the gotcha questions about the cost of the bat and ball and the growth on the pond for as long as I can remember, so I have no idea whether I’d get them right or not if I met them for the first time. It’s interesting to encounter a similar but unfamiliar question.

      5. Deiseach

        I had to think about that a second, because at first I was thinking “We don’t have enough information because we don’t know if Anne is married or single”, but it doesn’t matter that we don’t know if Anne is married or single. Since there can only be two states (married or single), that cuts down the choices for Anne. (Divorced/widowed/separated/cohabiting – divorced/widowed may count as single, separated but not divorced/cohabiting even if not married may count as married).

        If Anne is single, then Jack (married) is looking at Anne (single) so a married person is looking at a single person. If Anne is married, then Anne (married) is looking at George (single), so a married person is looking at a single person.

        Therefore the answer to the question is “Yes, a married person is looking at a single person”.

      1. Deiseach

        The trick question isn’t much of a trick; there could be an alternate answer where Anthony and Cleopatra are humans and they died via suffocation using charcoal fumes, hence the broken bowl (it contained the burning charcoal).

        Any objections?

        “But that’s poisoning, we said they weren’t poisoned!” For the purposes of the trick question, “poisoning” will be considered to be taking a chemical or an overdose. If you expect to get away with your trick question on the assumption that Anthony and Cleopatra are humans, I expect to get away with the assumption about methods of poisoning.

        “Who broke the bowl?” I don’t know, perhaps the same dog who broke the bowl in the original trick question? (There was nothing about a dog in the question as stated). Perhaps one of them broke the bowl in their convulsions. If you get away with a mystery dog, I get away with my asphyxiation victim(s) having convulsions, which at least is a legitimate symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning, causing them to thrash about and knock over the bowl.

        Besides, suicide by charcoal is a more fitting Classical method for Anthony and Cleopatra than “pet goldfish whose bowl was knocked over by a dog” 🙂

  29. vollinian

    I’m not sure if this observation holds: comments that Scott has replied to tend to have a lot of comments too

    When a post is fresh out of the oven
    – is it that the comments Scott reply to are also considered interesting and worth replying to by other commentors?
    – or is it that Scott’s reply to a comment serves as an attraction for other commentors to reply?
    – if that’s so, is it to indicate that one’s interests align with Scott’s by also replying to the comment?

    When a post is already out for a while
    – is the intitial larger amount of replies to a comment going to attract more comments?
    – with more comments, is it that there are more exchanges of ideas and more content to respond to?
    – do commentors skim the comment section and comments that has Scott’s reply will be filtered out for replying?

    1. John Nerst

      – is the intitial larger amount of replies to a comment going to attract more comments?

      Maybe seeing that many people are already talking about a thing lowers the psychological threshold for diving in and participating? Being the first to respond to a long comment with multiple points implies a greater responsibility to carry the conversation.

      1. vollinian

        Hmm interesting. Do commentors indeed feel such responsibility?

        I think that the majority of comments aren’t long comments with multiple points. I’m not sure about that, but for the shorter, one-paragraph comments, the “psychological threshold” should’t be quite high.

        Or do longer comments with multiple points tend to receive more replies than shorter ones?

        1. John Nerst

          Don’t know. Maybe there is a half-counscious effect, when answering a long comment makes you feel like you’re “getting involved in something” and perhaps also that you need to match the effort level of the comment you’re responding to.

          My spontaneous thought is that most top-level comments are quite long but I may be wrong. Too lazy to find out.

  30. daniel

    Aren’t takeaways 6,7 & 8 over-generalizing from an almost single event?

    This is a single paper that has relatively simple statistics that are hard to fake, is an online survey with little room for experimenter effects, and has many different studies that all confirm the same effect which fails to replicate.

    This does not meant that most papers with all these features aren’t likely to replicate, just that they are somewhat less likely to replicate then we assumed before.

  31. Fossegrimen

    Almost related:
    Someone said something approximately like:

    Among the top 10% IQ people in the US, 99.5% are atheists
    Claiming belief in God is a prerequisite for being elected president of the USA
    Therefore it’s impossible for America to get a president who is both smart and honest.

    Anyone recognise the quote? I have a vague recollection it’s Michael Shermer, but possibly not.

    1. MawBTS

      Considering SSC’s last survey revealed its readership as 20% religious with an average IQ of 139 (99.5% percentile), I think that quote lacks a basis in reality as well as an author.

      1. suntzuanime

        Or we may just differentially attract the religious among the intelligent, the same way we attract the intelligent, the male, and the trans. Or the non-religious 80% could be dragging up the average IQ.

        Or yeah, the idea is bullshit and reflects bigotry, but we shouldn’t use statistics to say things they don’t actually say, even for a good cause.

        1. wintermute92

          Yeah, it’s worth remembering that the SSC survey crowd is hilariously inconsistent with almost any larger population.

          On one hand, I would expect the AI/cryogenics/STEM/Silicon Valley crowd here to be way more atheistic than average even for equal IQ.

          On the other hand, it’s a much more Jewish than average crowd (and I’m not sure without checking whether 20% religious includes practicing-but-non-theistic Jews). And, there’s a known pattern of AI/programmer types being weirdly wired into all kinds of religious/occult/mystic stuff from weird directions. Like, the only people I know who literally perform magic spells are Wiccans and programmers.

          So yeah, I wouldn’t give too much weight here without knowing whether the SSC crowd is more or less religious than average for this IQ window, but I still disbelieve the OP statistic on base rates.

        2. Deiseach

          Or the non-religious 80% could be dragging up the average IQ.

          Well, that would certainly save the appearances for the quote. We’ve got the smart and the honest and the religious on here, but the smart and honest are not religious, and the religious are not smart and honest 🙂

    2. Scott McGreal

      There was an interesting paper that contains a list of estimates of the IQ of the first 42 presidents; estimates were based on historiographical methods explained in the paper and there were four different estimates for each president. Estimates for each president had a wide range depending on which method was used, but one thing that was striking was that all 42 had above average IQs (even George W. Bush, who was at the lower end compared to most of the others, was still above average for the general population). This suggests that even though American presidents generally have been at least nominally religious, they have also been unusually intelligent, suggesting that they may buck the more general trend for highly intelligent people to be non-religious. This may be a selection effect: to become president one may have to belong to the subset of the population that is both highly intelligent and at least nominally religious. Interestingly, although presidents tend to be above average in intelligence, they tend to be lower than average in openness to experience according to this study. This runs contrary to the usual trend for highly intelligent people to also be high in openness. Again, I suspect that this is a selection effect: people who are high in openness may be less acceptable as candidates or be less interested in entering politics, but only highly intelligent candidates are likely to win office. However, within the 42 presidents, IQ and openness are positively correlated. Furthermore, both IQ and openness are positively associated with historians assessments of presidential greatness.

      1. vollinian

        First off, is estimating a President’s I.q. by looking at biographies at all reliable? It certainly seems fishy.

        Then for each President, an amalgum of his biographies is gone through by “several” independent judges (I assume not legal ones). Even more fishy.

        And then the estimates are taken from Cox (1926), which seems quite outdated.

        I apologize in advance for any relevant details that I’ve missed, but it certainly seems fishy.

    3. vollinian

      Speaking of the claim of belief in God being a prerequisite for being elected the president of the US, Obama and Trump indeed make the claim of such belief, but seem to be not particularly passionate about religion (unlike Bannon).

      Is the bar pushing lower and lower? And if Romney were elected, his mormon concept of “God” would be quite different than Bush’s, and different from Obama’s, so when they say “God Bless America” they are not exactly referring to the same heavenly father figure.

      1. Deiseach

        so when they say “God Bless America” they are not exactly referring to the same heavenly father figure

        I’m of the opinion that the “God” in “God bless America” is part of civic religion; Vague Deity Figure that can fit nicely into the Abrahamic faiths but not exclude (say) Hinduism or Buddhism (or Mormonism, if we want to start that fight). I mean, you could stretch a point and say that it’s invoking Father Zeus or even Dis Pater (“Originally a chthonic god of riches, fertile agricultural land, and underground mineral wealth”, so very appropriate in the context) as well! It’s nicely non-specific enough that each listener can insert their own view of the matter and imagine that their fellow Americans and their leaders all believe the same thing or are referring to the same entity in the same meaning, or at the very least “I believe in (a) god, you believe in (a) god”.

