A recent meta-analytical study has identified an inverse correlation between faith and intelligence. Such studies are relatively common: many of us will already have encountered a number of studies identifying the same correlation. One also sees similar research supporting the claim that liberals are more intelligent than conservatives. Given its provocative nature, such research almost invariably garners press far in excess of its merits.
Within this post, I want to suggest a few observations that should be made and questions that should be asked of this piece of research and others like it.
1. The correlation between faith and relatively lower intelligence concerns the average: it does not establish an atheist monopoly on the highest levels of intelligence or a religious monopoly on the lowest. Obviously it does not mean that every atheist is more intelligent than every religious person. Some of the most brilliant persons in our society find Christianity persuasive. Even within the graph relating a country’s belief in a god to their national average IQ, it is worth observing the fact that the country with the highest IQ is under 15% atheist (P.Z. Myers, a prominent atheist, raises important questions about the racist assumptions of that particular piece of research).
2. The reasonableness and truth of a belief is not dependent on the intelligence of the people who subscribe to it, upon the bases on which it is commonly held, or the strength of the arguments typically given for it. The fact that many of us cannot subscribe to certain beliefs in the forms in which they are commonly articulated does not render those beliefs themselves irrational. The fact that a person’s arguments for atheism or Christian faith are illogical is not in and of itself clear proof that atheism or Christian faith are illogical positions in themselves.
Most belief systems have advocates with the capacity to articulate and to defend their convictions at a higher level of discourse and argument than the level at which they are usually popularly encountered. Even when such advocates are lacking, this is not proof that such defence could not be given. The merits of atheism and Christianity must be ascertained, not from the IQs of their adherents, but from the integrity and strength of their accounts of reality.
3. Studies employing categories such as ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ in a relatively uncritical fashion shouldn’t be allowed to pass unquestioned. The exact definitions of these terms are far from clear. They conflate belief systems that are extremely diverse, treating them as if they were a unitary phenomenon. When Christians speak of ‘faith’, they are not speaking of some free-standing or generic disposition shared in common by all ‘religions’, but about a relational posture to a particular person—the triune God. We also are referring to a particular set of practices and affiliations that go along with that. These differ markedly from the beliefs, practices, values, and affiliations of other religions.
4. Following on from this, different religions and different Christian traditions typically receive wildly varying results in such studies. On what basis are we bundling such diverse groups together? When separated it might well prove that certain religions, particularly when limited to the bounds of a particular country, have an average level of intelligence comfortably exceeding than that of atheists. The conflation of all faiths and traditions and their straightforward opposition to atheism is far from a neutral framing of the data.
5. At times the religion vs. atheism framing can be misleading, not least when theism and religion are employed as if they were synonymous. In key senses religion and atheism are incommensurable, which renders a straightforward opposition between them unhelpful. Belief in the existence of God is only one—admittedly crucial—dimension of Christian faith, for instance. Being a Christian also involves belonging to particular communities, the practice of certain rituals, the communal recounting and rehearsing of a particular identifying narrative, and the committing of oneself to a way of life and discipleship. An opposition based upon belief alone will tend to obscure many crucial dimensions of Christian identity and also the broader diverse ways that atheists express their being in the world in the absence of a coordinating belief in God. Further, it will dull us to the inconsistency of the behaviour of both religious persons and atheists in reality.
6. ‘Intelligence’ is generally an extremely slippery concept as it functions in such studies. As P.Z. Myers observes:
The various studies measure intelligence by GPA (grade point average), UEE (university entrance exams), Mensa membership, and Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests. Can you say apples and oranges? Yeah, I thought so. And anyone who has spent any time with Mensa people knows they aren’t particularly shining examples of crystal clear analytical intelligence, for instance.
Such a muddled set of differing metrics really doesn’t give us a very firm grip on intelligence, the very thing that is supposedly central to the research. While the concept of IQ is not without its uses, we should be alert to the dangers inherent in its chosen selection (and exclusion) and agglomeration of different aptitudes and the relative weighting and single quantification that follows. There is a lot that goes on beneath the bonnet of a person’s IQ that should lead us to proceed with caution. The precise quality of a person’s intelligence is considerably more important than any quantification that we could give it.
An IQ, a figure obtained through testing under controlled and rather unnatural conditions, much like a percentage mark given for an essay, can definitely serve a heuristic purpose, provided that we recognize its limitations and artificiality. A person’s IQ doesn’t tell us as much about the effectiveness of their intelligence as it might suggest, though. At best it might be akin to knowing the speed of a computer’s processor. A computer needs much more than a processor to be of use and the failure or limitations of other components can render the extra speed of its processor to be of little value.
This is something that connects with points that I have made in the past, and in more recent posts. Effective intelligence isn’t just about how fast and consistently our minds can process abstract mental conundrums under controlled conditions. It also demands of us such things as deep conceptual imagination, intellectual sympathy, diligence, self-definition, confidence, assertiveness, knowledge, patience, openness to criticism, alertness and sensitivity to evidence, the skill of participating, facilitating, and drawing insight effectively from communal deliberation, the holding of nerve, and the ability to respond to the experience of cognitive dissonance wisely. True intelligence also requires the ability to regulate our psychological functioning, so that we think calmly and non-reactively, even when under pressure, in emotionally charged contexts, or when relating to realities that might evoke instinctual reactions in us. The mere possession of a high IQ is no assurance of the presence of these other essential co-requisites of effective intelligence. Many people are like computers with lightning fast processors but no fan.
7. In and of itself, the mere possession of intelligence is no evidence of sufficient acquaintance with the evidence or realities necessary to declare on the meaning and merits of a particular belief system. No matter what my level of intelligence may be, my opinion on the plays of Molière, for instance, is of little value, as my acquaintance with them is only slight.
8. Is it really the case that intelligent people are the most acquainted with the realities that pertain to faith? Put differently, is faith primarily about the realm of ideas, or is it, for instance, principally about a realm of existential, personal, and communal encounters and relationships? The commonly assumed notion that intelligence is the characteristic that most qualifies us to declare on matters relating to God’s existence is not as obvious as it might seem.
9. Beyond the questionable contrast between the average IQs of various countries—do we truly believe that a dozen countries have an average IQ of 70 or less, within the range of mental retardation?—we need to ask ourselves the degree to which such things can be straightforwardly compared and contrasted across cultures. What it means to believe or not to believe in God is rather different from culture to culture and against the backdrop of different religious traditions. In some cultures, atheism is a fashionable belief among elites, in others a popular consensus, in still others it is a dangerous departure from religious authorities, which could seriously damage one’s opportunities. Likewise with Christian faith: in some cultures it is popular among the masses, in others a dangerous dissident faith. In some cultures it is framed by a subsistence lifestyle, in others by the enjoyment of plenty. Similar comments could be made about traditions within Christianity.
One of the things that has been highlighted in recent years is the danger of ‘WEIRD psychology’, psychology that makes universalizing statements on the basis of results obtained from Western and educated individuals in industrialized, rich, and democratic countries. Such individuals are more typically outliers when it comes to many aspects of human behaviour. The results obtained from them may also be highly culturally and historically contingent. Many of the studies forming the basis for this meta-analysis could be suspected of this failing.
10. Novel beliefs and behaviours, which depart from natural (not merely cultural) norms, are significantly more likely to be found among highly intelligent persons. ‘Religion’ of some loose description has been close to a human universal for much of our history. Departure from something that comes fairly naturally to us requires a break with nature on some level, something that is most likely to occur in highly developed cultures and among the most intelligent. Of course, such a departure from a natural norm is a risky venture and quite possibly misguided (a comparable contemporary example might be the cultural abandonment of the male and femaleness of marriage).
11. Any departure from what has generally been a popular cultural consensus or default belief (in this case, theism) will be over-populated by more self-defined and intelligent persons. Most persons will not stray from or question the cultural assumptions into which they were socialized, they do not acquaint themselves with ‘unorthodox’ positions, nor do they necessarily feel sure of themselves to oppose authorities. Those who do will tend to be more intelligent than the average.
12. Greater attention to such things as the sociology of conversion might also be illuminating here. In general, converts are persons with higher education and greater intelligence than the norm. The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear. It might have to do with a greater exposure to different ideas and contexts. University isolates individuals from their formative contexts and exposes them to very diverse groups, beliefs, and ideas, within settings where many of the social factors that bolstered and made their faith credible are removed and they have to believe on their own. More intelligent persons are typically also the most intellectually adventurous and exploratory, being the most inclined to examine different sides of a position. If atheism is a position that people convert to at a high rate, rather than being socialized into from birth, it will probably be composed of more intelligent persons.
13. Certain elite cultures, not least in academia, are fashionably atheist. Our beliefs are powerful shaped by interpersonal and contextual factors and this is still the case for academics. Atheism, like liberalism, is the assumed norm in certain academic contexts, even though many of those subscribing to these beliefs haven’t really engaged in any serious and extensive study of alternative positions, or even of their own. Sometimes this can be a reactive way that academics differentiate themselves from the masses. At other points it is just a matter of one’s beliefs shifting under the pressure of the assumptions of a new set of peers and one’s desire not to stand out too much. Becoming an atheist (a ‘free-thinker’) differentiates oneself from a particular group of peers and identifies one with a new group: it is an element of a popular narrative of how one becomes an ‘intelligent’ person.
14. The more intelligent persons and most developed nations will typically enjoy more wealth, security, better health care, and social stability. Such persons are the least likely to experience a need for or dependence upon God. A trust in human providence and the power of human knowledge takes the place of religious faith.
15. Intelligent people aren’t equally distributed throughout society. They tend to cluster in certain areas and professions and also, as I have observed, typically share important formative experiences and contexts, such as the university. The contexts in which intelligent persons will tend to predominate will often be more heterogeneous and artificial than those of less intelligent persons.
More intelligent and creative people tend to be a lot more socially mobile. With greater social mobility come higher levels of conversion and a greater dependence upon liberal values. As I have already remarked, when studying at university you are uprooted from your original social context and brought into contact with complete strangers from a wide range of different backgrounds. The same is the case in the city. Less intelligent people are probably more likely to remain in more settled or homogeneous social contexts.
The heterogeneous social context of the city or the university operates quite differently from a settled and more homogeneous social context. Within such a context, your relationships are often primarily with people beyond your ‘in-group’ and the social fabric is fairly thin. In such a context more ‘liberal’ virtues of tolerance, for instance, will be emphasized as the virtues that enable society to operate smoothly. The experience of the cognitive dissonance arising from friendly interactions with people who reject your belief system are far more common in a cosmopolitan context. People in a heterogeneous social context will tend to be more liberal for this reason. If university education occurred within each student’s local community, things might be different. The social dimensions of belief systems will also usually be highly attenuated, as many belief systems have to exist alongside each other.
Such heterogeneous social contexts are generally ones of disconnection from any particular tradition and the social fabric tends to be thin. The traditional society operates using such things as custom, tradition, shared virtues, charity, social pressure, and family, church and local community relationships. People have a clear place and roles when the community, there are expectations of other people and reputation is a significant factor. In the heterogeneous social context such things do not exist in anywhere like the same measure. Society must somehow be created from many people who do not necessarily have a lot in common and a lot more control is exerted in places where traditional communities would not require it.
The ‘natural’ social context is one that is adumbrated by a minimal amount of laws, laws that will tend to arise in a more organic fashion, to protect the fundamental social fabric. In contrast, the artificial social context is one in which the society is far more of an engineered reality, rather than a given. People who live in engineered societies are probably more likely to try to extend the principle to places where it does not belong and to downplay the given-ness of the social fabric more generally. Once again, intelligent people are more likely, or account of further education and increased employment opportunities to find themselves in such communities.
Within more ‘artificial’ and less settled social contexts, key confirming and orienting dimensions of religious belief and practice will become more distant from us. Stable and given communities, the cycles of birth, childhood, marriage, aging, and death, an extended intergenerational family, the natural order with its rhythms and power, a shared history, an authoritative tradition, and other such things won’t be such an immediate presence in our lives. The values of purity, loyalty, and authority, themes that are very important in many religions, will be weakened. In such contexts it will be much easier to be an atheist.
My purpose here has not been to provide a comprehensive response. Several other points could be mentioned. Rather, what I hope that I have done is to demonstrate that the abstract atheist vs. religious framing blinds us to many crucial sociological, economic, demographic, theological, and other factors, which are much more determinative than we might initially presume. The correlation between atheism and ‘intelligence’ (bracketing the problematic character of that concept) needs to be understood in terms of a broad range of cultural, historical, social, and economic realities. Once this has been done, the correlation is much less powerful a suggestion of the relative intrinsic merits of Christianity and atheism than may at first be supposed.