Reexamining the Claim that Atheists are Smarter than Theists

There is an interesting post by Tomas Rees at Epiphenom that examines the old claim that atheists are, on average, more intelligent than their religious counterparts.

The post examines conclusions from multiple studies done using multiple different methodologies.

In one study, 63 studies measuring IQ vs. religiosity yielded evidence that “the higher a person’s intelligence, the lower the person scored on the religiosity measures”.

The same researcher (Zuckerman) noted that “the relationship is weakest in pre-college (i.e. young) individuals, and stronger for religious beliefs than for religious behaviour (i.e. church going).”

Another study done by Francisco Cribari-Neto and Tatiene Souza examines statistically whether religious culture is related generally to intellectual life.

They were able to show that the link is real, and that it is independent of economic development (both intelligence and loss of religion are independently linked to economic development, but there is something additional to that).

The effect also appears to be strongest in nations at levels of average IQ – as shown in the figure.

People have offered different explanations for these results. I’m less drawn to the idea that it is because religion is irrational, intelligent, educated people simply “know better” or less likely to conform to a popular system of beliefs. Whether or not it is true, it is difficult to quantify.

I am more drawn to the idea that belief, and its subsequent social organization as formal (or informal) religion, is an evolutionary adaptation, and therefore instinctive in our brains. This is what Satoshi Kanazawa has suggested, and is a central thesis of Michael Shermer’s book, “The Believing Brain“, which I’ve blogged about in the past.

Belief in things that aren’t real (e.g., thinking the wind is a dangerous predator) is an evolutionary adaptation that costs individual organisms very little, and is therefore easily adopted and passed to subsequent generations via memes (being taught that things might exist that can hurt you) and ultimately genetically (those that don’t believe this at times get eaten when it’s not the wind, but actually a dangerous predator, thereby removing them from the gene pool).

Therefore belief is evolutionary and instinctive, and it takes intelligence and training to override our natural instincts and break free from our “natural” beliefs. We accomplish the same feat when we learn that optical illusions are, in fact, illusions, that coincidence exists (and that chance happenings aren’t always the result of intentional agency or design), and that noises in the dark aren’t always monsters.

Intelligence and educational experiences allow us to come to a rational conclusion that some things present in our brains as children are mere evolutionarily advantageous devices, but illusory nonetheless. This is how and why we learn that the dark isn’t scary, that there aren’t monsters under the bed, that Santa was a reward-based behavioral modification device employed by our parents to get us to behave as kids (that is, until we figured out that the Santa myth is full of holes and that the evidence doesn’t stand up to rational scrutiny, much like other systems of belief designed to modify our behavior), and that the efficacy of prayer largely matches the statistical probability of chance over the long term and over large samples of people.

Overcoming popular belief(s) takes intelligence and experience, and this is beginning to be shown in study after study.

Give Dr. Rees’ post a read!

HT: James McGrath on FB

16 Responses

  1. I’ve always liked the idea that there is some third factor linking it all. For example, poverty is correlated with religion but generally negatively correlated with academic success, so could possibly explain the effect

  2. This sounds dangerously like the old “scientific evidences” that whites are smarter than blacks. Its really about the tower of babel effect.. The more intelligent we are the more the ego refuses to submit to intelligent design.

  3. It seems like there is a window of opportunity for the brain to be able to grasp the theory of evolution. After that threshold has been passed, no amount of explanation can alter the brain’s pathways. It’s similar to the ability to learn language. Without language many other skills are impacted and so it seems to be with evolutionary theory. Without this basic understanding most of the science of the 20th century is inaccessible. So I don’t think religionists are less intelligent, I just think they have been crippled at a young age by indoctrination.

    Religion (or some version of it) has been been selected by evolution as beneficial to our survival. IMHO ,the benefit has been the development of language. Now that we have language, it seems that religiosity is being deselected. I worry that we are going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We are part spirit (I am sure) and need to nurture that aspect of our children. How can we do that without the counter-productive magical thinking?

