Hillsdale College


Religiosity and Reflection Across Cultures

Nick Byrd (Stevens Institute of Technology)
Stephen Stich (Rutgers)
Justin Sytsma (Victoria University of Wellington)

Total Award Amount: $246,404
Start Date: January 1, 2022
End Date: June 30, 2024

arrow pointing down


Our goal is to resolve an ongoing debate about the link between reasoning and religiosity. In an unprecedentedly large, cross-cultural, and nuanced empirical investigation, we will determine whether and how differences in reasoning performance can meaningfully explain differences in religiosity.

Dozens of studies find that reflective reasoning correlates with atheism—the so-called analytic atheism effect. Some data even exhibit an analytic atheism effect among philosophers. However, this correlation between reflection and atheism is not detected in some countries. Moreover, some attempts to experimentally encourage reflection have resulted in some non-believers becoming less confident in their disbelief in God. Also, emerging evidence suggests that people employ different epistemic standards for beliefs about religion than they do for other domains (e.g., science). These exceptions, unexpected findings, and background data provide potential hypotheses about why analytic atheism effects may differ in various contexts. For example, reflection’s relationship to theism may interact with differences in education, culture, epistemology, and other factors. Further, factors besides reflection may explain tendencies toward theism and atheism better than reflection itself.

We have the largest dataset about religiosity and reflection from people around the world to date. These data suggest that—among other things—certain types of education (especially advanced training in philosophy) correlate both with more reflective reasoning and greater propensities toward atheism. The data also reveal that an analytic atheism effect is not only undetected in some countries, but it reverses among some religious groups. These two preliminary findings suggest that factors other than reflection may independently (or even better) explain differences in religiosity. However, since collecting this data, we and our colleagues have developed better measures of reasoning, religiosity, and other confounding factors. So there remains a new opportunity to not only clarify our initial findings but provide a more compelling investigation of the factors that can and cannot explain variation in religious beliefs and practices around the world.

By employing state of the art empirical methods, consulting with philosophers of religion, and recruiting large samples of religious groups from around the world, we will provide the most scientifically sound, philosophically rigorous, and statistically powerful answers to the hitherto unanswered questions about the factors that explain differences in religiosity. We will not only clarify why religious tendencies might imperfectly correlate with differences in reflective reasoning; we will do so with a more nuanced treatment of religion and the philosophy thereof. So this project has the potential to overcome not only academic debates but also stereotypes about both religion and philosophy.

Project Team

Nick Byrd (Stevens Institute of Technology)

Nick Byrd is a philosopher-scientist—think physician-scientist, but for philosophy rather than medicine. They are trained in philosophy, religion, and cognitive science. So they do a bit of each: philosophy of cognitive science and cognitive science of philosophy (and religion). Some of their research investigates how differences in judgments and decision-making relate to differences in philosophical views or in well-being. For instance, improving reasoning (e.g., overcoming undesirable biases, depolarization, and other potential obstacles to good judgment and decisions) may prevent suffering or nudge people towards certain worldviews. Byrd’s other research aims to scrutinize and improve cognitive science. For example, Byrd shows how some published conclusions about implicit bias are not actually supported by the evidence and that there are better ways to measure and manipulate reflective reasoning than the most common ways. This research has been funded by the US Intelligence Community, the John Templeton Foundation, and various universities.

Stephen Stich (Rutgers)

Stephen Stich is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at Rutgers University and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Prior to joining the Rutgers faculty in 1989, he taught at the University of Michigan, the University of Maryland and the University of California, San Diego. His publications include seven books, thirteen anthologies and over 200 articles. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a recipient of the Jean Nicod Prize, the first recipient of the Gittler Award for Outstanding Scholarly Contribution in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, and a winner of the Lebowitz Prize for Philosophical Achievement and Contribution, awarded by the Phi Beta Kappa Society in conjunction with the American Philosophical Association. In the Spring of 2020, he was Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching at the Princeton University Center for Human Values. In addition to his work on this project, Stich is co-PI on the Templeton funded Geography of Philosophy Project.

Justin Sytsma (Victoria University of Wellington)

Justin Sytsma is an associate professor in the philosophy programme at Victoria University of Wellington in Aotearoa New Zealand. He earned his PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Pittsburgh. Justin’s research focuses on issues in philosophy of psychology and philosophy of mind. As a practitioner of experimental philosophy, his research into these areas often involves the use of empirical methods.