Study leaders Ara Norenzayan and Will Gervais of the University of British Columbia said mentalizing, or "theory of mind," is a psychological concept that describes the ability to understand the mental state of oneself and others which allows people to perceive and interpret human behavior in terms of intentional mental states such as needs, desires, feelings, beliefs, goals, purposes and reasons.
"Religious believers intuitively think of their deities as personified beings with mental states who anticipate and respond to human needs and actions," Norenzayan said in a statement. "Therefore, mentalizing deficits would be expected to make religious belief less intuitive."
However, the researchers cautioned that there is a combination of reasons, some psychological, others historical and cultural, why some people believe more than others -- mentalizing is only one contributing factor among many.
The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, also suggested the gender gap in religious belief might be linked to mentalizing.
"Mentalizing deficits are known to be more common in men than women, and in our research this explained the well-known finding that men tend to be less religious than women," Gervais said.