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.

  • Andrew B.

    Gyah! Racist! The fool said in his heart there is no god! Spiritual Wisdom! Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall!

  • Gus Snarp

    I have no doubt that as intelligence and education increase, religiosity tends to decrease and I don’t know much about the methodology of this meta-analysis or of the studies it analyses, but the chart displayed deserves one very serious caveat: aggregating this kind of thing at the national level is a terrible way to evaluate these variables. It is highly unlikely that nations are highly variable in innate intelligence, what’s being measured there is likely cultural and educational effects. Nations in general also have huge problems in considering statistics, so I hope whoever did the study at least understood spatial statistics versus simply applying standard statistical measures to spatial problems.

  • Dave The Sandman

    This news Foxified:
    “And now science proves God makes you smarter!
    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 shows in 10 recent studies believing in God and Baby Jesus makes you smarter compared to the dumb atheists. In fact, two of the studies showed significant differences between the smart God believers in this blessed nation of ours and that scruffy whiny crowd of unAmerican non believers.
    Michelle Bachmann, (R – Gilead), on hearing the news praised the Lord and stated she will now ask Congress to approve her bill making praying at least five times a day compulsory before each class in all schools, and before, during and after all work in all public office assemblies. She gave us this exclusive comment: “Praise Jesus and Pappa Yaweh! I told you it was atheism, soshulism, and vaccines that caused mental retardation. Suck it you hellbound R Tards!”
    We asked for a comment from the White House, but our sly president and Kenyan Muslim in chief refused to be drawn out on why we cant pray more in schools as a result of these groundbreaking findings. We will continue to raise these findings with the Obamination in chief and ask why he perpetuates his war on all things white, Christian and Christmassy.
    Now, here is Bimbobabe McLeggity with the weather.”

  • Gus Snarp

    Ah, I see the original article does have partial caveat on the study that provided the chart:

    The positive correlation between intelligence and atheism was a strong one, but the study came under criticism from Gordon Lynch of Birkbeck College, because it did not account for complex social, economical, and historical factors.

    Interesting that one of the studies that was explicitly criticized is the one that provide the chart for both this post and the original article. I get that the chart is nice to look at and easy to understand on a surface level, but it’s a bit of a disservice to the real science involved.

  • C Peterson

    Well, obviously.

  • randomfactor

    Around here, a hotty season comes before a fall.

  • Jennifer Bourne

    Watch this reframed as “They’re so arrogant that they think there smarter than everyone else in 5 …4 …3 …2…

  • Corey Henderson

    First thing that came to mind when I read this:

    Any hope of getting a large majority of people to identify as Atheist and really leave religion would thus depend on how much IQ can change due to upbringing and education. It’s instantly a nurture vs. nature issue.

    IE: If most of IQ is innate, due to genetics, etc., and can’t change, then people’s religiosity may not change no matter what we do. If a low IQ causes people to require religion as a substitute for the self-driven attributes that stem from IQ, then they’ll never leave their religions.

    The sad part is that this actually explains a lot about how powerful popes, pastors, rabbis and imams can control so many people. The people they control have low IQs. This is super-scary, if IQ cannot be improved in any way after birth.

  • Amor DeCosmos

    “they’re” smarter.

  • Amor DeCosmos

    “Racist”. WTF?

  • axelbeingcivil

    You might want to try and see the correlation between this and the median income of the nations in question. I’d be willing to bet money that median income and average IQ score correlate pretty heavily.

    IQ tests, versus general intelligence tests, are predisposed to heavy education biases. Similarly, poorer regions have a very strong need for religion; it’s both a succor for daily pains and a way to maintain strong communities. They’re also typically responsible for charities.

    It’s a neat correlation here but that’s all it really is.

  • Peter Choi

    I fear that you are actually close to the truth. Some scientists suspect that religiosity might be innate for vast majority of people.

    In my case, my IQ is rather high, but I remained highly religious until I was 29 because I was raised in a very religious environment. I even learned how to read from a Children’s Bible. Probably that’s why I am still struggling with any remaining religiosity in me.

