[Blog Series] Measuring Implicit Religious and Nonreligious Belief

In the first of the SSNB/NSRN Methods Blog series, Elisa Järnefelt introduces us to methods for researching, not the religious-like and religion-related beliefs we consciously think we hold, but the ones we unconsciously hold – which work to shape our attitudes, behaviours and relationships with others beneath our awareness.EJ_Picture

Have you ever caught yourself thinking a thought that you do not agree with? For example, imagine yourself standing in a field. Does it feel and look like the Earth you are standing on is flat and ends at the edge of a horizon? For most of us, the answer is yes. Yet, if you think more about it, you most likely will realize that you believe that the Earth is not flat but a revolving spherical object orbiting around another spherical object.

This is what philosopher Robert N. McCauley (2011) refers to as the difference between “natural and practiced cognition”. Psychologists Jonathan St. B. Evans (2003) and Keith Stanovich, (2004) on the other hand, use expressions like “the presence of two minds in one brain” and “a brain at war with itself”. These scholars agree, however, that people form beliefs in (at least) two different ways: fast and slow (Kahneman, 2011). People rely on their immediate and spontaneous beliefs the world to guide their actions but also often slowly and deliberately reflect. This can often lead to personal contradictions at the different levels of cognitive processing. For example, previous research has identified differences in people’s implicit and explicit beliefs and reasoning about gender, race, and economics (see e.g., Kahneman, 2003, 2011; Sadler, Correll, Park & Judd, 2012).

Religion and nonreligion are not exceptions to this. As much as people’s self-understanding of their own religious or nonreligious beliefs and identities are important to take into account, we all have thoughts of which we are not necessarily aware. For example, previous research has found that although atheists do not explicitly believe in either the purpose or purposeful creation of nature, when they have to quickly decide whether “the sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesize”, or that “some being purposefully made”  trees, rivers and fish, their responses reveal spontaneous teleological and intentional forms of reasoning (Järnefelt, Canfield & Kelemen, 2015; Kelemen & Rosset, 2009; Kelemen, Rottman & Seston, 2013).

The importance of assessing the implicit level of religious and nonreligious beliefs is not to show that people can contradict themselves. Rather, such findings are relevant for understanding more indirect causes of people’s behavior and for explaining why certain types of explicit beliefs are more easily spread (e.g., Mercier & Sperber, 2008; Sperber, 1996).

When studying implicit processes in the context of religion and nonreligion, researchers have utilized both quantitative and qualitative methods. A common methodological feature that these studies share is that they assess people’s beliefs indirectly. This means that, instead of asking the participants to report their own evaluation of the effects of their beliefs, participants are not fully aware of the particular beliefs the researchers are measuring. To clarify, I will offer two examples – one from a quantitative methodology, and one from the qualitative one.

One way to assess implicit effects of people’s beliefs is through priming methods. When priming participants, researchers activate people’s thinking about certain phenomena without the participants being explicitly aware of this activation. For example, in a series of studies, Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan (2012) were interested in assessing whether people’s belief in the Abrahamic God, who is traditionally characterized as morally monitoring and able to punish, has implicit effects on their sense of being monitored. In order to implicitly activate participants’ thoughts about God, the researchers gave them sets of words (Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007) that they were instructed to re-arrange into sentences by dropping one word. Participants in the control condition arranged words that did not relate to religion whereas the participants in the test condition arranged words that referred to various religious concepts familiar in the Abrahamic tradition (i.e., God, spirit, divine, prophet and sacred). The researchers were interested in seeing whether such priming would increase participants’ sense of being socially monitored.

What the researchers found was that explicit God-believers were affected by thinking about the religious concepts and showed increases, for example, in socially desirable responding whereas the effects were less consistent with the participants who did not explicitly believe in God. When debriefing the participants afterwards, it was confirmed that these effects had happened without the participants being aware of the religious prime or being aware of the focus of the study. This implies that, for explicit believers, unconsciously thinking about a morally-interested supernatural agent has similar implicit psychological and behavioral consequences as being monitored by another person.

