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


on the virtues of doubt

question markI was invited by my friend Jason Boyett to write a piece on doubt for his blog, O Me of Little Faith. I wrote an essay entitled, “On the Virtue of Doubt: A Brief Autobiography of the Skeptic in the Sanctuary,” in which I discuss the influence that doubt, skepticism, and science have had in my life and career. I recount portions of my personal story moving from my Christian upbringing in central California to life as a scholar embracing science, evolution, and the critical method, and rejecting literalistic interpretations of the Bible. I describe my struggles with issues of faith and what I’ve learned from it all.

Please give it a read.

michael shermer on how and why we are wired to believe

Michael Shermer has given an excellent talk at TED offering an explanation as to why we believe. Shermer argues that belief is based upon our nature as a pattern-seeking animals. Our brains have evolved to seek out patterns and relationships between objects and events.

Specifically, Shermer argues that animals make two types of errors in cognition. A Type I error is a false positive, that is, when we believe a pattern is real when it is actually not. A Type I error is when we find a nonexistent pattern. A Type II error is a false negative, that is, when we don’t believe a pattern is real when it actually is. A Type II error is when we don’t recognize a real pattern.

Humans tend to make more Type I errors because they are less costly. His example is that of standing in the jungle and hearing a rustle in the grass. If we believe the rustle in the grass is something that is going to jump out and eat us, then we are cautious and move away. If it turns out that the rustle was just the wind, then there is really no cost to us except for the time we spent moving out of the way and being cautious.

However, if we make a Type II error and we don’t believe that the rustle in the grass will harm us, and it actually was something that can do us harm, we’re dead. Those individuals that gravitate towards the Type II errors tend to die out over time, while those that trend toward the Type I error survive to pass on their genes. Over time, this process results in a species of animals that are more likely to see patterns that are not there (Type I error) because it is selectively safer.

The cost of making a Type I error is less than making a Type II error. Or, to put it another way, it is safer to believe in something that doesn’t exist than it is to not believe in something that does.

Shermer argues that this is why so many people are still very religious, or at least believe in a god, despite our movement towards a scientific world that is regularly disproving many of the myths contained in accepted religious literature. He argues that ‘agenticity,” or the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency, often from the top down with invisible agents or beings is responsible for the development of religion. This explains angels, demons, and gods, but also a belief in aliens and in government conspiracies.

This conclusion should also speak to scholars, who tend to look for patterns in texts or archaeological evidence that simply aren’t there.

I like Shermer’s explanation. It explains the single most prevalent, yet least-spoken reason why so many people are religious: they’d rather live a religious life and be wrong about hell’s existence than not live a religious live and be wrong about hell. The Type I error results in a life that believed in a superstition, and perhaps that loss of a little “fun.” The Type II error, however, results in eternal damnation.

That is to say, many people believe in a god and follow a religion just in case

This reasoning does not make for good people of faith and explains why so many people are looking to do the bare minimum “to be saved” instead of living a life of service to their fellow humans.

Of course, the next appropriate question is: what is driving us to do good for one another if there is no god? Attempts to explain this question are at the heart of the secular humanist movement and others like it.

Shermer makes some other very interesting comments about cognitive priming and other psychological phenomena. My personal favorite is when he states:

I want to believe and you do too. And in fact, I think my thesis here is that belief is the natural state of things. It is the default option. We just believe. We believe all sorts of things. Belief is natural; disbelief, skepticism, science is not natural. It’s more difficult. It’s uncomfortable to not believe things.

Regardless of your point of view, this is a fascinating lecture and is worth a listen.

%d bloggers like this: