Science versus faith. It's a heavyweight match-up between two often entirely opposed different worldviews that has been playing out for centuries.
Whatever tension exists between the ideas of those who lean more toward faith versus others more inclined toward reason, the roots of the conflict could trace back to the structure of our brains, according to a new study in the journal PLOS ONE.
Previous research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) suggests the brain has an analytical neural network that allows for critical thinking as well as a social network that supports empathy. This idea of tension existing between the two networks in the brain is known as the opposing domains hypothesis.
See the Dreams of an Artificial Brain: Photos
The two networks play a game of tug-of-war when faced with a problem. When critical thinking is required, the empathetic part of the brain is suppressed. When moral reasoning is needed, the analytical network is subdued.
Belief in a higher power tends to engage the empathetic network of the brain, tuning out the more analytical area. Thinking analytically about the physical world has the opposite effect, according to the authors.
For their study, researchers from Case Western Reserve University and Babson College conducted a series of eight experiments, involving between 159 to 527 adults. Individuals who were more likely to be religious also tended to show a greater moral concern, though the researchers couldn't demonstrate cause and effect.
Should Scientists Debate Creationists?
Similarly, strong analytic thinking tended to discourage any kind of spiritual or religious belief. Again, the relationship was correlational rather than causal.
"When there's a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd," said lead author Tony Jack of Case Western Reserve University. "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."
The role that these neural networks play in the brain in affecting belief helps to explain certain trends seen in religiosity across different groups. Women, for example, tend to be more empathetic than men, the study's authors point out, and past research has demonstrated that women also tend to be more religious or spiritual.
Religious individuals aren't necessarily less intelligent than their agnostic or atheist counterparts. As the researchers note, citing a book that documented the religious affiliations of Nobel Prize winners, nearly 90 percent of the laureates adhered to some sort of faith.
Video: Can Science Be a Religion?
Are science and religion really in conflict? Nearly three-in-five Americans believe they are, according to a survey published last year by the Pew Research Center.
Interestingly, both individuals who are highly religious as well as those more scientific-minded are less likely to see such a conflict, previous surveys have found. A Rice University survey published in 2015 found that nearly 70 percent of evangelicals saw no conflict between science and religion and close to half of them saw the two as complimentary.
Nearly 76 percent of the scientists surveyed reported belonging to one religion or another. An earlier study published by Rice University in 2011 also found that just 15 percent of scientists surveyed from the nation's major universities saw constant conflict between science and faith.
Whatever conflict may arise between religion and reason, the study's authors offer potential boundaries for the two. "Religion has no place telling us about the physical structure of the world; that's the business of science," Jack said in a statement. "Science should inform our ethical reasoning, but it cannot determine what is ethical or tell us how we should construct meaning and purpose in our lives."