Other researchers have used qualitative methods to assess implicit beliefs. For example, Bethany Heywood and Jesse M. Bering (2013) were interested in assessing whether people’s tendency to understand events in life in terms of purpose is caused solely by explicit theistic belief, or whether a purpose-based understanding of life is a more general and widely-shared cognitive tendency. To explore this, they conducted semi-structured interviews. However, similarly to the previous study, participants did not know the exact focus of the study beforehand. Furthermore, instead of asking explicit questions about whether the participants understood their life-events in reference to purpose, or whether they understood their religious or nonreligious beliefs to play a role in their interpretations, participants were asked several questions about various aspects of important events in their lives. The level of teleological or purpose-based descriptions in the participants’ responses was then assessed by coding the content of the answers. The researchers found that when participants were not simultaneously asked to think about their explicit religious/nonreligious beliefs or identities, but just to describe the causes of their own life-altering events, both theists and atheists held similar purpose-based beliefs about their lives. This does not mean that atheists in the study were believers in disguise. It only shows that people’s explicit identities and beliefs are often only a half of the story.

These examples are just a fraction of the theoretical and methodological possibilities for exploring implicit religious and nonreligious beliefs. While implicit measures require special attention during study design, they open up many interesting opportunities to explore the interrelations between the explicit and implicit levels of religious and nonreligious beliefs.

Dr Elisa Järnefelt received her PhD in the Study of Religion from the University of Helsinki, Finland. As part of her doctoral and the following postdoctoral research she was a visiting scholar at the Child Cognition Lab at Boston University, and combined the theoretical and methodological perspectives of Cognitive and Experimental Psychology with the Study of Religion. Recently, she has worked as a Research Fellow at the Centre for Science, Knowledge and Belief in Society at Newman University, UK. Throughout her studies and research she has been interested in assessing the cognitive tendencies involved in supernatural reasoning, especially when people think about the origin of natural phenomena. She is also interested in developing novel methodological approaches that help to bridge between the various disciplinary perspectives in practice.


Evans, J. St. B. T. (2003). In two minds: Dual-process accounts of reasoning. TRENDS in Cognitive Science, 7(10), 454–459. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2003.08.012

Gervais, W. M., & Norenzayan, A. (2013). Like a camera in the sky? Thinking about God increases public self-awareness and socially desirable responding. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 298–302. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2011.09.006

Heywood, B. T., & Bering, J. M. (2013). ‘‘Meant to be’’: How religious beliefs and cultural religiosity affect the implicit bias to think teleologically. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 4(3), 183–201. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2013.782888

Järnefelt, E., Canfield, C. F. & Kelemen, D. (2015). The divided mind of a disbeliever: Intuitive beliefs about nature as purposefully created among different groups of non-religious adults. Cognition, 140, 72-88. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2015.02.005

Kahneman, D. (2003). A perspective on judgment and choice: Mapping bounded rationality. American Psychologist, 58(9), 697–720. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.58.9.697

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Straus and Giroux: Farrar.

Kelemen, D. & Rosset, E. (2009). The human function compunction: Teleological explanation in adults. Cognition, 111(1), 138–143. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2009.01.001

Kelemen, D., Rottman, J., & Seston, R. (2013). Professional physical scientists display tenacious teleological tendencies. Purpose-based reasoning as a cognitive default. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(4), 1074–1083. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0030399

McCauley, R. N. (2011). Why religion is natural and science is not. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mercier, H. & Sperber, D. (2008). Intuitive and reflective inferences. In Jonathan St. B. T Evans & Keith Frankish (Eds.), In two minds: Dual processes and beyond, pp. 149-170. Oxford University Press.

Sadler, M. S., Correll, J., Park, B. & Judd, M. (2013). The world is not black and white: Racial bias in the decision to shoot in a multiethnic context. Journal of Social Issues, 68(2), 286-313. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.2012.01749.x

Shariff, A. & Norenzayan, A. (2007). God is watching you: Priming God concepts increases prosocial behavior in an anonymous economic game. Psychological Science, 18(9), 803-809. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01983.x

Sperber, D. (1996). Explaining culture: A naturalistic approach. Blackwell Publishers.

Stanovich, K. E. (2004). Robot’s rebellion: Finding meaning in the age of Darwin. University of Chicago Press.


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