    Just wasting your time on Internet discussions will reveal you that people come with vastly different wiring. I frequent this particular Internet community and many of the members are fanatically into mysticism.

  • Nicholas

    Go away troll.

  • KMR

    Meyers Briggs isn’t hardly without it’s criticism but I have read that certain personalities are apt to be more religious than others. ISFJ’s versus INTJ’s for example. I found it interesting.

  • Jason Hinchliffe

    As atheism roots deeper into our culture, and begins to adopt the traits of religious institutions (atheist “churches”, social groups etc.), this disparity will disappear. People will begin to uncritically choose atheism as a world view.

  • DavidMHart

    Looks to me like he just forgot his snark tags.



  • Forrest Cahoon

    Obviously “they’re” is the grammatically correct form, but the people who would actually say this are as likely to use “there” or “their”.

  • JET

    We are all born with an intellectual capacity, but that capacity covers a wide range. A child may be born with a high intellectual capacity, but if he or she is never exposed to anything more than very limited or erroneous ideas (the Bible for instance), that child will not be able to reach the highest level of their capacity. Likewise, you can educate a child to function at the upper limit of their potential, which might cause them to appear more intelligent on standardized tests than a person with a higher capacity but a limited education. IQ tests attempt to place a person in an exact spot on the scale without taking other factors into consideration. Education is the key.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    IQ can be trained higher, though. It tends to drop between childhood and adulthood without continued learning, but can be made to improve. There are even a number of people who compete for the highest living IQ score by testing and who train to that effect.

    Now whether critical thinking can be learned as a skill where it didn’t exist as a talent to nurture, I don’t know. Given how people rationalize and entrench themselves when presented with new information, it doesn’t seem to be anywhere near a generally trainable skill, which thought makes me very depressed.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    I’m sorry, I just completely lost it at the image of Bachmann yelling, “Suck it you hellbound R Tards!” Even if she wouldn’t say it near a microphone, it doesn’t sound out of character.

  • TnkAgn


  • C.L. Honeycutt

    Guys, he’s joking.

    The “Racist!” part is genius. You must be an atheist. ;-)

  • Ryan Jean

    …she will now ask Congress to approve her bill making praying at least
    five times a day compulsory before each class in all schools…

    Onion-level treatment aside, this one strikes me as something the theocrats might really push for, without even realizing the significance of “praying … five times a day” to a certain other religion that they have a hate fetish about.

  • abb3w

    Another possibility for why there’s less correlation among the young is that there are now areas where irreligion is common enough to be the conformist position. A decade plus back, most irreligious deconversions tended to be from non-Authoritarian (low-RWA) personalities giving religion intellectual/critical scrutiny and finding theism lacking; with the increasing numbers, there may now be some more socially conformist kids giving up religion because “everyone else is” among their peers.

  • abb3w

    That a hypothesis is obvious doesn’t mean it will survive empirical validation.

  • NateW

    I was wondering about that. If this is a chart of average intelligence by COUNTRY but only includes English language studies sampling from the USA, UK and Canada, would it be likely that the, say, Indian sample population would have a proportionately higher percentage of well educated individuals in scientific fields causing their “nation” to rank as more atheist overall?

    (Please note that this is based only on my anecdotal observations in western PA where most Indian immigrants that I interact with came to the area pursuing careers in medicine and technology)

  • eric

    “the authors found that gender or education made no difference to the correlation between religiosity and intelligence. However, age mattered”

    Just trying to make sure I’m parsing this right. This statement is basically saying: smart well-educated people and smart uneducated people were about equally irrelegious. Smart men and smart women were about equally irreligious. However, young smart people were more religious than old smart people.
    If so, I find the part about education very surprising. I think it goes against a number of other studies, that seem to indicated that education tends to correlate with decreased religiosity. And it also goes against their very next sentence, about the impact of college, since that is an increase in education.
    Am I reading this right? Are they truely saying that education doesn’t seem to matter?

  • busterggi

    There are hotties in the fall, they’re just wearing more.

