Culture Religion Science

Are atheists generally smarter than religious people?

Spread the love

From Laura Geggel at LiveScience:

Scientists ran a meta-analysis of 63 studies and found that religious people tend to be less intelligent than nonreligious people. The association was stronger among college students and the general public than for those younger than college age, they found. The association was also stronger for religious beliefs, rather than religious behavior, according to the meta-analysis, published in 2013 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.

But why does this association exist? Dutton set out to find answer, thinking that perhaps it was because nonreligious people were more rational than their religious brethren, and thus better able to reason that there was no God, he wrote.

But “more recently, I started to wonder if I’d got it wrong, actually,” Dutton told Live Science. “I found evidence that intelligence is positively associated with certain kinds of bias.”More.


In any event, religious affiliation tends to grow, not shrink, with education level. Joel Slotkin notes, “A new University of Nebraska study finds that with each additional year of education, the odds of attending religious services increased by 15%.” This finding accords with Charles Murray’s review of research in Coming Apart (2012).1 Despite well-publicized claims, there is no significant relationship between religion and the likelihood of ignorance of or indifference to science.

nother claim we hear, from celebrity skeptic Michael Shermer for example, is that science — and he of course includes Darwinian mechanisms for evolution in that category — is objective knowledge that will save us from superstition. But in the United States, a 2007-2008 Baylor University survey reported that

One realizes that in an age of identity politics, the smartest decision atheists made was to get together and get their BS funded by the taxpayer. Remember, they are “not” a religion, so that’s okay.

See also: If naturalism can explain religion, why does it get so many basic facts wrong?

52 Replies to “Are atheists generally smarter than religious people?

  1. 1

    Are atheists generally smarter than religious people?


  2. 2
    kmidpuddle says:

    By definition, fifty percent of people have less than average IQ. 🙂

    Atheists are no smarter or dumber than religious people. Both groups have geniuses and both groups have morons.

  3. 3
    JDH says:

    I was impressed how the article never ever once considered that maybe some religion is correct. A summary of the investigation of the article was 1. Religion is an instinct that gives false information about the world. 2. Now figure out how some people can reason past that false information.

    I propose a different interpretation. 1. There is overwhelming evidence for God. 2. There is overwhelming evidence that Christianity is true. 3. In order to deny the overwhelming evidence in favor of 1 and 2 it takes the ability to construct a large structure of obfuscation and denial. 3. People who we classify as highly intelligent are better able to hold in their minds this obfuscating structure.

    OTOH – The fact that belief in Christianity does not correlate with higher intelligence actually increases my faith. It means to me that God was able to create people of different intellectual abilities without sacrificing the equal opportunity of salvation for all. In my opinion, this is really amazing.

    IOW – No one in hell is going to be saying, “I was not smart enough to comprehend the gospel.”

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    I clearly fall into the genius category. If I became an atheist would I still be a genius?

  5. 5
    kmidpuddle says:


    I clearly fall into the genius category. If I became an atheist would I still be a genius?

    That would just make you a rational genius. 🙂

  6. 6
    rvb8 says:

    I have many Christian friends who are a hell of a lot smarter than many of my atheist friends.

    That being said it is a fact worldwide that most scientists, a majority of artists, and the vast majority of Nobel prize winners, are either agnostic, or atheist.

    There seems to be a clear causal link.

  7. 7
    Aeneas Pietas says:

    No, but they are more narcissistic.

  8. 8
    kairosfocus says:

    It is not particularly smart to weaponise the claim to be the “brights” while relegating those who question your ideology to the class of the “ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked.”

  9. 9
    Origenes says:

    Three possible interpretations were discussed.

    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, several functions of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by intelligence. Intelligent people may therefore have less need for religious beliefs and practices.

    [Zuckerman et al. ‘The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity’ ,2013]

    Amazing. Is this science?

  10. 10
    Marfin says:

    Is there a set definition for smart or intelligent and who gets to set this definition.

  11. 11
    kairosfocus says:

    Clever people can manufacture plausible-seeming rationalisations, that they can camp out on seemingly forever with ever more clever rhetoric. Until, the cliff-edge they are camping on collapses underfoot.

  12. 12
    Bob O'H says:

    Marfin – the study is here. The authors use IQ, or proxies for it, in the study.

  13. 13
    News says:

    Bob O’H, kairosfocus, and all: Some of us don’t believe in IQ as a measurement. We are not sure what, exactly, it measures. It’s not like blood pressure or body temperature or susceptibility to TB, where one can say what it measures in science-based way.