        Something like “Jesus Christ bless America” is much more specific and will get you into trouble over separation of church and state, establishment of religion, favouring one religion over another, etc., which is why it’ll be avoided wherever and whenever possible.

    4. Fossegrimen

      I was really more interested in provenance than veracity, and it’s definitely not my claim. (I’m neither flippant or funny enough to come up with that.)

      Of course if someone can come up with sources for both that would be splendid, because the statement has stuck with me and is rather annoying.

    5. Deiseach

      Nice smarmy patronising tone on behalf of the speaker – so the remaining 90% of the population, from those just outside the top 10% on down are too stupid to do anything? Sorry, Mr or Ms 11%, you may be honest but you just ain’t smart! Or if you are smart, then you are also a damn liar! This isn’t even taking into account anything about religion: someone who isn’t in the top 10% can’t be both smart and honest? So we should only be electing officials from the top 10% and everyone else who fails the IQ test are not eligible to run for anything?

      This is the kind of attitude that gets people punched in the face, and then they wander around asking “But why?” Or at least gets atheists the reputation of being smug douchebags, and it’s not religious bias at work: calling the other 90% of your fellow citizens (as good as) idiots and/or deceivers will not endear you to those not within the “I’m atheist so that makes me one of the top 10%” bunch.

    6. DavidFriedman

      According to a Pew poll, 3.1% of Americans are atheists. If that is correct, then the claimed fact is mathematically impossible.

      Also, I’ve known enough obviously high IQ religious people to see the claim as wildly implausible.

      1. Deiseach

        As I said, it’s not even that the religious should be particularly offended, it’s anyone outside “the top 10% of super-duper mega-enormous YUUUUGE brains!” Sorry, just not smart enough to run for president, or local government, or anything beyond operating the slurry tanker, even if you’re in the top 20% of “really smart and here’s my test results to prove it” 🙂

    7. John Schilling

      I think we have established that the claim is false, but that isn’t the question that was asked. Has anyone here seen that quote, or anything like it, in the wild?

      I’ve done a bit of googling, and it doesn’t seem to have been Michael Shermer – or if it was him, it didn’t make it to the internet in recognizable form.

      1. Deiseach

        Hmmm – that’s a real conundrum: do we want dumb and dishonest, or smart and dishonest? Dumb and dishonest might make a real mess of things, but would be found out. Smart and dishonest might keep things running nicely but it’s only when they’ve departed to spend more quality time with their Swiss bank account that we discover how much they’ve creamed off the top 🙂

  32. Steve Sailer

    “why do people disagree so intractably?”

    There are a lot of things that people don’t disagree all that much about — e.g., most people think it’s a good idea to eat and sleep during a typical day.

    But if it’s not fun to argue about them so we don’t pay that much attention to the fact that there is a lot of agreement upon them.

  33. vollinian

    I think the correlation between I.Q. and religiosity is related to the observation of that a lot of scientists and doctors believe in a “god”. At least in my country, it is really uncommon for a medical doctor and a lawyer to be avid church-goers. Atheists argue that they religious beliefs and the sciences are overlapping majesteria. How do these (I assume) smart people who are well educated in the sciences still believe in “god”, and reconcile the conflicting sets of beliefs, and sometimes it is the belief in belief?

    1. Enkidum

      Not sure what country you’re in, but there’s a pretty well-established relationship between being a scientist and not believing in god, generally speaking, and this gets stronger with more successful scientists.

      1. vollinian

        Yes I understand that the majority of scientists aren’t religious. What about doctors (not scientific scholars, I’ve only been able to observe medical doctors)?

        I apologize for framing scientists as part of the majority of churchgoers.

        1. Enkidum

          Actually I think I misunderstood your question, sorry. You were asking people who are both religious and scientifically-educated to explain how they reconciled their scientific and religious beliefs. Which is a perfectly fair question, and one which I can’t really comment on, because I’m not religious.

    2. Rosemary7391

      I can answer for myself; I won’t answer on behalf of other scientifically inclined churchgoers! I’m a christian and a physics PhD student. I get really baffled when folks think that science and christianity are incompatible. To me they’re better seen as orthogonal. Physics does an excellent job of describing how the world works. It doesn’t tell me why it exists. It certainly doesn’t give me any advice on dealing with people – however much I bribe them with cake, they tend to object to being modelled as spherical noninteracting people in a vacuum… This sort of view is going to be very dependent on the sort of religion though – undoubtedly some are harder to reconcile than others, even some flavours of christianity. i’m happy to answer more questions if folks have them.

      1. Aapje

        I’d say that science is incompatible with dogma. Basically, if there is only one acceptable answer, then you can predict the outcome of any research in advance.

        However, religious people don’t necessarily have dogma, especially not in every field of study; and there are plenty of non-religious people with dogma.

      2. Hitfoav


        This is my experience as well (as a psych grad and fan of science, as well as religionist). Science is a knowledge system about the material world. Although rationality and something like the scientific method are important and useful in determining one’s personal values, science in the more specific labcoats sense is generally a blunt instrument for “why”, and for understanding the human experience and doing the human thing better. As the thinker prime is a hilarious example of. For sure, my felt existential paradigm is going to be meaningfully altered by staring at a picture for 30s… Strange and miraculous thinking.

        Also, religion is most importantly something you do and live. It is not primarily about concepts, and certainly not a series of yes/no questions. Or rather, religion about concepts is usually a morally and intellectually brittle/rigid thing. But beliefs and concepts are more like the conceptual models of the hard sciences, which in their demonstrable success have become perhaps too widely the standard of knowing. (Insert Degrasse Tyson meme: “Some people say Happy mother’s day, but really your mother is just a complex assemblage of subatomic particles”, etc etc.)

        Great article. I laughed at every Thinker joke. Well played.

      1. vollinian

        No (I assume that you think I make the claim that churchgoing is class based), I’m curious about how churchgoers/believers who are educated in science get themselves to reconcile the contradicting majesteria of science and any religion.

        Though nationwise, there does seem to be a correlation between education levels and the percentage of atheists/agnostics, so developing countries like Afganistan is highly religious, and say the UK has more non-believers.

          1. vollinian

            Thing is, the extent of which one really believes in varies from person to person.

            Fundamentalists really believe in Noah’s arc and Adam and Eve as depicted in the Bible, while some (maybe yourself) think that religion explains the more spiritual side and “why”, while science doesn’t quite adress “why” but only offers materialistic explanations.

            For one, the creation myth and evolution by natural selection are contradiciting models. Then some say the creation myth is just a metaphor or something else.

            Then the age of the Earth is some 6000 years in the bible, which of course is blatantly untrue.

            Sickness and death aren’t curses or punishments for sins, they are not caused by any supernatural forces. When you’ve been struck by a car, I don’t suppose you would want a bystander to pray instead of calling the ambulance.

            When Occam’s razor is applied, a lot of religious beliefs will be cut off. The scientific method allows no unfalsifiable hypotheses like the God entity.

            Then, when a devout Christian couple’s newborn has bone cancer and dies, one might ask just why a omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent god can do such thing.

            (This isn’t from a scientific standpoint, as corrected by Randy M and Jaskologisy) Then the Bible is a hot mess. Examples:

            Kill Homosexuals
            “If a man lies with a male as with a women, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives.” (Leviticus 20:13 NAB)

            Death for Hitting Parents
            Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:15 NAB)

            Death for Adultery
            If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife, both the man and the woman must be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10 NLT)

            Foreskin collecting
            Wherefore David arose and went, he and his men, and slew of the Philistines two hundred men; and David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full tale to the king, that he might be the king’s son in law. And Saul gave him Michal his daughter to wife. (1 Samuel 18:27 King James Bible)

            I think you’ve seen atheist arguments before, but science and religious beliefs don’t quite go hand in hand.

            I see that you have quite a bit of knowledge about Christianity, I try to maintain an open mind, and I’m prepared to be enlightened.

          2. Randy M

            That’s an odd list for supporting that conclusion. I didn’t know “science” had a position on using enemy foreskins as a criteria for an princess’ suitors.

          3. Jaskologist

            About the only thing you list there which is related to science in any way is the creation myth. Lots of Christians get around that easily enough, as you say, by regarding it as a metaphor/myth.

            Everything you list below “the Bible is a hot mess” is well outside the purview of science.

