Dual process cognition

Analytical thinking and religious disbelief: A Dawkinsian tale

Last week Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, out-spoken atheist, and author of The God Geneannounced his support for British education secretary Michael Gove's proposal to put a King James Bible in every state school in the UK. Dawkins stated that, "I have heard the cynically misanthropic opinion that, without the Bible as a moral compass, people would have no restraint against murder, theft and mayhem. The surest way to disabuse yourself of this pernicious falsehood is to read the Bible itself."

Dawkins' tongue-in-cheek support for the measure highlights his proselytism of critical thinking over blind acceptance of the scriptures. This more rational and methodical type of thought is affectionately known as "System 2" in the neuroeconomics and decision-making literature, and a new study published last month in the journal Science suggests that Dawkins, as an atheist, is not alone in his analytical thinking habits. The other mode of thought, System 1, relies more on instincts and heuristics (quick decision-making tools based on past experiences), and is thought to underlie much of an individual's conviction in religious beliefs. The stories that make up the dogma of organized religion often require acceptance of supernatural processes that are difficult to rationalize, such as immaculate conception or resurrection. These leaps of faith require a reliance on intuition over analytical rationalization, and as such individuals with strong religious beliefs are thought to have a greater activation of System 1, whereas disbelievers engage System 2 more frequently.