Religion, Intelligence, and Socialization

The Independent just reported that “religious people are less intelligent.” Whatever remains of the “new atheist” crowd will argue that this study proves that education causes one to reject religion. Atheism is academic. Being enlightened or “bright” means you reject that dim-witted dogmatism of your fathers.

The problem is, of course, that secularism has long been dominant in the academy. Take a group of impressionable young students— selected specifically for their intelligence—who care very dearly about academic approval, and then tell them all the institutions known for intelligence are irreligious. What would you expect besides a correlation between intelligence and atheism to develop over time?

The key matter here is this: intelligent people don’t simply reject religion because it’s wrong; they reject it because they are socialized to think it’s wrong. Most students don’t know the basic tenets of various world religions (even at a place like Harvard!). I’ve met many atheists who can’t tell me why they believe in evolution besides a dogmatic appeal to “it’s just science”—a blatant appeal to authority little different than that of religious creationists. Most people develop their beliefs due to social influence and not necessarily or just from intellectual investigation.

As Oxford philosopher Charles Taylor describes it in his magnus opus, our society has shifted toward a secular age, which “consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” This transition happened first among the intelligensia.

Not convinced? Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political philosopher from the University of Chicago who recently passed at age 72, said as much during a talk she gave at The Veritas Forum at Harvard a few months ago:

I had slowly but surely inched over to join the company of those who chided those who believed. I decided I was not gullible, like those folks, and if they wanted to cling to wishful thinking, they could certainly do that, but I was at university, after all, where I had learned skepticism, and indeed I had decided that I had become a skeptic myself, joining most of my professors in that designation.

These words, though describing her experience some fifty years ago, sounds like it could come straight from the mouth of a college student today. This narrative— pursuing academic study and joining the skeptical, bright ranks—hasn’t changed much since the days of Bertrand Russell in spite of Christianity’s rich intellectual history and the fact that 80% of professors have some form of spiritual belief.

Interestingly enough, however, this may be changing. The Independent notes, “The level of belief, or otherwise, did however vary dependent upon age with the correlation found to be weakest among the pre-college population.” Contrary to popular belief, studies now show that those who go to college are more likely to maintain higher levels of religiosity than those who don’t. Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith attributes this to the work of Christian campus ministries, like Cru, Intervarsity, the Navigators, and others. If the trend continues, we may start hearing “send your child to college to save their faith” in fifty years.

Hopefully, if that’s the case, we’ll see just as many stories about it as we do today about religion being correlated with a lack of intelligence. Journalists, after all, tend to have high IQ scores. 

[Image of Stained Glass Window from Wikipedia]

The language of this post has been slightly reworked to more accurately reflect the study’s data. As I reviewed the data, I discovered that education made no statistical difference in religious practice (apart from intelligence in general). This indicates that my hypothesis around socialization through attending university was inaccurate, but the basic point that socialization is part of a narrative about religion and intelligence remains. I’ve expanded on this more in a recent CT piece

About Jordan Monge

Jordan Monge graduated from Harvard University in 2012 with a degree in philosophy. She currently resides in her native Southern California and blogs at jordanmonge.com.

  • Tom Shmenkman

    “send them to institutions where atheism is the de facto dogma”

    There is no atheist dogma. A dictionary would serve you well.

    dogma
    noun
    A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true
    - the Christian dogma of the Trinity
    - the rejection of political dogma

    atheist
    noun
    A person who does not believe in the existence of God or gods

    “they reject it because they are socialized to think it’s wrong.”

    Another false claim. I rejected religious belief at the age of 8, being raised in a devout (though not fundamentally so) religious family. I attended church services nearly every week of my first 18 years. It was my ability to question what was being “taught” which led me to disbelief, not because I was socialized to think it was wrong. In fact, the exact opposite is true: I was socialized to think it was true. I simply questioned it and found no basis in reality to be able to accept it as such.

