Are Atheists Smarter Than Religious People?

14 Aug


So says a new study popularized by Yahoo! News. A minor disagreement with the conclusions of the study was published over at Salon (Christopher Hitchens’ former employer).

Yahoo! News reports that a review of 63 scientific studies over the years has found that religious people are less intelligent than non-believers. The study, by Miron Zuckerman of the University of Rochester, found that there is “ a reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity” in 53 out of the 63 studies review. This is the case even when intelligent people who are non-believers grow old.


“Intelligent people typically spend more time in school—a form of self-regulation that may yield long-term benefits,” the researchers write. “People possessing the functions that religion provides are likely to adopt atheism, people lacking these very functions (e.g., the poor, the helpless) are likely to adopt theism.”


One flaw in the study, though, is that it does not appear to take into account socioeconomic factors. Growing up in a comfortable household impacts a person’s educational levels and professional success, and therefore may influence the religious beliefs of the person.

What do I think? I don’t think it’s likely that atheists are “smarter” than theists. As you’re no doubt aware of by now from reading my blog, most of our beliefs are a function of our social standing. Human brains are wired for groupthink, and as such, we will tend to believe and defend those beliefs that confer to us the greatest social/sociological benefits. Meaning that most of our arguments for our beliefs are rationalizations of feelings related to ingroup/outgroup dynamics (unless you’re on the autism side of things). Simply put, knowing the reasons why people are religious — or hold most any belief for that matter — would at the most have a weak correlation with intelligence. I don’t want to sound like a conservative blowhard, but in higher education environments if you want to fit in socially, dampening your religiosity is probably a good investment. It’s not deterministic, but it probably has a pretty good unconscious effect.

The Salon article does bring up an important objection: Did this study control for socio-economic status? At the country level, poverty/economic inequality is one of the leading indicators of religiosity. It’s like having a cold; religion is the sneezing and economic inequality is the actual virus.

Of course, being rich doesn’t prevent you from believing in irrational claims

Furthermore, “intelligence” is a fuzzy concept. People can be highly intelligent in their System 1 reasoning (morality/intuition) or they can be highly intelligent in their System 2 reasoning (logic/abstraction). According to MIRI (the AI institute that Eliezer Yudkowsky works for) if we taboo the word “intelligence” we get something like efficient cross-domain optimization. Or, as a simple formula: Intelligence = Optimization Power / Resources Used. So, if someone is able to maximize their optimization power while minimizing the resources they use, then they are — from the vantage point of AI — “intelligent”. What does that mean?

Our “logical” thinking system takes up vast mental resources, while our intuitive thinking system takes up very little. As in my thief and wizard analogy, if you’re able to beat the game using only your thief this could be seen as a much better use of resources than relying on your wizard. Especially if beating the game takes equal amount of time using both. For a real world analogy, is someone who is socially successful (i.e. intuitive intelligence) optimizing their goals in life better than someone who is maxed out in logical intelligence?

I personally think that a truly “intelligent” person would be someone who is both an efficient intuitive thinker and also an efficient logical thinker; someone who excels at both social and abstract intelligence. And again, by “efficient” I mean maximizing their goals while minimizing their brainpower. If I have kids, I would definitely have them concentrate on being socially successful a bit more than logically intelligent; he or she should learn how to intuitively persuade and could then have people more logically intelligent than him/herself do the heavy cognitive lifting. But it would probably be good to maximize both. Most of the atheists that I first met were/are good at logical reasoning, but fail at social reasoning. Moreover, a lot of the more socially intelligent atheists I’ve come to know became atheists for (obviously) non-rational reasons, mired in the many cognitive biases that we have, even though they still had higher education degrees.

1 Comment

Posted by on August 14, 2013 in religiosity


One response to “Are Atheists Smarter Than Religious People?

  1. Dietz Ziechmann

    August 15, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    What is “religiousity”? It means to “bind back” or “rely upon”. What does one make of this? If one recognizes religion to be based upon shared stories and symbols, one begins to come to the heart of the matter: does one take these stories literally or metaphorically, especially if they include a “supernatural” element? Since words are symbols, the way stories are presented inherently involve the symbolic, a big element of truth/Truth being in the ineffable. Those who lean towards shallow interpretations of the ineffable are less intelligent that those who recognize layers of meaning. What more can I say?

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