Intelligence and Atheism

At the risk of condescending, I’ve always suspected that atheism, (or more specifically, rationalism, skepticism, etc.) tends to be prevalent in more intelligent individuals. Frankly, my suspicion was always based on anecdote, with a little analysis thrown in. When the arguments for atheism are so articulate, well reasoned and logical, while the arguments for theism tend to be easily reduced to “well, god says so. It’s in my book”, it’s not hard to fall into comparisons of the relative intelligence levels of the adherent of each side.

If I would deign to suggest that to theists, however, they would cry “snob”, and “elitist” and “superiority complex” and many similar things equally imprecise, and equally useless. I used to think there was some merit to that attitude, that perhaps I was a bit condescending,  but I’ve always felt that atheism and theism needed to compete on the same level of intellect, in order for the clear winner to claim validity for its side.

A recent study seems to suggest that there really is something to the idea that higher intellect and atheism go hand in hand, that it’s not just Christopher Hitchens.  This study published in the Social Psychology Quarterly seems to indicate that more intelligent individuals may be attracted to atheism because of it’s “evolutionary novelty”, while less intelligent people tend to gravitate to the more comforting “evolutionarily familiar” . And face it; much of religion’s attraction is that it IS comforting.

“Evolutionarily novel” preferences and values are those that humans are not biologically designed to have and our ancestors probably did not possess. In contrast, those that our ancestors had for millions of years are “evolutionarily familiar.”

As an example,

…humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends, and being liberal, caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers they never meet or interact with, is evolutionarily novel. So more intelligent children may be more likely to grow up to be liberals.

Which explains in one way why atheists also tend to be socially and sometimes politically liberal, as a group. To be “liberal’ we have to think outside our comfort zone. As for the direct connection to atheism,

…religion is a byproduct of humans’ tendency to perceive agency and intention as causes of events, to see “the hands of God” at work behind otherwise natural phenomena. “Humans are evolutionarily designed to be paranoid, and they believe in God because they are paranoid,” says Kanazawa. This innate bias toward paranoia served humans well when self-preservation and protection of their families and clans depended on extreme vigilance to all potential dangers. “So, more intelligent children are more likely to grow up to go against their natural evolutionary tendency to believe in God, and they become atheists.”

This does not mean that atheists are smarter than theists, so therefore atheism is correct and theism is not, haha. What it does explain, however, is the reason why smarter people tend to gravitate towards atheism; why people who tend to be more comfortable thinking things through, rather than accepting dogma, reject a worldview that is based on pure faith. They are not so locked into the conservative notions of family, clan and personal comfort, and are willing to see  the benefit to others in a worldview that isn’t so exclusive.

I like that. It makes sense. I don’t feel like I’m being unjustifiably superior when I see complete Neanderthals telling me that all truth is in religion, especially their Bible, and that science is bunk. There is a legitimate reason why I’m attracted to rational, critical thinking, rather than mind numbing faith.

Gee. I hope I don’t let it go to my head.

H/T Richard Dawkins.

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43 thoughts on “Intelligence and Atheism

  1. “…evolutionarily designed?” That’s an interesting choice of words coming from someone who says “..…religion is a byproduct of humans’ tendency to perceive agency and intention as causes of events.”

    “..they believe in God because they are paranoid,” says Kanazawa.

    Okay, I think I’m getting the hang of this: “Kanazawa said it, it denigrates theists, I believe it!” I guess it’s not so bad after all; at least now I’ve finally been enlightened as to my problem: I believe in God because I’m paranoid! Oh, if only I could gain the intelligence to shed my paranoia!

    When the arguments for atheism are so articulate, well reasoned and logical, while the arguments for theism tend to be easily reduced to “well, god says so. It’s in my book”, it’s not hard to fall into comparisons of the relative intelligence levels of the adherent of each side.

    Where are these “articulate, well reasoned and logical” arguments for atheism you and your cronies so often allude to? I’m not just asking this to roast you; I want to hear even one of these arguments. Your disdain for your Catholic upbringing and your constant denigration of theists doesn’t count.

    ..face it; much of religion’s attraction is that it IS comforting.

