Does Religious Belief Help People Think in a More Complex Way?

University of South Florida psychologist Jay L. Michaels, who has a background in experimental social psychology and quantitative psychology, designed a study to test that proposition:

In the study, 630 adults from from 48 countries completed a cognitive assessment in which they were asked to pick a phrase that best described a given behavior. They had the choice of picking a high-level description (which focused on why the action was performed) or a low-level description (which focused on mechanistic aspects of the action.) For example, one item asked whether “reading” was better described as “Gaining knowledge” or “Following lines of print.”

Eric W. Dolan, “New study links intrinsic religious motivation to higher-level patterns of thought” at PsyPost (May 22, 2021)

They were also asked about their religious beliefs.

… participants who agreed with statements such as “I have often had a strong sense of God’s presence” (intrinsic religiosity) and “Prayer is for peace and happiness” (extrinsic-personal religiosity) were more likely to describe reading as “Gaining knowledge,” and this relationship was mediated by the strength of spiritual beliefs, such as the belief that God is an all-pervading presence.

But extrinsic-social religiosity (“I go to church mainly because I enjoy seeing people I know there”) was unrelated to these patterns of thought. Moreover, among non-religious participants, there was no link between religious motivations and higher-order thought patterns.

Eric W. Dolan, “New study links intrinsic religious motivation to higher-level patterns of thought” at PsyPost (May 22, 2021)

These results may be accounted for in part by the fact that deeply religious people might interact with Big Ideas more commonly (Is there free will? Is there life after death? Do miracles occur?) And they may be aware of more complex arguments around these issues.

Michaels first became interested in the question because many studies have associated religious belief with better health outcomes, including better surgical outcomes and greater longevity.

He is cautious about his conclusions because his team’s study demonstrated only correlation, not causation:

“The main takeaway from this study is that people who are motivated to pursue religion or spirituality and integrate it fully into their life while finding it contributing to what they experience tend to think in more meaningful ways,” Michaels told PsyPost…

“As with any research, my study has flaws,” Michaels explained. “It used a survey method, which means we cannot conclude religion and spirituality cause people to think in a more meaningful way. It’s merely a relationship. Future work that uses experimental techniques are needed to identify if there is a cause-effect relationship.”

Eric W. Dolan, “New study links intrinsic religious motivation to higher-level patterns of thought” at PsyPost (May 22, 2021)

That’s an important qualification. To take religion and longevity as an example, the fact that religious people live longer is well established. But is the cause of greater longevity the content of beliefs? Or is it the lifestyle associated with the beliefs?

That’s tricky. Religious groups tend to form communities in which lifestyle rules are common. Aged people who have the support of such a community will probably live longer. And if the group’s beliefs also forbid smoking, that alone would improve longevity over a broad population. On that view, the content of the beliefs is important only insofar as they are acted on and are relevant to health.

Michaels’ team’s study is one of many to challenge the view that religious belief harms the mind in some way.

The paper, Michaels, J.L., Petrino, J. and Pitre-Zampol, T. (2021), Individual Differences in Religious Motivation Influence How People Think. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 60: 64-82,, is open access.

You may also wish to read:

How did one man gain the strength to turn away from nihilism? Chambers was quite willing to accept that he had joined, essentially, a terrorist organization, so long as he could see it as for the greater good. The first crack in a worldview that accommodated terror came when he began to see nature not as a happenstance but an “immense design.” (Eric Holloway)


Can religion improve a person’s mental health? That’s a big claim but there is considerable evidence for it. The question is, what does the evidence mean? Religious groups are communities. Belonging to a community, absent obvious exploitation, is better for mental health than isolation.

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