    • john

      Here’s your athiest dogma, and just because you rejected religious belief aged 8 does not invalidate the statement
      “they reject it because they are socialized to think it’s wrong.”
      The article is not just talking about you.
      athiest dogma
      1. ‘Religionists’ are a homogeneous group, there is no distinction beween religions and none has greater merit than another.
      2. Believers are such either because they are brainwashed from birth or they are un educated or of low intelligence. Athiests are of higher intellect.
      3. Believers are activly encouraged not to investigate the tenets of their faith or to be skeptical.
      4.Religion is responsible for more wars, violence and bigotry than anything else and should be elliminated from society.
      5.Religion was invented to control the masses.
      6.Religionists are in fear of hell and think that by being good paying tithes and going to church they will qalify for heaven.
      7. Science is the answer to man’s problems and nothing is to be believed if it cannot be demostrated empirically.
      8. God is not necessary to explain the origin of the Universe and of life.
      9. Evolution is proven
      10.It is not necessary to believe in God to be a moral person.

      • ThisIsTheEnd

        Most Christians in Europe accept points 9 and 10

        • john

          Then I suggest they are not Christians anyway how do you know that? I have yet to meet a fellow Christian who does and I have been the world over these last 30yrs

          • Cat lover

            You’ve never met a Christian who believed in evolution?! Seriously?

          • ThisIsTheEnd

            I’m calling Poe ;)

          • john

            Do I have to labour the whole story of original sin and redemption for you to understand what makes a Christian? If there is no Adam we don’t need Christ and we are not Christian. Get it?

          • ThisIsTheEnd

            John, you’re talking rubbish

          • john

            You didn’t answer may question. Why? Because you have no basis for your claim. I suspect I know a great many more Christians than you do.

          • ThisIsTheEnd

            I didn’t answer because it deserved ridicule not serious contemplation. There’s an old saying which is attributed to Mark Twain: “Never argue with an idiot, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference”. So I’m not arguing with you.

          • john

            There is one atheist dogma I forgot, the requirement for arrogance, contempt and mockery instead of honest debate. You are certainly true to form, may I suggest you read from 2 Peter 3 onwards and contemplate that.

          • ThisIsTheEnd

            I’m being truthful, your posts are ignorant. I have the same attitude with atheists who say that the Bible was compiled by primitive Bronze Age goat herders. I regard that as stupid as well. Unlike you, labels such as Christian or Atheist tells me nothing about the intellectual ability of the person I’m engaged with. A fool is a fool regardless if they quote bible verses or Richard Dawkin’s latest tweet

          • john

            For all your conceit, you don’t understand that belief has nothing to do with intelligence, it has to do with faith. Your intellect will ultimately get you nowhere. You forget also you are in danger of appearing and idiot by continuing this discourse.

          • ThisIsTheEnd

            I’m not ashamed to say that I value intellect. And yes I do agree that I’m in danger of appearing as an idiot if I carry on conversing with you.

          • john

            Then why do it? You are more interested in being clever than actually discussing the subject, which if I may remind you is that you have asserted that the majority of Christians in Europe accept evolution and that it’s possible to be a moral person without God. I challenged you to offer some support for your statement which you have not done. I suggest to you that to accept either of the two assertions, for a Christian, is to fly in the face of the Scripture that is the basis of Christian faith.

          • B-Lar

            Another “dogma” you forgot is “anyone who quotes scripture has already lost the argument”. ;)

            You must realise that these claims of dogma are a projection. Christians are dogmatic, but rather than argue that its a good thing, you instead decry those who aren’t as being so. Its a failure of perception and attribution. It reveals the intellectual insecurity of your position.

            Also, don’t pretend you want honest debate. If you did, then you would avoid misrepresenting your opponent, and using passive aggressive scripture referral, and you might actually ask a question or make an argument. Of course, you cant do that, because your religiosity has stunted your ability for reason. You are the reason that intelligent people are leaving the church. You are embarrassing them.

