By Mark M. Hanna, Ph.D.
A study featured today on Yahoo News claims that “Religious People Are Less Intelligent Than Atheists.” Is this true? Mark M. Hanna argues that this claim is fraught with confusion and faulty assumptions. Dr. Hanna holds both a Ph.D. and M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Southern California, a B.A. in Philosophy from the American University of Beirut, and is author of the recent book Biblical Christianity: Truth or Delusion.
Summary of Yahoo’s Article
Today, August 12, 2013, the feature article on Yahoo is entitled “Religious People Are Less Intelligent Than Atheists.” It summarizes the contentions of the studies of Miron Zuckerman and his team at the University of Rochester. In 53 of 63 studies they “found” a purportedly “reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity.” They conclude that “intelligent people are more likely to be married and more likely to be successful in life–and this may mean they need religion less.”
The studies of Zuckerman and his team included a life-long analysis of the beliefs of a group of 1,500 gifted children–those with IQs over 135–an investigation that began in 1921 and continues today. Even later in life at 75 to 91 years of age, such children tended to remain unreligious. Intelligent children begin to doubt the claims of “religion” early in life, and intelligent students are likely to reject orthodox beliefs.
Zuckerman’s paper, published in the academic journal “Personality and Social Psychology Review, stated that most current explanations for the negative relation between intelligence and religious belief have one central theme–“the premise that religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable, and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better.'”
However, Zuckerman thinks that the answer may be more complex: “Intelligent people may simply be able to provide themselves with the psychological benefits offered by religion–such as ‘self-regulation and self-enhancement,’ because they are more likely to be successful and have stable lives.”
Zuckerman claims that “intelligent people typically spend more time in school–a form of self-regulation that may yield long-term benefits,” and “more intelligent people get higher level jobs…[that] may lead to higher self-esteem….” Also, “more intelligent people are more likely to get and stay married….”
The paper concludes by asserting that “people possessing the functions that religion provides are likely to adopt atheism; people lacking these very functions (e.g., the poor, the helpless) are likely to adopt theism.”
Critique of the Article
Zuckerman’s article is fraught with confusion and faulty assumptions.
1. It is hardly surprising that a paper published by “Personality and Social Psychology Review” would present an essentially reductionist view of theism and “religious belief.” The predominant premise of the journal is that everything in human experience can be exhaustively explained in terms of psychology and sociology. The psychosocial reductionism is unmistakable in the article’s claim that “people possessing the functions that religion provides are likely to adopt atheism.” This contention assumes that the sole factor–or at least the most important factor–that causes people to adopt or reject religious beliefs is psychosocial needs or the fulfillment of such needs in other ways.
2. The article errs egregiously by referring again and again to “religious beliefs” and “religion.” However, there are no such things as unqualified “religious beliefs,” nor is there such a thing as “religion.” There are many religions, each unique and incompatible with other religions. Some “religious beliefs” are theistic, some are atheistic (e.g., Theravada Buddhism), some are pantheistic, some are polytheistic, etc. Some religions are life-denying, and some are life-affirming. Some meet certain psychological and social needs and others obstruct them.
3. The article also falls into a twofold error, for it fails to distinguish causes from reasons and it commits the genetic fallacy by implying that causes are determinative for the truth or falsity of theism and atheism. Neither a person’s intelligence nor the satisfaction of his psychosocial needs is relevant to the question. An individual may have a high IQ and yet remain ignorant of the reasons for the truth of theism and biblical Christianity.
4. A corollary of the implicit psychosocial reductionism in the article is the assumption that there are no needs that humans have beyond such mundane ones. There are many cases on record of intelligent people who had their psychosocial needs met and still recognized a more profound transcendent need. If, as the article naively assumes, “intelligent people may simply be able to provide themselves with the psychological benefits offered by religion” and that is why they embrace atheism, innumerable counter-examples serve to falsify such a notion.
5. The article seeks to link “intelligent people typically spend more time in school,” on the one hand, with atheism, on the other hand. This is fatuous, for the amount of time spent in school is not as important as the quality of the education people receive in school. It is difficult to find schools that teach students to think critically. Many are little more than institutions of “higher learning” that are devoted to indoctrination in self-defeating, radical skepticism, relativism, and naturalism. It is hardly surprising that spending more time in such schools produces atheists.
