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.
If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.
1. Aarnio K. Lindeman M. Religious people and paranormal believers: Alike or different? Journal of Individual Differences 28 (1) 2007 pp. 1-9.
2. Bagozzi R. P. Tybout A. M. Craig C. S. & Sternthal B. The construct validity of the tripartite classification of attitudes Journal of Marketing Research 16 (1) 1979 pp. 88-95.
3. Banerjee K. Bloom P. “Everything happens for a reason”: Children’s beliefs about purpose in life events Child Development 86 (2) 2015 pp. 503-518.
4. Bargh J. A. Chartrand T. L. The unbearable automaticity of being American Psychologist 54 (7) 1999 pp. 462-479.
5. Barrett J. L. Keil F. C. Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts Cognitive Psychology 31 (3) 1996 pp. 219-247.
6. Barrett J. L. Lanman J. A. The science of religious beliefs Religion 38 (2) pp. 109-124.
7. Barsalou L. W. Grounded cognition Annual Review of Psychology 59 2008 pp. 617-645.
8. Bem D. J. Self-perception: An alternative interpretation of cognitive dissonance phenomena Psychological review 74 (3) 1967 pp. 183–200.
9. Bering J. The belief instinct: The psychology of souls destiny and the meaning of life WW Norton & Company 2011.
10. Bering J. M. Intuitive conceptions of dead agents’ minds: The natural foundations of afterlife beliefs as phenomenological boundary. Journal of Cognition and Culture 2 (4) 2002 pp. 263-308.
11. Bering J. M. The folk psychology of souls Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29 (5) 2006 pp. 453-498.
12. Bering J. M. Bjorklund D. F. The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity Developmental Psychology 40 (2) 2004 pp. 217-233.
13. Bering J. M. McLeod K. & Shackelford T. K. Reasoning about dead agents reveals possible adaptive trends Human Nature 16 (4) 2005 pp. 360-381.
14. Bloom P. Religion is natural Developmental Science 10 (1) 2007 pp. 147-151.
15. Breckler S. J. Empirical validation of affect behavior and cognition as distinct components of attitude Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 47 (6) 1984 pp. 1191-1205.
16. Chatterjee S. Hindu pilgrimages pp. 269–279 In A. Wilder-Smith E. Schwartz & M. Shaw (eds.) Travel medicine: Tales behind the science Oxford UK: Elsevier 2007.
17. Chen S. Chaiken S. The heuristic-systematic model in its broader context Dual-process theories in social psychology 15 1999 pp. 73-96.
18. Connors M. H. Halligan P. W. A cognitive account of belief: a tentative road map Frontiers in Psychology 5 2015 p. 1588.
19. Devine P. G. Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 56 (1) 1989 pp. 5-18.
20. Dijksterhuis A. Nordgren L. F. A theory of unconscious thought Perspectives on Psychological Science 1 (2) 2006 pp. 95-109.
21. Farias M. et al. Supernatural belief is not modulated by intuitive thinking style or cognitive inhibition Scientific Reports 7 (1) 2017 p. 15100.
22. Fazio R. H. Attitudes as object–evaluation associations of varying strength Social Cognition 25 (5) 2007 pp. 603-637.
23. Festinger L. A theory of cognitive dissonance vol. 2 Palo Alto CA US: Stanford University Press 1962.
24. Fuller C. J. Camphor flame: Popular Hinduism and society in India Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press 2004.
25. Gawronski B. Bodenhausen G. V. Associative and propositional processes in evaluation: an integrative review of implicit and explicit attitude change Psychological Bulletin 132 (5) 2006 pp. 692-731.
26. Gawronski B. De Houwer J. Implicit measures in social and personality psychology pp. 283-310 In H. T. Reis C. M. Judd (eds.) Handbook of research methods in social and personality psychology (2nd ed.) New York NY: Cambridge University Press 2014.
27. Gendler T. S. Alief and belief The Journal of Philosophy 105 (10) 2008 pp. 634-663.
28. Gervais W. M. Religious cognition pp. 81-105 In V. Saroglou (ed.) Religion personality and social behavior Psychology Press 2013.