          • john

            I merely point out that the common athiest position has developed it’s own ‘dogma’. And may I correct you, I did not quote Scripture, I asked that my respondednt reat it – for his edification, not to make a point. I suggest you re-read the entirely un warrented insults that have been directed at me and the complete failure to respond to the questions and points that did make. Let me ask you and see if you can do better – what do you know about what goes on in church? I assume from what you say that you must attend one in order to be able to make such a statement. I would be most interested in your answer.

          • B-Lar

            But you aren’t just merely pointing are you. You are trying to counter charges of your own dogmatism, by whining “but they doooo ittt tooooo!”. You trot out these tired atheist strawmen and complain about being misrepresented by… misrepresenting your opponent!

            Ironically, the things you list as dogma are not asserted without evidence or even contrary to evidence (which is what dogma is). Thats what christians do because all you have is a very old book that you derive all you “revealed” wisdom” from, the very essence of dogmatism. You have deceived yourself into thinking that all belief is dogmatic because that is where your belief comes from, but some people change reasses their beliefs based on new evidence. Do this once, and you are no longer dogmatic… you are a scientist.

            If you want to be taken seriously, then try to actually grapple with reality rather than an illusion that you devised to make yourself feel better about your flawed beliefs. If you have access to the truth, why would you lie? Its not a very good advertisement for your faith is it?

            I know quite well what goes on in a church, thank you very much. I was born into one, and was a youth leader until I realised that there were no real answers there. There is simply no interest in honest assessment within religion. When you have the answer before you have the question, the answer is inherently flawed.

            As for the “insults” and “mockery”, they are nothing of the sort. Your opinions are being criticised, and if you ideas are so weak that you have to hide behind “…but they said mean things to me!” then why do you hold those ideas?

            We reserve the right to ridicule the ridiculous, and if you are going to assert that god exists, that he is all powerful and all knowing (but completely ineffable), that you have a personal relationship with him, that he interacts with the world but never in an empirically provable way (because that would violate free will) AND will eternally punish anyone who does not have a personal relationship with him (only him and not one of the other countless gods that have been conjured up on the whim of primates consuming dubious mushrooms), then I also reserve the right to claim that you are wilfully holing up the intellectual and emotional development of our race. You promulgate irrationality and call it virtue. It makes me sick to think of all the potential that has been wasted because of your superstition. All those lives, all that time… all gone. we cant save the past from you, but we can save the future.

            Can you give me any good reason why we, as a race, should keep you? Any reason at all?

          • john

            Thank you for your reply, the mask has dropped and I see the real you. How long have you been a Nazi? As for a reason, the person I believe in offers the human race something that you and your like can never do. I hope you find that out for yourself one day. Conversation closed.

          • B-Lar

            Nice work with the Nazi quip. Its not quite the final refuge for the impotent rhetorician, but you already covered “I know you are but what am I?” in a more verbose format.

            As for what your “person” offers, humanity will not be permitted to progress if we are prohibited from making moral assessments based on reality, not appeals to authority. This is why your reason is flawed. You have not understood the depth of the question. I utterly unsurprised that you want to close the conversation.

            Will you refrain from making such broad assumption about atheist thought in the future? If you are not willing to consider your cognitive biases, then maybe you might be willing to not put your foot in your mouth as you go forward, even if you don’t understand why.

      • Tom Shmenkman

        Again, NONE of the above have anything to do with atheism. Atheism is lack of belief in gods. That is all it is. There are no rule books of atheism, no guidelines of atheism and no authoritative leaders of atheism.

        Furthermore, I disagree with your points 1, 2, sometimes 3, parts of 4, 5, sometimes 6, and parts of 7. My entire Christian family agrees with points 9 and 10.

        When I realized I was an atheist, I knew nothing of the wars caused by or in the name of religion and nothing of science. If religion was never responsible for any wars, bigotry or violence I would still be an atheist. If scientists disproved evolution tomorrow, I would still be an atheist. I’m not an atheist because I see harm in religion and I”m not an atheist because (to the best of our current knowledge) we have proved evolution to be true. I’m an atheist for one reason: I don’t believe in any gods. I don’t believe in any gods because there is no empirical evidence to prove otherwise, although the reason I don’t believe in any gods is completely insignificant to my atheism. Anything outside the bounds of disbelief in deities is dependent upon the individual and is completely separate their atheism.

