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Are atheists smarter than believers? Not exactly.

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A new study of almost a century’s worth of data shows that the smarter you are, the less likely you are to believe in God.

The study, conducted by Miron Zuckerman, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, examined the findings of 63 earlier studies — one dating back to the 1920s — that measured intelligence and religiosity. The majority of those studies found that more intelligent people were more likely to lack religious beliefs.

“The relation between intelligence and religion is negative,” Zuckerman said. “It was very early in the study that we realized that.”

But Zuckerman is careful to point out that his work — known as a “meta-study” because it examines a range of other studies — does not mean only dumb people believe in God.

Rather, he said, it shows only that more intelligent people may have less need for religion.

“It is truly the wrong message to take from here that if I believe in God I must be stupid,” he said. “I would not want to bet any money on that because I would have a very good chance of losing a lot of money.”

Rather, Zuckerman and co-authors Jordan Silberman and Judith Hall write that more intelligent people may find certain basic needs — “functions” in psychology-speak — fulfilled outside of religion. These functions include self-esteem, a sense of community and a sense of purpose, among others.

“We say it is possible that having a high level of intelligence provides similar functions to what religion provides” for people who adhere to a religion, Zuckerman said.

The study also concludes that more intelligent people are less likely to believe in God because they are more likely to challenge established norms and dogma. They are also more likely to have analytical thinking styles, which other studies have shown undermine religious belief.

The news is not bad for believers, Zuckerman insists.

“The functions we cover imply that in many ways religious people are better off than those who are nonreligious,” he said. “There are things about self-esteem and feeling in control and attachment that religion provides. In all those things, there are benefits to being religious, and that is the take-home message for those who are religious.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said he has “great concerns” about the study.

“This kind of study points to a very clear issue for believing Christians,” he said. “We do not draw support for our faith from scientific reports. Anyone whose faith is shaken by the claim that research proves that higher intelligence leads to lower levels of religious belief has a misplaced faith.”

Lillian Daniel is a Congregationalist pastor and author of the recent book “When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ is Not Enough.” She said many intelligent people are comfortable with “the metaphor and mystery” of faith.

“It’s not that intelligence leads to atheism, or education leads to loss of faith,” she said. “But I think there is a certain peer pressure as one moves up the educational ladder to dismiss all religion as fundamentalism. It’s one of the last acceptable biases in an environment that prides itself on being open-minded.”

The study appeared in the online version of Personality and Social Psychology Review, an academic journal, and will appear next year in the print version.

Tracy Simmons

About Tracy Simmons

Tracy Simmons is an award winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. In her 15 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti.
Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut. Currently she serves as the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Wash. She is also a Lecture of Strategic Communication at the University of Idaho.

She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and for the Religion News Service.

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3 comments

  1. Confusing to the point of being pointless. No definition of “intelligent” is offered. No distinction is made between “intelligence” and “education.” No distinction is made between “religion” and “faith.” What is the nature of, and value of, “almost a century’s worth of data?” I invite the writer of this article to re-submit something worth discussing.

  2. I’d say that they have less of a perceived need for spiritual insight, misplaced as that thinking is. The need is there for every single person, God clearly states that. A better comparison would be their intelligence versus the intelligence of God Himself, who invented and created out of nothing DNA for instance. Honest scientists have now admitted that their understanding of how cells could have ever functioned as anything less than they are now is virtually non-existent. This article is just another proof of the wisdom of The Lord God as He has revealed to those humble enough (not intelligent enough) to accept it.

  3. Mark, A lot of what was “left out” by this article was done for a very good reason: Scientifically defining “Intelligent” and “Religious” takes pages and pages of technical jargon that is best left in science journals. Most likely these terms mean “Score on a standard IQ test” and “frequency of attending church” respectively. Because it is a meta-analysis, the author is analyzing several studies conducted over the course of several decades, and aggregating the data in a systematic statistical analysis. This means that there may (or may not) be differences between articles regarding how intelligence and religiosity are measured. This article was published by Sage Publications, which is a company that specializes in social science publications. Someone would need to pull the journal article to read it. I tried on the Gonzaga student library (I’m a student there), but it wasn’t posted (or maybe I looked in the wrong place). So maybe we can learn more later.

    Clearly there are lots and lots of smart theists in the world (One of the guys who discovered DNA is an evangelical Christian for example). But as a rule the smarter you are the more ways you have of looking at a belief, and the more likely you are to see a belief as metaphorical (as opposed to literal). Beliefs have a funny way of not only shaping our opinions, but also of shaping our identities. I think that the smarter and more educated you are the more options you have for figuring out who you are and what your place is in the world. This is as true of Christians as it is of Hindus, Buddhists, etc.

    David, you clearly believe that divine authority = truth. I do not. Nor do I believe that certainty = knowledge. I believe that this is the place where we part company, and that given that we part company on such basic ways of looking at the world, we really do live in very, very different worlds.

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