          4. vollinian

            @Randy M
            The first few ones are examples of science disagreeing with religion (or the otherway around if you prefer)
            The bible quotes are not from a scientific stand point. Sorry that I framed it as such.

            Sorry too
            But the point about diseases is irrelevant?
            The age of the Earth is irrelevant?
            What about the scientific, empirical method not allowing unfalsifiable hypotheses?

            I say “science” as not just the pure sciences like physics, chemisry and biology, it’s more of an umbrella term covering formal logic, medicine and such. It’s a mistake of carelessness on my part.

            And the “creation myth is a metaphor” point is like a motte-and-bailey. It isn’t typically told as metaphors, but as a historical truth.

          5. Randy M

            But the point about diseases is irrelevant?

            Your point was that diseases have natural causes, therefore they can’t (as a general category or in specific examples) be divine agents? I don’t really think this contradicts even old testament biblical thinking–after all, the Assyrians and Babylonians that took Israelites into exiles had natural causes and yet the exile was seen as divine punishment. Similarly, if a person used, say, smallpox as a bioweapon, no one would say “well, that sickness has a natural cause, so it couldn’t have been intentional.” You might think that the additional explanation is unnecessary, not the most parsimonious explanation, but that doesn’t mean it quite fits a “science has disproven your superstition” list.

            The age of the earth is not in the bible. Calculating it as such is like taking a biography that described three years of a persons life in detail and assuming it purported to describe their entire life.

          6. Rosemary7391

            It may or may not help if people realise that the bible contains two slightly different creation stories.

            Some parts of what you list are explicitly contradicted in the new testament. They certainly don’t represent views that I commonly come across among christians I know – for instance, I was attending the wedding of two men just a couple of weeks ago, and there were many christians there fully participating and supporting their marriage. It’s probably worth remembering for many christians the bible is far from the only thing they use to inform their faith.

          7. DavidFriedman


            I don’t see how the prohibition of male homosexuality and adultery contradict science, as opposed to contradicting currently popular moral beliefs. And the foreskin collecting looks like a way of proving how many enemies have been killed–less volume than heads.

            The only real conflict is on the age of the Earth. Someone with a strict literalist attitude has the option of arguing that Earth was created complete with evidence of a past history, perhaps to test our faith. But I don’t think many do.

            The problem of explaining why innocents die is real and very old, but has nothing much to do with science.

          8. vollinian

            Indeed the quotes aren’t from a scientific standpoint. It has been pointed out by Randy M and Jaskologist, and it has been corrected.

            The creation myth, unfalsifiable hypothesis of God, germ theory of disease but not punishment for sins, are they not “real conflict”?

          9. Deiseach

            Sickness and death aren’t curses or punishments for sins, they are not caused by any supernatural forces.

            Then, when a devout Christian couple’s newborn has bone cancer and dies, one might ask just why a omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent god can do such thing.

            You’re contradicting yourself there, vollinian, or rather answering your own question: if sickness is not divine punishment, then God did not cause the child to die of bone cancer. On the other hand, if you are claiming that God struck the child with cancer, then sickness does have a supernatural cause. You can’t play “gotcha” with “heads I win, tails you lose”.

            And devoutness is no guarantee of “be good, keep all the rules, and nothing will ever go wrong in your life”. That’s the Prosperity Gospel and it’s pretty much heresy, not faith.

          10. vollinian


            I fail to see how that was self-contradictory.

            Sickness isn’t divine punishment is a point of disagreement between religious beliefs and medicine.

            A devout Christian couple’s newborn having bone cancer raises the question of why a divine being would do such thing. I take the stance that no all-benevolent and all-powerful god would do that. Cancer has no supernatural cause.

          11. DavidFriedman

            The creation myth, unfalsifiable hypothesis of God, germ theory of disease but not punishment for sins, are they not “real conflict”?

            The creation myth is a problem, but I don’t think the others are. Germ theory of disease can be seen as the mechanism by which God strikes people down.

          12. skef

            Germ theory of disease can be seen as the mechanism by which God strikes people down.

            This is accurate because “the germ theory of disease” is generally taken to refer to a particular degree of understanding stemming from a particular time. But it is inaccurate with respect to current understanding of germs even on the part of non-experts, which includes knowledge about germs replicate and are transported. A view that God influences who gets sick by tinkering with replication rates and compromising sanitary precautions isn’t much different from a view that God brains people with floating frying pans when no one happens to be looking.

          13. Jaskologist

            It is emphatically not a Christian teaching that sickness, as a rule, is the result of Divine punishment. It can occasionally be so, but is certainly not universally so. In the cases where it is, this is still not in conflict with germ theory. Germs would be the material cause, God’s will would be efficient cause.

            (If you’re fuzzy on that distinction, consider a pot of boiling water. Why is it boiling? Material cause: the temperature is above 100C. Efficient cause: I want tea.)

        1. Deiseach

          I’m curious about how churchgoers/believers who are educated in science get themselves to reconcile the contradicting majesteria of science and any religion.

          I have no problem with the Magisterium of the Church, because that has a definite meaning and is a technical, theological term.

          I have no problem with the ‘magisterium’ of science, because that was one scientific populariser’s attempt to invent a catchy term (by swiping a technical theological term and modifying it for his own purposes) and nobody really convincingly or consistently uses the notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” (or indeed refers to “the magisterium of science”) outside of his work, so there’s no conflict for me there because it’s like asking “how do I reconcile the contradiction between the Magisterium and the Disney officially licensed characters?”

          There isn’t one.

          1. vollinian

            I apologize as I didn’t know that before. I’m no student of theology and it’s the first time the use of the term has been corrected.

            That said, if you put aside the terminology, you will (I think) understand that my question asks how two conflicting things – religion (Christian beliefs in your case) and the sciences that are gathered using the scientific method accepted are simultaneously as truthful? If you catch my drift (please spare the whole “truth” definition thing).

            I see that you might know a thing or two about Christianity as a whole. I’m not here to win argument duels, I’m prepared to be enlightened.

  34. suntzuanime

    Something I often wonder about with priming: why do they do such weird indirect things with like pictures of statues and word jumbles, instead of just saying “hey, think about being rational for a second”? It’s not like they’re fooling anybody, right? Wouldn’t you expect the direct approach to be more effective? In a case like this, where priming is not the actual effect they’re studying, it doesn’t seem worth going through the trouble of setting up subtle effects to measure the subtle effects of subtle effects.

    1. Scott McGreal

      Actually there was a study (study 3 of this paper) in which participants were asked to think of either a time when they followed their intution/first instinct, or when they “carefully reasoned through a situation.” The results were in line with expectations: people in the reasoning condition reported lower god belief than those in the intuition condition. I don’t know if this has been replicated, but it seems more plausible than highly indirect methods like looking at a statue.

    2. Deiseach

      Pilot 1: 40 people see either The Thinker or the athlete sculpture, then are asked to solve a series of syllogisms where the intuitively correct answer is wrong. The people who saw The Thinker got more answers right, p less than 0.01, d = 0.9.

      Forget the religion angle, what the heck is going on here? Looking at an athletic statue makes your mind go to kicking a ball (or whatever your preferred sport is) and turns off the “how to figure stuff out” part of the brain?

      If there really is some kind of effect like that (a) what the what, how does it work? (b) so before every kid taking a test, from the age of seven onwards, goes into the exam hall you have them all stare for thirty seconds to a minute at a picture of The Thinker or some other suitably cerebral subject and they’ll do better in their tests, right?

      1. The Nybbler

        Perhaps the other way around: Looking at “The Thinker” (keeping in mind that most students will know the name of the statute) hints to the people that they need to do some thinking rather than make snap judgements.

      2. Ketil

        Perhaps it is more the level of “action” in those objects? Thinking about sports could put your brain more into System 1 mode, which would be more useful in that situation. But it’s not very convincing to me either.

      3. paranoidfunk

        Forget the religion angle, what the heck is going on here? Looking at an athletic statue makes your mind go to kicking a ball (or whatever your preferred sport is) and turns off the “how to figure stuff out” part of the brain?

        Right; these two – ie the Thinker and the athlete statue – don’t necessarily seem like polar opposites when proxying for their respective intended effects.

