Brain and Body

Whether You’re Atheist or Religious Stems From a Conflict Between These Two Brain Regions

April 1, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Education (1890)
Photo credit: Sage Ross/Wikipedia

Analytical vs. empathetic?

Science and religion are widely perceived as two conflicting ideals, and according to new research, the origin of the conflict actually stems from two clashing networks in the brain.

The researchers, from Case Western Reserve University and Babson College, analyzed eight separate questionnaire-studies and thought experiments that each contained between 159 to 527 adults that either had beliefs in god or universal spirit or no religious beliefs.

After comparing the results of the believers and non-believers, the researchers found a striking difference between the brain networks used — those who were religious or spiritual appeared to suppress the brain network used for analytical thinking in order to engage the network for empathetic thinking. Conversely, the non-religious people suppressed their empathetic thinking for analytical thinking.

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"When there's a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd," said Tony Jack, who led the research, in a press release. "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."

In a series of experiments, the researchers found that the more empathetic a person is, the more likely he or she is religious. They say this finding could offer an explanation for past research which has shown that women tend to hold more religious views than men, suggesting this gender gap could exist because women have a stronger tendency towards empathy.

On the contrary, the researchers found that atheists are “most closely aligned with psychopaths--not killers, but the vast majority of psychopaths classified as such due to their lack of empathy for others,” according to the press release.

According to the study, which is published in the journal PLOS One, the two conflicting brain networks have a hard time balancing out since they continually work to suppress the other.

"Because the networks suppress each other, they may create two extremes," Richard Boyatzis, study researcher and professor of organizational behavior, said in a statement. "Recognizing that this is how the brain operates, maybe we can create more reason and balance in the national conversations involving science and religion."

SEE ALSO: Contrary to Popular Belief, Many Scientists Are Religious

Many people think it’s impossible, but people can believe in science and religion at the same time.

"Far from always conflicting with science, under the right circumstances religious belief may positively promote scientific creativity and insight," Jack said. "Many of history's most famous scientists were spiritual or religious.”

However, there are certain “simple rules” that should be remembered in order to avoid conflict between science and religion.

"Religion has no place telling us about the physical structure of the world; that's the business of science,” says Jack. “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."

The authors concluded by saying that understanding the interaction between science and religion could serve to enrich both.

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