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Are Religious People Less Intelligent than Atheists?

Updated on September 2, 2017

Professor Norm Geisler

Professor Geisler giving a lecture
Professor Geisler giving a lecture | Source

A Survey of Intelligences: Atheists vs The Religious

The August 31st, 2013 episode of the Reasonable Doubts podcast was titled “Why Are Atheists More Intelligent.” In this episode, psychologist Dr. Luke Galenon surveyed a number of studies that suggested that, on average, Atheists were more highly intelligent than religious believers.

He stated:

“Many articles have been out there purporting this link between intelligence (IQ) and atheism – or, rather, to put it the other way around, that there’s a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence. Unfortunately many of the articles don’t go any further to explain the nature of this connection, or how these conclusions were arrived at.”

Dr. Galen cited the meta-study titled “The relation between intelligence and religiosity: a meta-analysis and some proposed explanations” by M. Zuckerman, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2013. This “meta-study” (survey of several studies) takes sixty-three studies overall and examines the findings. Fifty-three of the studies show negative correlations between religion and intelligence, while ten show positive correlations. Of the studies surveyed, thirty-seven were significant (meaning they were probably accurate data). Of those, thirty-five were negative and two were positive.

Said Galen:

“As early as the 20’s it was known that people with higher levels of intelligence were less likely to be religious, but around the 1960’s, a lot of that research just dropped off because a couple of studies came out by prominent authors that seemed to reject the conclusion.

“One in particular …argued this: ‘Social environment regulates the relationship of mental abilities and religious attitudes by channeling intelligence into certain approved directions. A secular environment may direct it towards skepticism, and a church environment may direct it towards increased religious interest.’”

The point of this study was that, perhaps, intelligent people in a secular environment tend to channel their intelligence into things like science, while intelligent people in a religious environment tend to channel their intelligence into things like theology, such that their intelligence wouldn’t necessarily show in such studies.

Another study showed that there were correlations between SAT scores and religious attitudes, and they were negative, but the findings were not significant.

Dr. Galen went on to say that the psychology of religion has been dead for a long time, but has seen a rebirth in recent years. Galen, himself, has been instrumental in the return of these studies.

The new studies again show that there is a negative relationship between intelligence and religiosity.

According to the studies, GPA positively correlates with intelligence (IQ) but there is no correlation between GPA and religiosity.

They state that, on average, IQ points between religious and non-religious people vary anywhere between five to eight full points.

Dr. Galen cautioned that “How the data breaks down depends a lot on what particular ways you dice it up.” As the podcasters stated, “This is a correlational study. All of the data here deals with correlations, so it’s not designed well to tease out causes. To get a really solid, scientific answer, we would need to run more experiments.”

He states that “Intelligence seems to develop much earlier than religiosity. You can test intelligence of children that are eight years old, and you’re going to find that their IQ scores done at a young age will match pretty well with their IQ scores done at a latter age.

“While intelligence can be reliably measured at an early age, religiosity cannot. If you take a measure of a person’s religiosity early on, it doesn’t prove at all if they are going to be religious as an adult.”

He cites two studies: one from 1989 that show there are only small correlations between a person’s religious convictions at age 16 and at age 27, and one from 2002 that show that a person’s religious convictions at age 16 have no correlation with their convictions at age 38.

However, when intelligence was measured at earlier age (presumably with a standard IQ test) it was a predictor of religiosity.

He did mention that the negative correlation between IQ and religiosity was always much weaker before college.

Dr. Galen cites a previous episode where they examined early beliefs in infants and children that suggest there is a strong tendency to believe in invisible agents and in intelligent design. These are, he states, “much more natural for children. We naturally grow into them, and we have to be taught out of them.” Reaction time, they also mention, was a factor in these beliefs. He states, “…if forced to answer quickly, even educated scientists would seem to be more sympathetic to agent causation explanations.”

“The idea of Atheism” he said, “is tightly linked to a particular cognitive style.” That style being analytical instead of intuitive thinking: thinking slowly versus thinking quickly. Intuitive thinking is strongly linked to religion, whereas analytical thinking is positively linked to intelligence and also to atheism.