    Most IQ measurements have been used in a socially destructive way, to single people out for adverse treatment.

    There are certain circumstances where reduced learning ability is actually part of a genuine disorder such as Down Syndrome. That is helpful to know, when treating the person.

    I do not see what the use of the rest of it has ever been to anyone, except to cause trouble and division.

  14. 14
    kurx78 says:

    “Some very valuable research has been carried out using classical IQ testing. However, IQ is a massive oversimplification of the spectrum of human cognitive ability.”

    Smart people can have bias too, and not the usual kind of bias people usually have, but the worst kind of bias! The one capable of making a person ignore all the evidence because they feel unable to admit they may be wrong.
    When you take out objective moral values, you rely only on your ego to tell you what’s right and what isn’t. And yes, ego is a terrible advisor.

  15. 15
    Marfin says:

    Bob O H – I reckon if I did IQ tests every day for the next 3 months I would get higher scores after the 3 months ,but the question is would I be any smarter or more intelligent.
    I wonder how the bushmen of the Kalahari, or any peoples who have not come into regular contact with western ways would do on such IQ Tests , but I know for sure they are just as smart you or I , as we would not last more than a few days living in their environment.
    So smart and intelligent are hard to define as if some guy had lousy IQ scores but had discovered how to be content, happy, and stress free you would have to concede that guy is smart.

  16. 16
    Dionisio says:

    “Are atheists generally smarter than religious people?”
    What does it mean, in this case, ‘smarter’?
    What’s the rule to measure how smart a person is?
    Who was smarter, Mozart or Einstein?
    What does it mean, in this case, ‘religious people’?
    Paul the Apostle told the philosophers gathered in the Areopagus in Athens that they were very religious but worshiped an unknown God. Then Paul revealed to those very religious people the true identity of God revealed in Christ Jesus.

  17. 17
    News says:

    All at above: I still do not get what IQ scores are supposed to accomplish. As opposed to, just for example, evidence-based medicine.

    Evidence-based medicine can tell us things about ourselves that might be useful to know (blood pressure is a good one, as is iron deficiency). These are numbers. But what does IQ really measure?

  18. 18
    LocalMinimum says:

    If I’m reading the paper correctly, it wasn’t even a binary “atheists vs religious” (*gag*). It was a correlation between the somewhat useful metric, IQ; and a completely made up metric, “religiosity”.

    Of course, scoring religiosity is a completely home cooked affair, and they even trimmed data they claimed would skew the score, so we don’t know precisely how many herbs and spices we’re tasting here.

    So, it would seem it’s every bit as likely that higher IQ results in religious expression that’s less recognizable to/doesn’t fit the prejudices of the authors of the metastudy.

  19. 19
    Dionisio says:

    My IQ score is about the same as my age, but it changes in the opposite direction.
    I definitely don’t qualify for MENSA, not even to clean their desks or washrooms.
    But God loves me anyway. That’s what counts at the end of the day. That’s priceless. The rest you can charge it on VISA or MasterCard. 🙂

  20. 20
    News says:

    I would like to know about any science basis for “IQ.” What USE (if we leave out generating conflict) is it, except for special cases of learning disability identified with some genetic syndromes.

  21. 21
    News says:

    Followup on 20, why is any of it publically funded?

  22. 22
    Dionisio says:

    Ok, let’s compare smartphones:
    Which is smarter, the Apple iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy, or the MSFT Windows Phone? Why?
    Which has the highest IQ score?

  23. 23
    Dionisio says:

    Who had higher IQ score, Mozart or Chopin?

  24. 24
    Dionisio says:

    Who was smarter, Rembrandt or Van Gogh? What were their IQ scores? 🙂

  25. 25
    Dionisio says:

    BTW, I’m writing from the UPExpress WiFi on my way to the airport. I’m sure Denyse knows what this is. My wife and I had several interesting days in Ontario: Niagara Falls and Toronto.
    If anyone reading this now is also riding the train, let’s meet. 🙂

  26. 26
    drc466 says:

    I can’t believe I’m going to agree w/ rvb8, but IMHO, highly-educated (as opposed to intelligent) individuals tend towards atheism at higher rates.

    Of course, this is not new – the Bible addresses this in Proverbs 26:12, Isaiah 5:21, and Romans 1:22.

    Same holds true for the rich. Again, IMHO.

  27. 27
    News says:

    I would still like to know why any of this stuff is publicly funded, given all the useless trouble it causes.