        I spacebar’d (real quick skim) through the supplement PDF, looking to find an image of the athlete sculpture, but I didn’t see it. What the sculpture is may have varying implications – eg if it’s a sculpture of a baseball player at bat, that signifies that one should use preconscious, rapid, intuitive thinking->action, right? Conversely, if the sculpture is of a golfer (slim chance?), then I would assume that invokes a more spatial, topological – and seemingly, deliberate – mindset; it takes some (arbitrary) numerical reasoning of sorts to know how much force to apply to the golf ball in order for it to go [x] feet. Indeed, it could be argued that this is “intuitive” as well.

        Some top-down processing is implicitly involved here regarding the effect of the athlete statue…although I’d like to see what it is. (Google isn’t helping, but I am kinda in a rush.)

        So, at a glance the two sculptures might have disparate effects on cognition. But I think that depends on some of your ideological priors, too, even if just negligibly; sports are the archetypal illustration of intuitive processes, but what if you’re particularly clumsy at them? In any event, I can’t think of any alternatives to use.

        EDIT: I re-read Scott’s post and saw they used a “classical Greek sculpture of an athlete”, so no golf, I guess. Maybe my thinking still has some merit?

        1. random832

          The abstract says “Discobolus”, which is a discus thrower (and might evoke bowling to modern minds?)

          1. random832

            Well, or discus throwing as a modern track-and-field event. I mentioned bowling because of the specific pose in the statue, not any similarity between the sports.

  35. Sniffnoy

    Done? Good. Pennycook et al (2016) does a meta-analysis of all the work in this area. He finds thirty-five different studies totaling over 15,000 subjects comparing CRT scores and religious beliefs. Thirty-one are positive.

    This bit confused me at first since I initially took “positive” to mean “finding a positive correlation”.

    Extra extra bonus takeaway: I should include CRT on next year’s SSC survey.

    A lot of people here will already know it, won’t they?

    1. Protagoras

      On people knowing the CRT, that was my thought as well. Scott seemed skeptical of the study that had that concern about Turkers; I think it was a reasonable thing to be concerned about in the case of Turkers, and absolutely a huge confound around here.

      1. drossbucket

        Agreed. It’s near the beginning of Thinking Fast and Slow, a book I would expect many SSC readers to have read. Also it’s really short and the questions are pretty memorable, so unlike a lot of psych tests you can’t forget the answers and take it again.

  36. Bram Cohen

    An n=1 story about smarter people working slower: There’s a cognitive test where you have to say which object on the right matches the one on the left, and they work by having a three-dimensional shape for which there are right and left handed versions. I’m unsurprisingly very good at this, but my times were very slow compared to average, even with some practice. After reading about it I came across the explanation that the amount of time it took people to answer the questions was proportional to the amount the image was rotate, at which point I realized that it was copies of the exact same image rotated and either mirror imaged or not, not re-renderings of the object in random orientations (this is typical of my cognition being extremely good at 3d while bizarrely bad at 2d). So I was solving a much harder problem which most people are probably completely hopeless at because I didn’t notice that the problem as presented was much easier.

  37. Andy B

    For what it’s worth. I sometimes identify myself to other people as theologically-inclined and sometimes identify myself to other people as a rationalist. Which identification I offer is heavily dependent on context even controlling for changes in my actual beliefs. In short, I can easily be “primed” to self-report more or less religiosity by many measures.

  38. jamii

    I’m gonna go with Manzi and ask why we’re assuming that these experiments *should* replicate. Especially when we’re talking about deeply cultural and subcultural traits like rationality and religion, I don’t see why we should expect any given finding to generalize across all populations. Even things like starting mechanical turk experiments in the morning vs in the evening might affect what kinds of people you get in your sample.

    That p-value calculation hides an assumption that the sample is uniform. I’d like to see if the CRT and religion test results at least show similar distributions across the various papers.

  39. drossbucket

    What do you think about the quality of the Cognitive Reflection Test itself? Based on my own experience with the test I’m somewhat sceptical that it distinguishes well between intuitive and analytical reasoning.

    For example, you can also see question 3 as testing whether you’ve already internalised the correct intuition about exponential growth. If you have, there’s not much analytical thinking required! So it becomes sort of a test of ‘is your mathematical background good enough to have made you internalise the idea of exponential growth’, rather than the kind of careful step-by-step reasoning they presumably want to test.

    1. Mr. Breakfast

      … So it becomes sort of a test of ‘is your mathematical background good enough to have made you internalise the idea of exponential growth’, rather than the kind of careful step-by-step reasoning they presumably want to test.

      I suspect that a lot of the value I derive from reading sci-fi / popularizations / insight porn (including SSC) is to rehearse concepts I understand rationally so as to add them to my internal heuristic library.

    2. Spookykou

      I think it mentions at some point that they control for, or account for, math skill which should deal with this issue.

  40. Rough and Toothless

    My sister-in-law says she is strongly irreligious. But thinks people who disagree with her politics do so because they are wicked and/or stupid, not mistaken. We get into arguments because she thinks guns are bad, as in made out of evil, whereas I think guns are made out of atoms that don’t have an ethical component inherent to their nature. I think she’s actually very religious, just not in a theistic way.

    1. John Nerst


      We’d do better if we saw religion less as a neatly circumscribed phenomenon and more like a particularly strong expression of a human tendency to reify socially and psychologically important abstract concepts. Like meaning, purpose, beauty, duty, authority, good and evil, reward and punishment, natural order etc.

      1. Enkidum

        Eh… this is refining the term out of a meaning. “Religion” and related words have always involved, to the vast majority of people, something to do with god/magic/the supernatural in general.

        Yes, there is a human tendency to reification. Yes, many aspects of religion probably stem from that tendency. That doesn’t mean that tendency is religion, any more than a field of wheat is a loaf of bread.

        1. Mr. Breakfast

          “Religion” and related words have always involved, to the vast majority of people, something to do with god/magic/the supernatural in general.

          I disagree. In all historical societies that come to mind prior to the Reformation, there was a single clerical caste which maintained ALL forms of formal knowledge. A typical ancient priesthood, be it the Sumerian cults or the medieval Catholic Church, would be responsible for ALL of the following:

          * Maintaining and transmitting supernatural mythology.
          * Maintaining and transmitting non-supernatural history.
          * Maintaining and extending natural sciences like astronomy.
          * Maintaining and extending mathematics.
          * Operating essential technologies like calculating the calendar, irrigation and flood control, etc.
          * Scholarship and administration of both civil and religious law (if such a distinction was recognized).
          * Formulating the society’s ethical philosophy.
          * Mediating the people’s relationship with the supernatural/divine.
          * Witnessing and intermediating contracts and keeping accounts, wills, etc.

          I like to look at Martin Luther’s posting of the Theses as a declaration of civil war between the two parallel hierarchies in the Church:
          a) A Monastic hierarchy centered in the universities based upon a division of authority into mimetic territories of different scholarly disciplines.
          b) A Pastoral hierarchy centered on the network of churches based upon a division of authority into ranked geographic territories of churches / diocese / archdiocese.

          In the process of rebellion and rise to it’s current ascendancy, the university-based mimetic hierarchy has taken the opportunity to jettison some of the less defensible baggage of the “old religion”, taking the law/science/math/medicine/ethics/banking and leaving the pastoral hierarchy holding the bag containing only mythology and supernatural phenomena.

          But in any society other than a post-Reformation Western one, “Religion” would have been the total domain of the clerical caste, and thereby the whole administrative apparatus and memeplex of the civilization.

          The advance of science in recent centuries has made it possible for people to have a comprehensive model of the universe without a Divine or supernatural element, but the modern “Secular Religion” does indeed administer the people’s understanding of the Cosmology and Natural Science which have replaced them.

          1. Enkidum

            I could quibble about some aspects of your post, but to get right to the heart of the issue: you specifically include references to the supernatural in your description of religion. If you had a society which included a group of people who do the all the sorts of things you talk about, except for the theological/supernatural/sacred/religious stuff, you wouldn’t call them priests, and you wouldn’t call the memeplex a religion. Or if you would, no one would understand you, because you’re using the word in a very strange way.

          2. Mr. Breakfast


            I put Luther as a representative of the Mimetic priesthood; scholarship was his actual occupation, while ordination as a priest (congruent with my thesis) was just a preliminary qualification for a scholarly career.

