Who is wise atheist or agnostic

Is there a connection between intelligence and (un) belief? Everyday experience and intuition are extremely bad advice for answering this question, too quickly you run the risk of arriving at exactly the result that fits your own worldview through your own prejudices and perceptual distortions. Against this background, it is recommended (as in almost all cases) to compare your own considerations with the state of scientific research on the topic.

By Tobias Wolfram

The currently most comprehensive investigation into the extent to which religiosity and intelligence correspond is the meta-study by Zuckerman, Silberman and Hall from 2013. Its results are based on more than 60 studies and represent the culmination point of almost 9 decades of psychological research Starting point for answering our question asked at the beginning.

What are we talking about?

It is important to clarify the terminology at the beginning: There is a large number of misunderstandings outside of psychometrics, especially about the term intelligence. A definition that can be viewed as consensus within intelligence research goes back to the psychologist Linda Gottfredson, who characterized intelligence as the ability to think, plan, solve problems, understand complex ideas and learn quickly and from experience. This construct is commonly referred to as the psychometric g or g-factor and can be measured relatively well by professionally administered IQ tests (research agrees on this). Certain factors such as "emotional intelligence", which is often cited in popular science, are certainly omitted in such a definition, but the existence of such alternative concepts to the "analytical intelligence" of the g-factor is extremely controversial among experts.

Religiousness, on the other hand, represents the belief in supernatural beings and implies the willingness of individuals to make relevant sacrifices (time, money, etc.) for these creatures in case of doubt. Belief in the same is often used to reduce existential fears (e.g. of one's own death) or to find answers to ultimate philosophical questions.

A question with tradition

Historically, the scientific discussion of the connection between religiosity and intelligence goes back as far as the 1920s, as already indicated above: First studies in those years found a negative connection (smarter people seemed to be less religious), a finding that continues up to showed in several further studies in the 1950s. However, these first years of research came under increasing criticism due to various methodological shortcomings. New hypotheses assumed that the social environment and upbringing act as a mediator or channeler of religiosity and z. B. More intelligent people who grow up in religious contexts tend to be more concerned with their religious texts and scriptures. But even this research remained ambiguous for many years and was plagued by statistical problems such as a lack of representativeness (most of the respondents were students). Only for the past 20 years has there been an increasing number of studies that can deal with these disruptive factors on the basis of new methodological developments or even fall back on representative samples and that confirm the initial negative findings from the 20s.

A completely different line of research, which comes to similar results, can be found in the sociology of science: As early as 1916, 58 percent of a representative sample of scientists in the USA classified themselves as atheists or agnostics, a rate that is increasing to this day and which, for example is analyzed in more detail by Richard Dawkins in Gotteswahn.

The results of the meta-study by Zuckerman et al.

The empirical part of the above-mentioned meta-study by Zuckerman and others analyzes results from 63 studies that measure both religiosity and intelligence. The effects of all studies are (after establishing comparability on the basis of uniform metrics) in a narrow range, which with a correlation of -0.2 to -0.24 implies a moderately negative relationship between intelligence and religiosity. Even under the very conservative assumption that there is a strict division between believers and non-believers (whereby all religious people fall into one group regardless of the strength of their beliefs), the difference between the groups, converted into IQ points, is still 6.2 to 7.8 (the intelligence quotient is normally distributed with an average value of 100, from 130 one generally speaks of giftedness)!

This result is robust against different statistical model specifications. Even if you take the effect of gender, education or age out of the relationship between intelligence and religiosity, the relationship only becomes imperceptibly smaller. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that intelligence mediates the negative relationship between education and religiosity, which has already been more closely examined, i.e. it is the relationship between education and intelligence that is (at least partially) also responsible for that between education and religiosity. However, the data situation is not (yet) sufficient for unambiguous findings.

Does religion make you stupid or does intelligence disbelieve?

Of course, these findings only represent correlations. The causal direction (i.e. whether intelligent people tend to be non-religious or whether unbelief leads to prudence) cannot be judged on the basis of the available data alone. Nevertheless, there are reasonable reasons to assume that the causality extends from intelligence to (less) religiosity. There are two reasons for this: On the one hand, four of the studies examined in the meta-analysis were so staggered in time that intelligence was measured long before religiosity (3-25 years). The results in these three studies are in no way noticeably different from the rest of the data. However, this argument is not completely convincing, since religiosity was only measured at a later point in time and a reasonable causal investigation would have required values ​​of faith at both points in time. In contrast, the so-called “Terman Study”, a repeat survey of 1,528 gifted children over a period of more than 35 years, provides a much stronger argument. If one compares the average values ​​of the respondents in matters of religiosity with comparable samples from the total population in the respective years, one immediately notices a drastically lower level of faith among the gifted in relation to the general public. This is particularly noteworthy because a good 60 percent of the participants in the Terman study stated that they had been brought up in a strong or relatively strong religious fashion.

The question of the reason

The current state of research therefore suggests a causal relationship between intelligence and (A-) religiosity, the effect of which is not insignificant. A consideration of this phenomenon would, however, be incomplete and, moreover, unsatisfactory if at least a rough overview of the central explanatory approaches were not given. Here three central theories can be distinguished which try to fathom the connection between intelligence and religion.

Atheism as nonconformity

A now stately traditional line of intelligence research shows that there is a connection between IQ and various behaviors that can be summarized as nonconformity: For example, more intelligent people are more difficult to persuade and are more skeptical of assertions. Findings also indicate a positive correlation between intelligence and self-perceived uniqueness or individuality.