6. The article’s observation that most scientists are atheists and agnostics is also unsurprising. Einstein said that “scientists are poor philosophers.” The writings of Richard Dawkins are a prime example of Einstein’s observation. Even non-theistic and non-Christian philosophers have expressed embarrassment over Dawkins’ puerile dabbling in philosophical and theological issues. Many, if not most, scientists tend to accept scientism, which is a false philosophical theory about the nature of knowledge. Like psychologists who tend to embrace reductionist psychologism, and like sociologists who tend to embrace reductionist sociologism, scientists tend to embrace an equally false theory that delusively elevates their own professional expertise above all others.
The theory of scientism, which states that all knowledge must come from science, is self-refuting, because it is not the finding of any science. Like all self-contradictions, it is necessarily false. Therefore, so-called intelligent people who say, as the article states it, “religious beliefs are not anchored in science,” are misled by the fallacy of scientism, which itself is not anchored in science.
The article’s reference to “religious beliefs not [being] testable” is no less misleading because of its implication that the only way to test claims is by empirical states of affairs. Logic, coherence, forensics, history, and archaeology are also crucially germane to evaluating many theological, and religious claims. Many scientists, academicians, and other “intelligent people” are unaware that the endeavor to demarcate science from non-science has failed. Not a few people mistakenly think that there is a definitive wall of separation between the two when, in fact, all attempts to isolate demarcating criteria have been found wanting.
7. The article refers to current explanations that are based on the premise that “religious beliefs are irrational.” Since the term “irrational” means different things to different people, such an assertion is problematic. However, when it is properly used to refer to logical contradiction, it is clear that some beliefs of various religions are irrational and some are not. Of course, even the precise meaning of logical contradiction is inadequately understood by many people, and it is often confused with contrarieties and sub-contrarieties and other kinds of relations. The article’s implication that all religious beliefs are irrational is itself irrational–that is, it is contradicted by counter-examples of some beliefs that are non-contradictory.
8. Another problematic claim of the article is the linkage between “intelligent people are more likely to get and stay married,” on the one hand, and atheism, on the other hand. The article does not explicitly tell us what number on the IQ scale differentiates intelligent people from non-intelligent people–a decision that would certainly be disputed if the number were to be specified, including the suggested number of 135.. It is even questionable that intelligent people are more likely to get and stay married if that claim is made about the population of the world rather than some specific country.
Mounting a serious challenge to the claim that there is a link between getting and staying married, on the one hand, and embracing atheism, on the other hand, is the counter-example of contemporary Sweden. From what appear to be reliable data, Sweden is the most atheistic country in the Western world, and more than any other nation, it has largely discarded marriage as passé and undesirable. If intelligent people are more likely to get and stay married, then Swedes must be judged, in general, as quite unintelligent. But then, if unintelligent people tend to believe in God, some other explanation must be found for the atheism so prevalent in Sweden.
9. The article’s thesis is that the more intelligent people are, the less likely are they to believe in God or to be “religious.” Of course, without specifying the differential criteria distinguishing the intelligent from the non-intelligent–which is far more difficult than one might assume–the entire article is question-begging. There is not only a theoretical kind of intelligence (which is often measured by academic success), but there is emotional intelligence (which is often manifested in personal relationships), practical intelligence (which is seen in multifarious skills for accomplishing many kinds of different tasks). The article smacks of a rather naive and outdated understanding of the complexity of intelligence–formerly thought of according to the simplistic calibrations of one’s IQ.
Zuckerman and his team have formulated a purportedly statistical generalization about intelligence and its relevance to belief in God. However, countless examples of extraordinarily intelligent people who have believed in God serve to eviscerate their theory. As far as the record goes, no thinkers in antiquity surpassed Plato and Aristotle in theoretical intelligence. Yet, they believed in “God,”–the Demiurge and Transcendent Thought Thinking Itself, respectively. They certainly did not believe the natural world exhausted reality. Antony Flew, the atheist philosopher who became a believer in God (deism), observed that the apostle Paul had a first-rate, brilliant philosophical mind. The intelligence of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and a host of other medieval thinkers cannot be gainsaid. Scores of modern philosophers believe in God, from Descartes to the present. There are now more than a thousand Christian philosophers, all with earned PhDs.
