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New Research Explores Why Some Religious People Hold Strong Beliefs Despite Contradictory Evidence

August 2, 2017

Recently published research explores why some people are so sure they are right, even when experts and evidence contradict their beliefs.

 

Studies conducted by researchers at Case Western University looked at why some people dogmatically hold certain beliefs. They looked at personality characteristics in both religious and nonreligious individuals to understand the drivers of dogmatic thinking. The results of the studies were recently published in the Journal of Religion and Health.

 

Higher critical thinking skills were consistently associated with lower levels of dogmatism in both groups. The difference between the two groups was how people allowed moral concerns to influence their beliefs.

Jared Friedman, a co-author of the studies, said that, "It suggests that religious individuals may cling to certain beliefs, especially those which seem at odds with analytic reasoning, because those beliefs resonate with their moral sentiments.”

 

Anthony Jack, another researcher involved in the studies, said, “Emotional resonance helps religious people to feel more certain—the more moral correctness they see in something, the more it affirms their thinking. In contrast, moral concerns make nonreligious people feel less certain."

 

The researchers are hopeful that understanding the motivating factors behind why people hold some beliefs with such certainty can open doors for new ways of communicating between people. If the dogmatists can be appealed to in moral or emotional terms, while the anti-religious can be communicated with in analytical and logical terms, then perhaps communication across the split can be achieved.

 

The studies surveyed more than 900 people. The researchers claim that the results support earlier research that showed that the human brain has two networks, one for empathic thinking and one for analytic processing. These two networks are at odds with one another. In healthy individuals, processing cycles between the two networks for different issues as needed. In a religious dogmatist’s mind, the empathic network dominates. In a nonreligious person’s mind, the analytic network dominates.

 

These studies focused on religious versus nonreligious people, but the researchers say that the results apply to any core beliefs that people hold dogmatically, like political beliefs, climate change denial, denial of evolution, etc. The researchers hope that these and future studies will help illuminate ways to bridge the divides that seem to be increasingly separating people.

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