you're reading...
Atheism

Intelligence and Atheism

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.

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook

(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.


Advertisements

Discussion

22 thoughts on “Intelligence and Atheism

  1. Queue Alison’s apologetics and rebuking of the evidence in 5… 4… 3… 2…

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | May 3, 2010, 6:56 pm
  2. Hamby, Hamby, Hamby,

    Why misrepresent the facts to propogate your Atheist beliefs or is intillectual dishonesty required to believe in Atheism?.

    You wrote or quoted:

    “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.”

    The truth:

    According to the Pew Servey’s which have been over the last century, 51% of all scientists within the NAAS are Believers. Believers are the majority and more interesting is that the more discoveries are being made, the more scientist profess to be believers. This has been the growing trend for the last century….
    http://people-press.org/report/?pageid=1549

    By your own standards, since the majority of “Trained Intellectuals” are Believers, then Believers are the intillectual elite!

    Next!

    .

    Posted by PG | May 3, 2010, 7:47 pm
  3. Oh Kevin, you’re such a little wiener.

    *sigh*

    What do you think I’ll be “apologist” for? What will I [try to] refute and why?

    oh and to nit pick

    However, if you pick two 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

    This would mean that over 70% of people with advance degrees are atheist, which seems a little much for the US.

    Posted by Cpt_pineapple | May 3, 2010, 8:14 pm
  4. I don’t think that atheism makes one smarter; I think that being smarter makes one more likely to be an atheist.

    I fail to see how PG gets his numbers and claims from that Pew survey. There are some interesting results in it, like:

    Compared to the general population, Jews are much more likely to be scientists and white evangelical Protestants much less likely.

    Posted by Loren Petrich | May 3, 2010, 9:53 pm
  5. PG, your source is really interesting, but I think you’re referring to a different statistic entirely. Hamby’s referring to a study (http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/news/file002.html)
    from Nature, in which researchers reported that 93% of Fellows of the US National Academy of Sciences (which is a small and very select group with fewer than 2500 members, not representing all scientists in the US by any means) report themselves to be atheist or agnostic. Roughly ten percent of members are Nobel Laureates, so they do indeed represent the elites in science as practiced in the US.

    Posted by Clint | May 3, 2010, 10:53 pm
  6. Loren,

    Almost the entire premise of Hamby’s article is based on some obscure survey that stated that of “trained intillectuals” only 7% of scientist believe in a God or higher being, So therefore smarter people tend to be Atheists!…

    That is a gross misrepresentation of the truth!

    The reality is that the Pew survey which has been conducting this survey for almost a century has found in 2009 that 51% of trained intillectuals or scientists, are actually believers!

    Believe in God 33%
    Believe in a higher Being 18%
    Total 51%

    Dont believe in either 41%

    Thats a majority of believers!

    The Pew research also indicates that the number of Scientists who are believers has gone up each decade, which indicates that the more science discovers, the more scientist begin to “Believe”!
    http://people-press.org/report/?pageid=1549

    Therefore, By yours and Hamby’s own reasoning, being smarter makes one more likely to be a believer..

    Im fine with that! ; )

    .

    .

    Posted by PG | May 3, 2010, 10:56 pm
  7. Clint,

    Your incorrect my friend. it was the same study group NAS.

    Here is the markerd difference. Hamby,s survey was only given to a “Core Science group” in 1966, where the 2009 study encompased all science fields an given to a greater number of scientists..

    the NAS currently accnowledges that the majority of its members are believers…

    Posted by PG | May 4, 2010, 1:53 am
  8. Well my Atheists friends, i hate to spoil the creationistsare stupid party but i will leave you with this…

    Here is a list of Scientists that you claim are ruining science with their religion…

    Nobel Scientists
    Albert Einstein Nobel Laureate in Physics Jewish
    Max Planck Nobel Laureate in Physics Protestant
    Erwin Schrodinger Nobel Laureate in Physics Catholic
    Werner Heisenberg Nobel Laureate in Physics Lutheran
    Robert Millikan Nobel Laureate in Physics probably Congregationalist
    Charles Hard Townes Nobel Laureate in Physics United Church of Christ (raised Baptist)
    Arthur Schawlow Nobel Laureate in Physics Methodist
    William D. Phillips Nobel Laureate in Physics Methodist
    William H. Bragg Nobel Laureate in Physics Anglican
    Guglielmo Marconi Nobel Laureate in Physics Catholic and Anglican
    Arthur Compton Nobel Laureate in Physics Presbyterian
    Arno Penzias Nobel Laureate in Physics Jewish
    Nevill Mott Nobel Laureate in Physics Anglican
    Isidor Isaac Rabi Nobel Laureate in Physics Jewish
    Abdus Salam Nobel Laureate in Physics Muslim
    Antony Hewish Nobel Laureate in Physics Christian (denomination?)
    Joseph H. Taylor, Jr. Nobel Laureate in Physics Quaker
    Alexis Carrel Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology Catholic
    John Eccles Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology Catholic
    Joseph Murray Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology Catholic
    Ernst Chain Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology Jewish
    George Wald Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology Jewish
    Ronald Ross Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology Christian (denomination?)
    Derek Barton Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Christian (denomination?)
    Christian Anfinsen Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Jewish
    Walter Kohn Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Jewish
    Richard Smalley Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Christian