Many of the greatest scientists, such as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and a host of others have believed in God. According to a recent poll, about 40% of contemporary scientists say they believe in God. Are all of these philosophers and scientists to be considered unintelligent?
Such facts show how ludicrous is the thesis of the article. It is reminiscent of the illicit use of language by Paul Geisert and Daniel Dennett who presumptuously, if not conceitedly, stipulated that all atheists should be called “Brights,” implying that all theists and supernaturalists are dimwitted. Such tactics are nothing but propagandistic attempts to intimidate people who fear categorization as “unintelligent.” It is actually a backhanded admission of intellectual insecurity and self-doubt–which needs to be buttressed by a flattering self- appellation that has nothing to do with reality, much like calling homosexuals “gay” despite the fact that depression is reportedly endemic among them with an incidence significantly greater than among heterosexuals.
10. Zuckerman’s article will undoubtedly be used by atheists and agnostics in their attempts to recruit others into their fold–especially those lacking in sufficient intelligence to see through their inane propaganda. In addition to the unrefined conceptions, surreptitious presuppositions, overgeneralizations, and genetic fallacy found explicitly or implicitly in his article, the most glaring oversight pertains to its failure to understand the fundamental factor involved in disbelief in God. It is certainly not the measure of one’s IQ.
When the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus, He “looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!'” (Luke 18:24). One can be rich in different ways, not only in terms of money and material possessions. One can be richly endowed with a high IQ or with great beauty or extraordinary charm. More often than not, those who possess them become proud of what they have, ignoring the fact that they are gifts to be used for the glory of the Creator who gave them: “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (I Cor. 4:7).
Even if it were true that more intelligent people–however they are defined–generally tend to disbelieve in God and biblical Christianity, that is no recent discovery. Almost two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul wrote to early Christians: “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong…so that no one may boast before him” (I Cor. 1:26-29).
Relatively few highly intelligent people, socially and politically influential people, and people of royal blood and high birth turn to the true God. It is not these extraordinary gifts that keep them from God, but their self-congratulatory pride that makes them feel superior to others and self-sufficient in themselves. Nothing keeps people from God like pride, and it is those with exceptional endowments who often deny their need for Him.
The first words of Christ’s sermon on the mount were “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). Nothing is more important, more essential than the right attitude, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”(James 4:6). How hard it is, indeed, for the rich in intellectual ability, to enter the kingdom of God! It is not because they are so smart, but because they think they are: “Knowledge puffs up…the man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (I Cor. 8:1, 2).
The irony of a person proud of his special attributes– whether a keen intellect, outward beauty, a noble birth, or physical prowess–is that these attributes are trivial and insignificant in the ultimate scheme of things. It is easy for those who are rich in these ways in this world to forget that they are finite and hemmed in by space, time, and death. The greatest lesson that any human being can learn is that he or she is a creature, sinful and dependent, and prone to frequent deception: “The heart is deceitful above all things”(Jer. 17:9). Therefore, “he who trusts in himself is a fool”(Prov. 28:26).
Nothing is more important in our relationship to God than the humility that a finite, sinful, dependent creature must have: “For this is what the high and lofty One says–he who lives forever, whose name is holy; ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isa. 57:15). The great blind spot in Zuckerman’s article is this: It is not intelligence that promotes atheism; it is pride in one’s intelligence.
Of course, the Bible values the mind, intelligence, and knowledge, and the widespread anti-intellectualism in many churches is deplorable. However, the folly of self-conceit can hardly be overstated, for no matter how much we know and understand, there is far more that we do not know nor understand. No matter how capable our mind may be, its greatest achievements are like a grain of sand on the seashores of all the rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans of the world. When we take the true measure of ourselves against the transcendent greatness of God our Creator, we will resonate with Jeremiah, who wrote: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 9:23, 24).
Zuckerman’s article claims that believers in God are less intelligent than non-believers. However, there are cogent reasons and abundant evidence that show that the most intelligent thing an intelligent human being can do is to turn to God, not away from him. Among the wisest men of the ancient world were the Magi who came seeking for Christ. It is rightly said that wise men still seek Him, wiser men find Him, and the wisest men worship Him (Mt. 2:1, 2, 11).