Some beliefs are labeled irrational because they tend to be highly unsupported, unbelievable, or both. In fact, the absurdity of certain religious traditions have convinced some nonbelievers the only way people could be devoted to these belief systems is due to mental deficiencies or mental illness. The question is: Do these claims of cognitive impairment hold any water?
I recently had a discussion on social media speaking to the unsound nature of these arguments that use ableist and denigrating language to describe religious people. Because I adamantly opposed these uncharitable assertions that take an unnecessary and harmful route to delegitimize religiosity, I was branded an “enabler” to faith in the spurious and supernatural. But what does research suggest concerning this matter?
I’ve long been an avid reader of material that meticulously investigates mind perception, religion, and the “how” and “why” of religion. For this reason, I confidently stated that any individual belonging to the knowledgeable intelligentsia would laugh such notions out of the building. This caused me to think on two things: One, I doubt those who disagree will diligently explore facts that contradict their worldview (as the Darwinian Golden Rule suggests we do for the sake of intellectual honesty). Two, why not seek out experts to prove (or disprove) my stance? And so I did.
What followed was a chain of email queries all centered on the same exact question:
“Is there any merit to the assertions that religious belief is the result of either mental deficiency (retardation, stupidity, etc.) or mental illness?”
Of the 40+ emails sent out to specialists within fields that examine mental processes or the interplay between mental processes and religious beliefs, I received 35 responses. The feedback was substantial and ranged from curt replies that found the question itself silly, to more in-depth answers, some citing studies or material to support their viewpoints. I’ve truncated the information as best as possible.
CN: My emails also disclosed I was an atheist and received feedback that revealed many of those replying were also atheists. I’ve omitted parts where individuals divulge this for privacy reasons.
I began with soliciting contributors to the incredibly informative book Mental Culture: Classical Social Theory and the Cognitive Science of Religion. The book’s co-editor Dimitris Xygalatas (anthropology) replied, “There is absolutely no evidence that religiosity is associated with mental problems.”
Contributors to Mental Culture all agreed.
Armin Geertz (chair of the Religion, Cognition and Culture research unit at Aarhus University): “There is no merit in such assertions. Just the sheer empirical evidence of billions of people who are religious would refute such an assertion. Do they seriously think that all these people are mentally disturbed? I would call the assertion not only naive but also arrogant almost to the point of aberrance.”
Stewart Guthrie (anthropology, author of “A Cognitive Theory of Religion”): “I don’t know of any correlation of religiosity with stupidity. There’s some correlation of scientific education with atheism, but that’s a different issue. I believe there’s also some correlation of an analytic turn of mind with atheism, but that’s not the same as ‘general intelligence.’”
Tanya Luhrmann (anthropology): “The number of atheists over the course of world history is extremely small. The chance that everyone else is and was mentally ill is smaller.”
Robert McCauley (professor of philosophy, psychology, religion, and anthropology): “Religious cognition and sensibilities arise as a natural by-product of cognitive systems that are in place in human minds for reasons that have nothing to do with religion or with each other.”
Luther H. Martin (professor emeritus of religion): “There is evidence that religious beliefs are the result of ‘altered states of consciousness,’ no big deal since these includes dreams, imagination, fantasy, art, etc.”
D. Jason Slone (professor of cognition and culture, author of Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t): “The main claim of the research I know shows that religion is the result of perfectly normal (‘natural’) cognition.”
I then sought out contributors to a book I’m still in the process of devouring, “The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach.” Ralph W. Hood: “The claim that religion is negatively related to intelligence, education, etc. has been around for a long time. However, it runs up against the problem that ‘intelligence’ is often defined and ‘measured’ by a focus only upon reductionist claims that are compatible with a rigid view of science but not with views that are more open. So overall such claims are an artifact of what we accept as valid ways of knowing.”
Hood’s co-author Bernard Spilka directed his response to those who would promote the idea of cognitive defect or illness: “Temper your extreme negativism with a more sophisticated scientific approach. Hostility may at times be justified, but such is simplistic. Atheists such as (Daniel) Dennett, (Steven) Feierman, (Pascal) Boyer, and other solid thinkers and scholars would totally reject your stance.”