Correlations between analytic style of thinking and religiosity were significant, but lower when controlled for intelligence. That is to say that atheists are, on average, slower, more analytical thinkers, but that does not drive their atheism as much as previously supposed.

“It’s been well-demonstrated in other literature that more intelligent people are less likely to conform [to societal pressures]…more intelligent people will be less vulnerable to the kinds of pressures to conform that might come from a religious group.”

In addition to being non-conformists, intelligent people tend to be more self-sufficient.

The podcasters agreed that “people adopt religious beliefs because they have a specific motive or need.”

The podcasters listed the beneficial effects that religion has in many people’s lives:

1.) Religious gives people better self-control

2.) Religion helps in goal setting and corrective behavior

3.) Religion helps with a person’s identity, self-worth, and self esteem

4.) Religious people ward off loneliness by turning to their beliefs in God

High intelligence seems to substitute for religion in all these areas except the last. Additionally, there is a positive correlation between marital stability and intelligence which aligns with a similar correlation between strong religious belief and marital stability.

More intelligent people, they say, are less likely to need the things religion provides.

A Church

A photo of a cathedral
A photo of a cathedral | Source

Does this Mean Religion is Wrong?

When surveying data like this, it is easy for a Christian person to feel intimidated. The tendency may be to ignore, deny, or dismiss the data. However, if Christianity is true, then Christians should not fear a hard examination of facts. If Christianity is not true, Christian people would be hypocrites if they did not follow the evidence.

The unspoken conclusion of this survey is that, since smarter people are atheists, the dumb choice is religion. This would, of course, be an example of the Genetic Fallacy. As defined by Logicalfallacies.info:

“The genetic fallacy is committed when an idea is either accepted or rejected because of its source, rather than its merit.

“Even from bad things, good may come; we therefore ought not to reject an idea just because of where it comes from, as ad hominem arguments do.

“Equally, even good sources may sometimes produce bad results; accepting an idea because of the goodness of its source, as in appeals to authority, is therefore no better than rejecting an idea because of the badness of its source. Both types of argument are fallacious.”

Education and Intelligence

In order to examine the points raised in this study, it is necessary to look at the philosophy of education. In 1983, Howard Gardener of Harvard published a book titled Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In it he cited studies that showed that different people learn and exhibit intelligence in different ways. However, said Gardener, the current education system “…assumes that everyone can learn the same materials in the same way and that a uniform, universal measure suffices to test student learning. Indeed, as currently constituted, our educational system is heavily biased toward linguistic modes of instruction and assessment and, to a somewhat lesser degree, toward logical-quantitative modes as well." Gardner argues that "a contrasting set of assumptions is more likely to be educationally effective. Students learn in ways that are identifiably distinctive. The broad spectrum of students - and perhaps the society as a whole - would be better served if disciplines could be presented in a numbers of ways and learning could be assessed through a variety of means."

While Gardener’s theories and research have been available for some time, they are slow to filter in to the academic system. A much more recent article from Educational Leadership has this to say:

“At most schools, when a student struggles in the regular education program, the school’s first systematic response is to refer the student for special education testing. Traditionally, schools have believed that “failure

to succeed in a general education program meant the student must, therefore, have a disability” (Prasse, 2009).

Rarely does special education testing assess the effectiveness and quality of the teaching that the student has received.” (Buffum, Mattos, & Webber, 2010, “The Why Behind RTI”, Educational Leadership pg. 13)


In other words, students are blamed for their own failure rather than examining the quality and suitability of the instruction, and formal tests of learning do not account for the nature of the education they have received. The tests for intelligence that the studies on Atheism use are IQ tests, SAT scores, and GPA’s, but, as another educational journal points out:

“Traditional assessments tend to measure things that teachers are not trying to measure (visual acuity, decoding ability, typing or writing ability, motivation) making it impossible to disaggregate the cause of success or failure.” (Rose & Meyer, 2002)


The studies done on atheism’s relationship to intelligence showed that IQ tests done at an early age are predictive of academic success, and little wonder. Numerous studies of current models of education skewed toward a certain learning style, which, as Gardener suggests, does not consider the broad range of intelligences that people possess.

