are believers stupider than atheists?

intellect vs belief cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward
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I read an interesting article by Kimberly Winston called “Are Atheists Smarter Than Believers? Not Exactly”. There’s a new study out after a century of research suggesting that the smarter you are, the less likely you are to believe in God.

Here’s an interesting and insightful paragraph:

“The study also concludes that more intelligent people are less likely to believe in God because they are more likely to challenge established norms and dogma. They are also more likely to have analytical thinking styles, which other studies have shown undermine religious belief.”

It says that there are advantages to religious belief, such as self-esteem, feeling in control, and attachment.

I claim that the intellect has the right and even the responsibility to challenge belief, and that belief must be humble enough to allow that which is false about itself to fall away.

Belief’s greatest defense is fear. But once intelligence makes it past this formidable front, then it can do its deconstructive and constructive work.

Don’t think naively. But think! Think without fear.

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  • klhayes

    I was an advocate at a company and our dept was hired by an insurance company. I spoke to people all over the U.S. (mostly the South) in my last job and often I would ask them to read part of the letter they called about and all I would get it silence. I talked to a man who did not know the difference between 1600 and 16,000. I would ask people if they were looking for a general practitioner/family practitioner or specialist and they would say “an M.D.” I would give an example of something we did for them previously and they didn’t understand that it was just an example. They often got duped into buying this really crappy indemnity policy by agents and had no clue what they bought. They did not understand terms like pre-existing or exclusion. It was amazing.

    Many times I think that people who are not very intelligent get bombarded with too much information and cannot handle it or do not understand symbolism and metaphor. Religion is often distilled to the most basic ideas with catchy phrases which makes it easy for people and stupidity/ignorance is encouraged by religious leaders (think the Dark Ages when the masses were illiterate and the only educated people were priests) as a virtue that will keep them from “turning against God”. Religious leaders show passion for their beliefs and affirm their fears about grand conspiracies that are a sign of the end times. For the person, it provides structure in a world that is so scary to many.

  • We live in a society where atheists have long been shunned and disparaged. This is a contributing factor in why we see such a high percentage of people say they believe in God (95%?). Anytime you get a percentage that high, any stratification of intelligence within that larger group will be fairly close to the whole of society. When another group represents just a small percentage (5%?) of society, there is the potential that the stratification of intelligence within that smaller group could differ substantially from society as a whole. It may well be the case that the 5% (or so) of people that self-identify as atheists tend to be a bit better educated than society as a whole. I think this tendency to be better educated is a side-effect of needing some inertia (like education and exposure to other ideas) to be able to overcome the societal pressure to believe.

    If by some strange set of circumstances, the roles became reversed and 95% of the people were atheists and only 5% were believers, we might see that the intelligence stratification within the population of atheists do not differ much from society at large but the intelligence stratification within the population of believers does differ from the society at large. Whether or not the skewing would be towards more or less intelligence would depend on how the minority population views things like education and exploring new ideas. It could go either way.

  • Andrew Hackman

    I don’t think there is anything inherent about it… just non-belivers have more opportunity for thought typically than the believer. The believer is out-sourcing the work needed to develop ethical codes, to plan life, and make decisions. The intellect is there, but in many cases and in various aspects, it is subject to atrophy.

  • Ya know, David, I think using titles with phrases like “stupider than atheists” or “nasty atheists” and such, in themselves can reinforce the image. It is like saying, “Is Obama really a Muslim” or “Does David Hayward hate the Church as much as Atheist” can stay in someone’s mind in a way that the author never intended.

    Such title are eye grabbing of course and a good media technique. I do similar stuff all the time. But I wonder about it. I guess it depends on our intended audience and the intended effect.

    If I remember correctly, saying things like “Don’t Drop That!” can actually make it more probable that the person warned does indeed drop something more often than when someone is told “Hold that Carefully”. You see what I mean. The phrase itself as impact, even if the intended message is otherwise.

    I think many believers are not intellectual about their beliefs –and so they don’t feel the inner conflict. The believe (or belong) because it serves their lives in other ways rather than intellectual. Asking people to doubt when they perceive their beliefs as highly beneficial usually does not work. But it may plant a seed which will sprout when their faith fails.

  • that’s incredibly insightful klhayes

  • Steelwheels

    I don’t agree with the premise that atheist don’t believe. Atheist have faith. There are Theist and Atheist alike that abandon reason and intellect, and opt for a fideistic belief. Everybody believes something.

