Religious people don’t fully understand the world, new study claims

New research certain to cause controversy among the religious faithful is claiming that men and women who believe in God tend to be worse at math and have an overall worse understanding of the world’s physical and biological phenomena, CNET and The Independent report.

As part of their research, Marjaana Lindeman and Annika Svedholm-Häkkinen of the University of Helsinki, surveyed 258 individuals about their beliefs – specifically, if they thought there was a God and whether or not they believed in paranormal phenomena. They also subjected each of the subjects to a series of problem-solving tests that measured their ability to think scientifically. Their study is published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

The researchers found that people who believed in an all-powerful, omniscient deity, as well as those who believed in the supernatural, were comparable to those with autism spectrum disorders in that they struggled to understand the realities of the world in which they lived. Spiritual beliefs were also associated with a reduced ability to understand things like flowers, rocks and the wind without attributing human qualities to them, according to media reports of the study.

“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,” the authors told The Independent.

Belief in God and the paranormal compared to autism, small children

The authors defined “mental phenomena” as the inability to understand the physical world and the need to use supernatural explanations for natural processes, “resulting in belief in demons, gods, and other supernatural phenomena.” The same confusion between mental and physical qualities, Lindeman and Svedholm-Häkkinen continued, “has [also] been recognized mainly among ancient people and small children.”

Like autistic people, the researchers wrote, those with religious convictions and those believing in the paranormal have difficulty distinguishing between the mental and the physical, except that people with autism struggle in the opposite way, as they view the world as entirely physical and have difficulty accepting the mental attributes of others.

Lindeman and Svedholm-Häkkinen based their views on surveys of 258 Finnish people, each of whom were asked to report the degree to which they believed that “an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God” existed and whether or not they believed in supernatural phenomena such as psychic powers or telepathy. They then matched those responses to exam results, test scores and answers on other surveys to draw their conclusions.

The scientists found that, overall, those who believe in God and the paranormal are more likely to be female and to base their actions on instinct instead of analysis or critical thinking. Previous research has found that religious men and women tend to have a lower IQ, while also tending to be happier, more generous and more trustworthy than non-believers, The Independent said.

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