Stereotypes. We all use them even though we are told not to do so. In some ways our use of stereotypes is understandable. If I have limited knowledge about a person, I may use stereotypes to make guesses about him or her. If the stereotypes are based in reality, then this helps me make a reasonable guess about what that person is like. We stereotype from time to time as a shortcut to make a guess about what someone is like when we have not had the chance to learn about them. For example, if I have a Monster Truck Rally ticket to give away and it is down to one of two people, a male and a female, and I do not know either of them very well, then it is reasonable for me to give the tickets to the male. Given my very limited knowledge about Monster Truck Rallies, I venture to say that such events appeal more to men than they do to women. If I later learn that the man has no interest in such contests while the woman actually owns a Monster truck, then to insist that I stick with my stereotype of men and women would be incredibly unfair. I really do not blame people for stereotyping when there is a basis of reality for the stereotyping and when they are dealing with someone they have not had a chance to get to know. What I have a problem with is when individuals insist on maintaining the stereotype of a given individual when presented with evidence that the stereotype is not accurate. That evidence may be that the person does not fit the stereotype or it may be that the stereotype itself is false.
If we are going to use stereotypes as shortcuts, then we should make sure that our stereotypes have a basis in reality. I do not feel too bad about my Monster Truck stereotype since there is a reality that men are more into such “sports” than women. I do have the problem with the stereotype that blacks are less intelligent than whites since it is a stereotype without a solid basis in reality. There have been comparisons of IQ and cognitive ability exams suggesting an intellectual deficiency of African-Americans, but many researchers have rightly pointed out the weaknesses of such comparisons. Often these tests have been devised by individuals steeped in Eurocentric culture and values, which can make the tests more of a measure of European-American cultural competency than of innate intellectual ability. Therefore, efforts to suggest racial differences lead to intellectual differences have been met with a high degree of scorn and skepticism. Stereotypes based on those efforts are highly suspect and it is troublesome when individuals use such stereotypes to prejudge people of color.
There is a generous amount of research out there looking at the sort of stereotypes that exist in our society. Most of the research looks at the sort of stereotypes religious and political conservatives have. This is not surprising given that we know that religious and political conservatives are underrepresented in academia. But there are also stereotypes prevalent among religious and political progressives. It is valuable to assess if those stereotypes are based in reality or if they should be challenged.
One of the most common stereotypes is that Christians, and sometimes Republicans, are intellectually inferior. I saw this stereotype in the comments of many cultural progressive activist respondents who responded to my open ended internet questions (The data was used in my co-authored books What Motivates Cultural Progressives and There is No God). Here are a few of many examples of my respondents talking about lack of Christians’ cognitive capacity.
I find myself biased against Christians. I think they are dumb, and I find it very difficult to listen politely to Christian chatter. It annoys me. (Female, aged 36-45 with Master degree)
I tend to view them as uneducated people, or those who don’t have the capacity for critical thinking. Perhaps driven by fear. They also feel the need for some sort of birthright, something they feel they have inherited. (Female, aged 46-55 with Master degree)
Evidence is never an issue with them. They are very dumb and only require their own faith, not reason or evidence. (Female, aged 26-35 with some college)
At this point it is worth considering if such perspectives are based upon reality or if they are the results of prejudice and even possible bigotry. It is well documented that there is an anti-intellectual element within many Christian subcultures. Some Christians perceive scholarly work as a threat to their beliefs and thus have a philosophy that is overly skeptical of academic institutions. But this, in and of itself, is not evidence of innate intellectual inferiority or that “Christians are dumb.” However, there is research that has compared the scores of Christians to others on tests of cognitive ability. Some of this research has shown that Christians score lower than those with little or no traditional religious belief. This would suggest that stereotypes about Christian intellectual inferiority are based in empirical reality.
But remember that such cognitive tests have also indicated that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to European-Americans. Social scientists have rejected the results of such tests, at least in part, because we question cultural assumptions embedded in the construction of those tests. Complaints that these tests are created by whites and reflective of Eurocentric values and culture lead us to challenge the results emerging from these cross-racial comparisons. Is it possible that when we make comparisons of Christians to the irreligious, as has been done in certain research, that there is also a cultural component as well? Given the relative irreligious makeup of academics, it is reasonable to contend that tests of cognitive ability have been constructed in a cultural context not merely based on European-American culture but also in a subculture with secularized values. If this is true, then measures testing the cognitive abilities of Christians may be as accurate as measures testing the cognitive abilities of African-Americans.