          3. Mr. Breakfast


            The memeplex is the religion; in pre-scientific societies, the memeplex (and therefor the religion) would usually include some supernatural elements. As these come to be replaced by natural explanations, it comes to pass that supernatural claims are no longer inherent in religion.

            Our contemporary distinction of “Science” versus “Religion” is an artifact of this schism in the Church and an element of Memist/Monastic propaganda: “Science” is whatever is currently defensible and/or proven and is the proper domain of the Monastic priesthood while “Religion” is whatever is unproven / dubious and the proper domain of the Pastoral priesthood.

          4. Enkidum

            OK, I suppose, but you have to recognize that virtually no living human will understand you if you use the terms that way?

          5. Mr. Breakfast

            OK, I suppose, but you have to recognize that virtually no living human will understand you if you use the terms that way?

            Sure, it’s not a definition I would use in general conversation. But I find it to be a useful framework for contextualizing and comparing intellectual movements across cultures and time periods, and for analyzing the behavior, attitudes, and preferences of modern academic / professional classes.

          6. Jaskologist

            @Mr. Breakfast,

            That seems backwards as a matter of history. Indulgences are what drove Luther over the edge, for specifically pastoral reasons (Tetzel was preying on his congregants, and leading them to believe that they no longer needed repentance).

            There were plenty of scholarly justifications for indulgences; it was their impact on the lives of parishioners which upset Luther.

          7. Mr. Breakfast

            @ Jaskologist:

            Pardon any errors, I claim no expertise in this subject.

            The abuses around indulgences were the immediate trigger for the 95 theses, but the context of that document implies that the practice of indulgence selling, authorized by the Papacy, was a legitimate subject of his own inquiry and critique:

            Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place.

            That scope of the spiritual authority of the Pope was in ML’s own competence to circumscribe:

            5. The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.

            That the power of lesser officials of the Pastoral hierarchy is likewise circumscribed:

            25. The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.

            26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.

            (this following several theses outlining the proper form and limits of “Intercession”)

            … and so on, basically making the case that the Papal authorities are failing to take proper care of the faithful and that he, an academic, is in a position to instruct them.

            It’s certainly not cut-and-dry that this is an intentional declaration of civil war, but I think they represent the kind of divergence in perceptions that we see in our contemporary culture wars where each side comes to hold subtly incompatible understandings of basic concepts which only come into open conflict when some unusual stimulus triggers dramatically different responses.

            Since at least the 13th century, Catholic scholars had been formalizing and reconciling Catholic theology, cannon law, natural law, logic, and ethics and had arrived at a sense of their own role as mimetic authorities in these areas. Meanwhile, the other Church hierarchy thinks of Church offices as basically feudal titles with the Pope as spiritual autocrat. Then, over a brief period of time the practice of indulgence selling explodes in prominence. What looks to half the Church like a legitimate application of their’ long established authority apeears to the other half like an irreligious mockery and betrayal of the faithful.


            An observer 500 years hence might read about contemporary US politics and see acrimony arising from a specific debate about Immigration, but what is in fact occurring is a cultural schism which is deep, complex, and has been building for a very long time.

          8. Jaskologist

            The posting of the Theses was the start of the Reformation only in retrospect; at the time, it was roughly the equivalent of posting something to the bulletin board for discussion. Luther was willing to use scholarly language when the context called for it, but he was also perfectly happy to call the pope a fart-ass when it served his purposes.

          9. Mr. Breakfast

            @ Jaskologist:

            I totally concede that that was not what Martin Luther thought of himself as doing.

            Really, I think it’s impossible to discuss big phenomenal categories like “Religion” in the abstract while at the same time respecting the face-value self-conception of the people who participate in it. If one is religious, then subjectively they don’t believe in “Religion”; they believe in “Reality”, right?

          10. Mary

            In all historical societies that come to mind prior to the Reformation, there was a single clerical caste which maintained ALL forms of formal knowledge.

            Was there?

            There certainly seem to have been a lot of societies where religious authority was plentifully invested in all sorts of non-clerical people, such as heads of households, or kings, or elected officials.

          11. Mr. Breakfast

            @ Mary

            Do kings or patriarchs or whoever generally hold authority over the doctrines of the religion though? By “Religious Authority” I did not mean “temporal authority endorsed by religion”, I meant “authority over the mimetic capital of the society”.

        2. Jaskologist

          Eh… this is refining the term out of a meaning. “Religion” and related words have always involved, to the vast majority of people, something to do with god/magic/the supernatural in general.

          Defining “religion” is a known problem in the study of it. But one thing generally agreed upon is that it is not limited to the supernatural. Buddhism is the classic example of a religion which does not necessarily have any supernatural components.

          As an amateur student of religion myself, and I find that the same tools and analyses that I would use there work just as well on, say, SJWs or feminists. I actually think associating religion with the supernatural is misleading, since people end up assuming that if there are no supernatural aspects to an ideology, it’ll be free of the less savory aspects of religion.

          My favorite definition is still “that which purports to answer the following 2 questions:
          1. What is wrong with the world?
          2. What are we to do about it?”

          1. Gazeboist

            I think a more correct pair of questions would be:

            1) What is the world like?
            2) How should a person live in the world?

            With special emphasis on the second question; answering the first is simply a prerequisite to answering the second.

          2. Mr. Breakfast

            Sorry to keep touting my own theories. If you extend those questions to include an exploration of their own context…

            1. What is wrong with the world?

            1′. What is the nature of the world?

            2. What are we to do about it?”

            2′. What things are we capable of doing?

            …and you are back to my definition (from above) of religion as the whole intellectual capital of a society, including its sciences, technology, philosophy, and civil law.

            Look at Torah + Talmud; it’s like a big weirdly organized repository of “here is all the stuff you need to know to implement and operate the late Jewish Commonwealth”. That is what you get when a clerical elite at the height of their institutional health and influence gets scared and decides to write down and organize everything that they know.

            If our contemporary professoriate and professional bureaucracy were to assemble a compact, indexed library of essential knowledge as a time capsule to escape the impending Trump-led Idiocracy-tinged intellectual apocalypse, you might end up with something similar. 2000 years later you might end up with subcultures that resemble the divisions of modern Rabbinic Judaism. Then some clever fellow could write a gently irreverent spoof of the tradition in the mold of Unsong, thus triggering the next cycle of civilizational collapse.

          3. Mr. Breakfast

            I think that’s a valid reformulation, but in practice everybody seems to agree that Something Is Not Right.

            Perhaps that is because the idea that “Religion” indicates a class of idea clearly distinct from those arising from other intellectual disciplines is itself a central mystery of the “Secular Religion” which we were all raised to believe in?

            What might it feel like to live in a society where, for example, Hindu Dharma was the actual best map of the universe available?

        3. John Nerst

          That doesn’t mean that tendency is religion.

          Didn’t say it was, only that religion is a particularly strong expression of it. We should se religion as continous with this tendency, not as a separate phenomenon. Likewise I consider viewing things like meaning/authority/good+evil etc. to be transcendentally real as a rudimentary form of “the supernatural”.

          1. Enkidum

            I dunno, it seems to me there’s a lot that is very distinct about religion that has virtually nothing to do with the tendency to reify. Rituals, for example.

            I’d also suggest, from Pascal Boyer, that over-personification is the root you want, not over-reification. But even there, there is more to religion than that.

          2. John Nerst

            Rituals, for example.

            Am I wrong in thinking that much of the justification behind performing rituals is some kind of “this is How Things Are Supposed To Be Done?” or a sense that one’s tribe’s traditions are something more than arbitrary actions? Sure, that’s stretching the meaning of “reify”, I grant you.

            What I’m after is a tendency to fuse social conventions and the abstractions that justify them with ontological reality and not be able to tell them apart.

          3. Jaskologist

            Rituals are not distinct to religion at all.

            Graduation ceremonies. Induction ceremonies. Wedding ceremonies. Basically anything with the word “ceremony.” Funerals. Inaugurations. Court Oaths. Shaking hands.

          4. John Nerst

            Right. Remember, rituals were brought up as a counterexample to reification being at the core of religion. I wasn’t the one to bring it up as a defining feature of religion, of course there are plenty of nonreligious rituals.

            But two things:

            1. Complete or partial reification doesn’t imply religion. Religion is only the strongest expression of reification.

            2. The kind of rituals we call religious have greater component of reification than nonreligious ones (citation needed), i.e. their ultimate arbitrariness and purely social function is more understood and accepted.