  28. 28
    Axel says:

    I don’t believe Einstein was soft-soaping us mere mortals, when he opined :

    ‘The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.’

    Oppenheimer said something that really ‘blew me away’, as I had thought of him as being too driven by personal ambition to have anything approaching such a spiritual insight. He said :

    ‘There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.’

    Truth to tell, I am not sure what he meant by ‘sensory perception’, in this context, but I do sense (rightly or wrongly, perhaps) that he was talking about imagination/intuition, a subliminal faculty for synthesising information and incorporating it into the big personally- managed picture, a child still retains. A literal intellectual integrity ; integrity qua ‘wholeness’, not primarily, ‘ethical purity’.

    Children are, after all, are they not, the only true intellectuals, in the sense that they thirst for knowledge for its own sake, so are still docile to the leading of the Holy Spirit. They do have a phenomenal visual memory, but I feel sure Oppenheimer meant something much more subtle and complex than that.

    And I believe it takes us back to Square One : Einstein, correlating with another of his maxims, namely :

    “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

    It’s also a truism in the eyes of most people, isn’t it, that intellectual types often lack common sense. Yet, everything in our society, which prizes worldly intelligence, the academic intelligence, literally, as a virtue – arguably the sovereign Christian virtue under the Catholic Tridentine dispensation – is geared to make the manual worker feel that he is relatively dense. Of course, it starts at school. It used to be the secondary school but maybe the primary schools have gone ‘downhill’ now.

    In the Old Testament, the best craftsmen, goldsmiths, carpenters, etc, needed to build the Temple for the Ark of the Covenant were named by Yahweh, and appointed for the task.

    I often thought there should be a degree in housekeeping, my wife’s practicality filling me with awe. When I said that, she just looked at me long and hard, as if I was nuts. What a strange thought ! (cough) (cough)

  29. 29
    asauber says:

    The question is do atheists discern there is a religious belief called Scientism, where a person believes that science can provide answers that it can’t?

    Taking a step back, do they think such a thing is possible? And would a disciple of Scientism recognize they themselves are a religious believer?


  30. 30
    Axel says:

    @drc466, your #26.

    Yes, it’s the worldly intelligence, bereft of the Holy Spirit, to sublimate it. Something Aldous Huxley referred to in his essay/anthology of comparative religion, The Perennial Philosophy (maybe posited by Bergson), has apparently been, at least arguably, confirmed by NDE’s experienced by patients while undergoing surgery ; namely, that the brain is, in fact, a reducing valve, designed to enable the person to focus on this world and its demands ; the belief being that, without it, they would blissfully drift off into the Beatific Vision, forgettng to eat and drink, etc. At least, a mind-body dualism has been confirmed by such surgical interventions. See the second article by Pim van Lommel.

    Huxley was thrilled that LSD and other hallucinogens could take him into at least some degree of an approach to the Beatific Vision.

  31. 31
    Axel says:

    asauber, they would never have come up with quantum physics in a month of Sundays, would they ? How many epoch-making paradigms have they provided. None that I know of.

  32. 32
    Axel says:

    @ your #6, rvb8.

    You are living in a fantasy world. How many great paradigm-chnages were atheists ? World of difference between atheist and agnostic. Atheists are dim enough to pronounce on the non-existence of God definitively. No atheist, moreover, would ever have come up with quantum mechanics. Classical physics was perfect for their linear wee minds.

  33. 33
    rvb8 says:


    “How many great ,paradigm-changers were atheist?”

    Ummmmm, Darwin! The paradigm changer so powerful, this whole site, and dozens of others are still trying to uselessly refute his paradigm change.

    And if you’re talking about Max Planck’s Lutherism, he didn’t include God in his equations, and steadily evolved into a Deist. He did however declare on his death bed that he did NOT believe, “in a personal God, let alone a Christian God.” Axel; wooops!

  34. 34
    LocalMinimum says:

    News @ 20:

    The questions in IQ tests seem to fall under general mathematical ability with respect to explicitly communicated problems. I guess it works great if someone is explicitly communicating general mathematical problems for you to solve.

    Framing and communicating the problems, though, could be argued as equal or superior abilities, even taken separately from one another. These allow you to train, educate and lead teams, departments, and societies of problem solvers, who can accomplish far more than any singularly clever individual.

    Not saying that a high IQ isn’t a powerful tool, provided the possesser knows how to wield it, or someone knows how to wield them.

  35. 35
    EricMH says:

    The Bible says Solomon was the wisest person who ever lived, and he ended up rejecting God. Just because someone is quick witted, good at logical thinking and insightful does not necessitate that they make wise decisions. Satan is smarter and more knowledgeable than any human being, and he chooses to reject God, too.

