Religion and Intelligence

By Denyse O’Leary, at

“Why should fewer academics believe in God than the general population? I believe it is simply a matter of the IQ. Academics have higher IQs than the general population,” says Ulster University academic Richard Lynn. “Several Gallup poll studies of the general population have shown that those with higher IQs tend not to believe in God.”

Evidence is reviewed pointing to a negative relationship between intelligence and religious belief in the United States and Europe. It is shown that intelligence measured as psychometric g is negatively related to religious belief. We also examine whether this negative relationship between intelligence and religious belief is present between nations. We find that in a sample of 137 countries the correlation between national IQ and disbelief in God is 0.60 [a high correlation].

The highlight of the paper is the chart of 137 nations. And it looks pretty convincing until you study it carefully. Then, picturing the data is a cart for the theory, wheels start wobbling….

Good thing it’s easy to test that oe. Canada has a similar history, and features average IQ 99, with 22 percent not believing in God. So twice as many Canadians don’t believe in God but exhibit no statistically significant reward in IQ. That’s one wheel off – but it’s still a tricycle…. In 2008, the Czech republic clocked IQ 98, 61 percent disbelieving in God, and Slovakia at IQ 96, with only 17 percent disbelieving in God. The difference is obviously cultural. Second wheel gone. We now have a bicycle….The third wobbly wheel was the fact that Israel and Portugal -with very different culture and histories – both feature IQ 95. But in Israel 15 percent disbelieve and in Portugal 4 percent. So tripling or quadrupling the number of atheists did nothing for IQ when culture and history are different….In other words, the level of atheism could range from 18 percent up to 42 percent, with the average IQ at 100. Maybe it’s time to turn that unicycle into a plant stand.

There is no consistent relationship between religion and IQ.

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  • Joe Canner

    Unfortunately, the paper referred to is currently not available. Nonetheless, there are several things about this that trouble me as a statistician:

    1. The correlation is 0.60 which is indeed quite high for this sort of analysis. All of Ms. O’Leary’s nit-picking about individual cases that don’t fit the pattern doesn’t take away from the fact that there is a high correlation.

    2. Her discussion implies that the paper is trying to show that atheism boosts IQ. But as every statistics student knows, correlation is not (necessarily) causation. These data neither show that atheism affects IQ, nor do they show that high IQ causes atheism or that low IQ causes theism. Nonetheless, it is a relationship that is worth discussing.

    3. She tries to improve on the analysis by removing countries where theism or atheism is mandated or highly encouraged. She claims that this removes the correlation, but without a proper re-analysis, I don’t think we can conclude that.

  • Joe Canner

    P.S. I did a basic reanalysis of Ms. O’Leary’s modified data and got a correlation of 0.53 which is lower, but still fairly high. The pattern of data is somewhat strange and could easily be affected by outliers. She also fails to exclude Saudi Arabia, a notorious enforcer of religious belief, and without seeing who she did exclude it’s hard to assess her criteria for exclusion.

    Personally, I would much rather see a study of individuals in various countries, measuring IQ and religious belief. Doing this on a country-by-country basis obscures a lot of factors which would be important for such a discussion.

  • Maybe there are fewer religious folk among academicians because the academic process selects them out? In some cases, give the conservative Christian antipathy toward higher education, this may be justifiable. After all you really can’t advance very far if you believe all you co-workers are tools of Satan who are undermining our culture and society.

    Also, even if the percentage of atheists rise with IQ, they have such a small percentage of the population, there are still far more brilliant theists than there are brilliant atheists. There is also no need to limit things to just academia, I’ve known some very intelligent men and women who entered the clergy, a path not really available to atheists or non-theists.

  • Anneke Majors

    In addition, traditional IQ scores and measuring G are both outmoded views on intelligence. In Educational Psychology, ideas such as Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Successful Intelligence and, to a lesser extent, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence, are given more credence than the outmoded belief in G. Traditional IQ tests are also on their way out, as we realize that humans are far more complex creatures than traditional, quantified tests of analytical intelligence can properly portray.

  • DRT

    I would like to see that one sliced by theology!

  • Matt

    This is an interesting post that does have some interesting implications if not examined further. I would posit that in addition to the statistics that you mentioned, people who are very science-minded and critical-thinking oriented think in different ways than other people. That is, scientists are trained to only rely on the observable and as such, speculation or the unobservable is something they spend very little time thinking about because in their jobs it wouldn’t make sense to. If they apply this to their assessment of religion, it would logically follow that they would be uncomfortable with the concept of believing something without observable, falsifiable evidence. So even if the test had shown that people with high IQ’s were more likely to not believe in God, it wouldn’t surprise me that this was the case. It is relevant to point out also that even if this were the case, it would not disprove the existence of a God.