    Posted by PG | May 4, 2010, 2:02 am
  9. Here are some more scientists that as Believers you Atheist claim are stupid believers who ruined science…

    Isaac Newton Founder of Classical Physics and Infinitesimal Calculus Anglican (rejected Trinitarianism, i.e., Athanasianism;
    believed in the Arianism of the Primitive Church)
    Galileo Galilei Founder of Experimental Physics Catholic
    Nicolaus Copernicus Founder of Heliocentric Cosmology Catholic (priest)
    Johannes Kepler Founder of Physical Astronomy and Modern Optics Lutheran
    Francis Bacon Founder of the Scientific Inductive Method Anglican
    René Descartes Founder of Analytical Geometry and Modern Philosophy Catholic
    Blaise Pascal Founder of Hydrostatics, Hydrodynamics,
    and the Theory of Probabilities Jansenist
    Michael Faraday Founder of Electronics and Electro-Magnetics Sandemanian
    James Clerk Maxwell Founder of Statistical Thermodynamics Presbyterian; Anglican; Baptist
    Lord Kelvin Founder of Thermodynamics and Energetics Anglican
    Robert Boyle Founder of Modern Chemistry Anglican
    William Harvey Founder of Modern Medicine Anglican (nominal)
    John Ray Founder of Modern Biology and Natural History Calvinist (denomination?)
    Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz German Mathematician and Philosopher,
    Founder of Infinitesimal Calculus Lutheran
    Joseph J. Thomson Nobel Laureate in Physics, Discoverer of the Electron,
    Founder of Atomic Physics Anglican
    Louis Pasteur Founder of Microbiology and Immunology Catholic

    Go Atheism!

    .

    Posted by PG | May 4, 2010, 2:05 am
  10. PG…
    Just to clarify again, the study Hamby is referencing is from Nature in 1998. I linked to it in my first post, and it clearly states that based upon a 50% response from members of the United States National Academy of Sciences, that members of that group are 93% atheist or agnostic. The table is very clear and I suggest you study it again. Admittedly, the NAS study is a sample of a sample, given that the members of the NAS are only admitted after proving themselves in the most competitive research environment, and they probably don’t represent scientists in the US in general, though they arguably represent the most accomplished. And if scientists in the US are (generally) becoming more religious since the 50s and 60s, I’m not surprised. Those decades marked the beginning of the liberalization of the mainline denominations in the US; that is to say, the church diluted its message for the sake of inclusion and people who would have rejected the church in 1948 were willing to join in 1968. Find some Southern Baptists or Assemblies of God members seriously competing for NIH R01 grants and I’ll rethink that, but I don’t think you can do it.

    As for this unasked for list of scientist names posted alongside their stated religion, that proves what, exactly? Do you have their testimonies? Have you done the biographical studies to ascertain that they were dedicated believers? No doubt some were, but assuming that you are a dedicated religious person yourself, you can understand that some people adopt a public facade of religion for the social benefits and live a life that does not reflect the stated values of the religion they claim. For example, any honest biography of Isaac Newton reveals a proud and wrathful man who delighted in crushing his enemies; if you want to claim him for Christianity, I won’t fight you.

    Posted by Clint | May 4, 2010, 2:31 am
  11. Clint,

    So you dont see a problem with the need to purge the majority of scientists in order to put Atheism in the best light, and you see the need to ignore and suppress the more recent, relevant and wider scope 2009 survey, that actually refutes your position and puts Scientist Believers in the majority… Thats alot for you to do just to support your case.

    Im beginning to see that Atheism is a strong religion!

    Rationalize about why the majority of scientists are believers all you want.

    Perhaps you can hold on to the philosophy of one of your most famous Atheist scientist, Dr. Antony Flew!

    Ooops! He is a former Atheist isnt he… dang those liberal religions…

    .

    Posted by PG | May 4, 2010, 3:52 am
  12. PG,

    Im beginning to see that no one bothered to teach you how to write. Ironic isnt it?

    Thats kind of funny considering you dont think that your beliefs are correlated with lower intelligence.

    [all punctuation mistakes are intentional]

    Posted by Teleprompter | May 4, 2010, 4:29 am
  13. There’s a further problem – many people who call themselves Jewish may be secular or cultural Jews – Jewish agnostics or atheists.

    Sir Isaac Newton may be a bad example in another way — he rejected the Trinity, something that he kept secret to avoid endangering his career. He was also very interested in Biblical prophecy and chronology, and he tried to connect it to such events as the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts.

    There’s also the problem of scientists who have believed in religions that PG iikely prefers to reject, like Hellenic paganism. Would anyone want to convert to that religion because Euclid, Aristotle, Ptolemy, etc. were at least nominal believers in it?

