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Religious people are less smart but atheists are psychopaths

Your brain is the neural battleground of science and religion, with religious people and atheists differing in intelligence and empathy.  Can the two extremes reconcile?

Science and religion are fighting it out in your brain, not just in a metaphorical sense, but in a real, physical altercation. That’s the conclusion drawn by researchers from Case Western Reserve University and Babson College.


They found that people who believe in a god, or some spiritual essence, suppress the brain network for analytical thinking and instead engage the empathetic network. “When there’s a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd,” said the research team’s leader Professor Tony Jack. “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.”

The researchers conducted eight experiments, each one with 159 to 527 adults, and found a correlation that the more empathetic person was more likely religious. This also fits with a previous finding that women tend to be more religious or spiritual than men, which can now be explained by their stronger tendency towards empathy.

On the flip side of that, atheists were found to be most aligned with psychopaths — people classified as such due to their lack of empathy. Take that, obnoxious college buddy.

The researchers also concluded (probably controversially) that religious people tend to be not as smart, or perhaps intelligence is not as important a characteristic to them. “Our studies confirmed that statistical relationship, but at the same time showed that people with faith are more prosocial and empathic,” said Richard Boyatzis, a Case Western University Reserve Professor.

The research is based on the previous fMRI study by the team that showed the human brain having an analytical network of neurons that allowed for critical thought in opposition to a social network that enabled empathy. Since humans are wired to use both networks, a math problem or an ethics question would trigger one of the networks while suppressing the other.  

According to Jack, “that may be the key to why beliefs in the supernatural exist throughout the history of cultures. It appeals to an essentially nonmaterial way of understanding the world and our place in it.”

Does the study mean that if you are religious, you cannot be a scientist? Of course not, as many famous scientists who have practiced religion can attest. “Far from always conflicting with science, under the right circumstances religious belief may positively promote scientific creativity and insight,” Jack points out. He corroborates this by pointing to “100 Years of Nobel Prizes,” a book by Baruch Aba Shalev, which posits that nearly 90 percent of Nobel Laureates were religious.  

The key is to know when to take that leap of faith or when to put your analytical part of the brain to work. Jack shares that “Religion has no place telling us about the physical structure of the world; that’s the business of science. Science should inform our ethical reasoning, but it cannot determine what is ethical or tell us how we should construct meaning and purpose in our lives.” 

Richard Boyatzis hopes that their study can help moderate how we approach the supposed battle of science and religion.  “Because the networks suppress each other, they may create two extremes,” he said. “Recognizing that this is how the brain operates, maybe we can create more reason and balance in the national conversations involving science and religion.”

Sounds like good advice next time you’re planning to burn someone at the stake for their novel scientific ideas or start setting up a communist dictatorship.

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Paul is a writer and filmmaker.  His award-winning films have played at numerous film festivals around the world.  Recently, he finished directing a feature documentary and wrote a collection of surreal flash fiction stories.  He is currently working on his first novel.  Paul has a penchant for history and rare images. You can follow him on Twitter @paulratnercodex

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