  • JGY

    While it’s implausible that “it is simply a matter of IQ,” it’s not implausible that personal intelligence is an contributing factor to religious unbelief in societies such as our own, where the fact that someone is religious is often highly dependent upon that individual’s religious upbringing. High personal intelligence often facilitates the critically re-assessment the ideas of one’s upbringing. In our society, high intelligence often brings opportunities and resources less available to others–opportunities that expose the person to viable perspectives that challenge the ideas of one’s youth and upbringing. Compared to those who remain sheltered from such exposure (perhaps because they stay with Mom and Pop on the family farm), relatively rare is the evangelical who maintains her childhood faith through university studies.

  • Steven Tyra

    I attended a large public university in CA for my undergraduate studies, and participated in the honors program in my department — generally seen as a seedbed for future academics (most of my peers in the program went on to doctoral programs, whereas I went to seminary). In the culture of the university, religious belief is a serious liability. Many downplayed it, or lost it altogether. The fact that these individuals, all of whom sported high IQs, would deny belief in God has little to do with the plausibility of such a belief, and everything to do with the professional culture of the university. There’s also a tinge of Eurocentrism, here, if you ask me. On what basis are “national IQs” established? Because the majority of people in a particular African nation don’t have access to education (or time to respond to public opinion polls conceived behind comfortable desks in the UK) are we to conclude that that nation is “dumber” than those in the West?

  • Patrick

    Perhaps arrogance is part of this equation as well.

    It happens with wealthy folks according to the Bible, they must guard against assuming they may rely on their wealth as opposed to God.

    Being well educated might make one assume he knows more than he knows?

  • P.

    # 9 – I wonder if they down play belief in Christ because of the way Christianity is seen, which is actually based upon the way many Christians present themselves: hokey, unintellectual, hating this, against that, etc. I’m a die-hard Christian and I even cringe when I see or hear about some Christian groups.

  • AHH

    I’m with Joe Canner and others here in thinking that probably neither the original nor the analysis of O’Leary (who is a journalist, not a scientist of any sort) is of much value.

    But this does touch on interesting issues. As Patrick @10 suggests, I think there is a greater temptation to a false sense of self-sufficiency for those who are smart. And P @11 has a point in terms of the anti-intellectual stance of much of the church (especially its louder portions). We had a thread here yesterday about how some of the more fundamentalist aspects of Evangelicalism set up thoughtful young Christians to lose their faith.
    Ironic that O’Leary herself has been a propagandist for the ID movement, which IMO contributes to repulsing those smart in scientific fields from the Christian faith.

  • DRT

    Is it intelligent to only believe that which is deductively provable?

  • As a scientist who is also a Christian, this question is of great interest to me. I indeed have many colleagues who are non-religious who clearly are very intelligent, and a few of them like to point out statistics like these. I’m relatively unfazed by this. I think the cultural makeup of the West, as others have alluded to in the comments, goes a long way to explaining the correlation of high IQ with nonbelief. Christianity in the West has largely abdicated the throne of scientific and other inquiry to our secular counterparts, and so it is no surprise to me that many Christian young people who progress into higher education don’t know what to do with their faith when they find out it’s not as simple as what they were taught in their churches and homes.

    That said, it’s also true that academia in the West has taken on a tacit but reactionary position to religion in general, and many believers experience indifference or outright hostility in these environs. I myself have experienced both. I think both these factors need to be taken into account when assessing such statistics as discussed in the OP.

  • Amos Paul

    I still believe that it’s incredibly important for Christians to remember that the majority of earth-shattering, influential intellectuals throughout the entire world’s history have tended to be religious. In fact Christians of all sorts are the founders of ever so many schools of thought, sciences, arts, and what have you that are the bedrock of how we think today. This would be quite surprising if we found a strong correlation or causal connection between religious belief and intelligence…

    Moreover, while I do not endorse this website in any particular form other than this, I ran across this short analysis reacting to a similar study that ran some interesting numbers.

    The claim is basically that–poorer people tend to be more religious than richer people. This is something we know, but it follows that poorer people tend to have less education and do less well on IQ tests.

    Furthermore, I would personally comment that the life of a tenured academian is comparatively much more secure and easygoing than your typical laborer or whatever. The culture of academia has aptly been noted by several of us here already as well.

  • Patrick

    Here’s another thing to consider. It doesn’t seem Islamic states have this dichotomy. Maybe I’m wrong, this is an impression only.

    This does seem to be western oriented. To the idea that we believers have abdicated to the atheists education, the Catholics sure have a lot of great schools. Every other good basketball team in college is Catholic.

  • Lynn says “…fewer academics believe in God than the general population…”

    I disagree.

    A number of recent studies show that “spirituality” or “religion” among academics and doctors varies little from the general population. And as others have commented, that small variance is likely due to academic pressures.

    The Ecklund Study (Rice) released May 2010 claims that “the ‘insurmountable hostility’ between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliche, perhaps useful as a satire on group-think, but hardly representative of reality.”

    While a person gifted with greater reasoning capacity may exhibit finer nuance in their understanding of spirituality, a growing body of recent studies show that elevated intellect and advanced academic training has little influence on a persons religious/spiritual inclinations. Spiritual belief and practice, as abstraction, remains generally constant throughout the intellectual spectrum.