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Religious and supernatural belief linked with poor understanding of the physical world

The number of people who claim to have “No religious belief” is fast-growing in America and Europe, but the number expressing religious belief is growing faster. What’s more, the irreligious category includes fans of astrology, tarot reading or the paranormal. The tenacity of supernatural belief has prompted scientists to try understand its basis, and so far their answers have mostly implied a defect in believers: the religious have a bias in their visual attention; people with supernatural belief fall for bullshit statements. Now, in a study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, comes the suggestion that believers struggle to understand the physical world. Marjaana Lindeman and Annika Svedholm-Häkkinen asked 258 Finnish participants to report their religious beliefs – that “there exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God” – as well as beliefs in paranormal phenomena like telepathy and precognition. Then they completed a series of online tests and questionnaires tapping their demographics and psychological traits. Consistent with past research, Lindeman and Svedholm-Häkkinen found that believers were more likely to be women, intuitive thinkers, and less likely to think analytically. The novel step was investigating the participants’ capabilities related to understanding the physical world. Although an aggregate of the participants’ school grades in physics and maths was unrelated to their supernatural beliefs, scores on another factor the researchers termed “physical capability” was inversely correlated with strength of belief in the supernatural. “Physical capability” was based on a host of measures: the ability to correctly match rotated images together, to solve mechanical and physics-based problems, scientific knowledge, and the tendency to attribute thought to entities we don’t normally see as thinking, termed mentality (“henkinen” in Finnish – a greater tendency meant lower physical capability). I’ll talk more about this last measure later. The authors interpreted their findings as saying that non-materialists focus more on thought, and less on the physical world. They added that “supernatural beliefs may thus reflect a broad, hyper-mentalistic cognitive phenotype, opposite to the hyper-mechanistic phenotype. Extreme forms of hyper-mechanistic phenotype can be found among individuals with Autism spectrum disorder.”

Read More: Big Think

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