29. Gervais W. M. Norenzayan A. Analytic thinking promotes religious disbelief Science 336 (6080) 2012 pp. 493-496.
30. Gervais W. M. et al. Analytic atheism: A cross-culturally weak and fickle phenomenon? Judgment and Decision Making 13 (3) 2018 pp. 268-274.
31. Gomes C. M. McCullough M. E. The effects of implicit religious primes on dictator game allocations: A preregistered replication experiment Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 144 (6) 2015 e94-e104.
32. Greenwald A. G. Banaji M. R. Implicit social cognition: Attitudes self-esteem and stereotypes Psychological Review 102 (1) 1995 pp. 4-27.
33. Guthrie S. E. Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion New York: Oxford University Press 1993.
34. Haidt J. Bjorklund F. & Murphy S. Moral dumbfounding: When intuition finds no reason unpublished manuscript 2000.
35. Hall L. Johansson P. & Strandberg T. Lifting the veil of morality: Choice blindness and attitude reversals on a self-transforming survey PLOS ONE 7 (9) 2012 e45457.
36. Hall L. Johansson P. Tärning B. Sikström S. & Deutgen T. Magic at the marketplace: Choice blindness for the taste of jam and the smell of tea Cognition 117 (1) 2010 pp. 54-61.
37. Helbig H. B. Graf M. & Kiefer M. The role of action representations in visual object recognition Experimental Brain Research 174 (2) 2006 pp. 221-228.
38. Heywood B. T. Bering J. M. “Meant to be”: How religious beliefs and cultural religiosity affect the implicit bias to think teleologically Religion Brain & Behavior 4 (3) 2014 pp. 183-201.
39. Järnefelt E. Canfield C. F. & Kelemen D. The divided mind of a disbeliever: Intuitive beliefs about nature as purposefully created among different groups of non-religious adults Cognition 140 2015 pp. 72-88.
40. Jong J. Explaining Religion (Away?) Sophia 52 (3) 2013 pp. 521-533.
41. Jong J. Beliefs are Object-Attribute Associations of Varying Strength Contemporary Pragmatism 15 (3) 2018 pp. 284-301.
42. Kelemen D. Rosset E. The human function compunction: Teleological explanation in adults Cognition 111 (1) 2009 pp. 138-143.
43. Kelemen D. Rottman J. & Seston R. Professional physical scientists display tenacious teleological tendencies: Purpose-based reasoning as a cognitive default Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142 (4) 2013 pp. 1074-1083.
44. Keysar A. Navarro-Rivera J. A world of atheism: Global demographics pp. 553–586 In S. Bullivant M. Ruse (eds.) The Oxford handbook of atheism Oxford UK: Oxford University Press 2013.
45. Laurin K. Kay A. C. & Fitzsimons G. M. Divergent effects of activating thoughts of God on self-regulation Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102 (1) 2012 pp. 4-21.
46. Lebreton L. C. Van der Zwet J. Damsteeg J. W. Slat B. Andrady A. & Reisser J. River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans Nature Communications 8 2017 p. 15611.
47. Lindeman M. Heywood B. Riekki T. & Makkonen T. Atheists become emotionally aroused when daring God to do terrible things International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 24 (2) 2014 pp. 124-132.
48. Lindeman M. Svedholm-Häkkinen A. M. & Lipsanen J. Ontological confusions but not mentalizing abilities predict religious belief paranormal belief and belief in supernatural purpose Cognition 134 2015 pp. 63-76.
49. Maclean K. Pilgrimage and power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad 1765–1954 Oxford UK: Oxford University Press 2008.
50. Maister L. Slater M. Sanchez-Vives M. V. & Tsakiris M. Changing bodies changes minds: owning another body affects social cognition Trends in Cognitive Sciences 19 (1) 2015 pp. 6-12.
51. McKay R. T. Dennett D. C. Our evolving beliefs about evolved misbelief Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32 (6) 2009 pp. 541-561.
52. McLaughlin O. Somerville J. Choice blindness in financial decision making Judgment and Decision Making 8 (5) 2013 pp. 561-572.
53. Moors A. Spruyt A. & De Houwer J. In search of a measure that qualifies as implicit: Recommendations based on a decompositional view of automaticity pp. 19-35 In B. Gawronski B. K. Payne (eds.) Handbook of implicit social cognition: Measurement theory and applications New York NY: Guilford 2010.