            There is a subjective feeling to reification as well. As in, some things feel real as opposed to arbitrary. When it comes to rituals and traditions I think consensus and common practice is what makes them feel real. A holiday only you celebrate feels “made up” in a way “real” holidays don’t. Note that I’m talking about normal-person feeling here, not ontological beliefs of the kind that philosopher-scientist types have. It feels a little spammish to link to the same article twice in a week, but it really is relevant: here is longer description of what I mean by the “realness” of traditions and rituals.

    2. Rosemary7391

      I’m what probably most of you would describe as “religious” – heavily involved in church, definitely believe in God, pray regularly and so on. But I hesitate to describe myself as religious for this reason – to me, doing things religiously means doing them because that’s how they’ve always been done, often without much thought or engagement. It implies a rigidity that I actively try to avoid in my faith. I think religion is too broad a concept to capture as one thing; specifically, I think there are ways of doing religion/God stuff/whatever that correlate and anticorrelate with the broad concept of rationality/analytic thinking.

    3. Garrett

      I’d point out that Ayn Rand described religion, environmentalism and socialism as the 3 major destroyers of men’s minds (in the gender-neutral sense). I think a more thorough investigation of that line of thinking would show that there’s no thing that can’t be taken to extreme to the point that people start figuratively having their brains melting out of their ears.

      The only thing truly made out of pure evil is Armus, and that merely results in bad television.

      1. Ketil

        Ironically, the Rand supporters I’ve stumbled across seemed very attached to her theories – religiously, I would say.

        Religion is a mixture of a lot of things. The desire for simple explanations of complex issues, the related desire for meaning in a meaningless and often cruel reality, a social phenomenon with a strong ingroup (and sometimes outgroups), a cultural identity (e.g. in many countries, being agnostic or atheist) isn’t even meaningful, and so on.

        The way I interpret these things, is that IQ measures ability to solve complex problems, while CRT measures the tendency to use this ability. There’s a third concept, something like mental flexibility or creativity, measured by tasks like inventing new and creative uses for ordinary items (using a barometer to construct a pendulum was one famous(?) example), which is probably diffferent from, but heavily correlated with the other two.

    4. manwhoisthursday

      You could be confusing two very different phenomena.

      She could just be high in B5 agreeableness, which is related to maternal behaviour, and we all know how protective mothers can be for to their infants.

      B5 conscientiousness (especially subtrait orderliness) is the personality factor most associated with religiousness. It’s not correlated in any way with agreeableness.

  41. P. George Stewart

    I think what’s wanting with these sorts of studies is more philosophy – either more philosophical thinking by the testers beforehand, or more interdisciplinary collaboration with philosophers.

    For example, “Do you believe in God?” Well, what God? You could say that someone who today believes in the God of the Bible (“that testy senior of Genesis”) along with the whole associated kit and kaboodle of Bronze Age proto-cosmology might be less rational; but can you really say that of someone who holds to the “God of the philosophers” that many of the most highly rational thinkers in history prior to the 20th century probably believed in? Or “Buddha Nature”? Or the Isvara of Advaita? That sort of thing alone could count for huge variations (even with just the Western parameters).

    Another factor that might be of importance would be to distinguish facility with symbol-shuffling from using logic concretely in everyday life – two variants of rationality. I’m thinking of the difference between people who are easily able to abstract the mathematical puzzle from the story of the guy who runs x miles to get a bus in whatever time, versus people who get hung up on why he was running for the bus when he could have called a taxi. Or again, think of the absent-minded professor who’s baffled by things like kettles and teapots – as Bertrand Russell admitted he was – versus the businessman who failed math, who’s yet able to keep a vast, complex operation in his head, with all its moving parts. I think the former would be more likely to be atheist, the latter religious, yet both highly rational in these different ways.

    Btw, that initial graph – I know it’s just an example – is shockingly tendentious. Is there no such thing as “Left-wing authoritarianism”? I suspect, given the well-known Left-wing bias of some parts of the academy, Left-wing bias probably has something to do with how these kinds of studies come out wonky too – one senses a degree of cheesy self-satisfaction seeping out of these things.

    I say all this as an atheist of the first kind myself. Obviously the Bible is rot. But I can’t find it in myself to be quite so cavalier about the Big Questions as to dismiss all possible God-talk out of hand as the ravings of a straw-chewing bumpkin.

    1. Tekhno

      @P.George Stewart

      Btw, that initial graph – I know it’s just an example – is shockingly tendentious. Is there no such thing as “Left-wing authoritarianism”? I suspect, given the well-known Left-wing bias of some parts of the academy, Left-wing bias probably has something to do with how these kinds of studies come out wonky too – one senses a degree of cheesy self-satisfaction seeping out of these things.

      Wiki sez

      1. P. George Stewart

        If the phrase “does not necessarily refer to politics”, then why on earth is a political term being used to refer to a psychological preference? I mean, other than to blur conservatism with authoritarianism, of course.

        It also falls in with the received wisdom about Fascism, which shoves down the memory hole the fact that Fascism was a development of the Left that used some Right-wing tropes.

        The reality is that the Left has always been plenty authoritarian in every one of its manifestations that gained total political power, and as we can see right down to today, elements of the Left are not averse to shutting down opinions they disagree with by force, or calling on the power of the State to shut down dissenting opinion. The “social justice warriors” who call for censorship on the internet, are classic examples of Left-wing authoritarians.

        No, I’m sorry, it’s a blatantly partisan, question-begging category if it’s just being plonked out there on its own without its counterpart. Right-wing authoritarianism is a thing, and yes, it’s about overly-strict obedience to traditional mores and beliefs; but Left-wing authoritarianism is also a thing, and it’s about overly-strict obedience to the dictates of grand, theoretical structures – to the “party line.”

        1. JulieK

          This shows that the terms “right” and “left” often have little predictive power and should be avoided.

      2. Tibor

        I find the wiki article a bit confusing. It acknowledges that authoritarianism is a thing on the left and that it is found in eastern Europe, i.e. post-communist countries (pretty much regardless of how you define eastern Europe). And this indeed matches my experience very well. The communist party is the most authoritarian of all Czech parties, whereas the social democrats are sort of split between a more “old school socialist” wing and a “progressive” one, the former being also relatively authoritarian. The neonazis (well, officially they’re called something like The Worker’s party or whatever) might be more authoritarian than the communists, hard to say, they (thankfully) never get even 1% support, so they have no representatives anywhere in the office. The communist parties have been banned in most other post-communist countries, so it is harder to compare.

        One example is very interesting, however – Eastern Germany. The eastern German communists continued for to exist for some time (I forgot what they called themselves) and they would get votes mostly from people who seem to vote the communists in the Czech republic – mostly older people with low education, some of whom actually had an easier life during communism (for example as a miner you were, relatively to the rest of the population, better off back then than now, not to mention that the artificially inflated heavy industry scaled down a lot since the end of communism and it is precisely these people’s jobs which were affected by that). But then the party merged with a radical west German left wing party (again, I forgot their name) and now they call themselves “Die Linke”, i.e. “The left”. They have shifted considerably from being old school socialist to being still hostile to capitalism but also adopting the usual “progressive left” ideas. Interestingly, at least some of their voters became supporters of the AfD – which is a new right wing conservative party. I sometimes read comments mostly written by the AfD supporters. They seem to be against “gender mainstreaming” (as they call it) and all sort of new left social ideas, but they also don’t like capitalism, they are against “neoliberalism”. They also often conflate those two – the elites are all greedy neoliberal capitalist thiefs who force the so called progressive liberal ideas onto the good and hardworking people. On a much smaller scale, I see the same with a similar, although much less successful Czech party which seems to be socially conservative (at least as much as the communists) and economically sort of centrist. They are also very much against immigration (ironically, the head of the party is a guy called Tomio Okamura who was born in Japan and is half Japanese, but anyway). The people who support that party again seem to have more or less the same profile as the communist voters, except that their age average might be slighly lower.