        • john

          Very puzzling Tom, I’m sure there are lots of things you believe that you don’t personally have empirical evidence for which means you accept them in faith. Your one reason for being an atheist is not a reason it’s a description. The question is why don’t you believe in any Gods? Or at least the possibility even if you can’t prove it? And with great respect to your Christian family I can’t understand how anybody can accept evolution as proven and still be able to believe in the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Equally, point 10 the scriptures make it abundantly clear that human righteousness has no value in God’s eyes no matter how good a person thinks he is. The other dogmas I have enumerated are a summary of the general beliefs of the new athiests – don’t suppose they all accapt all points anymore than, it seems, all Christians believe the same things

      • Jordan Ashley Monge

        I accept point 9.

    • AbnDoc

      So, you currently hold the same belief system that you formed at the age of eight when you decided you knew more than all the adults in your life who were forcing you to do something you didn’t want to do. Hmmm.

      • ThisIsTheEnd

        At what age do Christians typically have a “Come to Jesus” moment? And should a child born of pagan parents not question their belief in Thor?

        • AbnDoc

          We all should question our beliefs. We should never keep the same beliefs for 40 years without thinking about why we believe them. and without continuing to study and learn. That was my point. To reject something at the age of 8 is no better than to accept something at the age of 8 without growing further.

          The Bible says that we are to examine ourselves and our beliefs. Many Christian church goers do not do that. The Bible also addresses those who do not continue to grow in knowledge but rather just coast along. Too many Christians also do that. They just cruise along singing happy songs and that is good enough for them. We are supposed to have faith but not faith alone.

          However, to say that there is not intellectual, historical and logical reasons to believe in Jesus is also dishonest. The Bible says we should always be ready to defend our faith. That means we should learn why we believe what we believe. Christianity was never meant to be taken on faith alone. There is sufficient proof to believe; but, if you decide to not believe, you can find plenty of excuses why you should not.

          Whether you believe in Christ or not, your beliefs should be re-examined regularly. I often put myself in the place of someone else’s view and ask myself why they believe what they believe. I have yet to find that doing so has caused me to reject Christ but rather it has strengthened my faith. However, it has helped me to reject some of the common beliefs of the average church member.

          I would never fear that someone who truly seeks the truth from independent, historical resources would not have to seriously consider Christ. That person may still choose not to accept Him; but, that person must reject many reasonable facts and proofs to do so.

          Some of the most vehement defenders of Christianity have been those who started off trying to disprove and expose it as a lie and did an intensive study with an open mind. They found more historical and reasonable proofs than they were able to reject.

          • ThisIsTheEnd

            Thanks for your lengthy reply. I rejected my mother’s belief in God at the age of 10, at the time it was incoherent. I’m now at the age of 40 and I find it even more incoherent. But my disbelief at 8 isn’t the same as my disbelief now. My disbelief has matured. You seem to imply that somebody losing their belief should mature into belief.

          • sg

            Your mother. Okay, what about dad? Is he religious? There is the pattern that father’s religiosity translates to offspring’s religiosity but not mother’s. How rigorously that has been investigated, I am not sure, but religiosity is heritable. Caveats here, it could be that what is inherited is something that correlates with religiosity but I haven’t seen whether that other thing has been identified.

        • sg

          Typically? Probably in their first year of life when they are baptised. Most Christians are Roman Catholic or Orthodox or one of the many others that baptise infants.

          Most people aren’t skeptical of anything including religion.

  • ThisIsTheEnd

    “Atheism has been dominant in the academy for centuries” You can’t be serious. And yet your bio says you graduated from Harvard University.

    • Tom Shmenkman

      I suspect he’s a Poe.