  36. 36
    News says:

    LocalMinimum at 34, thanks much: “it works great if someone is explicitly communicating general mathematical problems for you to solve.” I now think I understand better.

    Most problems that human beings must solve are just not like that. They are more like: You are walking down a lonely road and you realize the guy who has caught up with you is starkers raving mad and you are 2 km from help. Also, you mustn’t under any circumstances rile him…

  37. 37
    kurx78 says:

    “Before the Industrial Revolution, parish records show that it used to be the richer, more intelligent people survived and had more children. As a result, society became more and more intelligent, up until the point of the widespread innovation of the Industrial Revolution.

    But these [breakthroughs] can only be sustained if we continue to have a certain level of intelligence, so if intelligence is decreasing then eventually the inventions that our ancestors were capable of coping with, we’ll no longer be able to cope with. We’ll go backwards,” Dutton says. “That’s what happened with the Romans.”

    As a society becomes less religious, and more intelligent, we begin to lose the benefits religion brings in terms of group society. If a society becomes too intelligent, it becomes antisocial and stops breeding, and it eventually declines.”


  38. 38
    Eugen says:

    Atheists/materialists who supposedly possess superior intelligence believe that universe came out of nothing. That doesn’t seem very intelligent…

  39. 39
    kmidpuddle says:


    Atheists/materialists who supposedly possess superior intelligence believe that universe came out of nothing. That doesn’t seem very intelligent…

    And where do Christians think the universe “came out of”? What did god use to create the universe?

  40. 40
    kurx78 says:

    You don’t need to create the universe.
    You just need to establish laws, rules that define the way energy and matter behave… and then you have a universe.
    You can build a computer simulation of something like that, if a human like me can do it… why not a more intelligent being?
    Of course, I don’t mean “God did it”….. but with sufficient computing power and time we can build a decent enough emulation….
    So maybe that means we are not so unique… Are we the only living beings in the universe capable creating laws in a closed system?
    I don’t think so, that takes a huge leap of faith.

  41. 41

    Rvb8 @ 33 —
    ” … Ummmmm, Darwin! The paradigm changer so powerful, this whole site, and dozens of others are still trying to uselessly refute his paradigm change. … ”

    And perhaps his greatest modern day disciple – Richard Dawkins – presents his Mount Improbable of evidence as Mount Paper Mache? And his evidence for the evolution of the eye is a Polaroid film strip?

    Dawkins is a master illusionist — nothing more.

  42. 42

    “AYearningForPublius” back again as “DonJohnsonDD682” because of password problems.

  43. 43
    Dionisio says:

    Did I miss the answers to the questions @16, 22-24?

  44. 44
    Dionisio says:

    drc466 @26:

    Good reminders. Thank you.

    Let’s repeat them explicitly:

    Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?
    There is more hope for a fool than for him.
    Proverbs 26:12 (ESV)

    Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
    and shrewd in their own sight!
    Isaiah 5:21 (ESV)

    Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
    Romans 1:22 (ESV)

  45. 45
  46. 46
    Dionisio says:

    kmidpuddle @39:

    [1] And where do Christians think the universe “came out of”? [2] What did god use to create the universe?

    Interesting questions.

    [1] what Christians or non-Christians think is irrelevant in this case. What matters is this:
    [John 1:1-3]

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.

    Commentary from the Reformation Study Bible provided by Ligonier Ministries:

    The term “Word” (Greek logos) designates God the Son with respect to His deity; “Jesus” and “Christ” refer to His incarnation and saving work. During the first three centuries, doctrines of the Person of Christ focused intensely on His position as the Logos. In Greek philosophy, the Logos was “reason” or “logic” as an abstract force that brought order and harmony to the universe. But in John’s writings such qualities of the Logos are gathered in the Person of Christ. In Neo-Platonic philosophy and the Gnostic heresy (second and third centuries a.d.), the Logos was seen as one of many intermediate powers between God and the world. Such notions are far removed from the simplicity of John’s Gospel.

    In this verse the Word is expressly affirmed to be God. The Word existed already “in the beginning” (a clear reference to the opening words of the Bible), which is a way of denoting the eternity that is unique to God. John states clearly, “the Word was God.” Some have observed that the word translated “God” here has no definite article, and argued on this basis that it means “a god” rather than “God.” This is a misunderstanding; the article is omitted because of the word order in the Greek sentence (the predicate “God” has been placed first for emphasis). The New Testament never endorses the idea of “a god,” an expression that implies polytheism and is in sharp conflict with the consistent monotheism of the Bible. In the New Testament, the Greek word for “God” occurs often without the definite article, depending on the requirements of Greek grammar.