54. Nisbett R. E. Wilson T. D. Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes Psychological Review 84 1977 pp. 231–259.
55. Nosek B. A. Implicit–explicit relations. Current Directions in Psychological Science 16 (2) 2007 pp. 65-69.
56. Oman D. Defining religion and spirituality pp. 23-47 In R. F. Paloutzian C. L. Park (eds.) Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.) New York: Guilford 2013.
57. Pechey R. Halligan P. W. Exploring the folk understanding of belief: Identifying key dimensions endorsed in the general population Journal of Cognition and Culture 12 (1-2) 2012 pp. 81-99.
58. Pennycook G. Cheyne J. A. Barr N. Koehler D. J. & Fugelsang J. A. On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit Judgment and Decision Making 10 (6) 2015 pp. 549-563.
59. Pennycook G. Cheyne J. A. Seli P. Koehler D. J. & Fugelsang J. A. Analytic cognitive style predicts religious and paranormal belief Cognition 123 (3) 2012 pp. 335-346.
60. Pennycook G. Ross R. M. Koehler D. J. & Fugelsang J. A. Atheists and agnostics are more reflective than religious believers: Four empirical studies and a meta-analysis PLOS ONE 11 (4) 2016 e0153039.
61. Pew Center on Religion and Public Life. The Global Religious Landscape Washington D.C.: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2012.
62. Preston J. L. Ritter R. S. & Hepler J. Neuroscience and the soul: Competing explanations for the human experience Cognition 127 (1) 2013 pp. 31-37.
63. Randolph-Seng B. Nielsen M. E. Honesty: One effect of primed religious representations The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 17 (4) 2007 pp. 303-315.
64. Rosenberg M. J. Hovland C. I. McGuire W. J. Abelson R. P. & Brehm J. W. Attitude organization and change: An analysis of consistency among attitude components (Yales studies in attitude and communication) Oxford England: Yale University Press 1960.
65. Rozin P. Nemeroff C. Sympathetic magical thinking: The contagion and similarity “heuristics” pp. 201-216 In T. Gilovich D. Griffin & D. Kahneman (eds.) Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment New York NY US: Cambridge University Press. 2002.
66. Salancik G. R. Conway M. Attitude inferences from salient and relevant cognitive content about behavior Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32 (5) 1975 pp. 829-840.
67. Sanchez C. Sundermeier B. Gray K. & Calin-Jageman R. J. Direct replication of Gervais & Norenzayan (2012): No evidence that analytic thinking decreases religious belief PLOS ONE 12 (2) 2017 e0172636.
68. Shariff A. F. & Norenzayan A. God is watching you: Priming God concepts increases prosocial behavior in an anonymous economic game. Psychological Science 18(9) 2007 pp. 803-809.
69. Shenhav A. Rand D. G. & Greene J. D. Divine intuition: Cognitive style influences belief in God Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141 (3) 2012 pp. 423-428.
70. Smith S. Alogna V. K. Balkcom E. R. Halberstadt J. B. & Bering J. M. Challenges of religious skepticism: Do extinctivists fear a visit from the dead? Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Portland OR USA.
71. Sosis R. Alcorta C. Signaling solidarity and the sacred: The evolution of religious behavior Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues News and Reviews: Issues News and Reviews 12 (6) 2003 pp. 264-274.
72. Sperber D. Intuitive and reflective beliefs Mind & Language 12 (1) 1997 pp. 67-83.
73. Stepper S. Strack F. Proprioceptive determinants of emotional and nonemotional feelings Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64 (2) 1993 pp. 211-220.
74. Strack F. Martin L. L. & Stepper S. Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54 (5) 1988 pp. 768-777.
75. Tucker M. Ellis R. On the relations between seen objects and components of potential actions Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 24 (3) 1998 pp. 830-846.
76. Wells G. L. Petty R. E. The effects of over head movements on persuasion: Compatibility and incompatibility of responses Basic and Applied Social Psychology 1 (3) 1980 pp. 219-230.
77. Willard A. K. Norenzayan A. Cognitive biases explain religious belief paranormal belief and belief in life’s purpose Cognition 129 (2) 2013 pp. 379-391.
78. Zuckerman P. Atheism: Contemporary numbers and patterns pp. 47–66 In M. Martin (ed.) The Cambridge companion to atheism Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press 2007.