      • ThisIsTheEnd

        It wouldn’t surprise me

  • Luke T. Harrington

    I follow your thoughts on how atheism is the de facto dogma of academia, but doesn’t that gloss over the important question of *how* atheism achieved such a privileged position in the first place? It seems like one could offer a number of explanations, one of which is that it’s simply the position best supported by the evidence.

    • ThisIsTheEnd

      Deism and teleology has been the dominant ideas in academia. Its only been in the last 100 years or so that they’ve been challenged by science and philosophical naturalism. Even in 21st C America half of working scientists are religious.

    • sg

      Yes, indeed, how? Of course some folks are skeptical of religion and its claims, however most people in general and smart people in particular are going to want to join the club of the most successful people. So, if smart people think it is true, well then it probably is. Okay, fine, but that is not skepticism. It is the bandwagon effect.

      Academia and academic positions are highly competitive. Being an out loud and proud Christian is about as dumb a move as one could possibly make and still hope to get a job let alone tenure. Could an atheist award that position to a Christian knowing that there was an atheist who also applied and who could do the job? People are inherently influenced by their tendency to homophily. They like their own. They want to advance one of their own rather than one who is of the “other.”

      • ThisIsTheEnd

        Are you really suggesting that at a secular educational institute that tenure maybe refused due to the applicant not being an atheist? I understand that America is a deeply religious country but why would questions of religion even come up in a job interview?

        • sg

          “Are you really suggesting that at a secular educational institute that tenure maybe refused due to the applicant not being an atheist?”

          Yes. People are very much for “us” and against “them.”

          Questions don’t come up in a job interview, but the candidates are already known. They don’t have to ask. The interview is pro forma.

          • ThisIsTheEnd

            *Edit of my original post* I’ve just read some of your other posts, esp to Rebecca. Your opinion doesn’t really count for much. But thanks for the reply

          • sg

            So, I must be one of “them.”

            Most discussions aren’t really about ideas. They are about status and trying to decide whether you are talking to one of “us” or one of “them.”

            As soon as you figure out that you don’t like someone, then you don’t want to talk to them. Because, it is about deciding who you like. It is emotion.

            Consider this.

            What if there were a forum where no one were identified even by so much as a two letter pseudonym? Commenters could only refer to comments by comment number. Who would participate in such a forum? People who only want to discuss ideas. Those who scout around to see what else the commenter has posted to decide whether or not they like him before discussing any ideas with him, well they would likely be disoriented rather than liberated.

            I am willing to discuss any idea with anyone. I am not interested in your comment history or what you said or whether your opinion is worth anything. The ideas stand on their own independent of the genius or moron who may be discussing those ideas.

            Can you understand this approach?

        • GordonHide

          It’s possibly a good thing that I’m no longer interviewing job applicants. I have to say when I find out someone is seriously religious I wonder whether their irrationality might be present in other areas.

  • VorJack

    Whatever remains of the “new atheist” crowd will argue that this study proves that education causes one to reject religion.

    It’s worth noting that PZ Myers, probably the most vocal of the “New Atheists,” has dismissed the findings as basically meaningless and criticized the methodology.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/13/yall-can-stop-patting-yourselves-on-the-back-now/

    One thing about academics, they tend to be their own harshest critics.

  • LKArtillery

    This is pretty bogus on the basis that one’s intelligence has nothing to do with their cultural beliefs. What is “intelligence”, anyway? Scientific know-how? That’s hardly the be-all and end-all of intelligence.

    Honestly, it’s an argument that reeks of a colonialist mindset– an attempt to prove that people with different worldviews are inferior for it, and therefore their views and humanity can be thusly invalidated.

    Perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic, but I can’t fathom why anyone in their right mind would attempt to prove one cultural group of people less intelligent than another.

  • sg

    The main problem is that intelligence leads to atheism, but atheism doesn’t lead to intelligence. So, we see these smart, nice atheists and we decide we can just pick up that arrow of causality and point it in the opposite direct and voilà atheism will cause intelligence, except that it won’t. Getting rid of religion won’t make people smarter or nicer or more compassionate or any other virtue we would wish to cultivate.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    This is self-serving pap. The church is often a terribly unwelcoming place for highly intelligent people. A person who is highly intelligent can’t help but ask questions, be skeptical, look at thing in New and novel ways. The fact that people given to do these things find what is often their first experience with acceptance and affirmation among the non-religious is an indictment of the church.

