Religious Intuitions and the Nature of “Belief”

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Scientific interest in religion often focusses on the “puzzle of belief”: how people develop and maintain religious beliefs despite a lack of evidence and the significant costs that those beliefs incur. A number of researchers have suggested that humans are predisposed towards supernatural thinking, with innate cognitive biases engendering, for example, the misattribution of intentional agency. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that nonbelievers often act “as if” they believe. For example, atheists are reluctant to sell the very souls they deny having, or to angrily provoke the God they explicitly state does not exist. In our own recent work, participants who claimed not to believe in the afterlife nevertheless demonstrated a physiological fear response when informed that there was a ghost in the room. Such findings are often interpreted as evidence for an “implicit” belief in the supernatural that operates alongside (and even in contradiction to) an individual’s conscious (“explicit”) religious belief. In this article, we investigate these arguably tenuous constructs more deeply and suggest some possible empirical directions for further disentangling implicit and explicit reasoning.

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