Religious study – Believers understand the world less

A report from the University of Helsinki suggests that religious people are more likely to have a poorer understanding of the world and are more likely to believe inanimate objects have human qualities.

Ben Kentish of The Independent (U.K.) writes that researchers found that “religious beliefs were linked with a weaker ability to understand physical and biological phenomenon such as volcanoes, flowers, rocks and wind without giving them human qualities.”

Believers were more likely to think that inanimate objects such as metal, oil, clothes and paper can think and feel, and agree with statements such as “Stones sense the cold.”

“The more the participants believed in religious or other paranormal phenomena, the lower their intuitive physics skills, mechanical and mental rotation abilities, school grades in mathematics and physics, and knowledge about physical and biological phenomena were . . . and the more they regarded inanimate targets as mental phenomena,” wrote Marjaana Lindeman and Annika Svedholm-Häkkinen, who completed the study. (The study defined “mental” as having human characteristics such as thoughts and spirit.)

The researchers said their findings suggest people’s lack of understanding about the physical world means they apply their own human characteristics to the whole universe, “resulting in belief in demons, gods, and other supernatural phenomena.”

The scientists compared religious believers to people with autism, saying both struggle to distinguish between the mental and the physical, although autistic people are at the opposite end of the spectrum because they often see the world as entirely physical and struggle to understand the mental state of others.

Lindeman and Svedholm-Häkkinen asked 258 Finnish people to report how much they agreed that “there exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God” and whether they believed in paranormal phenomena such as telepathy and visions of the future. They then matched their answers with a range of other factors, including exam results, survey answers and performances on different tests.

Freedom From Religion Foundation