Reexamining the Claim that Atheists are Smarter than Theists

There is an interesting post by Tomas Rees at Epiphenom that examines the old claim that atheists are, on average, more intelligent than their religious counterparts.

The post examines conclusions from multiple studies done using multiple different methodologies.

In one study, 63 studies measuring IQ vs. religiosity yielded evidence that “the higher a person’s intelligence, the lower the person scored on the religiosity measures”.

The same researcher (Zuckerman) noted that “the relationship is weakest in pre-college (i.e. young) individuals, and stronger for religious beliefs than for religious behaviour (i.e. church going).”

Another study done by Francisco Cribari-Neto and Tatiene Souza examines statistically whether religious culture is related generally to intellectual life.

They were able to show that the link is real, and that it is independent of economic development (both intelligence and loss of religion are independently linked to economic development, but there is something additional to that).

The effect also appears to be strongest in nations at levels of average IQ – as shown in the figure.

People have offered different explanations for these results. I’m less drawn to the idea that it is because religion is irrational, intelligent, educated people simply “know better” or less likely to conform to a popular system of beliefs. Whether or not it is true, it is difficult to quantify.

I am more drawn to the idea that belief, and its subsequent social organization as formal (or informal) religion, is an evolutionary adaptation, and therefore instinctive in our brains. This is what Satoshi Kanazawa has suggested, and is a central thesis of Michael Shermer’s book, “The Believing Brain“, which I’ve blogged about in the past.

Belief in things that aren’t real (e.g., thinking the wind is a dangerous predator) is an evolutionary adaptation that costs individual organisms very little, and is therefore easily adopted and passed to subsequent generations via memes (being taught that things might exist that can hurt you) and ultimately genetically (those that don’t believe this at times get eaten when it’s not the wind, but actually a dangerous predator, thereby removing them from the gene pool).

Therefore belief is evolutionary and instinctive, and it takes intelligence and training to override our natural instincts and break free from our “natural” beliefs. We accomplish the same feat when we learn that optical illusions are, in fact, illusions, that coincidence exists (and that chance happenings aren’t always the result of intentional agency or design), and that noises in the dark aren’t always monsters.

Intelligence and educational experiences allow us to come to a rational conclusion that some things present in our brains as children are mere evolutionarily advantageous devices, but illusory nonetheless. This is how and why we learn that the dark isn’t scary, that there aren’t monsters under the bed, that Santa was a reward-based behavioral modification device employed by our parents to get us to behave as kids (that is, until we figured out that the Santa myth is full of holes and that the evidence doesn’t stand up to rational scrutiny, much like other systems of belief designed to modify our behavior), and that the efficacy of prayer largely matches the statistical probability of chance over the long term and over large samples of people.

Overcoming popular belief(s) takes intelligence and experience, and this is beginning to be shown in study after study.

Give Dr. Rees’ post a read!

HT: James McGrath on FB

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