Intelligent People Less Likely to be Religious

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Ars Technica reports on a meta-analysis of over 60 studies over the last 90 years or so that have some bearing on the relationship between intelligence (measured traditionally) and religious belief in American Protestants (and to a lesser degree in the UK and Canada, again among Protestants). They find that as intelligence increases, so does non-conformity (known from other studies); a sense of control over one's life; self-regulation (that is, the ability to defer gratification to reach a greater goal); self-enhancement (including social success and better self-image) and a higher likelihood of setting up and maintaining a long-term relationship. Thus, intelligence seems to provide people with many of the same benefits as religious belief, and so the *correlation* suggests that more research could be directed at these aspects of both intelligence and religious belief effects.

It's not a long article, and it's not unbalanced Richard Dawkins mud-slinging. Take a look before flaming.

I know a bunch of intelligent people who suffer from anxiety and depression, so I'm surprised it confers a sense of control. I'd expect the more intelligent you are, the less control you'd think you have over your life.

I ran into a study in college from the 1930's that asserted that mental illness was more common in the top couple of percent of IQ than in the bottom.

It's worth noting that "meta-analysis" is kind of like Metacritic. Exaggerations from its rabid promoters aside, it's a really questionable form of study, moreso in a social science.

The curious side of me finds all the creative writing intriguing. The possibility that analytical ability (called "intelligence" in the study) could replace faith-functions is something very interesting in a number of ways.

Unfortunately, my empirical analytical side finds all the assumptions really hard to stomach. The article is better than most (as Robear indicates) in that it mentions some of the caveats involved, but it by no means mentions the most egregious ones. It may be because some of those are just unanswerable - a lot of these social studies tend to have these weaknesses by nature.

I ran into a study in college from the 1930's that asserted that mental illness was more common in the top couple of percent of IQ than in the bottom.

You don't have to look very far to see annecdotal root causes. I'm sure everyone has known a person in their life that is so brilliant they have trouble relating and communicating with people. Or ones where the tools of the day are so inadequate for them to fully express their ideas or give them feedback fast enough.

For an example I am all too familiar with working in IT, even people of average intellect run across technological limitations when they wonder why they can't drag and drop a 4gb file to another computer across the country and not have it take 20 minutes. It should just work instantaneously, right?

Another example is from when I started in computer graphics in the 90's. In order to see what your model looked like, you had to render the frame. At that time what is now a realtime preview would take 40 minutes. So every slight change and it would be hurry up and wait.

Now imagine everything you want to do in your daily life having a 5-15 minute lag. That would tend to make someone either tune out or drive them crazy.

There's also the issue that a lot of things that can enhance certain aspects of intelligence, like ADD and autism and OCD have other effects that are detrimental. One side effect of ADD is the ability to focus abnormally tightly on one thing for hours; a boon for tech workers, definitely, but the other side effects of ADD - constant interruptions, anxiety, inability to focus, inappropriate risk taking - those are problematic for most people.

Is this kind of a close relative to the declining involvement in religion and god belief as people become more educated with the highest incidence of atheism or non-theism among those with a PHD?

KingGorilla wrote:

Is this kind of a close relative to the declining involvement in religion and god belief as people become more educated with the highest incidence of atheism or non-theism among those with a PHD?

As unkind as it sounds, I often wonder whether the opposition to quality public education that usually accompanies deeply religious attitudes (at least in this country) may be an exercise in political self preservation.

Paleocon wrote:
KingGorilla wrote:

Is this kind of a close relative to the declining involvement in religion and god belief as people become more educated with the highest incidence of atheism or non-theism among those with a PHD?

As unkind as it sounds, I often wonder whether the opposition to quality public education that usually accompanies deeply religious attitudes (at least in this country) may be an exercise in political self preservation.

I think that specifically in science and sex ed, you cannot deny the link. Many forms of Protestantism are specifically founded on the idea that any secular knowledge is evil and undermines divine authority.

Just ask the Amish mafia.

Seth wrote:

Just ask the Amish mafia.