    Well, we mostly agree there. When it comes to masses, I’d say that yes, most seem to embrace religion because they find it comforting. Personally, I would be far more comfortable as an atheist.

    • “Where are these ‘articulate, well reasoned and logical’ arguments for atheism you and your cronies so often allude to? I’m not just asking this to roast you; I want to hear even one of these arguments.”

      There is no religious postulate that is more likely to be true than false based on human experience, scientific understanding, deductive reasoning, or for that matter, anything other than wishful thinking and/or magic.

      There’s one.

  2. I’d say the willingness to go against the norm, to question, and to explore would be more of a motivation. Generally that’s associated with intelligence, but it doesn’t have to be. Also, as we’ve seen all too frequently, intelligent people are quite capable of compartmentalization (ie – Francis Collins) and can cook up rather intricate rationales for indulgences like smoking, drinking and being religious while simultaneously being questioning, out-of-the-box types for everything else.

    I think it comes down to comfort. Now fear and paranoia probably drive that desire for comfort more than anything else, but I’m sure there are other motivations. For instance, some people have difficulty with doubts and loose ends so stability and organization can be a motivator. I also think some just find it exciting. The thought that there’s some magical being (or beings) out there sparks some sense of wonder in people. Think of the ones who dump on religion yet steadfastly argue for some nebulous god out there somewhere.

    Now what’s really worth exploring is why some people NEED their indulgence to be respected, and even adopted by everyone else. It’s pretty rare to find drinkers or smokers argue that their indulgences are good for them, yet you do see some drinkers bring up those studies of health benefits associated with drinking moderately. That day has passed for smokers. Overeaters sometimes do it, and drug users do as well (depends on the drug). Maybe it’s just to get rid of guilt and/or get rid of any negative stigma for indulging in something they shouldn’t. I don’t know, but religion certainly takes it to an extreme level. A close second might be conspiracy theory types.

    Of course cl is an idiot, so there’s that. 😉

    • yet you do see some drinkers bring up those studies of health benefits associated with drinking moderately

      Doesn’t seem bad for you, either, though…

      Health Benefits of Moderate Drinking Challenged

      None of this, fortunately, implies that a glass of fine wine or hoppy autumn beer is bad for your [sic]. The take-home message, at least for older folks, is that they should stick with proven interventions — exercise and diet — to improve or maintain their health. And then drink if they want.

  3. An earlier study by Kanazawa found that more intelligent individuals were more nocturnal, waking up and staying up later than less intelligent individuals

    I dunno about that. If you have to get up early for work the next day, then staying up later and not getting enough sleep is not a particularly good idea.

  4. I know a young woman who is autistic and is an atheist.

    Although her “social filtering” and functioning abilities are wanting, she is very intelligent and quite perceptive about many things. She came to the conclusion that there is no god, and of course, says so. She makes very good points, and (luckily) can make them without emotion when all about her are flipping out over the outrageousness of her thesis’s and unable to refute them by logic.
    Actually, kind of fun to watch when it happens. 😉

    But I think that it seems to be something that goes from, say, a “social default” setting, to the need to allay fear and uncertainty, as others here have said.

  5. I actually saw a total stranger adult LITERALLY jumping up and down in rage and frustration trying to argue with her. It was a hoot.

    He was trying to use symbols, arguement, authority, emotion…things that were as meaningful as bird chirps to her, and she answered him with logic and fact which he recognised all too well but was unwilling to employ. I half expected him to stich his fingers in his ears, close his eyes, and chant, “La la la…La la la…”

  6. I’m sure the general trend is that atheists are more intelligent than theists, but I do not think it is as strong a correlation as one might wish to think.

    A relatively low percentage of scientists are theists, but we should remember that even Newton believed in invisible sky friends.

    That said, I am always a little leery about studies in psychology. Psychologists are notorious for using tiny sample sizes and claiming stronger correlations than the evidence merits.

    • ..we should remember that even Newton believed in invisible sky friends.

      It’s more than that, though. In fact, the first few hundred years of science were almost exclusively theist. While it’s understood that theists comprised the majority of the population at that time (more so than they do now), the salient point is that if there were really some truth to the “atheists are smarter than theists” trope, we would expect that pattern to extend throughout history. Education is not synonymous with intelligence.

