Is Belief in God Magical Thinking?

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On Huff post there is an article by Matthew Hutson, author of The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking. The article is called "All Paths Lead to Magical Thinking." (Posted: 09/19/2013 8:32 pm).

In recent years, psychologists have come to understand religion and paranormal belief as resulting, in most people, from simple errors in reasoning. You believe in God or astrology or a purpose in life because you apply ideas about people -- that they have thoughts and intentions -- to the natural world. Some display this tendency more than others, but it's there in everyone, even atheistic heathens like me. What has not been clarified is exactly how the various cognitive biases interact to produce specific ideas about the supernatural -- until now.

He presents a tour de force in the form of a bunch of studies that supposedly prove that religious belief is magical thinking. "In the November 2013 issue of Cognition, Aiyana Willard and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia report on the relative influence of three cognitive tendencies on three types of supernatural belief, as well as the role of cultural influence." This study supposedly shows that "cognitive biases explain religious belief."
 several studies show that people who think more intuitively are also more susceptible to magical thinking. One intuition that's been proposed as a foundation for religious thought is Cartesian mind-body dualism, the idea that a mind can exist independently of a body. (See chapter 5 of my book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, "The Soul Lives On.") This proposition allows for souls, ghosts, spirits, and gods, all made of disembodied mind-stuff. Explanations for dualism include belief in free will and the mutual inhibition of brain areas responsible for pondering feelings and physics.
Of cousre that doesn't say that any of these studies show that religious belief is magical thinking. Instead they present a possibility based upon the notion that more intuitive people are susceptible   to magical thinking. So that says "if you are not careful you  might do some magical thinking." Nor is a link provided between being more intuitive and religious belief. Although I would not doubt that believers are more intuitive, but the lack of prevision of that link is telling.

There just brings up a bait and switch that the Aiyana and Norenzayan study is pulling off. They discuss their methodology:

We used a path model to assess the extent to which several interacting cognitive tendencies, namely mentalizing, mind body dualism, teleological thinking, and anthropomorphism, as well as cultural exposure to religion, predict belief in God, paranormal beliefs and belief in life’s purpose. Our model, based on two independent samples (N = 492 and N = 920) found that the previously known relationship between mentalizing and belief is mediated by individual differences in dualism, and to a lesser extent by teleological thinking. Anthropomorphism was unrelated to religious belief, but was related to paranormal belief. Cultural exposure to religion (mostly Christianity) was negatively related to anthropomorphism, and was unrelated to any of the other cognitive tendencies. These patterns were robust for both men and women, and across at least two ethnic identifications. The data were most consistent with a path model suggesting that mentalizing comes first, which leads to dualism and teleology, which in turn lead to religious, paranormal, and life’s-purpose beliefs. Alternative theoretical models were tested but did not find empirical support.
Notice that anthropomorphism is not linked to religoius beilef but they are going to use it anyway because it's involved in belief. In fact all of these things are descriptions of various overlapping historical artifacts form religious thought because it goes back so far in human history. Most of them have not been disproved, none of them are magical thinking. What's the link bewteen teleology and magical thinking? Teleology means an end goal,  so religious thinking is teleological if and only if it assumes there's a creator who has a plan that's being fulfilled. Why is that in itself magical thinking? It's just logical if there is a creator. Has teleological thinking been proved to always be wrong? No, of course not and it's logical if there is a creator. So actually they are just begging the question. They are assuming there can't be a creator so therefore anything connected with belief must also be connected with magical thinking. This probably goes back to the biases of anti-clerical prejudice, that religion is superstition. So they start with the assumption religious beilef must be magical thinking because it's superstition, thus they just look for typical aspects of religious thought (many of which are connected to ancinet religious texts) and assume it's all magical thinking. No psychological link is provided that proves that teleological thinking is magical thinking.

When he says "several studies" he links back to his own website for the book 7 Laws of Magical Thinking (he uses the number 7 rather than writing "seven" seems infantile). So his article is just a rehash of his website. What are these studies what do they really show? Those are the ones that supposedly show that intuitive thinkers are apt to be suckers for magical thinking if they are not careful, but does it access the percentage of the time that they are not careful? Can't we still check the results by our own logic and empirical data?