In religiously dominated societies (which still exist in most parts of the world) belief is more than just a private view, it also serves as social capital and strengthens group identities. Those who distance themselves from the unquestioned dogmatics of strong religiosity under these circumstances may do so out of a striving for inappropriateness, of “swimming against the current”. Since more intelligent people are more prone to such behavior, they are more likely to be found in the group of atheists and less religious.

A concrete prediction of this theory would be that the connection between intelligence and religiosity would primarily be observed in societies in which religion plays an important role in everyday life (eg the USA), but at the same time in strongly secularized states such as the countries of Scandinavia, can no longer be found or only in a significantly weaker form. Unfortunately, no studies are known to date that would confirm or refute this idea.

Disbelief as a result of analytical thinking

A classic hypothesis, which may seem intuitively conclusive to the secular reader due to its slightly flattering overtones, is based on the fact that intelligent people “simply know better” and therefore do not believe in stories that are obviously proclaimed without any factual basis or logic . However, one does not have to be a genius to notice the contradictions and inadequate factuality of religious revelations. On the contrary, quite a few believers seem to cultivate their faith in full awareness of this problem.

Therefore it may be a special way of thinking that causes weaker religiosity. A distinction is made here between analytical and intuitive thinking, also known as System I and System II: Where analytical thinking manifests itself through control, systematization, rule-basedness and a relatively low speed, intuitive thinking is reactive, heuristic, spontaneous, withdrawn from our consciousness and (thereby) extremely fast. The theory would therefore logically assume that intelligent people tend to think analytically and analytical people are less religious.

This is supported by the current state of research: There is a relatively strong correlation between analytical thinking (psychologists can measure this eg with the cognitive reflection test) and intelligence (the findings fluctuate in a moderately high range with correlations of .4-. 45 ). At the same time, only a few studies test both intelligence and analytical thinking and also include a question of religiosity in their questionnaires. The few who do, however, indicate that the connection between intelligence and religiosity disappears partially or completely with the addition of analytical thinking.

Intelligence as a substitute for religion

Zuckerman and colleagues bring an innovative new theory into the discussion and postulate a “functional equivalence” of religiosity and intelligence: From a simplified perspective, religion simply fulfills some form of purpose for a person, otherwise it would not be religious. The authors now suspect that intelligence can at least partially take over these functions. Specifically, the authors identify four sub-fields in which the benefits of religion apparently also come from intelligence.

The first example is the compensatory control function of religion: religion provides a feeling of external control, ergo the feeling that the world functions in an orderly and predictable way. Experiments show that experiences of loss of control can increase people's religiosity. In particular, research shows that religiosity can give a feeling of control when the belief in one's own control is undermined by external factors. At the same time, a meta-study shows a moderate connection between intelligence and the feeling of control and self-efficacy, i.e. the belief that you can achieve goals through your own abilities.

Another factor is self-regulation or self-control: Sociological studies show weak but stable connections between religiosity and various positive social indicators such as life satisfaction or academic performance. An overview of the literature on these findings could fill an article of its own, but a frequently raised consideration to explain this connection is that religiosity requires self-regulation (adapting one's own behavior with regard to goals) and self-control (small, short -term rewards in favor of larger, long-term ones deferring rewards) and thus contributes to the positive factors mentioned. A growing body of empirical research seems to confirm this. At the same time, another branch of the literature again indicates moderate correlations between intelligence and self-control (approx. 0.2).

Thirdly, the authors point out the self-appreciation that religiosity can bring with it: According to this, people are generally motivated by the fact that they want to be perceived positively by their fellow human beings and are looking for ways to improve their own social position as easily as possible. In religious (sub) cultures, strong religiosity is perceived as positive and worth striving for, which is why it can serve as a (not necessarily consciously used) means to this end. However, intelligence seems to fulfill a similar function: on the one hand, studies show that there is a weakly positive relationship between intelligence and self-worth, other authors show moderate relationships between intelligence and high self-confidence, emotional stability, tolerance, openness and conscientiousness. Because of this, there may not be such a strong need for religious upgrading.

Finally, the authors consider the role that religiosity can play as a place of protection and retreat: In this sense, religion can convey security and security in difficult times, the love of God is perceived as an omnipresent refuge and safe haven. Much speaks here for a compensatory connection in which one approaches God as a consoling entity, especially in the face of separation experiences, the death of a person close to them or comparable strokes of fate. In this context it has been empirically proven that religiosity leads to less loneliness and loneliness to increased religiosity. In addition, religiosity seems to allow people to better deal with grief, at least there is a significant connection between religiosity and shorter periods of mourning after the death of a spouse. In contrast, intelligence relativizes at least the connection between a lack of religiosity and loneliness through significantly more stable and happier relationships and significantly lower divorce rates.

Criticism and Outlook

In addition to the three theoretical approaches described, there are also various considerations that attempt to explain the connection between religiosity and intelligence through genetic or evolutionary psychological models. The presentation of these hypotheses, however, requires more detailed explanations, which would go beyond the scope of this discussion. At the same time, they are currently in a minority position and have not yet been adequately proven empirically, but this could change in the coming years.

In general, based on the current state of research, a focus of the data on the United States can be deplored, which may limit the generalizability of the findings. A look at strongly secularized countries such as Scandinavia or even a completely different cultural area such as China could once again significantly enrich and change the existing facts. The studies to date also do not allow any reliable conclusions to be drawn about the specific meaning of individual denominations - the majority of all participants were of course Protestant or Catholic, whereas in Judaism or Islam and of course in the non-Abrahamic religions other contexts would be conceivable.

The situation remains exciting and as soon as the advances in research in the coming years require a new summary of the facts, it will be found here at Fowid.