      • If anything, the fact that scientists used to be theists and no longer are shows how superfluous religion was to science. The better our understanding of science got, the more the scientists realized “hey, wow, Christianity really DOESN’T explain a damn thing.”

        Also “if there were really some truth to the ‘atheists are smarter than theists’ trope, we would expect that pattern to extend throughout history” is one of the most vapid, ridiculous, inane things I’ve ever seen you write. And judging by the things that wind up on the internet from the other end of your keyboard, that is no small feat.

  7. cl:

    … if there were really some truth to the “atheists are smarter than theists” trope, we would expect that pattern to extend throughout history.

    Unproven. Why would we?

  8. Why would we?

    Because truth is consistent with itself. If the claim is that gravity brings objects towards the Earth, if we could establish one or more instances of objects suddenly flying away from the Earth with no apparent reason (i.e. no discernible methods of artificial propulsion), we can then provisionally challenge the statement that gravity brings objects towards Earth.

    I would be somewhat inclined to accept the statement that modern atheists are generally more educated than modern theists (which in truthfulness is one of the reasons I like talking to y’all), but again, education is not synonymous with intelligence.

  9. That’s a gross oversimplification and is not applicable, cl. There are other forces that would have to be taken into account such as societal pressure. Unless someone outs themselves, there’s no way to know what someone believes, so the lack of history’s intelligentsia saying they were atheists isn’t the most credible indicator. Then there’s also compartmentalization. So your claim, cl, seems pretty weak. I don’t see why we should have such an expectation at all.

    Anyway, I thought the general consensus here was that intelligence doesn’t decide one’s position on gods. It can be an indicator of one’s likely position, but it doesn’t dictate it.

  10. cl:
    Because truth is consistent with itself.
    What the fuck does that mean?
    If it’s snowing today, does that mean it will snow tomorrow? How about a week from Thursday?

  11. Come on Ex. I gave you a fairly clear example of what it means. I get that you disagree but don’t act so obtuse.

    If it’s snowing today, does that mean it will snow tomorrow? How about a week from Thursday?

    Of course not. Note that the topic under discussion isn’t whether more intelligent people will be attracted to atheism because of its ‘evolutionary novelty’ in the future. The claim is that more intelligent people will be attracted to atheism because of its evolutionary novelty, yet an impartial perusal of history challenges that claim, especially history of science.

    This is not consistent with the original claim, and that’s what I mean when I say truth is consistent with itself.

  12. cl:
    Note that the topic under discussion isn’t whether more intelligent people will be attracted to atheism because of its ‘evolutionary novelty’ in the future.

    What the fuck are you talking about? Wasn’t it you who made the claim:
    truth is consistent with itself.

    Are you saying that truth is relative? That it’s rooted only in a specific time-frame? I think you’re going to have to define “truth” here before you can make any other claims about it.

  13. Congratulations: you’ve now convinced me that you intend to be obtuse, or perhaps just contrarian.

    Yes, it was I who made the claim that truth is consistent with itself. No, I’m not saying that truth is relative. In general, I define truth as that which has a referent in reality, but that definition is more amenable to objective truth and encounters difficulty when applied to the subjective.

    No, I’m not saying truth is rooted only in a specific time frame. In fact, that’s exactly what the person who uses the “more intelligent people tend to be attracted to atheism” trope are using: they focus on a specific time frame (say, the last hundred years), while completely ignoring the several-hundred-years prior where such is demonstrably not the case.

    • “Yes, it was I who made the claim that truth is consistent with itself.”

      No, it was DD who made that claim. And then it was you who massively misused it.

      As I said, if anything, the massive jettisoning of religion from science after a history full of it only shows how incredibly useless it PROVED ITSELF in terms of explanatory power. Religion as an alternative “way of knowing” to science is completely bereft, and it’s shown itself to be so countless times.

  14. At the risk of being flanked over irrelevant grammar concerns, as atheists at this site often do, please permit me the following correction:

    No, I’m not saying truth is rooted only in a specific time frame. In fact, that’s exactly what the person who uses the people who use the “more intelligent people tend to be attracted to atheism” trope are using: they focus on a specific time frame (say, the last hundred years), while completely ignoring the several-hundred-years prior where such is demonstrably not the case.

