Religious People are Less Intelligent?

Thinker2A new article appeared early in August – The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations – published (as most articles are these days) online before print in Personality and Social Psychology Review. The authors analyzed 63 studies in the literature published over some 80 plus years (from 1928 to 2012). Because the studies analyzed are primarily western, most of the religious belief studied is Christian, although a few appear to look at Jewish individuals. The general conclusion is that there is a negative correlation between religious belief and intelligence as measured by IQ. The article itself requires a personal or institutional subscription (and is long (30 pages) and rather ‘academic’ (some might say ‘dull’)), but you can see the abstract through the link above.

This article has been getting some press, much of it in the UK, some in the US, with headlines designed to be provocative. The story in the Daily Mail gives a taste …

Atheists ‘have higher IQs’: Their intelligence ‘makes them more likely to dismiss religion as irrational and unscientific’

  • Research found those with higher IQs more likely to dismiss religion
  • Another drawback to being religious, or at least Christian is losing out on top jobs

Atheists tend to be more intelligent than religious people, according to a US study.

Researchers found that those with high IQs had greater self-control and were able to do more for themselves – so did not need the benefits that religion provides.

They also have better self esteem and built more supportive relationships, the study authors said.

On this side of the ocean The Huffington Post got into the mix as well (no surprise here):

Religious People Branded As Less Intelligent Than Atheists In Provocative New Study

What might explain the effect?

Scientists behind studies included in the review most often suggested that “religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better.’”

But the researchers who conducted the new meta-analysis say the answer is a bit more complicated. They suspect intelligent people might have less of a “need” for religion.

“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,” study co-author Jordan Silberman, a graduate student of neuroeconomics at the University of Rochester, told The Huffington Post in an email.

The message these reporters intend to convey is quite clear — if you are smart, you will not need religion and will not be religious. Religion is for the poor, helpless, ignorant and unintelligent. (More on this later.)

In contrast one of the most reasonable responses was on Atheist Revolution, where a number of limitations were pointed out, including:

Studies relying on large sets of aggregate data are informative in understanding group trends but tell us next to nothing about individuals. That is, the results of such a study – no matter how big or how well done – cannot reasonably be interpreted as suggesting that a particular religious person is any less intelligent than a particular atheist.


Finding a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity is certainly interesting, but is a far cry from indicating that religious belief somehow causes people to be less intelligent.

Normal DistCorrelation is not causation. Nor does it do much good to discuss the mean of a large distribution. There is, for example, some support for the claim that boys (on average) are better at abstract mathematics than girls (on average). But the distribution of ability is broad. I am willing to bet that, whatever the averages may be, I am better at math than most of the males who read this post (hint: I teach graduate level quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics among other things). I expect there is also evidence for a correlation such as that shown to the right where dog lovers are normal, and cat lovers above average – although I admit I made this one up as an example. Likewise, both religious believers and nonbelievers span pretty much the entire range of IQ. The difference in the mean is rather small, and it is not wise to make too much of it.

Another good response was posted by Jordan Monge in the web only edition of Christianity Today as well, Why Intelligent People Are Less Likely to Be Religious:

Unlike previous studies that tried to explain the data by suggesting that smart people simply see past religion’s claims, these researchers, led by University of Rochester psychologist Miron Zuckerman, tried to identify other social factors in play. Nevertheless, the hype about their conclusions is overblown, and all of us—the religious and the non-religious—should be wary of placing too much weight on their findings.

Rather than the result of a causal correlation, the researchers’ findings on religion and intelligence seem to fit inside a particular cultural narrative. In the U.S., we assume that intelligent people grow up, then reject faith. Faithful teenagers go off to secular colleges, stop attending church, and become skeptics. As individuals situate themselves in this narrative, the story becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I am not sure she is right about the cultural narrative though. Or let me clarify, I think the results will be used to push and justify the cultural narrative she describes. Certainly the two articles I quoted above, from the Daily Mail and The Huffington Post, seem to use it to justify the cultural narrative that intelligent people (if they are honest) will reject religious faith.

I think the reality is complex, however. And the meta-analysis of all of these studies is almost certainly correct. On average religious people are less intelligent than non-religious people.

Why is this?

As Christians we need to have an answer. Studies like the ones discussed here are powerful cultural ammunition.

The authors of the paper offer several possible explanations:

(1) Perhaps Atheism is a form of nonconformity. Intelligent people are less likely to conform. They have the confidence and desire to walk a different path. Thus they are more likely to resist religious pressures.

(2) Intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs. Analytic thinking causes one to question everything and look for coherent solutions. The thinking pattern that makes a person good at physics can also make it difficult to accept some of the claims of religious groups. (I am an analytical thinker.) I am sure this plays a role. Cognitive dissonance is quite real when one is confronted with some of the more exacting claims of inerrancy and young earth creationism for example. Part of what I do on this blog is to think through, and foster a conversation around the various issues that impact faith and reason.

(3) Intelligence is also correlated (on average) with self-control, self-enhancement, self-esteem, secure attachment, and better jobs. On average, intelligent people may simply see themselves as having less need for religious belief. Self assurance eliminates the need for God.

I think this last reason plays the largest role, and as a Christian I don’t find it surprising at all.

Speaking to the rich man:

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:22-25)

Wealth, power, self-esteem, self-sufficiency … intelligence. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

I could go into more detail, and bring up a large number of other passages of scripture both Old and New Testament, but this is enough to get us started. Jesus dined with sinners and outcasts and saved his strongest criticism for the wealthy and powerful for a reason. I think that, on average, religious people are less intelligent because it is the poor, the weak, the brokenhearted, the oppressed, the powerless who realize that they cannot go it alone and are willing to turn to God.

I think this is also a large part of the reason why there are more women than men in the church.

If there is no God (as the atheist claim) this can be rationalized as an adaptive evolutionary trait and a coping mechanism.

If there is a God – the God revealed in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament – this is exactly what we should expect … on average.

Reason and intelligence need not turn us away from God and his kingdom, but wealth, self-reliance, self-confidence, and power often will.

What do you think?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If you wish to comment please see Religious People are Less Intelligent? at Jesus Creed.

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