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The Battle Between Religion and Science May Be In Our Brain

Is the center for a person’s religious beliefs in their heart, their soul or their brain? According to a new study, the answer is (C) and the conflict in the brain that is believed to be responsible will likely cause arguments with (A) and (B) as well. Atheists will probably join too.

First, is belief linked to social and emotional cognition in general, or a specific dimension in particular? Second, does the negative relationship between belief and analytic thinking still hold after relationships with social and emotional cognition are taken into account?

According to their study published in PLOS ONE, researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio and at Babson College in Massachusetts attempted to answer those questions by starting with the theory that the human brain is a constant hotbed of neurological conflict between a network of analytical neurons and an opposing network of neurons controlling empathy. They believe a healthy brain stimulates one network while suppressing the other when confronted with problems, questions and dilemmas.

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The researchers used a series of eight hypothesis-driven experiments, each involving 159 to 527 adults, that are designed to examine the relationship between belief in God or a universal spirit and analytic thinking and moral concern. The results across all eight experiments showed that the brains of those with strong religious or spiritual beliefs suppressed the analytical network and favored empathetic thinking. For non-religious people, the opposite was also consistently demonstrated.

But, from what we understand about the brain, the leap of faith to belief in the supernatural amounts to pushing aside the critical/analytical way of thinking to help us achieve greater social and emotional insight.

According to study leader Tony Jack, philosophy professor at Case, this new research explains past studies which found women to be more religious than men. His study shows this is linked to greater empathy in women.

What about atheists? The study offers a theory, along with a big CYA.

[Atheists are] most closely aligned with psychopaths–not killers, but the vast majority of psychopaths classified as such due to their lack of empathy for others.

Psychopaths? Send your hate mail to the study authors. Speaking of hate mail, what about the ongoing conflicts between science and religion? Jack Freidman, Case philosophy graduate, takes this one:

Having empathy doesn’t mean you necessarily have anti-scientific beliefs. Instead, our results suggest that if we only emphasize analytic reasoning and scientific beliefs, as the New Atheist movement suggests, then we are compromising our ability to cultivate a different type of thinking, namely social/moral insight.

Will this study generate anything besides nasty comments and more conflict? Researcher Richard Boyatzis, professor of organizational behavior at Case, hopes so.

Because the networks suppress each other, they may create two extremes. Recognizing that this is how the brain operates, maybe we can create more reason and balance in the national conversations involving science and religion.

Reason and balance. Keep that in mind before your next discussion on religion and science and remember – don’t kill the messenger.

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