But making this assertion is worthless unless there is evidence to back it up. I will soon have a research article (Coming out this year in the Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion) that provides some evidence about the unreliability of cognitive ability tests to make assertions about Christian intellectual inferiority. What I did was look at one of the tests suggesting that Christians have a lower level of cognitive ability than the irreligious – a study done by Robert Altemeyer in his book The Authoritarian Specter. He gave respondents a series of statements and asked them whether they agreed with those statements. He wanted to see how well his respondents were able to assess if there was sufficient evidence to support the assertions in the statements. He used 20 statements but on 4 of them religious individuals who had “authoritarian” (I have questioned the use of the concept of Right-Wing Authoritarianism in a previous blog, so I will not deal with this concept further here) tendencies tend to make incorrect assessment of the evidence presented in these statements. The four statements are:
1. Just because many religions in the world have legends about a big flood, that does not prove the story of Noah in the Bible is true.
2. The accounts of many people who nearly died, who say they traveled through a dark tunnel toward an all-loving Being of Light, proves the teachings of Christianity are true.
3. The fact that archaeologists have discovered a fallen wall at the site of ancient Jericho does not prove the story in the Bible about Joshua and the horns.
4. The fact that the Shroud of Turin was scientifically shown to have been made in the Middle Ages indicates it is a fake, not a miraculous impression made by God.
I am not surprised that Christians are less likely to correctly interpret these statements since a correct interpretation of these statements would challenge their epistemological presuppositions. But as I was reading this research, it occurred to me that none of the statements Altermeyer used would challenge the epistemological presuppositions of atheists or agnostics. If Altermeyer’s work is an example of the type of research used to indicate the intellectual inferiority of Christians, then such research is incomplete unless the irreligious also face the same level of intellectual challenges provided to religious Christians.
It is with this in mind that I devised a study to do just that. I basically replicated Altermeyer’s study with one important exception. I added four statements that would also challenge the epistemological presuppositions of atheists and agnostics. Those statements are:
1. The existence of tragedies such as the Holocaust proves that there is not a loving God that cares for us.
2. The overwhelming evidence for evolution proves that Christian assertions about God creating the world are false.
3. Research has suggested that people who pray for better health are not any healthier than those who do not pray at all. Other research shows that people who pray for financial assistance are not more likely to become wealthier than those who do not pray. Yet this does not prove that there is no God who will answer prayers.
4. Psychological and sociological explanations for why people believe in religion prove that worship of God is driven by natural human needs instead of a supernatural deity.
I want to see if the irreligious recognized that the Holocaust does not prove that a loving God does not exist, that evidence of evolution does not prove that assertions about God creating the world is false, the fact that people who pray are not wealthier/healthier does not prove that there is not a God who answers prayer and that psychological/sociological explanations for why people believe in religion does not prove that worship of God is driven by natural needs instead of a supernatural deity. Let me be more specific. Three of the statements suffer from a post hoc fallacy, or assuming a causal relationship where one does not have to exist. There is not an automatic relationship between tragedies such as the Holocaust and the nonexistence of a loving deity since the deity may not be able to prevent tragedies or such tragedies may prevent greater horrors. Evolution can only tell us how life has developed and not whether there is a deity initiating that development. Psychological and sociological explanations do not pre-empt the possibility that individuals are worshiping a supernatural deity. One of the statements is logically accurate as studies indicating that prayer is not correlated to wealth or health does not eliminate the possibility of a deity that selectively answers prayers or who answers certain prayers, but not those concerning wealth or health.
Given this type of format, and the length this post has already run, I will not go into the details of the collection of the data or the statistical techniques used in this research. I do not mind answering questions about those issues in the comments below, but those wanting a more comprehensive explanation will have to read the article in Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion when it comes out later this year. It is sufficient for me to say that the atheists and agnostics did no better on statements that test their epistemological presuppositions as Christians did on statements that challenged their epistemological presuppositions. If Altemeyer had replaced his original statements challenging the epistemological assumptions of Christians with my new ones challenging the epistemological assumptions of atheists and agnostics, then he would have made the opposite finding of Christians lacking in cognitive abilities. He would have found that atheists and agnostics had lower levels of cognitive abilities than religious individuals. I question whether we can use his study to assert that religion is connected to lower cognitive abilities. Assertions that Christians are less intelligent than the non-religious should not rely upon tests only challenging Christian’s presuppositions.
Of course this is only one study, and it would be fair to see if other tests of cognitive abilities are also culturally or ideologically skewed. The types of previous assessments of such tests concerning racial differences are also relevant when making assertions about intellectual differences based on religious ideology. Until I see tests that have been proven to be culturally and/or ideologically balanced, I will be extremely skeptical of claims that Christians, and other religious individuals, are intellectually inferior to those who are not religious. Until proven otherwise, stereotypes of religious causation of intellectual inferiority are as viable as stereotypes of racial causation of intellectual inferiority.