  4. I don’t think that it has to be an either/or type of situation. The problem, as I see it, has been the hegemony of monotheisms for the past 2 thousand years, which do proclaim an either/or view of the world. I am a fully functioning, scientifically modern person who is excited to learn new things about the beginnings of the universe and every other thing I can get my hands on. I am a frustrated Classicist (at age 62), who is dusting off my college Latin and wants to learn Homeric and Attic Greek. In addition, I offer eusebia and kleos to the ancient Greek pantheon. I do not have to stop thinking in order to worship.

  5. I read both of the articles, BC, and draw my hypothesis in part to the following paragraph in the second one:

    “Turning now to religious belief among scientists, according to a survey of members of the National Academy of Scientists, 72% identify themselves as atheists, 21% as agnostics, and 7% assert a personal belief in God. Among scientists in general, not those belonging to this prestigious group, about 40% express conventional religious belief, much higher than for members of the NAS but somewhat lower than the population as a whole.”

    It seems patently obvious that atheists, as well as believers, are overwhelmingly subject to peer pressure and not inclined towards independent thought and ideas.
    Just for the fun of it:
    My IQ is very high and I think atheists are just sheep who need a good shepherd.

  6. Susan, take some hope… we aren’t all lost to childhood damage on the subject of evolution. I’m 35 and just heard the full range of evidence this past year, resulting in a change of position and a hope that perhaps my equally dogmatic friends will come to change theirs as well. :-)

  7. Perhaps the third factor is simply an analytical sense and propensity toward critical thinking. Those disinclined to critical thinking for reasons of excess effort (lower IQ) are less likely to be guided by evidence in their positions and more likely default to emotional preference. And intuition.

    Religion is, so very much of the time, as emotional an expression as sports team affiliations. We enjoy tribal loyalties, coupled identities, and (unlike with sports) expectations of the afterlife.

    I’ve observed that we invest tremendous self-identity and value in our intuitions about spiritual matters. Question that intuition, and people take it as though you questioned their character or impinged their ego. Critical thinkers can tend to be more willing to suspend their intuitive leanings to consider new information. The more viewpoint revision a person undergoes, the less emotionally views tend to be held. And the less likely a person is to believe in the claims of believing folks who have only their intuitive beliefs to point at for backing.

    But being willing to study, to distrust one’s intuition, etc., is a lot of work. Many prefer to trust authority voices rather than ferret out their own answers. And for the intuitively/emotionally guided, religion tickles all the fear and reward centers in the brain at once. As Dennett has pointed out, the religions that are left are pretty well evolved as meme frameworks. :-)

  8. Brian, I would be very curious to know how it came to be that you did not hear about the theory of evolution until you were 35?

  9. Hi Susan,

    I had, of course, heard a very great deal about evolution my whole life, but regrettably from one side of the fence. Christian home, education, and then college education. It was not until 35 that I began reading the actual proponents of evolution and finally saw the full gamut of evidences in favor of it. This is one of the misnomer dimensions of religious life… one is led to believe that he if fully aware of a subject area, when in fact a latent insularity has been prefiltering everything. Its quite invisible to the typical member of a conservative vein of American Christianity. My “discovering” of such things led to still more investigation on my part, during which I found there was quite a bit else that had been prefiltered as well. Long version is on my blog.

    Matt (aka Brisancian)

  10. Mazel tov, Matt.

  11. 1 Cor. 3:18-20

  12. lol. because that’s how to debate the merits of biblical claims with a secularist: circularly quote more bible verses at them.

    (I love this verse, btw, as it is a great example of anti-intellectualism posing as wisdom in the Bible. For God doesn’t want you to think, he just wants you to “trust and obey“.)

  13. I’m reminded of a couple chatroom comments to me:
    1) brains won’t get you into heaven, but they might keep you out
    2) Jesus is what’s left after all your common sense has deserted you

    One of my conclusions is some folks really should consider the implications of their remarks before printing them.

    That said, it’s also fair to say atheists have no corner on halos, either. I’m also reminded of one who said he’d like to see all Christians lined up in a row and executed–a sentiment rivaling any ‘turn or burn’ theology; he, of course, did not consider himself any more bloodthirsty than those he castigated.

    Now what ?


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