Religion science clash
The opposition between religious beliefs and scientific evidence can be explained by a tension different brain structures.Istock

The opposition between religious beliefs and scientific evidence can be explained by difference in brain structures and cognitive activity. Scientists have found critical thinking is suppressed in the brains of people who believe in the supernatural.

Published in PLOS One, their study examines how the parts of the brain responsible for empathy and analytical reasoning are linked to faith and spiritual thinking. It suggests religious beliefs and scientific thinking clash because different brain areas are involved in both cognitive processes. People who believe in the supernatural appear to suppress areas associated with critical thinking.

"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...", says lead author Tony Jack, a professor of philosophy at Case Western Reserve.

More empathy, more religion

In previous research, Jack and colleagues had identified, thanks to fMRI scans, two networks of neurones that competed with each other to let individuals see the the world either in religious or in scientific terms. They say the brain has an analytical network of neurons which triggered critical thinking and a social network which enabled empathy towards other and spiritual thinking.

Participants who went through the scans were presented with a physical or ethical problem. To solve it, the brain appeared to boost activity in one of the two networks, while suppressing the other.

Religion science clash
People who are more religious are often more empathetic and suppress part of the brain linked to critical thinking.Alexander Baxevanis/Flickr Creative Commons

For the latest study, the scientists conducted a series of eight experiments, involving between 159 and 527 adults. Their purpose was to compare belief in God with measures of analytic thinking and moral concern.

In each experiment, the researchers found that both spiritual belief and empathic concern were positively associated with frequent religious practice. The more a person was religious, the more he or she is likely to suppress the analytical network in the brain, and to show empathy.

Scientists say that when an individual is conflicted between a scientific or religious view of the world, his brain structures will determine how he will address this opposition between beliefs and science.

Engaging with both networks

The study also points out that some of the great scientists of our times were also very spiritual men. "Far from always conflicting with science, under the right circumstances religious belief may positively promote scientific creativity and insight," says Jack "Many of history's most famous scientists were spiritual or religious. Those noted individuals were intellectually sophisticated enough to see that there is no need for religion and science to come into conflict."

According to the scientists, the individuals who manage to use both networks and avoid suppression of one or the other are better equipped to understand the world and come up with scientific discoveries.