Religiosity and intelligence

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The debate on religiosity and intelligence explores the link between religiosity and issues related to intelligence and educational level (by country and on the individual level). "Religiosity" may include religious beliefs, practices or affiliations.

A meta-analysis has found a negative correlation between intelligence quotient (IQ) and religiosity among American protestants.[1] On the individual level, education level is positively correlated with a belief in a god in African countries, and negatively correlated in Western countries. The frequency of church visits is however positively correlated with education level in English-speaking countries as well as in Protestant Europe.[2]

Some studies have shown a correlation between national average IQ and atheism in society,[3] although others have questioned whether any correlations are due to a complex range of social, economic and historical factors, which interact with religion and IQ in different ways.[4] For example, national wealth has a stronger correlation with intelligence than national religiosity.[5] Less developed and poorer countries tend to be more religious, perhaps because religions play a more active social, moral and cultural role in those countries.[6] Religions in wealthy countries used to have a more specific moral and spiritual role.[7]

Summary of research and definitions of terms[edit]

Intelligence is a property of the mind that encompasses many related abilities, such as the capacities to reason, to plan, to solve problems, to think abstractly, to comprehend ideas, to use language, and to learn. There are several ways to more specifically define intelligence. In some cases, intelligence may include traits such as creativity, personality, character, knowledge, or wisdom. However, some psychologists prefer not to include these traits in the definition of intelligence.[8][9]

A widely researched index or classification of intelligence among scientists is intelligence quotient (IQ). IQ is a summary index, calculated by testing individuals' abilities in a variety of tasks and producing a composite score to represent overall ability, e.g., Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. It is used to predict educational outcomes and other variables of interest.

Others have attempted to measure intelligence indirectly by looking at individuals' or group's educational attainment, although this risks bias from other demographic factors, such as age, income, gender and cultural background, all of which can affect educational attainment.[8]

Dissatisfaction with traditional IQ tests has led to the development of alternative theories. In 1983, Howard Gardner proposed the theory of multiple intelligences, which broadens the conventional definition of intelligence, to include logical, linguistic, spatial, musical, kinesthetic, naturalist, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences.[10] He chose not to include spiritual intelligence amongst his "intelligences" due to the challenge of codifying quantifiable scientific criteria,[11] but suggested an "existential intelligence" as viable.[12]

The term religiosity refers to degrees of religious behaviour, belief, or spirituality. The measurement of religiosity is hampered by the difficulties involved in defining what is meant by the term. Numerous studies have explored the different components of religiosity, with most finding some distinction between religious beliefs/ doctrine, religious practice, and spirituality. Studies can measure religious practice by counting attendance at religious services, religious beliefs/ doctrine by asking a few doctrinal questions, while spirituality can be measured by asking respondents about their sense of oneness with the divine or through detailed standardized measurements. When religiosity is measured, it is important to specify which aspects of religiosity are referred to.

Studies comparing religious belief and IQ[edit]

In a 2013 meta-analysis, led by Professor Miron Zuckerman, of 63 scientific studies about IQ and religiosity, a negative relation between intelligence and religiosity was found in 53, and a positive relation in the remaining ten. Controlling for other factors, they can only confidently show strong negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity among American Protestants.[1] The meta-analysis discussed three possible explanations:

  • First, intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma.
  • Second, intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs.
  • Third, Intelligent people may have less need for religious beliefs and practices, as some of the functions of religiosity can be given by intelligence instead. Such functions include the presentation of a sense that the world is orderly and predictable, a sense of personal control and self-regulation and a sense of enhancing self esteem and belongingness. Researcher Helmuth Nyborg and Richard Lynn, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Ulster, compared belief in God and IQs.[3] Using data from a U.S. study of 6,825 adolescents, the authors found that the average IQ of atheists was 6 points higher than the average IQ of non-atheists.
The relationship between countries' belief in a god and average Intelligence Quotient, measured by Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg[3]

The authors also investigated the link between belief in a god and average national IQs 137 countries. (For the purposes of this article, it should be noted that 'belief in a god' does not correlate with 'religiosity'. Some nations have high proportions of people who do not believe in a god, but who may nevertheless be highly religious, following non-theistic belief systems such as Buddhism or Taoism.) The authors reported a correlation of 0.60 between atheism rates and level of intelligence, which was determined to be "highly statistically significant".[3] Of the twelve countries with atheism over 40%, all except two are in the average IQ range of 94 to 100, with only one higher than that range (Japan) and one lower (Cuba). Cuba and Vietnam, (former) communist countries, are anomalies, having a lower average intelligence but a high number of disbelievers, which may be attributed to the communist anti-religious stance. The United States are also an anomaly, with a higher average intelligence but a low number of atheists.