  • Beth

    The more you understand of the world, the less you need fairy tales.

  • C Peterson

    No. But they usually do.

  • 3lemenope

    A tongue-in-cheek exploration of religion and personality.

  • ShoeUnited

    I believed that was either addressed in the article or comments that it may have to do with kids still having religion from home and just fresh to or even pre-college.

  • 3lemenope

    I’d go so far as to say that of the most important discoveries, pretty much all of them have been extremely non-obvious and counterintuitive. Heliocentrism, atomic theory, evolution, the laws of motion, relativity, quantum mechanics, the germ theory of disease; it’s hard to see how any of these would occur to a person who was normally going about their lives with only the information apparent to their unaided senses to work with. It took rigorous empiricism to suss out that the world works in all sorts of non-obvious ways.

  • Machintelligence

    There is the Flynn effect, which notes that IQ tests must be continuously re-normed because IQ (or whatever it is that IQ tests measure) increases about 3 points per decade and has been doing so since the tests were first introduced.Dan Dennett, in his book on thinking tools attributes this in part to the diffusion of thinking memes from the scientific community to the general public. The increase in IQ correlates with the increase in atheism.

  • Bill George

    Only a fool would thing religion has anything to do with race or racism…oh wait they do…they can promote it.

  • Bill George

    I would disagree, most of them are obvious…but…only once you have the tools at hand to properly examine the world around you. Just because something is not obvious to a child does not mean it is not obvious and the people thousands of years ago were children to us. If you do not have the mindset of science nothing much would be obvious, we had to learn to think analytically before we could advance much.

  • Tom

    I’m not so sure – there are many difficult, important questions to which religions provide easy, wrong answers and atheism provides no answer at all, but leaves people to figure out for themselves. Even those people who may eventually drift towards atheism simply out of conformism will still, therefore, experience greater net incentive to learn how to think and improve their intelligence.

  • SJH

    “his meta-analysis only targets analytic intelligence.”

    Very important caveat. I think many atheists assume that intelligence = the ability to think analytically. What would the correlation be if we compared all types of intelligence?

    “So after controlling for other factors, they can only confidently show
    strong negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity among
    American Protestants.”

    Also a very important caveat. Some protestant/evangelical religions are highly dependent on emotional gratification rather that contemplation. This might tilt the numbers to reflect the fact that these people will likely depend less on their analytical intelligence and more on their emotional.

    Also, they mention that there are three possible explanations why their conclusion is true. This is a sign to me that the study is biased. As complex as the world and its societies are do they really only think there are only three reasons? Either they are very naive or they have an agenda or they are making broad assumptions or a combination of the three.

    I would also like to see a study that compares intelligence and religiosity in history. Given that most of the great scientists of the last 2000 years were religious, it would seem that our place in history would be relevant to the discussion. Perhaps we are in an age where religion is in a slump because of current events rather than level of intelligence?

  • Thalfon

    This post is about the graph posted, which it should be clearly noted is NOT related to the study that the post is actually about (it’s a different study by Richard Lynn of the University of Ulster).

    It actually seems to me that if you look at 10% and higher, the spread is fairly even. Things only really seem to start going south if the atheist population is under 10% of the total.

    And yet, having 15% atheists versus having, say, 8%, really shouldn’t affect the overall average IQ of a country that much, even if atheists were significantly smarter on average. Say atheists were on average 20 points of IQ higher (pretty damn big). The jump from 8% to 15% atheists should then affect the national average IQ by going from .08(x+20) + .92x to .15(x+20) + .85x. Do some simple subtraction and you see a athiesm population boost from 8% to 15% would change the overall IQ upward by a mere 1.4 points (regardless of choice of x). Pretty insignificant.