  • YesDavisIsMyFirstName

    Atheists don’t believe in God. That’s what atheism means intrinsically. There really shouldn’t need to be a word for it. We don’t have words for things like “A”-unicorn, or “A”-Santa or “A” fill in the blank. the “A” indicates “without belief. We of course do “Believe” in stuff, God just isn’t one of those things.
    Also, what do you mean by “faith?” can you define it? My understanding is that faith is believing in something without evidence, in which case atheists wouldn’t have faith in God, but we would have “faith” in atoms if you’d like, although we can see them now. So its really not faith, its just accepting a fact.

    I agree with you however that both Theist and Atheist alike often abandon reason and intellect. I think they often do this to score quick points against the other side by using emotive language.

  • Sven2547

    Attempting to draw broad generalizations about religiosity-versus-intelligence is flawed to begin with. It ultimately leads to petty ego-stroking and it is counter-productive to the conversation. Question the ideas behind religion, challenge its claims, and push back against its malfeasance, but don’t make a habit of attacking the people.

  • DKeane123

    The data in and of itself is a broad generalization, and therefore does not deal with the individual. It talks to the “Most Likely”.

  • Dorfl

    I agree. There may very well be a measurable negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity. If so, that’s a mildly interesting fact about human psychology. But it isn’t really going to be relevant in discussions about the truth of religious claims. In the end, I can’t argue any point by saying “I am right, because people who agree with me have a statistically significant tendency to be more intelligent than people who disagree”.

  • MyOwnPerson

    Maybe it has no correlation with IQ and has more to do with the fact that believers are often actively discouraged from thinking and asking questions. It may also have something to do with the fact that less intelligent people are drawn toward a belief system that claims to have all the answers while not being a referendum on the belief system itself.

  • Shary Hauber

    I like “But think! Think without fear.” I find many believers are afraid to think lest they find what they believe does not measure up to their honesty. Thinking without fear is a challenge but greatly rewarding.

  • Intelligence has little correlation to spirituality. While a person gifted with greater reasoning capacity may exhibit finer nuance in their understanding of spirituality,
    many surveys show that elevated intellect and advanced academic training has little influence on a persons spiritual inclinations.

  • Brian Westley

    Plus the whole idea of comparing a large group you’re in to another large group you aren’t in doesn’t say much of anything about individuals in those groups. As the .58 boy points out in the Phantom Tollbooth, if you’re broke but you’re with four friends who each has $10, on the average you have $8.

  • On a completely different note:
    I think it is clear that humans are not naturally evolved to be either intelligent or creative. Being either of these often comes with a deficit in happiness or social skills or acceptance or ….
    To be brilliant and creative comes at a cost.
    Another clear sign of no intelligent design !

  • klhayes

    I get what you are saying, but it takes a certain level of intelligence to delve deeply into religion (or any other topic) and a willingness to step into the unknown. People with low IQ are very fearful of having a lot of information thrown at them and many times don’t have the ability to step out of their own experiences or handle that what they were taught by their pastor or whomever that X, Y and Z are wrong.

    I don’t look down on people with low IQs b/c they are a lot of factors that go into that number and people who may not have a high IQ might be master craftspeople or have some other talent that I don’t. And I think that given the opportunity, most people with a low IQ can learn things-it might have to be done differently, it may take time but they can.

    I think we should take issue with people who encourage others to not learn and encourage an environment of no questioning and no intellectual growth.

  • Sarah

    One could also say that one who sees themselves as “Smarter” or “more intelligent” then others would put their faith in themselves and never see that they have a need for God. I once dated a very smart man who pointed out to me that it’s always the smartest people who use LSD. (Later reviled he had a drug problem….) In Yogic philosophy, when one says that they are enlightened, it is pretty certain that they are not. I consider myself a fairly intelligent woman and honestly, my life doesn’t make rational sense without a God in it. I would say that a better measure of who does and doesn’t believe in God/higher power would be to divide the control and test groups into those who have suffered and those who have not.

  • Sarah

    My view on this is that everyone should challenge what they were brought up with. In my case, I challenged God to come get me because I wasn’t going to go looking for him. At the end of my journey, God came and got me. He stood whatever test I thought I was giving him. I have to say though, it’s a scary thing to challenge God. You never know what you’re gonna get. 🙂

  • @ Sarah,
    Not sure what your last line was trying to say:
    (a) People who believe in God suffer more
    (b) People who don’t believe in God suffer more

    Which was it, or was it a something else?