Is there a way for me to mock you for watching that show, without outing myself for also having seen it?

As a purely anecdotal thing, I've heard that it's not all that uncommon for Jesuits who undertake serious theological studies to have their faith tested or even to abandon the faith completely and become atheists. In general, I don't have a thing against that. Most Catholics I know don't (those would be Filipinos, natch). We consider each person's faith as their own affair, more taboo than sex. It's considered rude to intrude without being asked.

My personal experience with Jesuits matches that, Larry. I've known two who left the faith, and I've known of others, in about a 50-50 ratio, through friends and co-workers. But then, they are challenged to defend the faith, so they have to do a lot of critical thinking.

As you know, American Protestantism is a very public form of Christianity for many of it's followers. Witnessing, political and social activism and the like are extremely common. It even extends into a large portion of the media, and some businesses cater to the oppressed Christians of the area...

That is actually news to me, Robear, at least when I was new here. It's not anymore. We have Protestants in the Philippines, of course, but they generally don't bug us about our beliefs. It's extremely counterproductive to their goals. I was surprised to learn that no less than 20% of my current colleagues are Protestant.

I've had a few Mormon missionaries knocking. We try to be polite and let them do their thing, but at no point do we ever say or even suggest that anything they say will be taken seriously. This is just honest, of course. It would be rude to promise and not deliver.

Of course, our natural cultural impetus when we associate is to build commonality and consensus, so even when someone puts forth their religion, they're more likely to emphasize points of commonality rather than differences. "You're all going to hell," is going to be met with cold, cold stares no matter how you say that.

As Paleocon once noted, religion in East (possibly Southeast?) Asia isn't thought of the same way it is in the West. We may also have cultural items that fulfill certain of those functions, just as the study postulates that analytical intelligence does for some people.

Two friends from a holiday in Greece go against the curve on this. They've both worked high up in the UK government (not a 100% guarantee of smarts I guess) and they do The Times crossword like it's nothing. They are incredibly intelligent women and both life long Christians.

Conformity is a big thing. We tend to feel we are all free spirits but the societal pressure to conform is enormous. When you are a little outside society by choice or necessity it's easier to see things for what they are and decline to take part in something that seems hollow. When your family, friends and even spouse are in a church the pressure to be there as well must be overwhelming.

I'd love to know the percentages of people in the massive US churches who are there for friends and family rather than out of any genuine belief.

LarryC wrote:

It's worth noting that "meta-analysis" is kind of like Metacritic. Exaggerations from its rabid promoters aside, it's a really questionable form of study, moreso in a social science.

Tell that to the Cochrane Library

LarryC wrote:

Unfortunately, my empirical analytical side finds all the assumptions really hard to stomach. The article is better than most (as Robear indicates) in that it mentions some of the caveats involved, but it by no means mentions the most egregious ones. It may be because some of those are just unanswerable - a lot of these social studies tend to have these weaknesses by nature.

Pretty much this.

Higgledy:

If it adds any fuel to the already confusing fire, the Catholic Church in the Philippines routinely acknowledges in its sermons that one of the biggest challenges it faces today is apathy, or KBL Catholics (Kasal, Binyag, Libing) referring to the fact that these people only see the inside of a church during weddings, christenings, and funerals, presumably more to attend the family function than anything else.

Whereas I can't say anything about their intellect, such people tend to be successful in their endeavors, so they do not feel compelled to go to Church to seek blessings or to let God take control of their lives.

My read on things is that religion performs particular social and psychological functions. In that sense, it's really not that different from many other sociopolitical institutions. Nonconformist analytical persons may find some of these functions unnecessary or even inconvenient, so they're more likely to venture away, even at risk of social sanction.

