It turns out the supposed struggle between science and religion isn't just something that plays out in history, but also in your brain. A new study says that science and religion involve competing parts of the brain — though I still personally don't see why they can't coexist perfectly well; after all, both of these systems in your brain are important and therefore ought to be able to work alongside one another. We're complicated creatures, we humans.
According to new research done at Case Western Reserve University and Babson College, science and religion each appear to utilize different parts of the brain. Based on their finding, it seems that when thinking scientifically, people tend to suppress the network in the brain used for empathetic thinking. When thinking about religion, on the other hand, people seem to suppress the network involved in analytic thinking.
In other words, in order to properly engage with either religion or science, a person has to adjust not just what they think about, but the way that they think.
"When there's a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd," said Tony Jack, who led the research. "But, from what we understand about the brain, the leap of faith to belief in the supernatural amounts to pushing aside the critical/analytical way of thinking to help us achieve greater social and emotional insight."
If true, these findings could explain a lot — not just why some people utterly reject either science or faith in favor of the other, but why so many people have no trouble accepting both simultaneously. After all, if you tend to predominantly use only one of these two systems in the brain, or tend to have difficulty switching between them, it makes sense that either science or religion would seem difficult to comprehend. On the other hand, if someone has a relatively easy time using either system in the brain and is easily able to switch between them, then it wouldn't be hard to be believe in both science and religion.
This also might explain studies that show people who are religious tend to score lower in terms of intelligence. In studies where subjects were asked about religion prior to any tests to gauge intellect, people were primed to use the emotive rather than analytic network of the brain and thus might score lower; in studies where intellect was measured before asking about religious faith, people were primed to use their analytic rather than emotive networks, and thus might rate their faith as less strong. (Though honestly, there are also lots of other ways to explain those findings, too.)
Obviously, however, all of this is only speculative. In order to really determine whether these findings explain the relationship between faith and intelligence, or the different attitudes people take towards religion and science, more research would be required. But it does make for some interesting food for thought.
Personally, I've never had difficulty reconciling religious faith with science. After all, as I see it, science is about the things that can be measured and quantified while religion is about the more intangible parts of life. Both are important aspects of the human experience, and in my view they don't conflict as much as you'd expect anyway. So does that mean I'm able to more easily switch between different networks in my brain? Who knows.
But for now it does seem clear — the real division between religion and science isn't out in the world, but in our own minds.