The Lynn et al. study has been criticized by Artificial Intelligence researcher Randy Olson who has noted that the correlation between national religiosity and intelligence is weak. The correlation between wealth and intelligence is stronger and more suited. He notes that many of the countries with lower intelligence scores are less developed and that countries with 20% atheists or more flat line rather than increase in intelligence.[5] When looking at Kanazawa's paper on individual religiosity, or atheism, and intelligence, Olson noted that both the most religious and atheists were all within the bounds of "average intelligence" (90–109) and from a practical point, none are distinguishable from the other.[5]

The Lynn et al. paper has also been criticized by Professor Gordon Lynch, director of the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society from London's Birkbeck College, who expressed concern that the study failed to take into account a complex range of social, economic and historical factors, each of which has been shown to interact with religion and IQ in different ways.[4]

Gallup surveys, for example, have found that the world's poorest countries are consistently the most religious, perhaps because religion plays a more functional role (helping people cope) in poorer nations.[6]

Even at the scale of the individual, IQ may not directly cause more disbelief in gods. Dr. David Hardman of London Metropolitan University says: "It is very difficult to conduct true experiments that would explicate a causal relationship between IQ and religious belief." He adds that other studies do nevertheless correlate IQ with being willing or able to question beliefs.[4]

Researcher Gregory S. Paul's findings suggest that economic development has a closer relationship with religiosity.[13] He argues that once any "nation's population becomes prosperous and secure, for example through economic security and universal health care, much of the population loses interest in seeking the aid and protection of supernatural entities." Other studies have shown that increased wealth is correlated with a decline in religious beliefs.[14][15] Indeed, the majority of the nations that showed a strong relationship between low religiosity and high IQ in the 2008 study were developed nations.[3]

Studies examining theistic and atheistic cognitive style[edit]

The idea that analytical thinking makes one less likely to be religious is an idea held by some studies on this issue,[16] including a report from Harvard University.[17] First of all, the Harvard researchers found evidence suggesting that all religious beliefs become more confident when participants are thinking intuitively (atheists and theists each become more convinced). Thus reflective thinking generally tends to create more qualified, doubted belief.

Furthermore, the Harvard study found that participants who tended to think more reflectively were less likely to believe in a god.[17] Reflective thinking was further correlated with greater changes in beliefs since childhood: these changes were towards atheism for the most reflective participants, and towards greater belief in a god for the most intuitive thinkers. The study controlled for personality differences and cognitive ability, suggesting the differences were due to thinking styles – not simply IQ or raw cognitive ability.[17] An experiment in the study found that participants moved towards greater belief in a god, after writing essays about how intuition yielded a right answer or reflection yielded a wrong answer (and conversely, towards atheism if primed to think about either a failure of intuition or success of reflection). The authors say it is all evidence that a relevant factor in religious belief is thinking style.[17] The authors add that, even if intuitive thinking tends to increase belief in a god, "it does not follow that reliance on intuition is always irrational or unjustified."[17]

A study by Gervais and Norenzayan[18] reached similar conclusions that intuitive thinking tended to increase belief in intrinsic religiosity, intuitive religious belief and belief in supernatural entities. They also added a causative element, finding that subtly triggering analytic thinking can increase religious disbelief. They concluded that "Combined, these studies indicate that analytic processing is one factor (presumably among several) that promotes religious disbelief." While these studies linked religious disbelief to analytical rather than intuitive thinking, they urged caution in the interpretation of these results, noting that they were not judging the relative merits of analytic and intuitive thinking in promoting optimal decision making, or the merits or validity of religiosity as a whole.