If we're going anecdotal:

I grew up conservative evangelical (southern baptist to be exact), by my early 20s grew into one of those theology/apologetics types but more focused on grace and community rather than the fire and the brimstone and the evil gayz. I was something of a lay minister for many years at a ministry to the homeless, addicts, street kids, general rabble-rousers people who didn't feel comfortable going to a sunday morning church. This was under the umbrella of a larger church in Pittsburgh. Anyway, I ended up leaving the faith for a lot of the reasons you hear about with Jesuits and tbh a lot of ministry people - you spend a lot of time testing and defending your faith and the scriptures (both in study and with people you meet in ministry) and for me at least it fell apart under that level of strain. Again, anecdotaly, the vast majority of people I know who are the ruthlessly intellectual type are either atheist/agnostics or don't necessarily believe in literal god at all but may like the metaphors and feel it gives them a sense of structure and center. Also a lot of them just find a lot of comfort in the drama of faith, which you know, cool. And to be frank the vast majority of people I know who are very dedicated christians who believe in the god of the bible that intervenes, answers prayer, brings people to heaven and literally died and rose again as a separate but one person named Jesus aren't super thoughtful in a self-critical way. They might view such questioning as elitist, as proof of a lack of faith, as something left to people like Francis Shaffer or CS Lewis or modern apologists like William Lane Craig. When I told the other people in the ministry that I was a part of that I was stepping down as leader and speaker because I wasn't sure of my faith anymore, one older guy said "yeah, it makes sense that you'd stop believing one day because you're always reading and questioning. i don't feel i need to". Which was really complimentary and also really sad to hear.

And for a lot of people I've met who are on the skids, or come from an underprivileged background, they don't have a lot of control over their world and a strong, daily manifested faith in a very real and personal god is a way of having that control. Someone is in control of the mine closing or the steelworks downsizing or the health insurance premiums rising or your kid getting pregnant. And you can come together on sunday with other people who are experiencing those hardships, and a group identity and narrative emerges of your struggle against The World, and that community and that hotline to SOMEONE who knows what's going on is a massive comfort. To turn against that is to turn against community and demonstrate a great deal of ingratitude toward both that community and god itself. And also you'd probably know others who have backslidden into drugs or drinking or whatever when they stopped coming to church, and do you want that to happen? Also (this is something I dealt with), there's an idea of "getting above your raising", like you're suddenly too smart for the rest of the group and often your family. A lot of these people aren't particularly well-educated because they're poor and/or live in areas with little opportunity. To leave is to leave family, so people stay. To leave the faith is to leave family as well. Poverty means lack of stability, lack of options, lack of control over the sh*t coming down the pipe. And people need ways to make sense of that and exert their agency. And so it goes.

I don't say any of that like "look at these rubes clinging to god". It makes total sense and is a very real and human response. I was there too, and I don't think less of people for being there. But I'll say that extremely strong faith in a literal god in my experience doesn't tend to go hand in hand with a great degree of introspection, self-awareness and criticism. With any sort of inquiry into this kind of thing you have to reach a point where you say "ok, for where I am and what I know now that's good enough". Some people just hit that point a lot quicker than others.

/broadbrush

That's an awesome post Bombsfall, and honestly it fits very closely with my own thoughts on the matter, but you expressed it way better than I could.

Can I take a moment, after reading bombsfall's comment to note how much it hurts me when God is thanked for all of the work I put in to assisting a client on said skids?

KingGorilla wrote:

Can I take a moment, after reading bombsfall's comment to note how much it hurts me when God is thanked for all of the work I put in to assisting a client on said skids?

You could always take solace in thinking that you were God, though

Frankly it seems pretty simple to me. More intelligent people tend to question things more. Religion tends to fall apart under questioning and scrutiny.

Higgledy wrote:

Two friends from a holiday in Greece go against the curve on this. They've both worked high up in the UK government (not a 100% guarantee of smarts I guess) and they do The Times crossword like it's nothing. They are incredibly intelligent women and both life long Christians.

I think some of this comes down to how much a person has really examined their beliefs. For example, in the US it's quite easy to be a lifelong practicing Catholic and never open an actual Bible, since readings in church are all done from specific passages in a reader of sorts. And for some people this is appropriate and sufficient. But perhaps it's more common for "intelligent people" to desire a rational basis for their faith? And to find that through careful examination? Otherwise, pretty much what bombsfall said.

