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The Brains of Believers and Non-Believers Work Differently

Not believing in God is due to a distinct set of brain networks.

Key points

  • Atheism and agnosticism are becoming increasingly popular as church attendance declines.
  • A recent study investigated whether not believing in a God is due to the activation of distinct higher-order brain networks.
  • Non-believers are more likely to process sensory information in a more deliberate manner that involves higher cortical areas.
  • Religious believers are more likely to interpret information in an emotional or intuitive manner, involving more ancient brain areas.

Church attendance has sharply declined and the number of people who express interest in religion is decreasing. Why are atheism and agnosticism becoming increasingly popular? Is the human brain evolving away from religiosity?

Possibly, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that religious beliefs have been a durable feature of the world’s cultures. Anthropologists estimate that at least 18,000 different gods, goddesses, and various animals or objects have been worshipped by humans since our species first appeared. Evolution has clearly selected for a brain that has the ability to accept a logically absurd world of supernatural causes and beings. Spirituality must have once offered something tangible that enhanced survival. Something has clearly changed in the past few decades that underlies the increase in religious non-believers.

A recent study investigated which resting-state brain circuits are utilized by religious non-believers, as compared to religious believers. Previous studies have demonstrated that a resting state analysis is objective, stable, and capable of revealing individual differences in how the brain functions. Essentially, the analysis provides a kind of "neural fingerprint" of which brain regions are involved in the processing of emotions, memories, and thoughts.

The believers (n=43) self-identified as Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu. The non-believers (n=26) self-identified as atheist or agnostic. The believers and non-believers did not significantly differ with regard to gender (only slightly more were female), standard markers of intelligence, social status, a predisposition towards anxiousness, or emotional instability.

Not believing in a God is due to the activation of distinct higher-order brain networks. The results demonstrated that religious believers are more likely to use more intuitive and heuristic reasoning and that religious non-believers are more likely to use more deliberative and analytic reasoning. For example, non-believers are more likely to process sensory information, such as something they see, in a more deliberative manner that involves higher cortical areas, called top-down processing, involved in reasoning. In contrast, religious believers are more likely to interpret visual information in a more emotional or intuitive manner, called bottom-up processing, that involves more ancient brain systems. Religious believers share this bottom-up processing bias with people who believe in the supernatural or paranormal activity, such as telekinesis or clairvoyance.

The authors noted that although the neural traits they identified are considered highly stable, it is possible to convert a believer into a non-believer, or vice versa, via the use of neurofeedback, meditation, and repeated training.

The relatively recent increase in the number of religious non-believers may also be due to the brain's response to dramatic shifts in our culture as well as scientific explanations for natural phenomena that once depended on the intervention of mythical beings.

References

Nash K et al (2022) Resting-state networks of believers and non-believers: An EEG microstate study. Biological Psychology, 169, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2022.108283\

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