        All in all, these people fit very neatly into the “socially conservative, economically socialist” category which is at the bottom of the diamond graphs all libertarians like so much (because they are greedy capitalists who love nothing but money and diamonds!!!@#$#$). They also seem to care more about social conservatism than about economic questions, so they are flexible in their support of social conservative parties – they will support them if they’re left wing and they will support them if they’re right wing (economically). Thus, calling it “right-wing” authoritarianism is indeed misleading. I think the Danish Folkeparti is another example (although they are probably not as radical). They are socially conservative, but economically left of center. If I oversimplify, they say “social welfare, but only for good hard working Danish people!”. The social attitudes of the US and Canadian left seem to be represented best by the various Green Parties in Europe and to a varying degree by the social democrats, who however are also at least partially “old school socialist”. In fact, sometimes this tension between the “old” and “new” left causes their parties much harm (see the British Labour party).

      3. Mr. Breakfast

        Perhaps you can get a “Right-wing Authoritarianism” personality construct with no corresponding “Left-wing Authoritarianism” by drawing your definition of “Authoritarianism” in a way that is valid as a personality descriptor but which does not map to real-world political/social movements in the way that the “RWA” term implies.

        If you define “Authoritarianism” as something like “Advocating harsh methods of enforcement of laws and social norms”, then you might find far more Right-wingers than Left-wingers who fit your definition; “Getting tough on X” is kind of central to a lot of Right-wing programs, after all.

        Critics of RWA, then, recognize that harsh enforcement is present in Left-wing regimes and is implied by many Left-wing programs. But in general, Left-wing movements like to recruit based upon the attractiveness of their idealized outcomes not by a discussion of their methods. The goal of “reducing income inequality” implies some process of either appropriating value to some authority which will reallocate it, or of subordinating economic activity to some authority which will apply artificial incentives and regulations until the desired equality of income is achieved. The goal of “eliminating prejudice” implies some regime of mimetic control which can formulate and enforce permissible belief. In these and other cases, the Left’s assumptions about the mutability/perfectibility of human nature allow them to hypothesize radical social transformation without the explicitly admitting the necessary coercion, while history attests that Left-wing programs are quite often pursued by authoritarian means.

        So, the RWA critic can be correct that “Left-wing authoritarianism” is a common tendency of real-world political movements but be wrong that it is a personality attribute. This can be the case in so far as people are attracted to radical Left-wing politics because of an attraction to thoughts about (idealized) outcomes and/or an aversion to thinking about (practical) means.

        1. P. George Stewart

          Again, this is prejudging that Right-wingers like harsh enforcement methods for their own sake, not because they too have an ideal vision of society, which they think harsh methods are occasionally justified trying to attain, just like the Left.

          The position is symmetrical in terms of authoritarianism, no matter which way you slice it. The only difference, as I said, is the kinds of rules one is being authoritarian about: if you’re authoritarian about traditional norms, then you’re a Right-wing authoritarian, if you’re authoritarian about the rules you think will usher in Utopia, then you’re a Left-wing authoritarian.

          As Trotsky said: “In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle, who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.”

          Mild “liberals” just have a mild version of this (tut-tutting conformity to “social justice” ideas, and virtue signalling to ward off that disapproval), moderately militant people like Antifa have a moderately militant version of it, and the hardcore Commies and Trots have the hardcore version of it. Left-wing authoritarianism starts somewhere between the second and the third – while conformity spreads across all three.

          The Right equivalent spread would be tut-tutting conformity to tradition, as we’re familiar with from the umpteen million novels that were written about it in the 19th/20th century, moving through the more censorious kind of Right-wing activism, through to throwing gays off helicopters at the far Right end.

          1. Mr. Breakfast

            Again, this is prejudging that Right-wingers like harsh enforcement methods for their own sake, not because they too have an ideal vision of society, which they think harsh methods are occasionally justified trying to attain, just like the Left.

            Yes, I think there is a difference of kind between Right and Left.

            The Left and only the Left is trying to build a newer, better sort of society and/or a newer, better sort of human.

            The Right believes that we all ready know the best way to live, and people are just trying to shirk the hard work, discipline, and reverence for received truths which are required to make that ideal society work. If a Rightist admits the desirability of social change, they will do so only in the form of gradual Darwinian shaping by the environment, never as the sort of goal-directed engineering project the Left undertakes.

            The exception I guess is Hitler, but then I am one of those who would argue that Hitler was really a Left-winger.

          2. DavidFriedman

            If a Rightist admits the desirability of social change, they will do so only in the form of gradual Darwinian shaping by the environment,

            What about religious revivals? Don’t you count the people who support those as rightists? They are designed to create a large social change, and sometimes do.

            Consider the Great Awakening, or the Almoravids, or the Salafi.

          3. Mr. Breakfast

            What about religious revivals? Don’t you count the people who support those as rightists?

            I don’t know if I would consider religious revivalists to necessarily be rightists. For example, if a Christian revival is trying to promote egalitarian and anti-commercial values associated with the primitive Church in defiance of a sophisticated and wealthy secular culture, this seems like a Leftish program by common mainstream reckoning.

            But in so far as revivalists are Rightists and their goal is to roll back social change since whenever the “old religion” was practiced, I think I encompassed them in by description of Rightists:

            The Right believes that we all ready know the best way to live, and people are just trying to shirk the hard work, discipline, and reverence for received truths which are required to make that ideal society work.

          4. Nornagest

            if a Christian revival is trying to promote egalitarian and anti-commercial values […] this seems like a Leftish program by common mainstream reckoning. But in so far as revivalists are Rightists and their goal is to roll back social change since whenever the “old religion” was practiced…


            The Right believes that we all ready know the best way to live, and people are just trying to shirk the hard work, discipline, and reverence for received truths which are required to make that ideal society work.

            Lots of people on all sides of politics invoke mythical golden ages to bolster their arguments. Communitarian leftists often like to talk about classless hunter-gatherer societies, for example — the Marxist phrase for it is “primitive communism”, but plenty of leftists who are not Marxists have adopted the same basic concept. Commercialism almost always gets linked to modernity in this sort of analysis, too.

            On the other hand, there are plenty of novel religious movements which are profoundly anti-egalitarian but which aren’t fundamentalist in the sense of trying to recreate their (usually imagined) ideas of early religion. Usually these involve new revelations. Islam is one such. Mormonism is another.

          5. Mr. Breakfast

            But if we look far upthread to where I came from with this, I was proposing that the Left v. Right political dichotomy might not be fully reflected in personality tendencies.

            Imagine that the most common PUBLIC MESSAGING from Rightist movements is a claim of the following sort:

            “The solutions to social problems are simple, already commonly understood, and all that is needed is to stop making excuses and get tough on ourselves and others to toe the line and do the right things.”

            Imagine also that the most common public messaging of Leftist movements is more like:

            “Social problems are complex and their solutions are as varied as the individuals who experience them. It is not right to impose our morality on others; instead we should maintain an open mind and build a better world which will cherish and support all those who suffer in the current system.”

            So imagine that there are people running about with fully formed personalities that you might describe as “authoritarian” but who have no specific ideology; which of these political marketing campaigns do you think would appeal to them?

            Mind you, the niceness of the Left’s branding doesn’t mean that the regimes they establish to accomplish their vision aren’t brutal and authoritarian. It just means that the brutality is seen as incidental rather than having harsh discipline as a central part of the ideal.

            None of this really says anything about religion per se. David Friedman thinks I should count religious revivalists as Rightists in all cases, I disagree.

            To your example: Yes, Marx described an original state of Primitive Communism, but Marx did not advocate and Marxists do not aspire to recreate Primitive Communism. Ted Kaczynski’s very specific flavor of Anarcho-Primitivism is the only political ideology I have encountered that expresses moral outrage at people for not “living up to” the ideal of hunter-gathering.

        2. Tibor

          If you define “Authoritarianism” as something like “Advocating harsh methods of enforcement of laws and social norms”, then you might find far more Right-wingers than Left-wingers who fit your definition; “Getting tough on X” is kind of central to a lot of Right-wing programs, after all.

          Depends on the country. This might be true in the US, but European old style communists fit this description pretty well. They also fit other patterns – communist voters are much older and also less educated on average than others. I am specifically talking about post-communist countries (including the part of Germany that used to form the DDR, although now it is a bit less straightforward there – as I already wrote in another post here). To a lesser extent this is true of at least one wing of the Czech social democrats, although the party seems to be moving form the “old school socialist” to “modern progressive” left. Labour in the UK seems to also exhibit some of these patterns, although I know much less about them.

          1. Mr. Breakfast

            European old style communists fit this description pretty well. They also fit other patterns – communist voters are much older and also less educated on average than others.

