Are atheists more intelligent than religious people?

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You may have read about the recent meta-study, which showed that atheists tend to have higher IQs than religious people. This is yet another example of the (re) emergence of hyper-rationalism. Call it the second wave.  The first wave occurred during the Soviet and Nazi regimes’ reigns. I’m not throwing the “Hitler Fallacy” out there just to scare or shame people into seeing things my way. Nor is this my call to anti-rationalism. In the case of Soviet Leninism and Nazi Fascism, both used science as propaganda in order to further ideology. 

The message that some people would like broadcast from this study is that smart people are atheists, dumb people believe in God.  Without going into the obvious causation/association issues with this argument, let’s look at why the study is nearly meaningless.

First, as the article I linked to states, what a study like this ends up doing is measuring things that the researches didn’t really intend to measure. IQ is a major factor in success in school, and SAT scores are largely reflective of IQ. Higher SAT score equals access to better schools. 

So, children with higher IQs have a much better chance of going to college.  The more intelligent they are, the better chance they have of going to elite schools, like Harvard, Yale, Stanford or Berkley. 

Each university has a culture. That culture for the most part is secular and liberal. This is in part due to an influx of intellectuals with left-leaning sentiments during the 50s and 60s, into the major universities. Many were outright Communists.  A pillar of Communism is atheism.  So we find on many campuses that smart people are atheists because “that’s what other smart people believe”.  Of course, we would likely find a very different correlation at another elite school that is associated with religion: Notre Dame.  I have no doubt that if we were to measure the IQs of Communist sympathizers and compare them to the IQs of say, average people in America during the 50s, 60s, and 70s,, we would find that the Communists had higher IQs.  But Communism utterly failed, and few today in America are full-blown Leninists.  But these “Communists” became so by hanging around birds with red feathers. Eventually they grew their own red feathers. A problem with intellectuals as opposed to scientists, is that they tend to over generalize. As Friedrich Heyek noted, many left-leaning intellectuals ignore the specifics, that is, the science of economics, in favor of generalized (ideological) notions about how to help the poor.  Looking at the details could lead an intelligent person to believe that government handouts are not the best answer, and that capitalism cuts into poverty more than giveaways.  The same goes for religion.  Intellectuals, whom are almost always intelligent people when measured by IQ, generalize about the non-existence of God.  Most college students would probably classify themselves as agnostic or atheist, but would do a very poor job if asked to engage in specific scientific or philosophical debate on the matter.  Their arguments would be based on (probably), “I can’t see God, and until I do, I don’t believe”. Yet college students have higher than average IQs.

Next is the problem of induction.  If it is true that atheists are just so because they are intelligent, than it should be so that by utilizing a form of Backward Induction,  and becoming atheists, people could raise their IQs.  This is absurd of course. But we also know that people with higher IQs tend toward drug use, drink more alcohol, and like cigarettes more. But no one argues those things actually make people more intelligent.  Moreover, Germany just prior to the Nazi takeover was considered the country with the highest scientific and social advancement.  Plenty of Germans were intelligent, and plenty of high IQ people were Nazis. 

Finally, intelligent people are susceptible to the Appeal to Novelty fallacy.  Intelligent people get bored easily and like new, different things.  In terms of civilizational time, atheism is very new. 

In summary, the higher IQ of atheists is due to the self-selecting nature of college attendees, the zeitgeist of modern universities, the tendency to avoid specifics, and the desire for novelty in the intelligent. 


8 thoughts on “Are atheists more intelligent than religious people?

    Royce said:
    August 14, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Glad to see you are posting once again. Very interesting article and one which reflects my views. Those who reject God in favor of “science” seem to ignore some very basic questions starting with first cause. Today they offer some very labored answers — which on close inspection — beg the question.

    ajmacdonaldjr said:
    August 14, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    I’m with Royce: “Those who reject God in favor of “science” seem to ignore some very basic questions starting with first cause.”

