Are religious people really less intelligent than atheists?

This question is often at the center of theological debate. Many non-believers have increasingly maintained that they rely upon “free thought” and “reason” and are, thus, more intelligent than those who embrace a higher power. But are they correct in making this assertion? A new review of 63 studies surrounding faith and smarts over the past century found that those who do not embrace a religion performed better on intelligence tests, the Huffington Post reports.

The study, entitled, “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations,” found that, of the 63 studies, 53 had meta-data taken between the years of 1928 and 2012 that showed this negative correlation. Only 10 of the studies found a positive relationship between intelligence and religious views, according to the review’s authors.

Are Religious People Really Dumber Than Atheists? | Personality and Social Psychology Review

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In an abstract for the study, which was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review, this negative association between intelligence and religiosity was noted. A breakdown of information in the description provides some of the parameters, including the potential reasons why non-believers might perform better on intelligence tests than their theistic counterparts.

“First, intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma,” the description reads. “Second, intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs.”

In addition to conformity and analytical constructs, the abstract argues that certain “functions of religiosity” (self-regulation, self-enhancement and other related elements) come with intelligence, so people who have these skills would theoretically not need faith to help usher them in.

Jordan Silberman, one of the study’s authors who studies neuroeconomics at the University of Rochester, wrote an e-mail to the Huffington Post detailing this dynamic.

“Intelligence may also lead to greater self-control ability, self-esteem, perceived control over life events, and supportive relationships, obviating some of the benefits that religion sometimes provides,” he noted.

The study’s findings will certainly boost some atheists’ contentions that non-believers who rely on a higher power have fewer smarts, but Silberman noted that he’s sure that “there are intelligent religious people and unintelligent atheists out there.” He claims that the review offers up an analysis on average religious and non-religious people — information that likely can’t be used to dismiss individuals.

“The findings pertain to the average intelligence of religious and non-religious people, but they don’t necessarily apply to any single person,” he added. “Knowing that a person is religious would not lead me to bet any money on whether or not the person is intelligent.”

The study, as the Christian Post notes, is being met with some skepticism, as critics claim that the definition of “intelligence” is far too narrow. The outlet notes that the authors of the study framed smarts as follows: “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience.” This was widely seen by critics as too confined a definition. The Post explains:

The study’s use of intelligence only considered an analytic framework of intelligence and did not address the impact that other forms, such as creative and emotional intelligence, had on a person’s overall aptitude in relation to an individual’s religious identity. The study also narrowly defined a person’s religious influence as one’s involvement in part or all aspects of religious practice.

The study also noted that factors such as affluence, gender and educational experience did not seem to have any impact with regards to the correlation of one’s intelligence and religious belief, which also led to skepticism of the review given the historical and cultural impact has on a person’s religious beliefs and practice.

Are Religious People Really Dumber Than Atheists? | Personality and Social Psychology Review

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In an op-ed for the Independent, sociologist Frank Furedi essentially dismissed the study, claiming that it’s not necessarily accurate in how it frames religious adherence and intelligence. Noting that the latter concept is heavily contested, measuring it, he maintains, is extremely difficult.

“Any attempt to establish a causal relationship between personal belief and raw intelligence is likely to be an exercise in forced abstraction,” Furedi wrote.

The professor and expert, who is ironically an atheist, also questioned the motivation behind the study in the first place. He noted that it’s common sense that those who are smart and who go to university will have a higher propensity for turning out to be non-believers as opposed to smart people who avoid university and who conform to societal and cultural norms.

And, as a sociologist, Furedi warned that research should be “motivated by subjective as much as objective concerns” and that it is possible for social science to turn into advocacy. He continued:

It’s not that researchers are dishonest but that they like anyone else suffer from a tendency to discover what they already suspect. In the current era where religion is increasingly associated with out-dated beliefs, dubious traditions, dogma and prejudice it is inevitable that the authority of science will be harnessed to prove the religious stupid. Is it any surprise that in a smug tweet Richard Dawkins refers to this meta-analysis with feigned surprise as to why the cleverness of atheists should even be questioned? [...]

Regrettably the mantra “research shows” has become a substitute for a critical engagement of views. Devaluing the intelligence of your opponents is what children do when they call one another stupid. It absolves its practitioners from taking the arguments of their opponents seriously.

As an atheist I take an exception to the claim that my views are the product of my intelligence.

The study will likely continue to be debated. And it’s almost certain that, regardless of Furedi’s opposition to advocacy research, others will probably take similar steps to try and illustrate alleged connections between intelligence and religious fervor.

What do you think — are religious people dumber than atheists? Take the poll, below:


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(H/T: Huffington Post)