I do want to say that I don't think that holding religious beliefs means a lack of intelligence. It just seems that people with either less agency to improve their lives or who are not as intellectual tend to find religion and the associated communities to be comforting or appealing.

Fortunately, a belief in a god is not a requirement to participate in a religion. Religion provides all kinds of helpful social and community services. Religious groups are values based organizations. If you agree with those values, it's a great way to meet like-minded people and join a supportive community.

My own religious experience growing up was one of education, culture, and community. It was all about using holy texts as stories from the past to enlighten and inform the present. When I pray I'm not talking on a hotline to a diety, I'm taking some socially obligated time to reflect on the good parts of my life (a psychologically healthy behavior called savoring).

Religion is not inherently bad.

Unfortunately, fundamentalism, close-mindedness, fire-and-brimstone type preaching, exclusionary teachings...I don't like these things, and they are present in many religions.

Nevin73 wrote:

More intelligent people tend to question things more. Religion tends to fall apart under questioning and scrutiny.

Oh, yeah??

BRING IT!

*puts on vestments and pulls a switchblade*

Squee9 wrote:

Fortunately, a belief in a god is not a requirement to participate in a religion. Religion provides all kinds of helpful social and community services. Religious groups are values based organizations. If you agree with those values, it's a great way to meet like-minded people and join a supportive community.

My own religious experience growing up was one of education, culture, and community. It was all about using holy texts as stories from the past to enlighten and inform the present. When I pray I'm not talking on a hotline to a diety, I'm taking some socially obligated time to reflect on the good parts of my life (a psychologically healthy behavior called savoring).

Religion is not inherently bad.

Unfortunately, fundamentalism, close-mindedness, fire-and-brimstone type preaching, exclusionary teachings...I don't like these things, and they are present in many religions.

There is a tremendously rich cultural component to religion that either goes unrecognized or is deliberately ignored by some critics of faith. And while my own understanding of God and faith is different, I really liked Squee9's take on the benefits of participation within a faith tradition independent of specific belief in a deity.

Faith in America is under siege, but not from atheists, pagans, or the DNC. American fundamentalism is seemingly caught up in an all out race to the intellectual bottom as religious power blocks, and the politicians they support, seek to isolate and radicalize their congregations as a way to lock in votes. The current irrational distrust of the scientific disciplines, willful ignorance of the scientific method, and indiscriminate attacks on countless important scientific topics (and their peer reviewed findings) is simply the most obvious byproduct of this radicalization process. This isn't faith. It's political manipulation in the guise of faith.

edit: nvm

ringsnort wrote:

Faith in America is under siege, but not from atheists, pagans, or the DNC. American fundamentalism is seemingly caught up in an all out race to the intellectual bottom as religious power blocks, and the politicians they support, seek to isolate and radicalize their congregations as a way to lock in votes. The current irrational distrust of the scientific disciplines, willful ignorance of the scientific method, and indiscriminate attacks on countless important scientific topics (and their peer reviewed findings) is simply the most obvious byproduct of this radicalization process. This isn't faith. It's political manipulation in the guise of faith.

That's my impression. The Republicans saw the christian community as a deep well of votes if they could just push the right buttons but the whole thing got out of control. It's scary.

Phoenix Rev wrote:

Nevin73 wrote:

More intelligent people tend to question things more. Religion tends to fall apart under questioning and scrutiny.

Oh, yeah??

BRING IT!

*puts on vestments and pulls a switchblade*

Oh, cool, a challenger! First, explain which religion you will defend, and why none of the others are rationally defensible to the degree that the one you chose is.

An unexamined life is not worth living. Look at the driving, the urgency, and the anger of the people leaving a crowded church parking lot to see who paid attention. It is the quintessentially American Protestant virtue of blindness that Phoenix Rev Lacks, that makes us all love him. Also, that super cute beard. As a plus, pipe smoker.

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