Drawing from my compendium of scholarly articles related to religion and cognition studies, I found more experts who echoed similar sentiment. Scott Atran (cognitive science of religion): “Such a view about religion is pretty mindless.” Uta Frith (neuroscientist) “That’s an untenable position.” Yoel Inbar (psychology): “I would not take anyone who made that sort of argument seriously.” Miguel Farias (cognitive and biological psychology): “Nonsense. There are no studies which I am aware of showing an association between religious belief or practice and mental illness or ‘retardation‘.” Istvan Czachesz (cognitive science of religion): “Connecting religion to mental deficiency is an absurd hypothesis that is not supported by either empirical data or any serious contemporary scientific theory.”
More responses were garnered either from referrals by other researchers or further search for input. Ray Paloutzian (psychology of religion) referred those who would take this erroneous stance to check out his work: Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (2nd ed.), Invitation to the Psychology of Religion (3rd ed., out next year).
Patrick McNamara (neurologist): “Claims that religious people are mentally deficient are patently false as any reasonable person can see. There are billions of people who call themselves religious and among those billion there will be geniuses, smart people, and not so smart people. In addition, until the modern era, virtually everyone was religious. Do we want to call all the people who went before us mentally deficient? Finally, most of the philosophers and scientists who went before were deeply religious people.”
Michael Persinger (cognitive neuroscience, neurotheology): “There is no evidence that religious belief is the result of mental deficiency or mental illness. Beliefs reflect organizations of expectations and experiences and are strongly correlated with integrity of the prefrontal regions. Beliefs are normal behaviours.”
A couple appealed to the more obvious. Vilayanur Ramachandran (neuroscientist): “Einstein often spoke of God in the Spinoza sense and so did Newton. Hardly retarded.” Robert Emmons (psychology of religion): “Here is a brief list of eminent scientists who were/are also religious believers: Bacon, Collins, Copernicus, Descartes, Einstein, Galileo, Kelvin, Kepler, Mendel, Newton, Pascal, Planck, Sandage, Townes. I don’t think of these as being mentally deficient. Would anyone?”
Similarly, several academics all essentially stated—based upon knowledge and information at their disposal—there’s no merit to assumptions of mental deficiencies being a cause for religiosity: Andreas Roepstorff (neuroscience, anthropology), David Amodio (neuroscientist), Kurt Gray (psychology), Jordan Grafman (neuropsychology), Elizabeth Page-Gould (psychology), Mario Beauregard (neuroscience), Azim Shariff (psychology), Jeppe Jensen (philosophy, cognition and religion), Peter Gray, (psychology), and Kevin Timpe (philosophy of religion), who added: “There is nothing to support such an assertion. It’s an ad hominem attack on those who have religious belief.”
Finally, two detailed responses I’ve kept mainly intact.
Uffe Schjødt (cognitive science of religion): “That is a ridiculous proposition. Religion is not a uniform construct so religious belief as such cannot be the result of any particular factor, including pathologies. That said, breaking down religion, it appears to consist of several subphenomena, e.g. rituals, supernatural beliefs, religious experiences etc. Each of these recruit underlying cognitive processes and sometimes in rather unusual ways. Some religious phenomena are extreme versions of everyday cognition and behavior, e.g. ritualized behavior and extraordinary sensory experience (e.g. mystical experiences).
Some researchers argue that rituals recruit a particular system that evolved to survive indirect threats (the hazard-precaution system). This would explain why religious rituals often consist of repetitions, rigid action structure etc. From this perspective, religious rituals appear to hyperactivate a system that also appears to be hyperactive in patients with OCD. This does not mean, however, that people who practice religious rituals suffer from OCD, just that they both recruit the same system in an unusual way.
Regarding religious experience there may be rare instances of powerful hallucinations that resemble psychotic experience, but when charismatic Christians feel the presence of God during prayer, it seems to reflect the fact that they successfully recruit cognitive systems that evolved to interact with other people. Brain scans suggest that praying to God is comparable to normal interpersonal interaction (Schjoedt et al, 2009).”
