High Intelligence and Religious Belief

High Intelligence and Religious Belief May 2, 2019


Israel and Judah (and Moab and Syria and etc.)
A map of the two Israelite kingdoms and their neighbors in the ninth century BC.  Curiously, Tel Aviv, was founded in AD 1909 directly north of Jaffa, isn’t shown.  Being a theist and, consequently, of lower intelligence, I can’t understand why this is so.

(Wikimedia Commons public domain)


I hadn’t intended to return so soon to my meditations on water, but then this showed up:


“Why Water Is Weird”




It’s not only water that’s weird, though:


“The Sun Is Stranger Than Astrophysicists Imagined: The sun radiates far more high-frequency light than expected, raising questions about unknown features of the sun’s magnetic field and the possibility of even more exotic physics.”




Aieee!  We’re all doomed!


“This Asteroid Will Come Incredibly Close to Earth on Friday the 13th, 2029”




At first, some researchers brushed it off on the assumption that it was merely me, voraciously consuming Krispy Kreme donuts while flying over the Atlantic.  But it’s more than that:


“Scientists Track Giant Ocean Vortex from Space”




Fairly commonly, I encounter triumphant declarations from anti-religious atheists — by the way, anti-religious atheists isn’t a redundant description — that a far lower proportion among the members of the elite National Academy of Sciences (NAS) are religious believers than is the case among the general population or even among scientists more broadly.  This, they imply, suggests that theism is untrue or, at least, that religious belief should be associated with stupidity (and, presumably, is stupid).  And I see occasional delighted references to articles such as this one by a psychologist based at New York University and University College London, himself professedly religious, published in Scientific American:


“Why Are Religious People (Generally) Less Intelligent?  Understanding the negative relationship between IQ and religiosity”


I don’t, by the way, doubt the finding that members of the NAS tend to be considerably less devout than the population at large, and the idea that, in general, atheists tend to be more intelligent than the average person in the pews also strikes me, from my own experience — not as a highly intelligent person myself but as an observer of such people from my vantage point among the less-gifted class — as likely to be true.


But does correlation imply causation?  First of all, it should be obvious that high intelligence doesn’t, in and of itself, lead inexorably to atheism.  There are plenty of religious believers in the ranks of leading scientists; I myself have noted dozens of such folks, including many Nobel laureates, here on this blog.  Nor does it follow, from the mere fact that high IQ tends to correlate with religious skepticism, that religious skepticism is right — any more than it would follow, from a survey indicating that most NFL quarterbacks brush with Crest toothpaste that Crest is the best dentifrice on the market.  Have the majority of quarterbacks even considered the question?  Do they care?  Could they make a sound argument supporting the superiority of Crest if they were asked to do so?




It seems to me, though, that, at the very minimum, the urge to link atheism directly and exhaustively with high intelligence is premature.  In the article by Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic to which I link above, he himself suggests that the personality of highly intelligent people, not merely their IQs as such, may well play a role in lower rates of religious belief.


I think that he is right to do so.


With regard to membership in the National Academy of Sciences, for example:  Does the kind of scientific achievement required for membership in the NAS flow merely and simply from high intelligence, or is there a certain bundle of personality traits (e.g., obsessiveness, or asocial inclinations) that helps, as well?  And is scientific achievement the sole and certain requirement for admission to the NAS?  Are there political considerations?  Is there at least some degree of cronyism?  “Old-boy networks”?  Sexism?  Institutional snobbery?  Such things certainly play a role in Nobel Prize selections, so why not for membership in the NAS?  (Consider, for example, the cases of such scientists as Rosalind Franklin [a bit complicated because of her unfortunate early death], Sir Fred Hoyle, George Gamow, John C. Slater, and, very possibly, Henry Eyring.)


“Henry Eyring (chemist)”


“Henry Eyring: Statistical Mechanics, Significant Structure Theory, and the Inductive-Deductive Method”


“6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism: Despite enormous progress in recent decades, women still have to deal with biases against them in the sciences.”


Would underrepresentation of women among elite scientists affect the religiosity of the group?


“Why Are Women More Religious Than Men?”


There are other attributes associated with high intelligence beyond irreligiousness — as with atheism, we’re talking about an increased tendency, not an invariable correlation — that can likely work against religious devotion.  These include such phenomena as heightened mood disorders, a greater prevalence of anxiety disorders, a disposition toward lack of feeling, arrogance, loneliness, a lack of perceived need for help or support, and a tendency to depression.


For one Latter-day Saint perspective on the latter, see


Steven T. Densley, Jr., and Geret Giles, “Barriers to Belief: Mental Distress and Disaffection from the Church”


And I will say, anecdotally, that I am closely acquainted with — and very much like — more than one atheist who could serve as a textbook instance of the relatively unempathetic loner with a high IQ.


For just a bit of further reading on high intelligence and associated personality traits, see


“Bad News for the Highly Intelligent: Superior IQs are associated with mental and physical disorders, research suggests”


“Disadvantages Of Extreme Intelligence”


The relationship between high intelligence and religious belief is too complex and too little understood to be simplistically weaponized against theism.


Posted from Tel Aviv, Israel



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