Reviewing psychological studies on atheists, Miguel Farias, noted that studies concluding that analytical thinking leads to lower religious belief "do not imply that that atheists are more conscious or reflective of their own beliefs, or that atheism is the outcome of a conscious refutation of previously held religious beliefs" since they too have variant beliefs such as in conspiracy theories of the naturalistic variety.[19] He notes that studies on deconversion indicate that a greater proportion of people who leave religion, do so for motivational rather than rational reasons and the majority of deconversions occur in adolescence and young adulthood when one is emotionally volatile.[19] Furthermore, he notes that atheists are indistinguishable from New Age individuals or Gnostics since there are commonalities such as being individualistic, non-conformist, liberal, and valuing hedonism and sensation.[19]

Concerning the cognitive science studies on atheists, Johnathan Lanman notes that there are implicit and explicit beliefs which vary among individuals. An individual's atheism and theism may be related to the amount of "credibility enhancing displays" (CRED) one experiences in that those who are exposed more to theistic CRED will likely be theist and those who have less exposure to theistic CRED will likely be atheists.[20]

Neurological research on mechanisms of belief and non-belief, using Christians and atheists as subjects, by Harris et al have shown that the brain processes beliefs and facts the same way no matter what the content is. In other words, there is no difference, from the view point of the brain, between a theistic belief/unbelief, atheistic belief/unbelief, or any other mundane belief/unbelief even when believers and nonbelievers accepted and rejected diametrically opposite statements. The same neural networks were active in both Christians and Atheists even when dealing with "blasphemous statements" to each other's worldviews. Furthermore, it supports the reality that "intuition" and "reason" are not two separate and segregated activities but are intertwined in both theists and atheists when they come to any personal conclusions or convictions.[21][22]

Studies examining religiosity and emotional intelligence[edit]

A small 2004 study by Ellen Paek examined the extent to which religiosity (in which only Christians were surveyed), operationalized as religious orientation and religious behaviour, is related to the controversial[23][24][25] idea of emotional intelligence (EI). The study examined the extent to which religious orientation and behavior were related to self-reported (EI) in 148 church attending adult Christians.[26] (non-religious individuals were not part of the study). The study found that the individuals' self-reported religious orientation was positively correlated with their perceiving themselves to have greater EI. While the number of religious group activities was positively associated with perceived EI, number of years of church attendance was unrelated. Significant positive correlations were also found between level of religious commitment and perceived EI. Thus, the Christian volunteers were more likely to consider themselves emotionally intelligent if they spent more time in group activities and had more commitment to their beliefs.

Tischler, Biberman and McKeage warn that there is still ambiguity in the above concepts. In their 2002 article, entitled "Linking emotional intelligence, spirituality and workplace performance: Definitions, models and ideas for research", they reviewed literature on both EI and various aspect of spirituality. They found that both EI and spirituality appear to lead to similar attitudes, behaviors and skills, and that there often seems to be confusion, intersection and linking between the two constructs.[27]

Studies exploring religiosity and educational attainment[edit]

Differences in educational attainment by religious groups in the U.S., 2001 data

The relationship between the level of religiosity and one's level of education has been a philosophical, as well as a scientific and political concern since the second half of the 20th century.

The parameters in this field are slightly different compared to those brought forward above: if the "level of religiosity" remains a concept which is difficult to determine scientifically, on the contrary, the "level of education" is, indeed, easy to compile, official data on this topic being publicly accessible to anyone in most countries.