  15. cl:
    Congratulations: you’ve now convinced me that you intend to be obtuse, or perhaps just contrarian.
    I don’t see how asking you to define your terms is “obtuse” or “contrarian.” Could you explain that?

    ….completely ignoring the several-hundred-years prior where such is demonstrably not the case.
    Wrong. Such is not the demonstrable case, but it certainly isn’t demonstrably not the case.

    Please try to write clearly if you’re going to pretend to construct logical arguments.

  16. “At the risk of being flanked over irrelevant grammar concerns, as atheists at this site often do,”

    ha! fuckin hilarious. sad but true. all the while they’ll rewrite basic words and retreat to shit talking

  17. Larry,

    Though annoying, your request to define the word “truth” is not why I said I felt you were being obtuse. That was something you just assumed.

    I said you were being obtuse because, well.. I know that you’re intelligent, yet you seem to be willfully missing a rather basic point: if the claim is that more intelligent people will be attracted to atheism, I’d be more apt to accept the claim if it were consistent throughout history. The claim is demonstrably not consistent throughout history. I wrote clearly.

  18. No, cl, you can’t demonstrate that the claim is not consistent throughout history, because you have no idea who was and who wasn’t an atheist. So when you say it’s “demonstrably not consistent,” that’s bullshit.

    Unless, of course, you can demonstrate that it’s not consistent. But to do that, you’ll need to give evidence of who was and who wasn’t an atheist. Then, too, you’ll need to provide some measurement for intelligence of people who died long before any such measurement was even dreamed of. Anecdotal “proof” won’t do, so you’d also better be prepared to make demonstrations about an entire segment of the population, not just one or two famous people that you happen to cherry-pick.

    OK? You lose as soon as you resort to anecdotes or unverified claims. You said it’s “demonstrably not consistent,” so go ahead and demonstrate.

  19. No, cl, you can’t demonstrate that the claim is not consistent throughout history, because you have no idea who was and who wasn’t an atheist.

    Actually, I’ve got a rather good idea of who was and wasn’t an atheist, especially in science, where we find that almost without exception, theists founded the various disciplines of science we have today.

    I’m not resorting to anecdotes or unverified claims; I’m arguing from a very basic principle: truth is consistent with itself. Generally, a claim is strengthened by historical consistency and weakened by lack thereof. Do you deny that general principle?

    The claim being evaluated here is that “more intelligent people tend to be attracted to atheism,” and when we look around today, it seems consistent with reality. Yet, when you look back a few hundred years, especially in science, that is demonstrably not the case. I say demonstrably not the case because I can produce literally dozens of examples of intelligent scientists who were not atheists.

    In contrast to today where most working scientists are atheists (or agnostics), almost without exception, the vast majority of working scientists of centuries past were theists, specifically Christian theists. Now, if when I looked back a few hundred years, I found that most scientists were atheists or agnostics as they are today, then I would give the claim that “more intelligent people tend to be attracted atheism” more credibility. Since the claim lacks historical consistency, I remain skeptical of any genuine connection.

    • Generally, a claim is strengthened by historical consistency and weakened by lack thereof. Do you deny that general principle?

      You’d have to explain what you mean by “historical consistency”, and then explain how that relates to the strength of the claim or else your statement could merely be another example of ‘a lie told enough times becomes the truth.’

      I can produce literally dozens of examples of intelligent scientists who were not atheists.

      And the point I and Larry have made, which you, as is your custom, are unwilling to accept or incapable of grasping is you cannot, for there are factors which you’re ignoring which make those records suspect.

      • Another thing is that prior to a few hundred years ago, atheism simply wasn’t in the mental universe of scientists. It is not until discoveries start accumulating that either contradict or are not accounted for in what had been the approved Biblical model that it starts to occur to some people a Deistic or atheistic perspective is more realistic.

        That’s along the lines of what Neil Tyson meant when he talks about the Perimeter of Ignorance.

        • Absolutely.