    That “the Word was with God,” indicates a distinction of Persons within the unity of the Godhead. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not successive forms of appearance of one Person, but are eternal Persons present from “the beginning” (v. 2). “With” suggests a relationship of close personal intimacy. See “One and Three: The Trinity” at Is. 44:6.

    All things were made through him.
    This verse also emphasizes the deity of the Word, since creation belongs to God alone. See also v. 10; Col. 1:16–17; “God the Creator” at Ps. 148:5.

    God used His own power, according to His sovereign will, for His glory.
    If you want to know more details, just ask Him directly.

  47. 47
    Dionisio says:

    #46 addendum
    Genesis 1:1 (ESV)
    In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

    Commentary from the Reformation Study Bible provided by Ligonier Ministries:

    1:1 In the beginning, God. The Hebrew word for “God,” the first subject of Genesis and the Bible, is plural to denote His majesty. There is no other god (Deut. 4:39; Is. 40:21, 28; 43:10; John 1:1; Col. 1:17). He is truth, the basis for all sound knowledge (John 14:6). God is personal; He speaks and acts.

    created. This translates a Hebrew word reserved for God’s creative activity alone. Linguistically possible, though less likely, is the translation “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void.” God’s creative activity was not merely the ordering of preexistent matter (like an artisan fashioning a product), however, for other passages clearly teach that the universe was created ex nihilo (i.e., out of nothing, John 1:3; Heb. 11:3; 2 Pet. 3:5) and that only God is eternal and transcendent (e.g., Ps. 102:25–27; Prov. 8:22–31). Not even the darkness exists apart from God’s creative word (Is. 45:7). While the narrative here is fully consistent with the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, the emphasis falls on God’s progressive ordering of a formless and empty world (v. 2 note).

  48. 48
    mugwump3 says:

    To elaborate on drc466, both the rich man and the “wise” man, in his own eyes, places himself at the apex of existence. He needs no one else, if only perhaps to perform menial tasks. The atheist has stopped pursuing truth, stops the logical chain, the rational journey that leads to an understanding of one’s own designedness, or one’s own contingency to infinite mind….something outside of Godel’s set.

    Despite rvb8’s ironic emotional pleas to include Darwin in a pagan pantheon of paradigm shifters, most, if not all, of Origin is theodical, not scientific and, thusly, of a fully religious mode. Well, part theodicy and part prognostication or faith in future discoveries that have not as yet been discovered.

    I have yet to meet an intelligent atheist who wasn’t also highly specialized in their knowledge, blind or completely ignorant to greater swaths of intellectual fields…a near incredible grasp of the idiosyncratic language and symbols of some sliver of reality with an equally incredible illiteracy of the language of practically anything else.

    Put one member of several specialized slivers, if you will, into a room to discuss a wholly alien topic, like metaphysics or teleology, epistemology or abductive historical verifiability, informatics or the first principles of logic, and they’ll just speak gibberish to each other like so many citizens of Babel. They’ll place, as an article of faith, their fellow “geniuses” into their inner circle of elite, even if they lack the specialized knowledge that divides them from each other.

    Each one, like a ring of tailors, drapes the next in imaginary clothes of justification for their atheism, each one standing stark naked, chin jutted out, legs akimbo…rich emperor’s in their own minds, masters of us peasant Godmongers.

    Solomon didn’t reject God as some naked emperor above said. He resolved that the ONLY thing that really mattered was the Will of God and that everything UNDER the Sun, everything contingent was meaningless if cut loose from the Necessary, from the Causeless Cause, from the Logos.

  49. 49
    Dionisio says:

    mugwump3 @48:

    Very insightful commentary. Thank you.

    BTW, it seems like the statement
    “Solomon didn’t reject God as some naked emperor above said.”
    refers to EricMH @35, doesn’t it?
    Emphasis added.

  50. 50
  51. 51
    Dionisio says:

    The comment @43 seems to imply a generalized lack of enthusiasm for answering basic questions.

  52. 52

    rvb8 @6 and others.
    We both have small sample sizes here and our experiences will tend to be somewhat subjective. But in my own experience I have found that Christian pastors are probably the smartest and most well read people I’ve been around. They typically keep themselves well informed and well read about a wide range of topics.

Leave a Reply