  • Sarah

    I find that there are intelligent people on both sides of this equation as well as those who have suffered on both sides of the equation. What is different is that that those who have suffered have a better understanding (and motive) to dig through the question of God and come up with the answer they come up with. They are the ones who NEED to search deep and investigate for themselves. I don’t think intelligence is the right stick to measure with.

  • @ Sarah,

    I’m having a hard time trying to figure out what you are saying.

    The OP was simply pointing at data showing that, on average, Atheists are more intelligent than believers. Good points brought up have been:

    (a) So what? Who says intelligent is all that important [that sounds like yours too]

    (b) comparing averages can be deceptive [ good statistical point]

    (c) I don’t trust these studies

    But your point is very hard for me to follow.

  • Sarah

    I am saying that intelligence doesn’t lead one to or away from Christ. Spirituality is not something one can be talked into. (If it way, the world would be converted by now.) What leads people to or away from Him is relationship. When people suffer, that is usually the time they go looking for something to heal them. This is when they look to God/a god etc. People who are intelligent usually don’t get caught/in trouble as much as those of us that just can’t seem to do anything right. Why search for a God when He isn’t needed? I see correlation, not causality here.

  • Zeke

    Actually, you could argue that point. 90+% of the National Academy of Scientists are atheist. Religious folk claim to know things about the origins of the universe and mankind that these people do not.

  • Dorfl

    Alright, I *could* argue that point, but I really wouldn’t want to since I can’t see that discussion going anywhere productive.

  • Well, Sarah, I guess what the research is trying to imply is that the less intelligent someone is, the more susceptible they are to believing stories of spooks, spirits, demons and gods. And they are saying that the lower a person’s intelligence, the more easily they can be talked into a religion.

    Personally, I think that intelligence does indeed play a role for some people’s gullibility to silly beliefs — religious or otherwise. But I think religion is multifactoral and complicated and I think what you point to is very real. That is:

    Studies show that religion prospers best in lands where there is economic, social and physical insecurity.

    The correlation study on intelligence is not a causation study but it could point at causation. I think both lower intelligence and suffering can be causes to vulnerability to religious belief, whether that is belief in Allah, Jesus, Amida, Zeus, Witchcraft or Zeus.

  • Gary

    The point has been made that 90% of the scientific community are atheists and 10% are believers. It would be very interesting to see how those two subsets correlate with each other.

  • The question is about atheism, not spirituality. While you might consider the idea of a “spiritual atheist” strange, there are several strains of Buddhism that exist in the overlap.

  • My hunch would be that you would not see much difference in dividing the national academy of sciences scientists according to religious belief because those believers basically subscribe to the non-overlapping magisteria idea. They typically don’t think that prayer and devotion can affect the outcome of scientific experiments so they can keep their religious beliefs separate from the ways in which they view the world working. Of course there are also many religious people not in the national academy of sciences that also hold this view. For society at large, though, there are also many religious people that do think prayer, belief, and other devotional activity can influence or please God into doing various physical things in their favor. IMO, it is this belief of being able to influence God in real-world outcomes that would have some contribution in any over-all societal statistics showing that religious people may score a bit lower than non-religious people in certain tests.

  • The core question posed by David is this: “are smarter people less likely to believe in God?”

    First, I would argue that “belief in God” does not always equate to spirituality, empathy, charity, or love. I know Buddhists whose lives are more demonstrably Christ-like than most Christians I know, yet they do not “believe” in some anthropomorphic God (though the attributes of Karma satisfy all the attributes of God, but that’s another discussion).

    Second, if we rephrase the question like this: “are smarter people less likely to embrace spirituality?” The objective answer is clearly “no”. See survey links, above.

    I find no tension with the term “spiritual atheist”. I would suggest that Jesus came to destroy our religious and tribal belief systems so that unconditional love could better flourish among all people.

  • Gary

    Yup…I am one of those “non-overlapping magisteria” believers (though certainly not religious) who is not a member of the national academy of sciences. Though I do embrace logic and scientific discovery.

    I have enjoyed reading your contributions lately.

  • The links you provide more directly address the more educated rather than the more intelligent.