            This just means to me that Communism in Europe has achieved the status of “The old tried-and-true ways of Our People”, at least for one segment of the population; that would make those people conservatives, no?

            Here’s a test; how do those old-guard Commies feel about mass migration and/or gender proliferation? For, or against?

      4. DavidFriedman

        People might be interested in my exchanges with Altemeyer on my blog, having to do with his “right wing authoritarianism” work. As I think I demonstrate, he first tests “authoritarianism” with a set of questions where the authority people are being asked about is always one more popular with the right, the cause for which people defy authority always one more popular with the left. He then concludes that authoritarianism correlates with right wing political views.

        1. cassander

          On the one hand, you’re shooting fish in a barrel. On the other, there are an awful lot of fish in that barrel in need of shooting….

          1. DavidFriedman

            What I found puzzling was Altemeyer’s response. The point I was making, once pointed out, seems obvious, so why doesn’t he see it?

            It’s tempting to conclude that he sees it, did it deliberately, and is unwilling to admit it. But if that is the case, why was he willing to argue with me on my blog?

          2. darius404

            “What I found puzzling was Altemeyer’s response. The point I was making, once pointed out, seems obvious, so why doesn’t he see it?”

            I haven’t read all of his comments on that page, but something I’m struck by as I read through is how he describes “leftwing” authorities (such as unions) in an amoral fashion. He sees submission to them as a cut-and-dried matter of practical benefits with little to no emotional or moral component. He only recognizes their authority in a mild and professional sense.

            I would suggest he doesn’t see your point as obvious because he doesn’t think submission to those authorities is “submission”, but merely a logical agreement based off of material interests or community well-being. He doesn’t think they actually hold a special place in the minds of “leftwing” people. Thus agreement with them is not considered to have any relation to authoritarianism.

            Meanwhile the entities he sees as being authorities are mostly those he considers “rightwing” in orientation. So to him it seems wholly natural that authoritarianism correlates with a “rightwing” orientation, because after all most authority figures are “rightwing”, aren’t they?

            It reminds me of the saying, “Reality has a liberal bias”. One of the things I’ve heard from the left about their recent electoral loss was the idea that their recent arguments relied too much on logic and cold hard facts, and didn’t include enough emotion. If someone doesn’t even clearly distinguish between emotional vs rational arguments and attitudes, I don’t think you can have a very meaningful dialogue with them.

          3. skef

            He sees submission to them as a cut-and-dried matter of practical benefits with little to no emotional or moral component. He only recognizes their authority in a mild and professional sense.

            In fairness (or at least ironically), the view that the ultimate goal of those on the left is just to get handouts for themselves is a fairly common critique from the right that is supposed to be differentiating.

        2. darius404

          Ha, since then there have been some studies which included “left” authority figures as well. As one might predict, a person’s political orientation predicted what sort of authorities they were liable to obey and which they were not.

          “Conservatives have the more positive moral views of obedience only when the authorities are conservative (e.g., commanding officers); liberals do when the authorities are liberal (e.g., environmentalists). The two camps agree about obeying ideologically neutral authorities (e.g., office managers). Obedience itself is not ideologically divisive.”

          Frimer, Gaucher, Schaefer

        3. P. George Stewart

          David, I know you’re a bit of a gamer yourself: check out the “perception of gamers” survey here for a set of shockingly loaded survey questions.

          It reminds me of Borges’ Chinese Encyclopedia entries. The Left wing bias of these people makes the questions come out as the equivalent of things like, “Do you believe left socks, and only left socks, should be trapezoidal?”

          No wonder they get wonky non-repicable results.

        4. manwhoisthursday

          Psychology grad student Christine Brophy, under the supervision of Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto, has found a definite set of left wing authoritarian traits:

          Basically, left wing authoritarians proper are high in B5 conscientiousnes (especially on subtrait orderliness) and high in B5 agreeableness, along with high B5 neuroticism and low IQ. They also tend to be unusually religious for the left. BTW, agreeableness usually tracks especially well with left wing economic views, though left wing authoritarians these days seem to be focusing more on social issues.

          Then regular high B5 agreeableness left liberals (who tend to be non-religious, reasonably smart and not especially neurotic) find it difficult to say no to these people because left liberals desperately need to see themselves and be seen by others as nice people on the side of the oppressed.


          Left wing authoritarians share high conscientiousness/orderliness (which is also associated with religiousness) with conservatives, but share high agreebleness with the rest of the left. They also tend to be mentally ill and none too smart, which helps explain the sheer ridiculousness of so many of their ideas.

          A lot of regular left liberals kind of know how dumb a lot of this PC stuff is, and will say so in private, but they can’t bring themselves to publicly oppose “the oppressed.”


          Though left wing authoritarians share high conscientiousness/orderliness with conservatives, they don’t share anything with libertarians. Libertarians tend to be low agreeableness and low conscientiousness/orderliness along with high openness and high IQ, which is just about completely the opposite of left wing authoritarians.

          The right of the political spectrum has in common a high tolerance for inequality, but different right wing groups get there via much different methods.


          It is important to distinguish left wing authoritarians from ordinary left liberals. So, none of this BS about left liberals generally being high in disgust sensitivity or high in respect for authority, and such.


          I’d imagine that a lot of left wing authoritarians in the past were commies or union types. Union people were often oddly socially conservative, if not outright racist.

    2. John Nerst

      Agreed on the God thing. I think psychologists (being intelligent scientist-types) might overestimate how neat, solid and carefully worked out most people’s views on philosophical/religious issues really are. I mean, changing your answers after priming means there’s hardly anything there to begin with. Or if there is, the questionaire isn’t measuring it with much reliability or validity.

      That’s an important thing to remember about this kind of correlational studies, they may say “X correlates with Y” but what they really mean is “this blunt and narrowly circumscribed operationalisation of X correlates with this blunt and narrowly circumscribed operationalisation of Y”. It’s a miracle anything comes out at all. Standards for what qualifies as a measure of a subtle psychological quality is often astoundingly low.

      (Half-related: I recently took a personality test of a standard variety for a job, and I wanted to answer “it entirely depends” to 90% of the questions. Of course what comes out is crap.).

      Likewise with the CRT (as drossbucket mentions further down). Using this as measure of rationality in general is highly suspect. For me I think it matters greatly that I’ve come across riddles just like these many times before when growing up – it selects for “being the kind of kid that likes brainteasers” as much as for rationality. I expect a different kind of rationality to matter more for religiousness. Less the “logic-puzzle” type and more the “valuing evidence and making inferences” type.

    3. vollinian

      I agree on you point about the ambiguity of the question – or rather the ambiguity the “yes” or “no” answer. I’m sure “belief in belief” is not unfamiliar to most readers of the blog. There are more ways how a person can believe in the notorious G.O.D. For one, self-identifying agnostics can reply “yes” or “no” depending on how much they lean towards hard agnosticism and a softer mind of disbelief. Also, borderline agnostics such as the more hesitent churchgoers or churchgoers who are mostly there for the social club aspect of community churches, will perhaps be more hesitant in answering “yes”. To a child, God may be a white dude with a white beard who zis parents and other adults address when mumling to themselves. The perception of the “god” entity (or energy to some New Age followers) is, as you have stated, a point of vast difference. But even when two people are referring to more or less, say, a Christian biblical God who is Jesus himself, they might believe in God to different extents. So collapsing the spectrum of belief/disbelief in “God” diminishes the value of the “yes/no” answers even more.

  42. neverargreat

    I find it fascinating (and quite accurate) that cognitive complexity maps onto belief/disbelief systems of similar levels of complexity. Since Atheists often use scientific ideas to ‘deconvert’ people, they would be most effective with people of high cognitive complexity. However, it is the case that some religions have more complex and cognitively taxing dogmas than others, and this is why people with very high IQ can become religious fundamentalists. They may find the complexity of dogma sufficiently stimulating and the simplicity (for them) of atheism to be uninteresting.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this, it’s just fun to think about.

    1. John Richards

      Fundamentalism is generally quite simple, as it is just the ne plus ultra of Biblical Literalism. The religious experience which tends to be more attractive to those of a high degree of education/curiosity/analytical mindset tends to work with allegory, striving for mystical experience, grounded in philosophy, etc. This would be the religious mind which seriously studies Origen over Pat Robinson, or Jack Caputo over John Piper.

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