One such satment in disclosing these "several studies:"

Psychologists who study the origins of religion say belief in God relies on several intuitions, including a teleological bias (the assumption that certain objects or event were designed intentionally) and Cartesian dualism (the belief that mind can exist independently of the body). So to become an atheist one must second-guess these automatic ways of thinking. And recently a number of studies have supported the idea that belief in God is influenced by cognitive style–how much of a second-guesser you are.
Why is teleology "intuitive" any more than it is logical? If God is what you believe in then is it not logical to assume God has a purpose in crating? it's not prove that necessarily intuitive. Not that they link intuitive thinking with magical thinking. His comment about Cartsteian thinking is ironic since major aspects of atheist thinking is also based upon Cartesian thinking. E.O. Wilson's world view is largley Cartesian and he produced evolutionary psychology which is important to atheist thinking.

One such  study: paper published last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Amitai Shenhav studuents took cognitive reflection test and answered questions. This is so telling he says "The number of intuitive (incorrect) responses they gave on the CRT was correlated with their belief in God and immortal souls," so in other words intuitive means "wrong." How could one possibly study the validity of intuitive thinking when one defines it as "wrong form the outset? Moreover, they are judging it wrong because it's connected to God, is that not also what makes it "intuitive?" They are just running around in circles demanding that what they believe has to be true and using their baises as the basis for proof. When we look at the actual tests on the study (see link above) we find that the real way they administer it (reported badly by Hustson) was to compare math answers arrived at intuitively with the persons individual belief in God. They compared believers answers to non believers answers. We are infer that the believers missed more. Actually that would mean that intuitive thinking does not correlate to belief in God and that the better intuitive thinking is done by non believers. Why? Because they got more math problems right by intuitive means. That would destroy their link from intuitive thinking to magical thinking. Wouldn't it also matter what one used intuitive sense for? Perhaps intuitive sense is better at God finding than at mathematics. What if that's what it was made for? Massimp Pigliucci sights research and argues that intuition is domaion specific. Some things lend themselves to it and some don't. [1]  
Moreover, both studies demonstrated that intuitive CRT responses predicted the degree to which individuals reported having strengthened their belief in God since childhood, but not their familial religiosity during childhood, suggesting a causal relationship between cognitive style and change in belief over time. Study 3 revealed such a causal relationship over the short term: Experimentally inducing a mindset that favors intuition over reflection increases self-reported belief in God. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)[2]
So in other words because they have some evidence that initiative thinking is part of the stronger religious belief that means that religious belief is produced by intuitive thinking which is mostly wrong and is magical thinking. There are a number of things wrong with that methodology. That's not the same as proving that religion itself is derived from intuitive thinking. That is not even investigating the logic that goes into it. Nor does it investigate the right answers in one's personal life that lead to believe, they don't even offer a theological measuring devices for such answers. Putting up a bunch of math problems is not valid. People don't arrive at belief by just saying "I sense that God is really there." There is a sense of God's presence that people  have and they are totally confusing that sense with 'intuitive' thinking,' they don't have it they don't know how it feels or works so they assume it's "intuitive." Moreover, the term "intuitive" can refer to different things. There's no link that the kind of intuitive thinking (guessing) about the math is the same kind done by religious thinkers.

 There's an article in N.Y. Times that illustrates scientific work depending upon and being  conformed by intuitive thinking. The article is a chapter form a book by Philip Lieberman, Eve Spoke, Human Language and Human Evolution.[3]  The book is based upon scholarly work.

Over the past thirty years my colleagues and I have studied monkeys, chimpanzees, infants, children, normal adults, dyslexic adults, elderly people, and patients suffering from Parkinson's disease and other types of brain damage. We have also examined the skulls of our fossil ancestors, comparing them with those of newborn infants and apes. The focus of these studies has been the puzzle surrounding human evolution. Why are we so different from other animals, although we are at the same time so similar?...In some deep, unconscious way we "know" that dogs, cats, chimpanzees, and other intelligent animals would be human if they could only talk. Intuitively we know that talking = thinking = being human. The studies discussed below show that this intuition is correct.
 This may upset young earth creationists, which I don't  mind doing, but it doesn't disrupt my Christian faith because I don't see evolution as a disruption. Nor does it disprove the existence of the soul because that depends upon answering the question "why is it we did evolve to talk and other animals did not? There are two points that refute Hutson's ideas: (1) not only does religious belief depend upon intuitive thinking of a kind (at certain points) but so does scinece as well. (2) this scientist thinks that the intuitive thinking is proved correct by the scinece. So intuitive thinking is not always wrong. Some studies backing this up have shown that the correct results of intuitive thinking, while not better than other forms of knowing, are not worse.[4]

 U.S. Navy reserach has yielded so much scientific data backing the notion that there is an intuitive sense that aids troops in battle that they started a program to teach troops how to be more intuitive.