    I am a religious writer, a member of mensa who could give away two standard deviations and still be a member of mensa and a highly creative person. Every time I write about the intersection of creativity, intelligence and the church, I am inundated by people sharing their experiences of being practically hounded out of the church. Some churches and Christians are very open and even vicious about those who are intelligent. Scientists are evil and serve the devil. There are bible verses which gets used as weapons to put down intelligence. Nearly every church has a policy of not supporting the work of their creative members.

    But, as always, “Christians”, such as they are, would rather cast blame outward than look inward for solutions. It’s a comfortable but narrative, but one which is complete an utter horse hockey of the most putrid sort.

    • sg

      I am skeptical. So, let’s see, can you perhaps explain why no woman has won the Fields Medal? Science please, no fantasy, wishful thinking, etc.

      • Guest

        What does that have to do with Rebecca’s point?

        • sg

          Rebecca says she believes in science. Uh, huh. Well, let’s see her believe it. I am guessing she doesn’t.

      • Rebecca Trotter

        I’m not sure if you are implying that women or Christians or Christian women don’t believe in science or you’ve just gone off your meds and your family needs to remove sharp object from your environment for your own safety. (Science isn’t something you “believe in”, btw. It’s a disciplined study of the physical world. “Believing in science” is a bit like “believing in writing” or “believing in music”.) Perhaps a little nap will help you in your quest to form coherent thoughts?

        • sg

          I agree that science requires no belief because it doesn’t operate in the realm of faith. However, civility is something people believe in, or not, in your case.

          Anyway, I bring up the demonstrated mathematical achievements of men in contrast to women only to make the point that women don’t achieve like men do. Science helps us understand why. Of course, understanding such facts is not currently popular because what people believe is contradicted by what inquiry reveals.

          • Rebecca Trotter

            Women haven’t been allowed to achieve in science and math until relatively recently and are still facing headwinds. Yes, extreme outliers at both ends of the spectrum – both intelligence and disability – are more likely to be men. But women are far from absent among either the highly intelligent or the disabled. And only an utter ignoramus (who deserves little to no civility) would use statistical facts to make generalizations about individuals. Misogyny, like racism, is the pervue of tiny people with minuscule moral reasoning who are wasting the air that the good Lord has so graciously supplied them. Attempting to put a scientific sheen on it by selectively choosing facts to support it, doesn’t change that.

          • sg

            Who is talking about individuals?

            So, you don’t accept what science reveals.

            I am not surprised.

            Women are facing headwinds like special help and extra scholarships and set asides, etc.

            So, tell us what selection pressures would select women for any of the areas of achievement where men consistently outperform women such as the arts, music, athletics, math.

            Also, I discuss things civilly, not so much because I think a given individual deserves it, but out of self discipline and respect for the dignity of the forum and its many readers.

            Attempting to put a scientific sheen on it by selectively choosing facts to support it, doesn’t change that.
            This statement is just wishful thinking. No evidence supports it. Go ahead. Select your facts in support of your fantasy. You won’t find them. They don’t exist.

    • Jordan Ashley Monge

      Hi Rebecca, as an intelligent person, I’ve also found certain churches to not be the most welcoming place at times. But even in communities where the church is welcoming toward intelligent people (what I’ve found largely in Boston), the average person still seems to have bought into the narrative “smart people reject religion” even if they’ve had no negative experiences with the church personally. Both probably have some role to play, but I think your perspective (the church drives out religious people) gets a lot of media play and the other perspectives don’t get repeated very much. So I’m invested in proposing alternative explanations even while open to acknowledging that there is some truth to your position as well.

  • john

    This has nothing to do with the creation of life, It has to do with original sin. How do these ‘believers’ you speak of understand the significance of the crucifixtion of Christ?

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