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Are Religious People Dumber? Not quite.

February 14, 2020 | apologetics, theology | No Comments

There is a particular narrative, popular among skeptics, that occasionally erupts into the public forum. It happened in 1990 when Ted Turner famously (and clumsily) declared that “Christianity is a religion for losers”. (The muddled nuance of his actual intent was drowned in the ensuing indignation). Or in 1993 when Washington Post writer Michael Weisskopf derided conservative Christians as “poor, uneducated, and easy to command”. (Clearly, a single stint at trying to command them would have quickly disavowed him of this conceit).

However, such gaffes have minimal effect compared to the dishonest portrayal of religious people in general, and conservative Christians in particular, in culture and entertainment. Recall the buffoonish, and wildly inaccurate, caricature of William Jennings Bryan in the classic drama of the Scopes evolution trial, “Inherit the Wind”. Bill Maher, an entertainer who some regard as a comedian, released Religulous in 2008. “Religulous” was a widely panned cinematic undertaking that spotlighted the the most foolish and outrageous religious beliefs and represented them as normative. Gentler criticism arises even from within the ranks, to wit “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”, Mark Noll’s 1994 opus. (Of all the feedback Noll received, the one he most embraced was that the scandal was less specifically the Evangelical mind, than the American mind).

Are religious people really dumber? In 2013 research psychologist Miron Zuckerman endeavored to prove just that in a meta-analysis of 63 studies. The data seemed to confirm a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity, i.e. more intelligent people are less religious. The original review faced serious criticisms, so in 2019 Zuckerman[1] published a second meta-analysis of 83 studies backing up his original claim. Meanwhile, in a large national survey Pew Research found that college graduates are slightly more likely to be atheist or agnostic (11% college grads versus 4% High School or less) and less likely to consider religion very important (46% of college grads versus 58% High School or less).

The many criticisms directed toward Zuckerman’s research tend to emphasize methodological shortcomings that might undermine his central premise. The most damning could be that it merely represents a snapshot of postmodern western civilization and university culture, excluding all of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Most critics tend to overlook the more salient question: assuming the correlation is correct, does it matter? Professor Zuckerman seems to think so. Clearly, he believes that intelligent people should reject religion because they are more rational:

“our findings support the view that intelligent people are less religious because they are more rational” p10

“We suspect that a primary reason why intelligent people find religion irrational…” p11

Of course, Zuckerman’s data supports no such conclusion. The only way to show that anything is irrational is to prove it is irrational through logical argument, something far beyond the limits of mere data analysis. But let’s allow that his finding of a weak correlation between intelligence and lower religious belief is valid. Is it meaningful? I would argue not. It may even confirm an important Biblical precept. Here are four reasons why it should not matter.

1. The correlation is weak, and intelligent people who are religious considerably outnumber equally intelligent people who are non-religious

Opponents of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, may naively interpret Zuckerman’s finding as support for the narrative that intelligent people, because they are more rational, naturally reject irrational religious belief. In doing so, they succumb to base rate neglect. Abundant data confirms that even among the intelligent and highly educated, the overwhelming majority continue to profess religious faith. This holds true worldwide. Even in highly secular Europe the percentage of professing atheists ranges from less than 1% in Bosnia and Romania to a high of 25% in the Czech republic. Conversely, across western Europe 71% still identify as Christian, though only a minority actively attend services. The percentage of atheists or agnostics in Africa and Latin America remains minuscule.

A correlation of around -.20 between intelligence and religious belief is very weak. To help the reader understand, the absence of any correlation would be 0.0. If the upper 50% entirely rejected religion and the lower 50% completely embraced religion, the correlation should be -1.0. A correlation of -0.2 is enough to be statistically significant, but as a practical matter is meaningless when religious people vastly outnumber the nonreligious.

2. Smart people are no more likely to be right, and tend toward excessive confidence in their own opinions.

In his clever, insightful, and thoroughly researched work “The Intelligence Trap”, British science writer David Robson exposes the dark side of intelligence. Among the higher ranks of intelligentsia, we learn that:

  • College graduates are more likely to believe in ESP and “psychic healing.”
  • People with IQ’s over 140 are more likely to max out on their credit.
  • High IQ individuals consume more alcohol and are more likely to smoke or take illegal drugs.

By way of explanation, research has shown that highly intelligent and educated people are much more confident, and this confidence makes them less likely to doubt their opinions or change their minds. Rather than pursuing truth wherever it may be found, smarter people channel their energy toward arguing and reinforcing their preexisting opinions. Furthermore, they are just as susceptible to the social pressures and cognitive biases that impair good decision-making throughout the human species.

Hence, intelligence alone confers no particular authority to one’s religious opinions, one way or the other.

3. Religious people often believe dumb things. So does everyone else. It is a universal human frailty.

A 2017 survey from Pew Research found that Christians were less likely to believe in psychics, reincarnation, and astrology than those identifying as “nothing in particular”. Those who embraced such paranormal beliefs were also younger, less educated, less white, more feminine, and more politically liberal. Atheists fared better in this survey, but their historic link with the brutal and flawed ideology of communism gives them much to be humble about. As fewer millennials embrace or practice history-based Christianity, they are turning to….astrology and witchcraft. Correlation may not prove causality, but it does prove correlation.

We shouldn’t infer too much from these associations. Christians, nonChristians, agnostics, and atheists are all highly diverse groups who deserve not to be stereotyped, but any objection on that basis also applies to the religion-intelligence link.

4. The gospel message offers grace and hope to the poor, meek, and humble more than the proud and privileged. Intelligent people have a hard time being humble.

The actual subject of intelligence receives little notice in Scripture. The closest Greek word synetos, translated below as “prudent”, appears only four times in the New Testament. Out of the four, two are parallel verses in the synoptic gospels and one is a quote from Isaiah:

In that hour Jesus rejoiced in the Spirit and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight.”

Luke 10:21, NKJV

For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”

1 Corinthians 1:19 NKJV

The Greek word sophos, translated “wise”, appears much more often and is frequently used in an ironic sense. Such passages reflect a consistent theme of Scripture, that God favors the poor, weak, and powerless over the rich, strong, and mighty. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to assert that Scripture actually endorses Zuckerman’s finding:

“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption— that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.”

(1 Corinthians 1:26-31, NKJV)

Intelligence can be a wonderful gift but is also a double-edged sword. Let us not think too highly of ourselves (Romans 12:3), for “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5, NKJV)

(“So what I’m hearing is: Maybe your dog doesn’t do quantum mechanics, but his faith in you is devout, sincere, submissive, and trusting. Be more like your dog.” –the Spaniel)

  1. Zuckerman, M., Li, C., Lin, S., & Hall, J. A. (2019). The Negative Intelligence–Religiosity Relation: New and Confirming Evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219879122

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About Author

about author

Steven Willing MD, MBA

Dr. Steven Willing received his medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia, completed an internship in pediatrics from the University of Virginia before undertaking a residency in diagnostic radiology at the Medical College of Georgia, and a fellowship in neuroradiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Willing spent 20 years in academic medicine at the University of Louisville, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). He also earned an MBA from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1997.

During his academic career, Dr. Willing published over 50 papers in the areas of radiology, informatics, and management. He is the author of "Atlas of Neuroradiology", published by W. B. Saunders in 1995.

Now retired from clinical practice, Dr. Willing serves as a radiology consultant to Tenwek Hospital in Bomet, Kenya both remotely and on-site. He is presently the Alabama State Director for the American Academy for Medical Ethics, an adjunct Professor of Divinity at Regent University, and a Visiting Scholar for Reasons to Believe.

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