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Posted by on Mar 17, 2013 in Demographics of religion, Psychology | 4 comments

Intelligence and Religiosity Explored

My fellow SINner, blogger and clinical psychologist, Dr Caleb Lack of the Great Plains Skeptic blog has been producing a series analysing data and theories concerning correlations between intelligence and religiosity in people. There have been a number of studies, and many people have highlighted and lauded these studies. But the nature of psychological studies is that one has to analyse them very closely in order to decipher when control measures have been carefully put in place, and where researchers have mitigated against issues of, say, self-selection.

As a result, research which broadly equates to (or what people have claimed it equates to) lack of intelligence = religious has prevailed. Caleb looks at a range of research and critically takes them to task to see if we really do have the right to claim such a far-reaching conclusion.

In his introduction, Caleb talks about why this is important:

The issue of intelligence and religion is a heated one in today’s society. Religion plays an important role in the lives of most Americans today. A recent poll found that 83% of Americans claim that religion is at least a fairly important part of their lives and that 82% of Americans considered themselves to be Christians (Gallup, Inc., 2007). A person’s religious values can impact multiple areas of his or her life, from choice of a marriage partner to accruement of wealth (for a review, see Lehrer, 2004). Religious beliefs have also been found to significantly affect people’s opinions concerning education, scientific research, and numerous other areas. A recent public opinion survey of over 2,000 people showed that 60% of white evangelical Christians believe that if the Bible and the will of the American people conflict, the Bible should have a larger influence on U.S. laws (Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, & Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2006). The poll also found that those with little education, those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God, and conservative Republicans are likely to share this view.

In his second post, Caleb looks at the relationship between religious beliefs and education. “As a person’s level of educational attainment is generally related to his or her intellectual ability, this is an area of research relevant to the central question of this series – are non-theists smarter than theists?” And this is perhaps the key to the debate, or to the claims that atheists are often too happy to make. In this way, atheists, in their haste to make such bold claims, are perhaps victim to confirmation bias. Ascribing more value and less critical analysis to data and claims which align to their desires and preconceived ideals. Education appears to be a key player here:

As detailed above, early studies analyzing religious belief and educational attainment showed that greater church attendance often correlates with obtaining a slightly higher level of education, although later studies found the opposite. When religious devotees are identified as fundamentalist or liberal, however, amount of church attendance becomes less significant and level of fundamentalism becomes the major determinant of educational attainment. Commitment to religious fundamentalism and attainment of higher education appear to be almost mutually exclusive. Fundamentalists are less likely to enroll in college preparatory classes than are their liberal counterparts, and they typically terminate their educational pursuits at a lower level. In addition, religious beliefs tend to become slightly more liberal during college. The literature appears to support the idea that people who hold fundamentalist religious beliefs are at an educational disadvantage.

Caleb points out that there is a correlation to education and likelihood toward religious fundamentalism. Of course, this is not intelligence per se, but education. An intelligent person may not have had access to opportunities for quality education. Defining intelligence is, indeed, crucial. The direction of causation here is also interesting to look at. Does being fundamentalist preclude having a good education, or vice versa?

 As Caleb points out:

Even after controlling for social factors that influence educational attainment, such as parents’ education level, household income, and race, differences in the means among the education variables showed, once again, that the negative impact of being a conservative Protestant or Biblical inerrantist on educational attainment is significant (Darnell & Sherkat, 1997). Conservative Protestants had lower educational aspirations than other respondents. Both conservative Protestants and Biblical inerrantists were less likely than others to have taken college preparatory classes in high school, and they had lower levels of education when surveyed as adults. Further analyses showed that conservative Protestants were significantly more likely than others to hold Biblical inerrancy beliefs. Parents who indicated conservative or inerrant beliefs had significant positive correlations with their children’s religious beliefs. Students who held inerrant beliefs had significantly lower education variable scores, indicating that parents’ religious beliefs are an indirect, negative influence on the educational attainment of their children. Level of education has since been shown to be negatively correlated with belief in Biblical inerrancy in other studies as well (e.g., Village, 2005).

In his third part, Caleb analyses data concerning religiosity and the scientific community, and whether there is relevant correlation between the two. Dr Lack sets out:

Religion and science often espouse contradictory theories, the most publicized in the United States being evolution by natural selection versus creationism. This inherent conflict between the teachings of some religions and the findings of scientists has prompted several studies and articles concerning the religious attitudes of the scientific minds of the last century.  Studies of the attitudes of scientists provide the present study with relevant data on groups of people who are generally well educated and very intelligent.

And summarises:

Results from the above studies suggest thatscientists are more likely to hold agnostic, atheistic, or liberal religious beliefs than they are to hold fundamentalist or orthodox beliefs. Scientists also appear to be significantly less religious than the general population, and those who are members of a church tend to be members of a liberal denomination. The decision to enter a scientific field of study, especially the natural and social sciences, appears to be somewhat guided by religious beliefs, but scientists report that their religious beliefs are not influenced by their chosen profession. Also, those scientists who are at the top of their chosen field appear to be much less religious than the “average” scientist.