          Cl uses history like a school child memorizing dates. History takes into account an unlimited number of factors and forces. You cannot simply say “Very few intelligent people in history came out as atheists” – end of story. You have to analyze WHY historically you don’t see much atheism.

          So taking a two dimensional approach to analysis, and then using that to support “demonstrable” proof that there was little atheism in history is intellectually fraudulent, like most of cl’s arguments. It’s very similar to those Christians that ignore facts inconvenient to theism, while pounding hard on the ones that support them, like missing links, Darwins’s mistakes, etc.

          I would venture to surmise that if you took the Newtons, and the Galileos, and all the other great thinkers and scientists of history, and put them in today’s world, knowing what we know, they would, to a man (and woman), embrace atheism.

          • Interestingly, this morning on the train ride into Manhattan, I was reading an article in the April 2010 issue of Astronomy about Thomas Harriot, who is sometimes referred to as “England’s Galileo.”

            While reading, the following paragraph made me think of this thread:

            “Harriot appears to have embraced the Copernican view, which places the Sun in the center of the solar system, as well as the atomic theory of matter first proposed by the early Greek philosophers. Of the two, atomism was the more problematic, as it was inevitably linked to atheism, which was, at that time, a criminal offense in England.” Italics mine.

            If that is indeed the case, I would suggest that such a law would put a damper on the number of scientific thinkers who might want to advertise themselves as atheists.

            • Yes. I agree. I think I alluded to that somewhere else, where I said that I think a very good argument could be made that if you took the greatest thinkers of the past, regardless of their religion, and put them in the present, allowing them the same knowledge and sensibilities, not to mention freedom of thought uninhibited by an overarching religious culture, they’d be, to a man, atheists.

  20. cl:
    You used the word demonstrably, so what you need are facts, not opinions,. Your “skepticism” is proof of nothing. And your being able to produce “literally dozens of examples” is mere anecdote, not proof.

    So: Can you demonstrate that scientists of the past were always measurably the most intelligent members of their population?

    If so, can you demonstrate that those scientists were not atheists? (Given the many examples in history of physical violence against “infidels,” a person’s claim to be a theist is not necessarily proof that he really was one.)

    To tell you the truth, I don’t think you can demonstrate anything to support your claim. I’m guessing that you must have left your comment merely because you’re starved for attention. (But that’s just a guess; I can’t demonstrate that it’s true, and would never claim that I could.)

    However, you claimed that a statement was “demonstrably not the case. I won’t attention to any response of yours that reverts to opinion and/or anecdote. But I do look forward to an actual demonstration.

  21. The point I’ve made is simple, and has been stated two ways now: 1) truth is consistent with itself, and 2) generally, a claim is strengthened by historical consistency and weakened by lack thereof. Nobody has voiced direct opposition to those claims for a reason – because they’re true.

    As usual, some try to drag us into another discussion of definitions, as if the last one wasn’t embarrassing enough for Team Scarlet A.

    What do I mean by “historical consistency?” Well, I mean that any claim of the type “X -> Y” is strengthened by past instances of “X -> Y.” That relates to the strength of the claim because truth is consistent with itself.

    For example, if we say that the Irish are violent, instances of the Irish being violent strengthens our claim. If we say Arabs and Israelis have trouble getting along, instances of Arabs and Israelis having trouble getting along strengthens that claim.

    Similarly, if we say “more intelligent people are attracted to X (where X = atheism, or evolution, or whatever),” then past instances of more intelligent people being attracted to X tend to strengthen that claim.

    To disagree with such reasoning is to turn induction on its head.

    Now, I get what Larry and SI and others are saying: that penalties dispensed to atheists render my statement unsupportable. Sure, it’s likely that some percentage of “theist scientists” were actually closet atheists. Are any of you going to assert such were the majority? If so, who needs to argue from facts?

    SI,

    Cl uses history like a school child memorizing dates.

    Hey, thanks for your usual negative appraisal.

    You cannot simply say “Very few intelligent people in history came out as atheists” – end of story.

    I didn’t – you did. I said I’d be more prone to accept the claim that more intelligent people gravitate towards atheism if such were demonstrably the case throughout history. I then said that such is demonstrably not the case throughout history.