    Using the GSS 2006-2012 variable SPRTPRSN, and comparing to WORDSUM (a g proxy) and DEGREE, finds that spirituality is indeed positively correlated to both, though quite weakly. However, if one directly asks about belief in a deity (variable GOD) rather than spirituality, the objective correlation is opposite — and larger in magnitude. Of course, outliers exist from both trends; but the trends are there and opposed, indicating that the “are smarter people less likely to embrace spirituality” question which you address is a distinctly different question from the “are smarter people less likely to believe in god” that David appears to be discussing.

    The GSS dataset may be examined on-line via the tools at the Berkeley SDA.

  • Thanks for the link to the SDA Crosstab site. Really interesting!

    “the ‘are smarter people less likely to embrace spirituality’ question which you address is a distinctly different question from the ‘are smarter people less likely to believe in god’ that David appears to be discussing.”

    Yes, which is why I made the distinction. But I’ll suggest that, ultimately, a concept of God, or Absolute, or Universal Reality, or Non-Duality, informs virtually all religion AND spirituality. An advanced intellect may offer finer nuance in describing reality and experience, but I’ll suggest that advanced intellect is not “qualitatively correlated” with spiritual embodiment and experience.

    What do you think?

  • It may help to have these terms objectified (given operational definitions):

    “an advanced intellect”

    “finer nuance in describing reality and experience

    “spiritual embodiment”

    “qualitatively correlated”

    Otherwise, I doubt any conversation would get very far.

    By the way:

    Many ancestral ‘religions’ (a relatively new contrived word) have not gods, just spirits of dead ancestors or places or things. So shooting for such a generalization seems loaded with an agenda.

  • Sabio, by definition, religion seeks some element of the “supernatural” – whether it be afterlife, ancestors, Gods, or some universal higher purpose. Not sure there’s an agenda here, and certainly the words religion and spirituality are intertwined on many levels.

    Didn’t intend to use undefined words. I’m simply suggesting that a higher IQ does not necessarily correlate to a more spiritual life or one’s ability to love. Alas, sometimes it seems that intellect just gets in the way of unconditional love and compassion.

    Which brings up the topic of academic theology and divinity schools, and their value.

  • I doubt the conversation would get very far, period; my patience isn’t up for the English-to-English translation.

    However, I’d recommend Dale Cannon’s “Six Ways of Being Religious” as of possible interest. I’ll also note the SDA includes other tools besides crosstabs — also comparative means, correlations, and logit/probit regression.

  • R Vogel

    I keep seeing this study referenced, has anyone seen anything more than the abstract? I am not willing to shuck out the ducats to get the whole paper. Meta-studies have to be reviewed carefully before you make any conclusions, especially when they are correlational studies. How do they measure ‘intelligence’ or ‘religiosity.’ Isn’t it interesting that they said it negatively correlates to religious belief and not religious behavior? What’s the difference? It is also quite telling, I think, that the correlation is strongest among college students. It is a provocative headline, but without being able to dig into the data it is not much more than that. Atheists all think that they are geniuses, but you only have to talk to some to find out that is not true. Sure there are some very smart atheists, many in the Atheist Channel of this very site, but it is not a requirement to get in the door.

  • The abstract is pretty lame compared to the journal text… They are quite careful to avoid overstepping, and the also discuss other possible conclusions within the text itself. Being it was a meta-study, the measurement criteria itself is a bit muddy being taken across so many different sources. I’ll dig into it tomorrow and see if I can provide some more details.

  • R Vogel

    Thanks, Ron. I will look forward to that…

  • R Vogel

    Great point! I was wrestling with something similar but could not find the words, and regardless couldn’t have expressed is a concisely. Sample size has to have some sort of impact, especially with a study that goes back 100 years.

  • R Vogel

    This highlights some of my concern about the study. What I see described here could easily be termed ignorance, not lack of intelligence. Certainly both might be going on, but there is no way to tell on the face of it. If you use understanding insurance industry jargon as your definition of intelligence then you will have a very different outcome then if you used some other definition, say finding you way in the forest as night. I am reminded of a personally enlightening passage from Jared Diamond’s book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ when he discusses intelligence. A native from Papua New Guinea, he proposes, if transplanted to New York City, would learn his way about in a relatively short amount of time. If a New York City resident was transplanted to Papua New Guinea, he would likely be dead in that same amount of time. Yet we think of civilized people as ‘smarter.’

  • klhayes

    It’s not just insurance jargon…not being able to read your bill of 16000 and instead saying 1600. Not being able to read even a portion of the letter you got. Stammering when I ask your address only to hand the phone to your spouse. Calling over and over again about the same thing. Not being able to understand that an example is just an example.