But, what does this mean about overall intelligence? Obviously, scientists and engineers are quite intelligent, but does this mean that the non-religious as a whole are smarter than the religious? As we will see in the next post, this relationship is much less clear-cut,

Of course, the correlation fallacy could be at play here. What causes this correlation? Could it be the cognitive functioning of the brain of the sort of people who are more likely to be scientists, which also precludes them from being believers in a personal god, as set out in a recent post concerning research into autism, and gender differences in empathy and belief.

The fourth post hones in a little more on the key question as to who is more intelligent. Caleb summarises the literature as follows, though I strongly suggest reading the post as it is choc full of fascinating analysis:

Findings in studies correlating religious beliefs and intelligence are mixed and unclear. There is a clear correlation between lower religiosity and higher intelligence in the studies on a group of 1930s adolescent Jewish boys and for highly intelligent adults, but no relationship found in a more recent studies of adolescent Christian boys or college students. Methodological problems plague some of the major, large scale studies in this area, casting doubt on whether or not they were even measuring religiosity and/or intelligence. Some studies found higher college entrance exam scores for those who were lower measures of religiosity, while others found no relationship between the two. The extreme range of these studies’ measures, variables of interest, subjects, and publication dates makes synthesis of the literature difficult. Well-controlled, modern studies that use reliable and valid measures of both intelligence and various aspects of religiosity have shown either no  relationship between the two or a very small relationship. More research on this subject is sorely needed with various populations in order to sort out potential mediating variables.

Dr Lack’s work is a crucial overview of a subject which is all ot easy to cherry-pick. Psychological research is all too often dogged by methodological issues or aspects which need to be taken into account, and this is what Caleb has sought to do.

I look forward to the fifth post, about which he says:

In the next and final post in this series, I will give a summary of the total literature I have reviewed and a road map for where researchers need to go next in order to more definitively provide an an answer to the question “Who’s more intelligent, theists or non-theists?”

Intelligence & Religion (part 1) – An Introduction

Intelligence & Religion (part 2) – Religious Beliefs & Education

Intelligence & Religion (part 3) – Religious Beliefs among Scientists

Intelligence & Religion (part 4) – Religious Beliefs & Level of Intelligence

  • L.Long

    At this point using my own experiences, I would say that religious are not less intelligent as a whole. Meaning they do have the same basic ability to learn as anyone else.
    In many of my comments I use the word ‘Stupid’ or ‘religidiot’ because they are actually compliments, because ‘delusional’ is not interpreted as a real negative by religidiots they don’t realize that delusional means the ‘WILLFUL suspension of intelligence to maintain a fiction as true’ this means that they strive to reject thinking. Yes most Xtians I have associated with have a wide range of innate intelligence and skill, they are not generally stupid but on this one thing that is very important because it influences every aspect of their lives they are WILLFULLY STUPID. If most of these willfully bigoted people would say ‘this is my faith and belief, but jesus say love all, so I wish you well in your life’ and let others who are doing no physical harm to others live their lives and keep their BS out of politics, then I would not care and never use the word STUPID, they would still be delusional but who cares.
    Other then how do you make a good decisions about (ie sex, gay, race,science) when your delusion says ‘its icky and bad & against the rules of my delusion.’

  • http://www.facebook.com/ronan.dodds Ronan Dodds

    I haven’t read this as carefully as I should, but am I right in thinking
    the comparison is mainly between fundamentalist/literalist Christians
    and atheists?

    Anyway, whatever, speaking as a Roman Catholic I would fully expect our
    congregations to be at least a little lower if you averaged out the
    intelligence (however THAT is measured! Again, didn’t read carefully
    enough). We take all comers, regardless of educational attainment or IQ
    level. It has also struck me recently that my religion is one which can
    easily be believed by the mad and mentally ill, and obviously many
    people who overcome drug and drink addiction do so through turning to
    God. It also occurs to me that there are higher numbers of Downs
    Syndrome people in churches, cos society at large deems it acceptable to
    destroy them. That is bound to bring the average down in terms of
    intelligence. So, we are a mixed bag of people, some of whom are
    exceedingly simple and are not denied Jesus on that basis, and some of
    whom are exceedingly intelligent. Atheist, in contrast, I would expect
    to be more self-selecting and to at least be at the level where they can
    question and reject the faiths they are surrounded by. I would be inclined to
    consider all this statistical stuff as a distraction – instead of
    averaging out all the intelligences, lets take the best and the
    brightest. For me, that would mean Thomas Aquinas on the Roman Catholic
    side. The best I can think of on the atheist side is Bertram Russell. As
    to which of them is the cleverest, I feel rather inadequate compared to
    both!

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      What it shows is this:

      Some atheists like to laud it over theists that they are, on average, more intelligent than theists.

      Whilst there is some correlation with atheism vs fundamentalism, it is less clear cut with liberal or other types of theism. The connection is often with educational attanment, but this is not an indication of intelligence, per se.

      Also, it is not as if a deconvert suddenly becomes more intelligent when they shuffle off the belief in God!

      Caleb looks to conclude that much of the research is not methodologically thorough; and the stuff that is is less than decisive. So some atheists might be disappointed with this!

  • http://www.henley-putnam.edu/ Anthony – Henley-putnam.edu

    Religiosity has no correlation with intelligence. Even an atheist could be smarter. Normally, every person has ability to learn something regardless what religion she or he has. It’s not dealing with how to look at life. Theist and non-theist have the same brain but we are different to treat it. And it’s the point why we have levels of intelligence.