Researchers Aggregate 63 Studies and Find ‘Significant Negative Association Between Intelligence and Religiosity’

It’s the age-old question: Are atheists smarter than the religious?

Let’s get the major caveats out of the way: There are brilliant religious people. There are really dumb atheists. “Smarter” is a vague term. And IQ is only one of many ways to measure it.

Anyway, psychologists Miron Zuckerman and Jordan Silberman of the University of Rochester and Judith Hall of Northeastern University have published a paper in Personality and Social Psychology Review that aggregates the results from 63 studies on the issue done between 1928 and 2012.

What did they find?

Turns out the data supports the idea that religion and intelligence don’t always go hand-in-hand — and the researchers have some suggestions as to why that is:

Each dot represents a country’s (lack of) religiosity and the national average IQ

A meta-analysis of 63 studies showed a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity

Three possible interpretations were discussed. First, intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma. Second, intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs. Third, several functions of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by intelligence. Intelligent people may therefore have less need for religious beliefs and practices.

Somewhere, FOX News Channel is canceling whatever they had planned for today so they can discuss this.

Akshat Rathi at Ars Technica summarizes the findings:

Out of 63 studies, 53 showed a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity, while 10 showed a positive one. Significant negative correlations were seen in 35 studies, whereas only two studies showed significant positive correlations.

Among the thousands of people involved in these studies, the authors found that gender or education made no difference to the correlation between religiosity and intelligence. However, age mattered. The negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence was found to be the weakest among the pre-college population. That may be because of the uniqueness of the college experience, where most teenagers leave home for the first time, get exposed to new ideas, and are given a higher degree of freedom to act on them. Instead, in pre-college years, religious beliefs may largely reflect those of the family.

Again, none of this is to say that all religious people are idiots. But the goals of religion don’t always overlap with the goals of a well-informed, critical-thinking society.

Rathi’s article has a few additional caveats about this particular study that are worth checking out, including the fact that this study only takes English-language studies into account and really covers only the U.S., U.K., and Canada.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.