Are atheists, on average, smarter than everyone else?
It sounds unbearably smug and condescending even to ask the question this way. But whatever one’s feelings about the matter, there’s some evidence suggesting that this may be the case.
Belief in God correlates inversely with education level, as surveys have long shown. From high school to college to grad school, as you move up the rungs of educational attainment, people are more likely to be atheists, less likely to pray, less likely to say religion is important in their lives. Among those with the most prestigious academic credentials, such as members of the National Academy of Sciences, atheism is a supermajority position.
In this context, I’d also mention the Flynn effect. To judge by IQ test scores, each new generation of humanity is a little smarter than the last. And in step with this trend, rates of nonbelief are rising both in America and throughout the world. Some studies also find a direct relationship between IQ scores and atheism.
To be sure, this is a correlation rather than an absolute rule. It’s obviously not true that all intelligent people are atheists (because, to name one reason, smart people are better at rationalizing beliefs they acquired for other reasons). Nor are all unintelligent people religious believers (we’ve seen many counterexamples to that hypothesis, alas). Nevertheless, when you survey large numbers of people, the pattern is unmistakable.
This must be galling to religious apologists, especially those who aspire to be sophisticated and intellectual. It certainly bothers Regis Nicoll of Crisis magazine, who wrote a post attacking the claim that religious doubt is a sign of intelligence.
He begins with an accurate description of the evidence I already cited:
According to a 2017 Pew survey, belief in God is lower among college-educated individuals than among those having no college. Other polls have found that most scientists, including an overwhelming percentage of those in the National Academy of Science, deny the existence of God.
So, how does Nicoll deal with these inconvenient facts? He first attempts to define the problem out of existence, asserting that people who don’t believe in God are by definition unintelligent:
Of course, that all depends on what one means by intelligence. In fact, as a friend of mine once quipped: “Can a person who flunks the test to the most basic question in life (‘is there a God?’) be considered intelligent?” Right, because everything we “know” about the world, human nature, moral ethics, and life’s purpose hangs on what we believe about their source.
Obviously, this is an entirely circular argument. Whether it’s unintelligent to reject belief in God depends on whether that belief is true. But even leaving this point aside, it hasn’t answered the question: Why does religious doubt correlate with everything else that’s associated with greater intelligence, like IQ scores or educational attainment?
This is where most religious apologists segue into talking about “the wisdom of the world” and how God conceals himself from rational inquiry, only revealing his presence to those who approach the question in a spirit of credulous faith. To my mind, this is as good as a concession, because that’s exactly what a false-belief peddler would have to say. It also begs the question of how a person is supposed to choose among the hundreds of incompatible religions that all make this claim.
However, Nicoll’s essay doesn’t take this tack. Even though he raised the question, he seems to lose interest in answering it. Instead, he meanders off on a digression, arguing that atheism fails to account for a hospitable cosmos:
I went on to explain that these speculations grew out of the unsettling recognition that we inhabit a Goldilocks planet in which life teeters on the edge of non-existence. Scrambling to account for these “just right” conditions, desperate theorists trotted out the multiverse, an infinite manifold of universes that guarantees the existence of our hospitable home, and every conceivable (and inconceivable) one as well.
This is just the “fine-tuning” argument which I’ve responded to at length. Religious apologists who make this argument assume that the physical constants of our universe were selected from among an enormous range of possible values and that only a tiny fraction of those would have led to intelligence. Both assumptions are indefensible given our present knowledge.
To quote myself from a previous post:
If we had known only the physical laws of our universe, we could hardly have predicted, from first principles alone, that it would contain life. We simply don’t have the knowledge to proclaim with confidence what other interesting possibilities may be inherent in other sets of physical laws.
In fact, as I’ve pointed out, the Earth is a tiny, fragile oasis in the midst of a vast, ancient and chaotic universe. This state of affairs fits better with atheism than it does with any theology that includes a benevolent creator specially interested in us. It’s what you’d expect to see in a cosmos where life came about by chance rather than as part of a grand design.
From this point on, Nicoll’s essay descends into plain old creationism. It’s as if he was too tired to come up with any argument other than Kent Hovind-style toddler-playground ridicule – even though Crisis is a Catholic publication, and evolution has a papal stamp of approval.
Indeed, with other concoctions like self-organization, emergence, memes, selfish genes, and macro-evolution to account for the encyclopedic information in the genome, the narrative of naturalism reads more like a Brothers Grimm tale than Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Indeed, a frog-turned-prince story is no less a fairy tale by tweaking the timeframe from a bibbidi-bobbidi-boo instant to 150 million years.
I have to say that if I were Catholic and read this essay hoping for an answer to the question in its title, I’d be disappointed. It does a good job presenting the problem, but rather than offering any solutions, it resorts to irrelevant pseudoscience and “nyah nyah, so’s your old man” taunting. It’s a tacit admission that he can’t explain the atheism-education link.
Assuming this correlation holds up, what could explain it? I don’t think it’s as insultingly simplistic as “religion is a stupid belief for stupid people”. But I do think that one aspect of intelligence is the ability to come up with the greatest number of possible explanations for the same set of facts.
A person who’s not as adept at this will be less likely to doubt the received beliefs of their family or culture. However, a person who can come up with alternatives will be more likely to see religious beliefs for what they are – a hypothesis about the world, one possibility out of many – and to notice when they lack explanatory power, compared to the alternatives.