The fact that more intelligent people do not profess a belief in god or religion has been known for long, both through historical evidence and modern data collected through surveys. And social scientists have often tried to explain this curious connection by evoking religion’s supposed links with intuition and rationality, but a new study finds the link does not really exist.

In a study earlier this year, a duo of British and Dutch researchers suggested: “The link between intelligence and religion can be explained if religion is considered an instinct, and intelligence the ability to rise above one’s instincts.”

It is precisely that sort of an argument the new paper, based on a study by researchers from the universities of Coventry and Oxford in the United Kingdom, seeks to undermine. The researchers “found no relationship between intuitive or analytical thinking and supernatural belief. We conclude that it is premature to explain belief in gods as ‘intuitive’, and that other factors, such as socio-cultural upbringing, are likely to play a greater role in the emergence and maintenance of supernatural belief than cognitive style,” they wrote in their paper.

Part of the study, which also involved academics from Ireland, Italy, New Zealand and Portugal, focused on devotees participating in the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in northern Spain. The researchers “asked pilgrims about the strength of their beliefs and the length of time spent on the pilgrimage and assessed their levels of intuitive thinking with a probability task, where participants had to decide between a logical and a 'gut feeling' choice,” according to a Coventry University statement Wednesday. Another aspect of the study used mathematical puzzles to test intuition.

Atheism Reason A new study says there is no link between an intuitive or analytical mindset, and the belief in god and religion. Photo: Reuters

Neither of those two tests showed any correlation between strength of individuals’ intuition and their belief in supernatural phenomena like religion and gods.

The third aspect of the study was somewhat different, as it tried to stimulate the brain to increase the level of cognitive inhibition, a factor thought to regulate analytical, rational thinking. The researchers did this by passing low-voltage, painless electric current through participants’ scalps. This activated the inferior frontal gyrus in the brain, responsible for inhibitory control.

Researchers targeted this area because previous brain-imaging data showed it was this region of the brain that atheists used more when suppressing supernatural ideas. They found the stimulation increased cognitive inhibition but had no effect on the level of the individuals’ supernatural beliefs.

The jury is still out on why some people are religious and believe in god, while others disavow these phenomena as supernatural bunkum.

Miguel Farias of Coventry, who was lead author of the paper, said in the statement: “We don’t think people are ‘born believers’ in the same way we inevitably learn a language at an early age. The available sociological and historical data show that what we believe in is mainly based on social and educational factors, and not on cognitive styles, such as intuitive/analytical thinking. Religious belief is most likely rooted in culture rather than in some primitive gut intuition.”

The open-access article, titled “Supernatural Belief Is Not Modulated by Intuitive Thinking Style or Cognitive Inhibition,” appeared Wednesday in the journal Scientific Reports.