The neurons in your brain work in coordinated networks, with some mental webs enabling critical thinking, others encouraging empathy. Given a science problem, then, the brain’s analytical network will activate as it simultaneously suppresses the social network. A new study, presented as a series of linked experiments, explores this fundamental conflict between thinking and feeling. The more empathetic you are, the more likely you will be religious, the researchers discovered, while on the flip side, if you tend to be analytic, you are more likely to find the concept of a higher power difficult to swallow.

“Analytic thinking and moral concern represent two cognitive modes which our neural architecture causes to be in competition with each other,” conclude the Case Western Reserve University and Babson College researchers.

However, their results also suggest a darker side to our thinking brains. In terms of a general personality profile, the non-religious are aligned with the psychopaths, reporting higher levels of self-centered impulsivity and coldheartedness than their faithful peers.

Higher Power

Previously, Dr. Tony Jack, an associate professor of philosophy, used MRI scans to reveal two opposing domains within the human brain. Looking back at his past research, Jack considered the many instances in life where an ambiguous situation does not automatically inspire you to respond one way or another — either analytically or empathically. In these ambiguous circumstances, he theorized, your natural tendencies decide which network you activate. Hypothesizing religion provides just such an ambiguous context, Jack enlisted the help of his colleagues in order to explore.

The research team designed eight linked experiments, each involving between 159 and 527 adults, to investigate potential connections between belief, analytic thinking, and moral concern. In the first experiment, participants completed surveys measuring mechanical reasoning, empathic concern, critical reasoning, and also beliefs. Sample items on the empathy test included: “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” Analyzing the data, the researchers found belief positively correlated with empathy yet negatively correlated with critical thinking and mechanical reasoning. In other words, believers tended to score high on empathy and low on critical thinking and mechanical reasoning. And, those with high empathy marks earned low points in critical thinking.

While the experiments suggest the faithful are not as smart as the atheists, they also revealed the more religious the person, the more moral concern they showed (though the researchers did not establish cause and effect).

“In every study we found that a central aspect of moral concern, empathic concern, significantly predicted religious and spiritual belief,” wrote the authors.


Four of the studies highlighted mentalizing: interpreting behavior in terms of intentional mental states such as needs, desires, or purposes. To gauge mentalizing, the studies included self-report measures, performance-based measures, and an indirect self-report measure of loneliness. Analyzing the results, the researcher found belief and mentalizing do not coexist.

Alternatively, the researchers say “non-believers have personality profiles more closely associated with the psychopathic phenotype (i.e., deficits in moral concern) than with the autism phenotype (i.e., deficits in mentalizing).” To support this finding, they refer to a 2014 published survey that found non-believers reported “higher levels of psychopathic traits, namely self-centered impulsivity and coldheartedness, than do religious believers.”

In the end, Jack and his colleagues suggest no one has to live in an either/or world. We can exercise both empathy and critical thinking simply by recognizing this is how the brain operates. Although our neural networks may sacrifice one for the other, we do not have to do the same.

Source: Jack AI, Friedman JP, Boyatzis RE, Taylor SN. Why Do You Believe in God? Relationships between Religious Belief, Analytic Thinking, Mentalizing and Moral Concern. PLoS One. 2016.