    As you point out, the common “argument” the atheist puts forward is: “I can’t see God, and until I do, I don’t believe”, which ignores the epistemology of science and the limits of that epistemology. If they were so smart they would say: “I only believe in what I can see; therefore God, being a spirit, is unknowable to me. God may or may not exist, I don’t know.”

    When an agnostic is smart enough to say this, I point out to them that “agnostic”, in Latin, is “ignoramus”, which, unlike “agnostic”, doesn’t sound like such a great thing to be.

    IQ tests are pseudoscientific assertions of something that cannot be determined by technological means, such as standardized tests. IQ tests are foisted on the public by couching them in scientific jargon, as though saying IQ tests are scientific makes them so.

    Michael LaBossiere said:
    August 14, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    As you note, even if atheists have higher IQs, it would be an error to infer that being an atheist would make a person smarter.

    In terms of explaining why atheists have higher IQ, some might say that this is because it is the correct view and hence would tend to attract more intelligent people. However, it is worth considering the nature of the populations. The population of atheists is relatively small and thus the impact of a small number of the top academic atheists would significant. In the case of the religious population, it would be a much larger and more diverse population. As such, one would expect the average IQ of the non-atheist population would be lower.

    Bill said:
    August 14, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    When I saw this in my inbox this morning, it made my day. Glad your’e back. I think it’s probably true that ‘more intelligent’ people are atheist, but even if that was demonstrably true, nothing can be derived from it as you point out. However this meme, lefties are smarter than righties, NPR readers are smarter and more well informed than Fox viewers etc etc shouldn’t pass for news. The implication is that b/c on group is smarter, their position is more right – well, smart and dumb alike had really absurd views of the solar system and earth’s shape just a short time ago. Just b/c smarter people have a position doesn’t make it any more right. Then there’s that whole Charles Murray angle that definitely comes into play. Slate plays up intellectual superiority of people they agree with 😉 – BTW, I’m trying to look at the original research they referenced but couldn’t find it all so far (remember it wasn’t that long ago that HuffPo pushed out a really impressive study that turned out to be an undergrad’s term paper which was full of errors) – I strongly suspect there’s some confirmation bias in here – who studies IQ’s of atheists vs believers in the first place?

    magus71 responded:
    August 14, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    I believe that if they polled two groups of people (atheists and believers), both groups with Bachelor’s degrees or higher, researchers would find both groups of comparable IQ. But what this study did is essentially split college grads or students from those whom probably don’t have degrees and will never have one. Intelligence is a selector for university success, and college students tend to think in certain, predictable ways.

    What’s interesting is that people believe in all kinds of things that they can’t see. Many believe in China, but have never been there. Scientists have never “seen” a quark, but know from mathematics, that they exist. Kurt Gödel, one of the greatest geniuses of all time, and good friend of Einstein, created “Gödel’s Ontological Proof”'s_ontological_proof#Criticism_of_G.C3.B6del.27s_proof, which is as scientific as anything 99% of atheists could come up with–the proof says God exists. Yet even Gödel could not believe in God. It seems to me that many people do not believe in God because they do not want to. They are afraid of what the would mean.

    WTP said:
    August 16, 2013 at 3:04 am

    Atheists may tend to have higher IQ’s but it’s a logical fallacy to deduce that therefore atheists are right. Many high-IQ people believe in some concept of God. And as you state I have no doubt that if we were to measure the IQs of Communist sympathizers and compare them to the IQs of say, average people in America during the 50s, 60s, and 70s,, we would find that the Communists had higher IQs. Of course many are still around and bitter, they cling to communism or socialism or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.

    Royce said:
    August 17, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    I have worked with numbers my whole life. I assure you I can make numbers say anything I want them to say. To rely or give credence to this ridiculous survey is simply a waste of time. I’m willing to bet I could conduct a survey that would show that Atheists have the lower IQ’s

    Lou said:
    August 24, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Even God knows agnostics consider themselves wise.

    1 Cor 1:27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.
    1 Cor 3:19-20 For the wisdom of God is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness;” and again, “The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise and that they are useless.”

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