    So the left edge of this chart simply cannot be explained by atheists being smarter than the religious on average, although the reverse, that smarter people might be more likely to be religious may be related to this. There must be a much more significant factor at play causing some of these countries to drop as low as 65 national average IQ. Here are a few hypotheses:

    - Extremely religiously run countries may have poorer education. If there is a correlation between countries that are extremely religious and poor education, then the left edge of the chart is explained.
    - Related: There may be a strong correlation between countries with very low average IQ and countries in which an atheist feels the need to hide their atheism. In this case the chart would simply not be able to accurately speak to the intelligence of atheists at all.
    - Poor education in a country may reduce the likelihood of religious -> atheist deconversions. This wouldn’t imply that atheists are smarter, just that well-educated individuals are more likely to deconvert, which there is other science to back up. People simply don’t see the other options.

    In a nutshell, that graph only really seems to show a correlation between extremely high religiosity (as measured by atheists/total-pop) and reduced national average IQ. I don’t see any correlation between atheism and intelligence based on that particular graph.

  • GeraardSpergen

    That is a strange chart. Are there really entire countries whose average IQ is in the 60′s?? That’s barely functional.
    And why would average IQ by country be the metric vs individual IQ? This is the problem with metadata.

  • Machintelligence

    Given that most of the great scientists of the last 2000 years were religious

    But for 1600 of those years being non-religious was not an option, unless imprisonment or being burned at the stake could be considered an option. Some authors arranged to have their works that challenged religious ideas published posthumously to avoid just that problem. Society as a whole, with certain exceptions (hello Islam) is becoming more civilized and tolerant as time goes on. Religions evolved in a low information environment and are having trouble with modern society and the internet.

  • Brian

    It’s a standardized test, so im sure that many countries where populations are completely illiterate would score very low (if they are tested at all). Plus, 95% of the population falls between 70 and 130. I wouldnt say that a 60 score is “barely functional,” im sure they are capable of living just fine in their rural countries that lack any formal education.

  • Jason Hinchliffe

    They’ll simply create answers out of the available science. They’ll take the shortest and easiest route for the most part. Atheism is becoming a fashion statement, and unduly getting associated with other world views that are not actually related in any way (like feminism for example). The questions won’t be answered or asked except by a smaller minority that already existed. The majority will simply regurgitate whatever arguments first resonated with them. Further, being atheist does not denote any particular ability to think critically. One can make a correct decision for incorrect reasons.

    You say that those who drift over will experience greater net incentive to learn and think, but don’t offer any justification as to why that would be. I already see a large disincentive within this very community towards open thought. Questioning a popular viewpoint, or failing to uphold a strongly liberal world view is an invitation to be shouted down and ridiculed. I’ve spoken at length with young atheist graduate students, and although this is anecdotal, I found them to have no greater ability to see outside their own adopted social dogma, than a evangelical christian does theirs. The very “thumb up/thumb down” nature of the communication allows people to promote or dismiss an idea democratically without proving that their reasoning is sound. It leads to pandering and politics.

    This is of course, painting with an extremely wide brush, and I don’t mean to make a sweeping accusation. But I do mean to say, that it is of the greatest importance, if the atheist community is to remain a strongly critical community, it is important that we do not allow dogma to slip in to the conversation.

  • KMR

    LOL :)

  • # zbowman

    Parenthetically, ‘hate fetish’ is now my favourite term to describe exactly what they do.

  • the moother

    I’ve long since distanced myself from the canard that religious people are not stupid but merely exhibit cognitive dissonance.

    The more I learn about stuff the more I understand how stupid I am about so much other stuff and how there are so many people on this planet that are far, far smarter than I am.

    So it goes without saying that the folks that read the same book over and over again for their entire lives are eons behind in intelligence.

  • Jennifer Bourne

    You got it. ;)

  • sudon’t

    Well, duh!

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  • god
  • TBJ

    Everybody thank god for this post

  • SJH

    I think the great thinkers of the last two millennia did not believe in God just because their local bishop told them to do so. They we’re intelligent people. They believed in something because they thought it was true.

    Also, the assumption seems to be that we are more intelligent than we used to be just because we have more information. Perhaps there are more atheists now because we are less intelligent than we used to be. Certainly we know more facts but that doesn’t make us more intelligent. Maybe there are there tiers. The low intelligent, who are prone to believe what they are told, the middle, who are smart enough to find information but can’t put it together and the intelligent who put it all together. Perhaps we are in the age of the middle.

