It seems like every few months, the assertion that atheists are more intelligent than theists makes its way around the internet. Over the past few years, there have been significant studies adding credibility to the broad claim that there is a relationship between atheism and intelligence in the Religiostupidified™ West.(1) Still, even the staunchest atheist activists are often careful about just coming out and saying, “We’re smarter than you.” It seems that apart from the argument over the existence of god(s), there can’t be many more emotionally charged topics than this one. But as time goes on, more and more evidence is coming to light, and it’s becoming obvious that in certain milieus, there’s something to be said about intelligence and atheism. Before getting into all of that, though, there are several important caveats that we need to make:
- Many of the scientists who theorize that atheism and intelligence are positively correlated also espouse the idea of general intelligence as a domain specific adaptation designed for evolutionarily novel problems. Religion is not an evolutionarily novel situation, and consequently, we would predict that the more “organic” a religion is in practice, the less likely that intelligence would be a significant factor in belief.
- In evaluating religious beliefs vs intelligence, it’s not specific enough to simply separate theists and atheists. There’s a substantial difference between believing in a talking snake, Armageddon, and demon possession, and believing in some nebulous “force for good” in the universe.
- Belief and disbelief in god(s) have social context, and it’s well known that the human mind is very good at compartmentalizing and “cordoning off” beliefs which are so contrary to the group that defying them would threaten isolation and abandonment.
- Religious devotion is different from strength of religious belief, even if the difference is subtle. One can attend every service for ten years for social reasons while maintaining healthy skepticism as to the ultimate truth of the dogma of the church.
- God belief has a unique significance in the West and Middle East, where the two biggest religions actively and sometimes violently oppose the advancement of science whenever it threatens religious dogma. Because of this, it’s inappropriate to compare Western Theism to Eastern Theism, in which gods do not demand ignorance of science.
- Finally, we must consider that the philosophical arguments necessary for establishing a firm and epistemologically grounded disbelief in god are not all common sense. Many very intelligent people have simply never studied logic, the philosophy of science, or epistemology. Without proper training in critical thinking, many of the arguments for the existence of god make intuitive sense, and are often not questioned beyond that point.
Still, there is plenty of evidence that atheism is predominately on the side of smart people in the West. Here are some of the more compelling pieces of evidence:
- There is a negative correlation between intelligence and religious belief across the board. In a review of 43 studies, religious belief was negatively correlated to intelligence in all but four. This is strong corroborative evidence that the correlation is valid. In a more recent study of children, there was a direct line correlation from “not religious at all” to “very religious,” in which IQ steadily rose with the degree of religious indifference. The simple fact is (at least in America) the smarter people tend to be less religious.
- Intellectual Elites are drastically more likely to be atheist. This bit of data is more to the point. It’s one thing to survey all Westerners for intelligence and god-belief, but as I mentioned earlier, there’s a problem with that. Not all very intelligent people have the academic training to reach fully justified atheism. But when we survey the people who do have such training, they’re overwhelmingly atheist. Only 7% of the American National Academy of Sciences reported god-belief in a survey from the 1990s. Only 3.3% of the Fellows of the Royal Society in Britain believe in god. This compared with a 68.5% theism rate in the general population.
- Decline of religious belief through childhood and adolescent development. It makes sense that if atheism is a more intelligent position, people would tend to abandon religion as cognitive development progresses. That is in fact the case. In both the U.S. and Britain, children tend to abandon god belief during the adolescent years when most of the higher cognitive functions are developing to their full adult potential. Similarly, it has been noted that children raised in high-education atheist homes very seldom convert to god-belief, while children raised in theist environments who subsequently receive higher education are relatively likely to abandon god-belief.
- Over the past 150 years, General Intelligence has increased overall, and god-belief has been in a relatively steady decline. This is a broad statement, and there are many confounding factors that might well throw a monkey wrench into the works, but the general trend is undeniable. Beginning in 1850, indicators of both religious belief and practice have been on a steady decline which is more or less inverse to the increase in general intelligence.
The United States is in a unique position in the first world. (I wrote of the economic parallels a few days ago.) We are singular in our persistent popular disbelief in evolution, as well as our dogmatic adherence to fundamentalism. (For comparison, there really aren’t any prominent fundamentalist TV evangelists in most of Western Europe or Scandinavia.) It is noteworthy that of the first-world nations surveyed, the U.S. is also singular in its sharply declining standards of education and its educational standing in comparison to the rest of the world. In other words, we’re the only first world nation that’s been getting collectively dumber for the last couple of decades.
Returning to some of the caveats I made earlier, I think it’s very important to note that a lot of our current information is incomplete. As far as I can find, we simply haven’t separated god-belief into discreet categories which would likely reflect increasing education. For example, it has often been pointed out by theists that there are a lot of Christians who happen to be scientists. However, in relevant disciplines, there is a sharp decrease in literal Biblical god-belief. Especially among life-scientists, belief in Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, or the “uniqueness of humans” is virtually non-existent. Among logicians and philosophers, belief in logically contradictory supernatural deities is difficult to find.
We must also consider that for political, social, and family reasons, some form of agnosticism or deism is often preferable to open atheism. Particularly in regions of America where Christianity is nearly ubiquitous, we should expect a significant amount of untruthful self-reporting among the intelligent. After all, they’re intelligent enough to know the consequences of being “too atheist.”
The upshot of all of this is that in some ways, we’ve been asking the wrong questions about intelligence and god-belief. There are a lot of confounding variables that dirty up the data when we ask speak in overly broad generalizations. The most noteworthy statistic is that among people who are both intelligent and highly trained in science and logic, god belief virtually disappears.
The bottom line is this: If you pick two people at random from the United States, there’s no particular reason to suspect that the more intelligent one would generally be atheist. However, if you pick two of the most elite academics with advanced degrees in life science or some other relevant field, there’s better than a 50% chance that both of them will be atheists. And that is the real measure of whether or not intelligent people are atheists. Are the people who know the most about relevant subjects more likely to be atheists? Yes. Overwhelmingly.
(1) Kanazawa, S. (2007). De gustibus est disputandum 11: why liberals and atheists are more intelligent. (Unpublished). Rindermann, H. (2007).
The g-factor of international cognitive ability comparisons: The homogeneity of results in PISA, TIMMS, PIRLS and IQ-tests across nations. European Journal of Personality, 21, 667-706. Zuckerman, P. (2007).
Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns. In M. Martin (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(2) Francis, L.J. (1989). Measuring attitudes towards Christianity during childhood and adolescence. Personality & Individual Differences, 10, 695-698.