The standard IQ test, therefore, becomes a measure of a learning style which is optimal for success in the academic system. It predicts, as Rose & Meyer point out, not the students actual intelligence (which is based on a broad variety of traits and may be exhibited in different ways) butvisual acuity, decoding ability, typing or writing ability, motivation” which make it “impossible to disaggregate the cause of success or failure.”

In a separate study done on non-believers at the University of Tennessee, researchers found that people most often abandon their belief because of their college education. Dr. Thomas Coleman (head researcher on the study) said that education, particularly college education, had a more deleterious effect on religious belief than any other single factor. He went on to state that people tend to lose their religion and then their belief in God slowly throughout the course of their schooling.

These studies do not account for the fact that education at the High School level tends to promote only one style of learning, which is then advanced to the college level. Additionally, the education system tends to be less effective in advancing and promoting broad segments of the population such as people from a lower socioeconomic status, minority groups, and students who speak English as a second language.

Dome

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Academia and Religion

The measures of intelligence are also an artifact of an inherently secular system. In a survey of 1,700 scientists at the university level done by Elaine Howard Ecklund, author of Science vs. Religion, she found that almost half of the scientists professed to be religious, but followed up that "They just do not want to bring up that they are religious in an academic discussion. There's somewhat of almost a culture of suppression surrounding discussions of religion at these kinds of academic institutions.”

She went on to say that these scientist professed a fear that their colleagues would suspect them of being politically conservative or, worse, believers in intelligent design.

A similar poll done by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research found that, of 1,200 academics polled, over half claimed to have unfavorable feelings toward evangelical Christians. This echoes the experience of Mike Adams, teacher criminology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

When Adams began to publish aggressive op-ed pieces expressing conservative views on politics and religion, he found himself being voted down for professorship. Says Adams,

"I think that the evidence in my case very strongly suggests that I was being held to a higher standard and there was retaliation for expression of my First Amendment rights.”

David French, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, has this to say:

"The secular public schools are almost becoming, for lack of a better term, quasi-religious in their outlook and devotion to one particular worldview and excluding all those who disagree."

The evidence appears to suggest that one reason those with a higher GPA, IQ, and SAT scores tend to be less religious is that they succeed in a system that tends to suppress religious views and expressions.

There is, however, a much more obvious problem with the idea that intelligence as measured by academic standards is much more prevalent in atheists than in religious people: there are far fewer atheists than there are religious people. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports in their findings that only 16% of the American population is irreligious, with only 4% claiming to be either Atheist or Agnostic in their beliefs.

Atheism tends to have more appeal at an academic level. Religion, on the other hand, has a broad appeal at all levels of society. This being the case, it is unsurprising that, on average, more atheists have achieved in the academic system than those that espouse religion. Census reports hold that, as of 2011, only 30% of the population holds a college degree. Is this to say that the other 70% are unintelligent? It would be presumptive to say so.

Additionally, this study does not filter for any particular kind of religion, just religious belief in general. All religions have deep disagreements on God and the relationship of human beings to God. Assuming God exists, all religions may be mistaken on his nature, but only one religion could possibly be correct on his nature.

It can therefore be assumed that the majority, if not all, of world religions contain fallacies and false ideas regarding the nature of God and of reality. This being so, the approach of operant naturalism makes sense when approaching matters of science. That is to say, a scientist who is religious will probably still examine the physical world in terms of the interactions of matter and energy, and leave their religious beliefs to determine matters of morality, philosophy, and life-decisions.

In fact, there is nothing incompatible with the idea of a God and the practice of math, science, memorization of facts, and analytic thinking. Many have argued that the existence of an intelligent creator is complimentary to such thinking.

The area in which belief in God would tend to have the most effect is in the soft sciences: philosophy and socio-political studies.

Chapel on the Campus of Goucher College, MD

Source

Conclusion

In studies such as this, it is important to distinguish cause and effect. Is it a person's intelligence, or is it the education system that promotes atheism? Only more study could tell.

In conclusion, findings that intelligence is positively correlated with atheism cannot be taken as evidence of the truth of atheism. Even an intelligent source can be wrong about a belief, as the Genetic Fallacy shows. Furthermore, the atheist population of America is far smaller than the religious, which will tend to skew the numbers. Finally the academic environment tends to promote only a certain kind of intelligence, and tends to suppress religious expression or belief, especially at higher levels.

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