 Research in human pattern recognition and decision-making suggest that there is a "sixth sense" through which humans can detect and act on unique patterns without consciously and intentionally analyzing them. Evidence is accumulating that this capability, known as intuition or intuitive decision making, enables the rapid detection of patterns in ambiguous, uncertain and time restricted information contexts, that it informs the decision making process and, most importantly, that it may not require domain expertise to be effective. These properties make intuition a strong candidate for further exploration as the basis for developing a new set of decision support training technologies.[5]
 Ivy Estabrook, program manager at the office of Naval Resarch, says, "There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence, combined with solid research efforts, that suggests intuition is a critical aspect of how we humans interact with our environment and how, ultimately, we make many of our decisions."[6]

 Published in Popular source Sarah Moore form Alberta School of Business and colleagues from Duke and Cornell have produced research that proves that the first choice one makes is often the right choice. [7] That certainly implies an intuitive choice. While Trisha Greenhalgh discusses research that shows that intution is a valuable aid in medical diagnosis and that it improves with critical thinking about the process.

Intuition is not unscientific. It is a highly creative process, fundamental to hypothesis generation in science. The experienced practitioner should generate and follow clinical hunches as well as (not instead of applying the deductive principles of evidence-based medicine. The educational research literature suggests that we can improve our intuitive powers through systematic critical reflection about intuitive judgements--for example, through creative writing and dialogue with professional colleagues. It is time to revive and celebrate clinical storytelling as a method for professional education and development.[8]
 Not only is it not unscientific, not only can it assist in medical care, but it there's a large body of literature that shows it can be improved. How can it be improved (meaning the answers are right) if it's no good and it never works and it's just magical thinking?


(1) None of the studies demonstrate a real link between intuitive thinking and religious belief. They make an unsupported assertion that teleology and other quasi religious ideas are intuitive thinking. The closest thing to a link is one study that shows that believe was strengthened apart form family tie, but that does rule out logic, empirical data, discussions with friends and individual thought.

(2) The studies that claim to link religious belief with magical thinking are doing a bait and switch whereby the substitute intuitive thinking. They don't bother to consider the venue or the domain but merely assume that if intuitive thinking is wrong for math then it must be wrong for all things. They assume intuitive = magical, probably because they think belief in God is magic or supernatural is magic. Then they assert that since intuitive thinking doesn't work in one domain it work in any domain. Since that tag that as religious thinking then religious thinking is wrong. They actually prove nothing at accept that they are biased against religion.

(3) A vast body of scientific research disproves the idea that intuition is always wrong and doesn't work. It's not only backed by science it's part of science. I give examples of scientific work that is based upon intuitive thinking. It's not more special and unique to religious thought than is logic. Nor is it always wrong. The scientific reserach shows it has it's place where it's right, that including not only some scientific work but also medicine.


[1]Massimo Pigliucci, Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life , New York: Basic books, 2012.

Massimo Pigliucci (Italian pronunciation: [ˈmassimo piʎˈʎuttʃi]; born January 16, 1964) is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at CUNY-Lehman College.[1] He is also the editor in chief for the journal Philosophy & Theory in Biology.[2] He is an outspoken critic of creationism and advocate of science education.

[2] Shenhav, Amitai; Rand, David G.; Greene, Joshua D. "Divine intuition: Cognitive style influences belief in God." abstract on line: Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 141(3), (Aug 2012), 423-428 abstract on Apa Psychnet  accessed 10/2/13.
[3] Philip Lieberman, "The Mice Talked at Midnight," except from Eve Spoke: Human Language and Human Evolution, New York: W.W. Norton, published in New York Times, on line  accessed 10/2/13
[4]AJ Giannini, ME Barringer, MC Giannini, RH Loiselle. Lack of relationship between handedness and intuitive and intellectual (rationalistic) modes of information processing. Journal of General Psychology. 111:31-37 1984.
[5] Office of naval research Basic Research Challenge: Enhancing intuitive deicsion making.
Solicitation Number: 12-SN-0007
Agency: Department of the Navy
Office: Office of Naval Research
Location: ONR
 accessed 10/2/13.
[6] Ivy Estabrook, uoted in Channing Joseph, "U.S. Program to Study How Troops Use Intuition," New York Times, Wednesday (Oct 2, 2013) story filed March 27, 2012, 5:09 pm on line
 accessed 10/2/13.
[7]Leon Watson ."why we are right to trust out gut intincts:Scientists discover First Decision is the Right One." Mail online updated 30 (August 2011) accessed 10/2/13
[8]Trisha Greenhalgh, "Intution and Evidence--Uneasy Bedfellows?" BJGP:British Journal of General Practice. 52, (478) May (2002) 395-400. On line article  accessed 10/2/13


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