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Does it matter if atheists are smarter than believers?

News just in, guaranteed to stir smug nods from non-believers and incite irritation among the devout: intelligence correlates negatively with religious belief. You may have seen similar - or contradictory - reports in the past. That’s because scores of studies have asked if religiosity is associated with intelligence. But a just-published meta-analysis in Personality and Social Psychology Review considered the evidence from 63 different studies.

Overall, the meta-analysis establishes the existence of a “reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity”.

Ricky Gervais, enthusiastic atheist and lampooner of mumbo-jumbo. Smart guy. Funny too. Wikimedia commons.

University of Rochester psychologists Miron Zuckerman and Jordan Silberman, together with Judtih A. Hall from Boston’s Northeastern University, gathered 80 years of published studies that estimate correlations between religious belief or behaviour (such as attendance at religious services) and intelligence.

By intelligence, they mean analytic intelligence, also known as the g-factor, which captures the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience”. Only two of the 63 studies found statistically significant positive correlations between religiosity and intelligence, whereas 35 showed significant negative correlations.

Intelligence linked more tightly to religious belief than religious behaviour. While some studies showed that smarter children were less likely to believe, the pattern was weakest among school-age subjects. The links grow stronger in adulthood and remained strong at older ages. Intelligence at one age also predicted religiosity some years later - an additional indication that intelligence shapes religiosity.

Here, then, is one of those thorny issues, guaranteed to stir circular discussion. It confirms what many atheists and agnostics have always felt - that the mere flexing of one’s intellectual fibres, particularly when accompanied by the scientific method, leads a great many smart people from the path of religious belief.

And yet the finding, and the very act of me writing this column, drips with confrontational implications. Does the fact that non-believers are, on average, more intelligent than believers also imply that the religious are all low-g? Or that believers are inferior?

Of course not. The ranges overlap, and many very smart people are, or profess outwardly to be, believers. And I’m sure most people know some rather dull atheists or agnostics, too.

It’s what you do with it

There’s a cringe factor at play here, too. Many people who flirt with unbelief can’t quite bring themselves to accept that the vast majority of humanity who profess a belief in one or more deities are somehow missing the obvious fact that gods don’t exist.

This - the very embodiment of humanist humility - probably keeps a good chunk of non-practising folk from admitting - even to themselves - their absence of faith.

That same unwillingness to call believers dumb, even implicitly, underpins the cringe many secularists experience at the term Bright - an adjective turned into a noun by a vibrant community who organise around their naturalistic worldview. Prominent Brights include atheist pin-ups Dan Dennett, Margaret Downey, and sceptic James Randi.

Daniel Dennett, my own favourite contemporary thinker on atheism and secularism. Wikimedia commons

Richard Dawkins - another Bright - gave atheist intellectual superiority a fine point in The God Delusion. I’ve long supported Dawkins, excusing his haughtiness as old-school Oxbridge irascibility.

But his clumsy recent tweets about the state of science in the contemporary Islamic societies show just how obnoxiously patronising his view of religious people has become. Perhaps those who doubt but can’t bring themselves to admit that believers are wrong or ignorant, are timid? But perhaps they are wise?

What CAN we learn

Beyond the posturing or smug self-assurances, can any good come from considering the links between intelligence and belief? I believe that it can. In understanding how those associations arise, we learn about the nature of intelligence, the nature of belief, and - just maybe - how to build a world that transcends ignorance, nepotism, exploitation and mumbo-jumbo.

Education, particularly in the sciences, tends also to diminish belief. One can see why some big religious institutions, with the most to lose from the progress of secularism, proudly foster spectacular ignorance like Kentucky’s Creation Museum. That is not to say that all religious outreach propogates ignorance, but only that many organisations - historic and contemporary - do a pretty good job of it, and seem to benefit directly as a result.

The new meta-analysis by Zuckerman, Silberman and Hall does a thoughtful job of considering the processes that might cause the association between intelligence and religiosity. They discuss three main suites of ideas, none exclusive of the others, underlying what might be quite complex dynamics:

  • Intelligent people are more likely than their peers to defy convention and conformity. This makes them resistant to religious dogma and to the social pressures that bind people together in professed belief.
  • Intelligent people adopt analytic thinking styles. Last year I posted about how a few simple exercises in analytic thinking can erode belief. Folks who score lower for g tend to rely more heavily on intuitive thinking styles, which tend to suit religious learning.
  • Religion confers on adherents benefits such as building secure social attachment, mandating self-control and building a sense of self-worth. On top of that it can provide rules by which to navigate difficult social and moral waters: monogamy, loyalty, commitment. People who do well on intelligence tests tend also to find these areas easier to navigate unaided. Nobody does so perfectly, of course, but perhaps intelligent people have less need, on average, for religious belief and practices.

That said, perhaps the high self-confidence and self-esteem that often accompany intelligence give people a confidence - often misplaced - that they can navigate life’s trickier passages without assistance, supernatural or otherwise.

As a not-entirely-on-topic treat for anyone patient enough to reach the end of this article, Tim Minchin’s animated movie, Storm, explores pseudoprofound mumbo-jumbo of all types.


This post is, as always, a mere taste of the material I’m reporting on. If this question interests you, I do recommend you get hold of the meta-analysis, which contains a very full discussion of the complex issues underpinning the religiosity-intelligence association.