    Larry and others then argued that penalties inflicted upon atheists obscure completely accurate estimations. Of course they do, but I’m not limiting my evaluation to those societies that penalized atheists.

    I would venture to surmise that if you took the Newtons, and the Galileos, and all the other great thinkers and scientists of history, and put them in today’s world, knowing what we know, they would, to a man (and woman), embrace atheism.

    How arrogant, and pithy.

    Tommykey,

    Another thing is that prior to a few hundred years ago, atheism simply wasn’t in the mental universe of scientists. It is not until discoveries start accumulating that either contradict or are not accounted for in what had been the approved Biblical model that it starts to occur to some people a Deistic or atheistic perspective is more realistic.

    While you speak specifically in the context of Western science, atheism has actually been in the mental universe of the world’s thinkers for thousands of years – though, in a manner certainly disproportionate to theism.

    Larry,

    You used the word demonstrably, so what you need are facts, not opinions,.

    It is you who offers opinion here: your opinion that a critical mass of “theist scientists” were simply lying to save their ass.

  22. Of potential interest:

    Stop Patting Yourselves on the Back On This Study

    Among my favorite parts,

    ..look at the source: Satoshi Kanazawa, the Fenimore Cooper of Sociobiology, the professional fantasist of Psychology Today. He’s like the poster boy for the stupidity and groundlessness of freakishly fact-free evolutionary psychology. Just ignore anything with Kanazawa’s name on it.

    So there you have it, from a real scientist, on SI’s source.

    • How many times must it be said here, jackass, that none of us are taking this report seriously. In fact, most major atheist blogs, tv shows and podcasts all dismissed this report, so get over it.

      • Yes. I don’t think my post tends to take it very seriously, but if you see it wholly embracing the concept that atheists are more intelligent than theists, then I apologize for misleading anyone. I really wasn’t that impressed with a 5 point spread in IQs. I have an IQ of somewhere around 30, but I think I’m smarter than that. 8)

        I will say though, that, again anecdotally, (and there may be a study or two out there, IIRC) atheists on the whole tend to be better (or more) educated. The anecdotal part comes from the widespread horrible problems with spelling and grammar one tends to see among Christian commenters. Perhaps the better educated ones shy away from commenting online, but the ones who do give them a bad name.

        Then there’s that NAS study of top scientists.

  23. How many times must it be said here, jackass, that none of us are taking this report seriously. In fact, most major atheist blogs, tv shows and podcasts all dismissed this report, so get over it.

    Ooooh! Big Tough Guy still cleaves to his high school techniques, I see! I heard you the first few times. You mistakenly assume I posted the link on your behalf. Though I understand that you think you are Somebody, you’re not the center of my every comment, so get over yourself.

    ..I don’t think my post tends to take it very seriously, but if you see it wholly embracing the concept that atheists are more intelligent than theists, then I apologize for misleading anyone.

    Very fair. I’m actually impressed. I will take you at your word and extend the benefit of the doubt, but I would also note that your most recent sentiment seems at odds with your previous sentiment that,

    A recent study seems to suggest that there really is something to the idea that higher intellect and atheism go hand in hand,

    I’m glad we all seemingly agree that this study is bunk.

    • I have no idea who your repeated comments are for frankly, since they’ve been dismissed every time you’ve tried to argue this point here and this discussion has been left for dead for some time now.

  24. Actually there have been several independant studies conducted (most recently in 2006 by the Pew Research Institute) that concluded that conservatives were generally better educated, wealthier and gave far more to charity than liberals. Google it to find numerous studies. This coming from a socially liberal, but fiscally conservative, Agnostic Theist.

    With that said, I do agree with you that blind religious faith is mind numbing, but so is an unhealthy sense of intellectual superiority over others.

    • Naturally conservatives are wealthier on the whole, and thus give more to charity on the whole. A lot of that giving is also tax write offs. The educational level I also take with a grain of salt. Wealth provides privileges such as education, especially quality education.

      I welcome the self labeling of agnostic theist. I’m so tired of people claiming they know their god.

      The unhealthy sense of intellectually superiority is usually displayed by people like cl, a living example of the Dunning-Kreuger effect (Google it). 😉

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