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Why religious people 'cling' to beliefs even when contradicted by evidence

Staunchly religious people's minds are dominated by emotion over analytic thinking, a study has suggested

Chris Baynes
Friday 28 July 2017 09:02 BST
The religious dogmatist's mind appears to be dominated by empathy, while the atheist's is ruled any the analytic network
The religious dogmatist's mind appears to be dominated by empathy, while the atheist's is ruled any the analytic network (Rex)

Religious people "cling" to certain beliefs in the face of evidence because those views are closely tied to their moral compasses, new studies have suggested.

Dogmatic individuals hold confidently to their faith even when contradicted by experts because those beliefs have "emotional resonance," researchers said.

In contrast, militant atheists struggle to see anything positive about religion because their brains are dominated by analytical thinking, scientists found.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio interviewed 900 religious and non-religious people in two studies examining personality characteristics that drive dogmatism.

In both groups, they found people with higher critical reasoning skills were less staunch in their beliefs. But they differed in how moral concerns influence their thinking.

"Emotional resonance helps religious people to feel more certain - the more moral correctness they see in something, the more it affirms their thinking," said Anthony Jack, associate professor of philosophy and co-author of the research. "In contrast, moral concerns make non-religious people feel less certain."

Jared Friedman, a PhD student who co-authored the research, added: "It suggests that religious individuals may cling to certain beliefs, especially those which seem at odds with analytic reasoning, because those beliefs resonate with their moral sentiments."

While empathy is usually seen as a good thing, a burning sense of morality can be dangerous at its most extreme, researchers said.

"Terrorists, within their bubble, believe it's a highly moral thing they're doing. They believe they are righting wrongs and protecting something sacred," said Mr Jack.

He added Donald Trump's election campaign had been been able to "appeal to members of its base while ignoring facts" by emotionally resonating with people.

At the other extreme, despite espousing critical thinking, dogmatic atheists "may lack the insight to see anything positive about religion," said Mr Jack. "They can only see that it contradicts their scientific, analytical thinking."

The researchers said their findings, published in the Journal of Religion and Health, lend further support to their earlier work that shows people have two brain networks for empathy and analytic thinking.

They said the religious dogmatist's mind appears to be dominated by empathy, while the atheist's is ruled by the analytic network.

The studies surveyed people who identified as atheist, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and of 19 other religions.

Researchers suggested their findings were also broadly applicable to other areas of strongly opinionated debate, such as politics, vegetarianism and climate change.

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