An article posted at Instapundit pointed to a very interesting bit of research looking at cognitive differences between people of faith and atheists. The experiment was to present subjects to stimuli and ask them to predict the next object they would see. Participants were tested on how quickly they learned the pattern. The key here is that the subtlety of the pattern was such that there was no conscious recognition that the pattern existed. This was a test of so-called “implicit learning.”
In humans, there are two modes of learning. The first, conscious learning, is top down and is what most of us think of when we think of learning. The second, “implicit learning” is unconscious and bottom up. It often appears as intuition.
Modern society is generally dismissive of both implicit learning and intuition, though many studies have indicated that neither is functionally superior. Top down methods are just as prone to error as bottom up methods — but are more easily discussed. Interestingly, some studies have also suggested that a relience on explicit learning inhibits implicit learning.
This study looked at subjects from both the US and Afghanistan. What they found was that people who were more adept at seeing these patterns through implicit learning were much more likely to believe in the existence of God. Further, people who are better at perceiving these patterns are more likely to change from being nonbelievers into being believers.
One of the things I’ve personally noticed among my fellow Christians is that we tend to see connections between things, particularly events, that nonbelievers dismiss out of hand as nonexistent. It may be that the difference is not that we perceive patterns that do not exist, but that we perceive patterns that nonbelievers are incapable of perceiving. It should also be noted that perception of all kinds can be trained and enhanced. Part of the idea of increasing “discernment” among Christians may represent the tuning of this biological cognitive pathway.