Different studies available show contrasting conclusions. An analysis of World Values Survey data showed that in most countries, there is no significant relationship between education and religious attendance, with some differences between "western" countries and former socialist countries, which they attribute to historical/ political/ economic factors (not intelligence).[28] Other studies have noted a positive relationship.[29][30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Zuckerman, Miron; Silberman, Jordan; Hall, Judith A. (2013). "The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations". Personality and Social Psychology Review. 17: 325–354. doi:10.1177/1088868313497266. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d e Lynn, Richard; John Harvey; Helmuth Nyborg (2009). "Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations". Intelligence. 37: 11–15. doi:10.1016/j.intell.2008.03.004. Retrieved 2015-05-25. 
  4. ^ a b c Graeme, Paton (11 June 2008). "Intelligent people 'less likely to believe in God'". The Telegraph. 
  5. ^ a b c Olson, Randy. "The Myth of the Smarter Atheist". 
  6. ^ a b Crabtree, Steve; Pelham, Brett (6 March 2009). "Religion Provides Emotional Boost to World's Poor". Gallup Poll. 
  7. ^ Sohn, Emily. "Why Are Religious People Happier?". Discovery News. 
  8. ^ a b Neisser, U.; Boodoo, G.; Bouchard Jr, T.J.; Boykin, A.W.; Brody, N.; Ceci, S.J.; Halpern, D.F.; Loehlin, J.C.; Perloff, R.; Sternberg, R.J. (1998) [1996]. "Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns". Annual Progress in Child Psychiatry and Child Development. ISBN 978-0-87630-870-7. Retrieved 2008-10-18. 
  9. ^ Perloff, R.; Sternberg, R.J.; Urbina, S. (1996). "Intelligence: knowns and unknowns". American Psychologist. 51: 77–101. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.51.2.77. 
  10. ^ Gardner, Howard. Multiple Intelligences. ISBN 0-465-04768-8. 
  11. ^ Gardner, Howard (January 2000). "A Case Against Spiritual Intelligence". The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 10 (1): 27–34. doi:10.1207/S15327582IJPR1001_3. 
  12. ^ Gardner, Howard (1999). Intelligence reframed: multiple intelligences for the 21st century. Basic Books. p. 53. 
  13. ^ Paul, G.S. (2009). "The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions" (PDF). Evolutionary Psychology. 7 (3): 398–441. 
  14. ^ "Religion & Wealth: Less Religious Countries are More Wealthy". Retrieved 2013-03-05. 
  15. ^ Survey Reports. "World Publics Welcome Global Trade — But Not Immigration | Pew Global Attitudes Project". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2013-03-05. 
  16. ^ "Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief, study shows". Science Daily. 26 April 2012. 
  17. ^ a b c d e Shenhav, Amitai; Rand, David G.; Greene, Joshua D. (2011). "Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God, by Amitai Shenhav, David G. Rand, and Joshua D. Greene at Harvard University" (PDF). 
  18. ^ Gervais, W. M.; Norenzayan, A. (26 April 2012). "Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief" (PDF). Science. 336 (6080): 493–496. doi:10.1126/science.1215647. Retrieved 24 January 2016. 
  19. ^ a b c Farias, Miguel (2013). "30. Psychology of Atheism". In Bullivant, Stephen; Ruse, Michael. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0199644659. 
  20. ^ Lanman, Johnatahn (2013). "31. Atheism and Cognitive Science". In Bullivant, Stephen; Ruse, Michael. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0199644659. 
  21. ^ Harris, Sam; Kaplan, Jonas T.; Curiel, Ashley; Bookheimer, Susan Y.; Iacoboni, Marco; Cohen, Mark S.; Sporns, Olaf (1 October 2009). "The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief". PLoS ONE. 4 (10): e7272. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007272. PMC 2748718Freely accessible. PMID 19794914. 
  22. ^ Miller, Lisa (September 30, 2009). "THE BRAIN PROCESSES FACTS AND BELIEFS THE SAME WAY". Newsweek. 
  23. ^ Eysenck, H.J. (2000). Intelligence: A New Look. ISBN 0-7658-0707-6. 
  24. ^ Locke, E.A. (2005). "Why emotional intelligence is an invalid concept". Journal of Organizational Behavior. 26 (4): 425–431. doi:10.1002/job.318. 
  25. ^ Mattiuzzi, Paul G. "Emotional Intelligence? I'm not feeling it.". 
  26. ^ Paek, Ellen (2006). "Religiosity and perceived emotional intelligence among Christians". Personality and Individual Differences. International Society for the Study of Individual Differences. 41 (3): 479–490. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2006.01.016. ISSN 0191-8869. 
  27. ^ Tischler, L; Biberman, J.; McKeage, R. (2002). "Linking emotional intelligence, spirituality and workplace performance: Definitions, models and ideas for research". Journal of Managerial Psychology. Emerald Group Publishing Limited. 17 (3): 203–218. doi:10.1108/02683940210423114. ISSN 0268-3946. Retrieved 2008-10-18. 
  28. ^ Sacerdote, Bruce; Glaeser, Edward L. "Education and Religion" (PDF). Harvard Institute of Economic Research. p. 29. Retrieved 6 January 2012. 
  29. ^ Norris, Pippa; Ronald Inglehart (2011). Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 267–268. ISBN 978-1-107-64837-1. The effects of income become insignificant, however, the impact of education actually reverses in the United States: it is the more educated who attend church most frequently. It therefore appears that the typical socioeconomic profile of churchgoing is indeed somewhat distinctive in the United States when compared with other wealthy countries. 
  30. ^ "Education and occupation profile of attenders". NCLS Research. 2004. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Shermer, M. (2000). How we believe. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman. ISBN 0-8050-7479-1.