Joni Sasaki (psychology, principal investigator at the Culture and Religion Lab): “There is no clear evidence that religious belief is caused by mental deficiency or mental illness.
Among researchers in psychology of religion and cognitive science of religion, it is more commonly understood that religious beliefs are likely to be the result of a collection of quite ‘normal’ cognitive capacities, including thinking about the beliefs of others (theory of mind), teleological thinking, the ability to detect agents or living things, the desire to form and maintain coalitions, the search for meaning and/or order, and probably many others.
It’s also important to point out that when researchers say that something, like religion, is ‘natural,’ that does not mean it is good or bad. That just means that it might be based on ‘normal’ parts of the human mind.”
Religiosity and Intelligence
Several experts hypothesized the root of this belief may come from the fact that IQ and religiosity have been shown to be negatively correlated, but they remind us there are caveats to these findings. For one, these studies aren’t reliably replicable, as some researchers find the link and others do not. Additionally, there’s a demarcated difference between a negative correlation with IQ and being mentally handicapped (for which there are normed thresholds) or mentally illness. Also note IQ tests can be problematic (see here and here to better understand why).
Most all people are religious due to indoctrination, which has nothing whatsoever to do with intellect. There are numerous variables that go into why this systematic programming to believe a particular set of religious beliefs is sometimes overcome leading to disbelief. Among these reasons is exposure to higher education, something usually dependent upon social and economic status. Opportunity, not intellectual superiority.
An interesting study (Lewis, Ritchie, Bates, 2011) using a large U.S. national sample showed the limitations of previous data and that religious fundamentalism is specifically correlated with lower IQ. This, of course, only speaks to a fraction of all expressions of religiosity. There were some researchers that addressed the intellect and religiosity connection.
Michael Inzlicht (social neuroscience): “There is no evidence of religion being connected to mental illness or any sorts of developmental delays. However, there is a connection between religion and IQ, with more intelligent people tending to be atheist (but effect size is small); see here. There is also the fascinating work by Amitai Shenhav showing that intuitive cognitive styles (as opposed to more deliberate ones) relate to religious belief; see here.”
Ryan McKay, (psychologist who researches “irrational” beliefs and behavior) notes there is evidence that religiosity is negatively associated with “analytic cognitive style” but that this isn’t the same thing as “general cognitive ability” or “intelligence.” He characterizes arguments attempting to equate a deficiency in analytic cognitive style with mental deficiency as “specious.”
Ryan S. Ritter (social psychology) also pointed to research [1, 2] suggesting analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking styles undermine religious beliefs. This is only proof of differences in thinking methods. Craig Aaen-Stockdale (psychology) argues that the correlations found between religiosity and IQ may be confounded by levels of poverty, access to education or other variables. He added, “I used to be religious. Now I’m not. My IQ didn’t suddenly change overnight.”
To sum up aggregated scholarly opinion: (1) There’s zero evidence showing religious belief is the result of mental defect or a mental illness. (2) Religiosity stems from naturally-occurring, intuitive cognitive systems.
Suggesting people are religious because they are dimwitted or suffer from a fabled religiosity-induced mental illness is a lazy, unthinking way to dismiss behavior one cannot identify with. I—like many other atheists—was once fervently religious. So, what, we were once “stupid” or “mentally ill” but through curiosity, questioning, and doubt, we somehow magically undid the fetters of cognitive disabilities? This unsophisticated level of special pleading is only persuasive to the individual who already accepts the proposition in question. Studies by those well-versed in this area have proven this claim categorically wrong.
So what are we to do with the vestiges of these ugly, unsubstantiated notions about religious ideation? Kill it. Kill it all with fire. Launch it into the sun and allow it to become obliterated by the cosmic inferno. Or, you know, cease promoting such embarrassingly ignorant ideas.
“Religion vs. Mental Illness, A Bit More Concisely This Time” by Miri Mogilevsky