  • Hungry Heathen

    Relax people – if it was a real troll, do you really think he would’ve made it through half of that without resorting to all-caps?

  • UWIR

    I’m not sure this is an explanation. Correlation is co-variance divided by internal variance. If atheism becomes dominant, then that lowers the co-variance, but it also lowers the internal variance. Will the ratio change? I’d have to see the math on that to be convinced.

  • UWIR

    That still doesn’t explain the missing quote marks after “everyone else”. And shouldn’t it be “thier”? As well as “then” instead of “than”, and no “that” (subordinating conjunctions are for Ivory Tower intellectuals!), and perhaps “every1″ instead of “everyone”.

  • Castilliano

    Citation needed.

  • C Peterson

    I’m not sure how it would be possible to cite something like that.

    But Occam’s Razor is a useful tool. Certainly, my experience with science is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the simplest, most obvious hypothesis tends to be the one that holds up best. And I think this applies beyond science, as well.

    It’s easy to pick some highly counterintuitive examples to the contrary, but they don’t really represent most cases.

  • Guest

    IQ can be improved after birth, fortunately.

  • Guest

    Meyers Briggs sucks balls and should not be used by anyone. It is to personality tests what astrology is to astronomy.

  • Agni Ashwin

    Has any study focused on intelligence and spirituality (rather than “religiosity”)?

  • UWIR

    “They we’re intelligent people.”
    Did they know how to spell “were”?

  • SJH

    Check out this response to this study

  • Rod Martin, Jr.

    Occam’s Razor can be useful as a tool for initial brainstorming, but not as a part of final, thorough analysis. There are too many exceptions.

    “Easy” to pick counterintuitive? You lost me there.

    I know of too many exceptions to this “negative association between intelligence and religiosity.”

    I’ve known hundreds of very religious people who were smarter than me and I have a borderline genius IQ, by some standards — 139. All 3 of my younger brothers have higher IQs, and they’re religious, too. In fact, my youngest brother was considered untestable — off the charts, somewhere above 200.

    I think a far more important criterion is the amount of ego a person is using at any one moment. Here “ego” is the Buddhist term (not Western psychology) for selfishness, separateness and ignorance. Ego can destroy scientist and the religious equally well. Ego sometimes pretends to know-it-all, and this arrogance makes it impossible to learn anything new. This strikes scientists with equal ferocity. Just look at the ridicule dished out by the establishment in North American anthropology on the “Clovis first” dogma. Ridicule in science? Does it come standard with that? I think not. We each carry our own ego burden. Letting go of it is frequently an impossible challenge. And such hubris makes it very hard to receive the answers being asked.

  • Rod Martin, Jr.

    Analytical thinking is an important tool, yes, but humility and restraint are the better parts of skepticism. If someone thinks they have it all figured out, they’re not going to be able to learn anything new, especially if it contradicts their warm and cozy fix on things.

    And, it seems, millions of lofty intellects have missed the rather obvious (to me) flaw in skepticism — the potent bias of “doubt.” Why not use restraint and humility, and dump skepticism as the paradigm? Ah, but skepticism has a dark side, and ego loves to dwell there.

    Too many view science versus religion and miss the obvious (to me) potential benefit of science AND religion. Both seek answers. Science studies the products of creation and religion (in its purest form) studies the sources of creation.

    Science could also study those sources, if it weren’t for ego and the bias of “doubt” built into skepticism. You don’t study flame by dousing your fuel with water before ignition. Seemingly intelligent scientists can be so dumb some times.

  • Rod Martin, Jr.

    And the more ego you have, the less likely you are to learn anything new.

    Such pejorative labels are meant to divide, not to bring understanding. And you clearly do not understand.

  • Beth

    Rod…may I call you Rod?
    Good for you buddy, it’s adorable when trolls come and reply to comments of strangers on the internet two months after everyone has moved on.
    Never change!