    Posted by Loren Petrich | May 4, 2010, 9:28 am
  14. A couple of things:

    Alison: Thanks for the nitpick. You’re correct. What I meant to say was that if you picked two of the NAS scientists, not scientists in general. I’m editing that to say what I originally intended.

    PG: I’m sorry buddy. A list of scientists is interesting, but isn’t relevant to my premise. To begin with, I very specifically isolated two groups of scientists: The extreme “upper crust” and those with very advanced degrees in relevant fields like evolutionary biology or the philosophy of science. Furthermore, it should be clear that I am speaking of today, not of 1953, when Robert Millikan died.

    Oh, and I honestly think there ought to be a new “Law” added to the internet as a corollary to Godwin’s. We could call it “Quantum’s Law: Anyone who cites Albert Einstein in a theist argument automatically loses and is denied access to discussion boards for a month.”

    As to “ruining science with their religion,” PG, with all due respect, it’s called “reading comprehension.” Get some of it, buddy. Get some of it.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 4, 2010, 9:41 am
  15. PG,
    I see no reason to ignore any study; I acknowledged the one you linked in my first post and I think both have a lot to tell us. You see, the 2009 study isn’t the least bit surprising to me; I am a scientist by trade and I’m the only atheist in my lab and one of the few in my department, and I don’t think that theists make bad scientists. However, what the Nature study tells us is something you can’t ignore–the most accomplished scientists in the US happen to be overwhelmingly atheist or agnostic, even in a country distinguished in the western world for high levels of the western world. That’s a correlation; nobody’s proposing a causative effect here, not Hamby, not me. The question is whether the factor of intelligence is what brought those individuals into both high accomplishment in science and into a skepticism of religious thought, and listing the names of a bunch of scientists doesn’t disprove that. I think you wasted a lot of your time, there.

    And as for Antony Flew, he wasn’t a scientist. A brilliant philosopher no doubt, but not a scientist.

    Posted by Clint | May 4, 2010, 10:13 am
  16. In the statement “even in a country distinguished in the western world for high levels of the western world”, kindly read “even in a country distinguished in the western world for high levels of religious belief”.

    Posted by Clint | May 4, 2010, 10:15 am
  17. If I were trying to find support for outright theism, I don’t think I’d be too quick to jump on the Flew Bandwagon. An increasingly senile old man who shifts from outright atheism to deism isn’t much of an argument.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 4, 2010, 10:50 am
  18. Hamby,

    If I were trying to find support for outright theism, I don’t think I’d be too quick to jump on the Flew Bandwagon. An increasingly senile old man who shifts from outright atheism to deism isn’t much of an argument”

    Antony Flew was considered one of the worlds foremost science philosopher and renouned Atheist. He was the upper crust in your upper crust……

    Until he renounced his belief in Atheism and became a Deist,, wrote 2 books describing in detail one of which was entitled, “There is a God!”

    Now all you Atheist can do is say he was senile old man.

    Have you authored any books? Just checking.

    Your credulity is so so breathtaking!

    .

    Posted by PG | May 4, 2010, 11:44 am
  19. Hamby,

    FYI…

    Labled The Worlds Smartest Man with the highest IQ of 195 is Christopher Langan. Langen is a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design (ISCID),[21] a professional society which promotes intelligent design…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Langan

    Wider attention came in 1999, when Esquire magazine published a profile of Langan and other members of the high-IQ community.[9] Billing Langan as “the smartest man in America”, Mike Sager’s account of the weight-lifting bouncer and his CTMU “Theory of Everything” sparked a flurry of media interest. Board-certified neuropsychologist Dr. Robert Novelly tested Langan’s IQ for 20/20, which reported that Langan broke the ceiling of the test. Novelly was said to be astounded, saying: “Chris is the highest individual that I have ever measured in 25 years of doing this.”[7]

    Langan is a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design (ISCID),[21] a professional society which promotes intelligent design,[22]

    Sleep on that one Hamby!

    .

    Posted by PG | May 4, 2010, 11:52 am
  20. PG,

    I guess you should reject Jesus and Socrates as important political and historical figures because they didn’t write books.

    Posted by Teleprompter | May 4, 2010, 11:28 pm
  21. Hey Teleprompter,

    You are offering no real substance to this discussion other than your need to spell check like a pencil neck geek and deflect with strawman responses. Perhaps you should just quit while your behind,

    Just sayin,

    .

    Posted by PG | May 4, 2010, 11:43 pm
  22. PG, The percentages you link to in the Pew report are really irrelevant. What’s relevant is the relative atheism rate among scientists and non-scientists. Declared atheists (those that don’t believe in either God or higher power) are 10 times more common among scientists than among the general population, which suggests that atheism is highly correlated with being a scientist, and thus, arguably, being more intelligent than the average Joe. I am convinced that the exact percentages will fluctuate over time, and most likely will increase as the stigma associated with atheism declines. That is just my hypothesis, though.

    Posted by P N | December 28, 2010, 8:50 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Me On Twitter!

%d bloggers like this: