On the Apparent Link Between Atheism and Intelligence

This article points out problems with the apparent link between atheism and intelligence, provides reason to think that strength of belief in Christianity may be correlated with intelligence, and reminds people that intelligence is at best a weak indicator on whether or not atheism is true and Christianity is false.

Let’s start with this typical article from The Independent, entitled, “Religious people are less intelligent than atheists, according to analysis of scores of scientific studies stretching back over decades.” What do we notice about this article surmising from a major meta-study of the literature?

  1. In 10 of the 63, religiosity was positively correlated with intelligence and religiosity was negatively correlated with it. This means that while the reverse was true, the exception occurred almost 20% of the time. The standard level of confidence in the academic community is at least 90%, preferably 95%, 99%, or more. This means by their own standard the evidence is weak before we even get into the parts that matter.
  2. “According to the review, other factors – such as gender or education – did not make any difference to the correlation between intelligence and religious belief.”
  3. “Religiosity” is defined as, “involvement in some (or all) facets of religion.” This is a terrible, aggregated, useless operationalization. Note this Pew Study which indicates that 26% of atheists consider themselves spiritual, 14% believe in a universal spirit or God, and 3% consider themselves outright religious. Basically, “religiosity” includes some atheists, agnostics, secularists, and people of all sorts of nonsense religions which shouldn’t be lumped in with Christians. Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity are not equivalent and I almost immediately disregard the evidence of anyone who can so ignorantly and falsely equivocate.
  4. “The paper concludes that: ‘Most extant explanations (of a negative relation) share one central theme —the premise that religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing…'” It is important to note that the literature demonstrates a link between formal education, not education, and atheism. The literature demonstrates a more pronounced link for certain fields of formal education, particularly the natural sciences. Formal education is education at a formal institution such as an accredited university. There are certain teachings common to these institutions and it seems to me that if we are going to label this relationship causal, which is a bad idea but anyway, the best mechanism for explanation would be the transfer of actual information and teachings to students. In my view one teaching can explain almost the entire link and that is the prolific teaching of skepticism and either methodological naturalism or outright philosophical naturalism.
    1. Students are taught that if we cannot be 95% confident in some finding then we shouldn’t accept it as true. This is hypocritical as I point out in point 1 they do not meet their own standard.
    2. More importantly, the 95% level of confidence or significance is arbitrary, illogical, and inefficient as there are better standards. I have written about this before, but namely, the 50% level is the rational level.
    3. Skepticism is self-defeating. Shouldn’t you be skeptical of it by default?
    4. If you spent years in an institution that told you the same thing over and over you might come out believing it, not because it’s true, but just because it is taken by everyone as a fact with no alternative.
    5. If many people have weak confidence of belief in God, say they are 60% sure of their beliefs, they will be likely to abandon that belief when they are in such an environment for a long time. They may also think they have insufficient evidence for their belief, not recognizing the logic that a belief should only be rejected on the grounds of positive evidence if it is presently held.
    6. I’m also unconvinced that participation in formal higher education is correlated with intelligence. IQ scores, sure, although it’s already an imprecise correlation not a precise causal link, but intelligence? IQ isn’t a good way to measure intelligence. In fact, it’s not clear to leading researchers whether intelligence is even a thing. Even it if is and even if IQ could measure it, IQ can vary largely over time. Looking at the return on investment in formal higher education compared to alternatives you might have some reason to say that people who go to university are less intelligent. A Ph.D. is an expected net loss to lifetime income.
  5. There are major problems with the formal education system, the scientific community, and the academic community including the peer review process. The article is based on a meta-study which is a peer reviewed work and it draws upon other peer reviewed works. Research indicates that peer reviewed works are often to usually wrong. If they are usually wrong then meta-studies are at an even greater risk of being wrong because they drawn on the common conclusions. Research indicates that, conservatively, about 1/3 of peer reviewed research is wrong, which renders this meta-study useless. Here is a link to a longer list of problems, but I will mention a specific few:
    1. The Economist says most published peer review research is probably false.
    2. More than 120 published research papers, at least many of which and at most all of which underwent peer review, were withdrawn after it was noticed that they were computer generated nonsense.
    3. This article by John Ioannidis and published in the peer reviewed medical journal PLOS shows that most peer review published research is false.
    4. Peer review is not properly implemented because authors may end up reviewing their own papers.
    5. Nobel Laureate (in Physiology of Medicine) Sydney Brenner says peer review has become a completely corrupt system, is hindering science, it is a regression to the mean, and it is done to make money rather than produce good research.

I could go on, but the conclusion is that there is no reason to think that the more intelligent people are less religious, and small reasons to think otherwise.

Importantly, we need to separate Christians from religiosity. Furthermore, we need to measure Christianity along a spectrum of strength of belief rather than as a binary category. We also need to consider denominations as fundamentally different. Yes, we may say that they are basically all just variants of Christianity, but they have differing truth values and this is important if we think that markets react to correct information, including information on Christianity.

It may be the case, and this article I wrote seems to indicate, that atheism is more accurate than some variants of Christianity and less accurate than others according to the market. If intelligence is the ability to believe true information then atheists may be more intelligent than some Christians, in particular liberal or marginal Christians, but I don’t think they are more intelligent than some Christians such as so-called born-again evangelicals, or, as I call them, Christians.

If intelligence means making the efficient economic choice then it could be that avoiding formal higher education altogether is the intelligent thing to do, and that formal academic institutions, the academic community, the scientific community, and the peer review system are simply stupidity manufacturers to which the input is money and the output is people thinking they are correct and intelligent even if when they aren’t.

Update on 10/23/18: I just found a great, related article by Randy Olson, “The myth of the smarter Atheist.” Very interesting because it charts country-level evidence on secularism by average national IQ. The relation is clearly nonlinear and positive, but eventually backward bending! This relates to discussions on secularism, but also on the importance of culture and institutions, as well as the discussion on group vs individual IQ, a la Hive Mind. You might also consider there is now a Wikipedia page on this topic. A third related article is my newly published Christianity and the Shadow of the Future.


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