Atheists Are Just Smarter

Many electrons have been spilled over that Pew survey showing that atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons know more about world religions, including Christianity, than Protestants and Catholics (I got 32/32!). Even after controlling for education, these four religious groups know more about world religions in general (however, white evangelicals know more about Christianity than Jews, agnostics, and atheists, but not Mormons):

[E]ven after controlling for levels of education and other key demographic traits (race, age, gender and region), significant differences in religious knowledge persist among adherents of various faith traditions. Atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons still have the highest levels of religious knowledge, followed by evangelical Protestants, then those whose religion is nothing in particular, mainline Protestants and Catholics. Atheists/agnostics and Jews stand out for high levels of knowledge about world religions other than Christianity, though they also score at or above the national average on questions about the Bible and Christianity. Holding demographic factors constant, evangelical Protestants outperform most groups (with the exceptions of Mormons and atheists/agnostics) on questions about the Bible and Christianity, but evangelicals fare less well compared with other groups on questions about world religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. Mormons are the highest-scoring group on questions about the Bible. (emphasis original)

Why do atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons outperform Christians?  Jamelle Bouie hypothesizes that minorities know more about majorities than the reverse, because their status as minorities in society requires them to. There’s probably something to this – Rick Mercer made a whole comedy special out of the idea that Americans know far less about Canada than Canadians do about the U.S. – but as Ilya Somin points out, this hypothesis doesn’t explain why these religious minorities especially seem to know more about other minority and world religions. Somin argues instead that Jews, atheists/agnostics, and Mormons are just more cosmopolitan.

But when you couple these findings with another study that’s been floating around – a dating site’s analysis of its members’ profiles by race and religion – you come away with a slightly different hypothesis: intelligence. OKCupid finds that the writing proficiency level in their members’ profiles (526,000 users were surveyed) is highest for self-declared atheists, followed by Buddhists, Jews, agnostics, and Hindus. Protestants and Catholics bring up the rear.

However, educational attainment is higher for Jews, atheists, and agnostics. They don’t try to control for that factor, but instead they look at how “serious” each user says (s)he is about his/her religion. They find that in the case of each religious group, the most proficient users are those who are least serious about their religion. However, for agnostics and atheists, the most proficient are those who are most serious about their religious preference. Basically, the less religious you are, the higher the grade level of your writing.

Jews, atheists, and agnostics have higher IQs on average than the general population, atheists highest of all. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on research on Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence. And here’s the Wikipedia article on intelligence by religiosity. I’m not making any claims about the role that genetic inheritance plays in intelligence. For agnostics and atheists at least, I think the reason for the intelligence-religion correlation is that smarter people tend to be attracted to godlessness. This is not a sound argument for atheism, of course. Smart people can often go astray, precisely because they trust too much in their own intelligence. Because atheists tend to be more intelligent, they know more about religions and are better writers, on average, than others, even controlling for formal education.

One could do similar analysis with political orientations. If one ranked political ideologies by the average intelligence of their adherents, one would probably end up with something like this:

1. Marxists & libertarians

2. Left-liberals

3. Conservatives

4. Moderates, independents, populists, & apoliticals

Research has shown intelligence to be correlated with tolerance and social liberalism. One argument for why this is the case is that more intelligent people are more likely to adopt “evolutionarily novel” ideas. Certainly, intelligence could plausibly be a near-prerequisite for striking out and trying on new ideas rejected by the existing social consensus. A piece of evidence in favor of the hypothesis is that intelligence correlates with preference for monogamy (over polygyny) in men, but not in women. (Occasional polygyny is the evolutionary norm in the human species.)

However, when it comes to political ideology, part of the explanation might be that more intelligent people are drawn to systems that seem more logically consistent. Marxism offers a tightly integrated web of beliefs about science, human nature, economics, and moral philosophy. Libertarianism is nowhere near as total a philosophy of life, but has generally privileged deductive argument from “self-evident” premises. Left-liberalism was historically a halfway house between Marxism and classical liberalism, sharing some of the methodological features of both, but perhaps lacking the obvious internal coherence of those ideologies. Conservatism has often meant merely a preference for the received wisdom and social tradition, and in the U.S. conservatives have generally cribbed their social philosophy from libertarians (Russell Kirk notwithstanding). Apoliticals are likely to be at the bottom, because, as philosophers since at least Aristotle have noted, rational contemplation naturally leads one to develop concern for the principles of proper organization and development of common human social life.

16 thoughts on “Atheists Are Just Smarter

  1. Jason, what to write about this? So many things. First, I appreciate your bluntness. Second, I think some of these claims are just bizarre. Do these stats apply to just 2010? To the last several years? True genius seems to be a possibility in every people. How can we account for Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle coming at the end of the golden age of Greece and in three succ. generations? What about a time period that produced an Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine? Or a More, Calvin, and Erasmus? I also find it interesting that you list Russell Kirk, a genius as well–whether we agree with all he wrote or not. Finally, wouldn’t it be equally plausible to note that conservatives–by their very rejection of system–are highly intelligent because they prefer nuance uniformity (I’m defining conservatism in Kirkian terms)?

  2. I’m just trying to explain the evidence! Now, the important thing to note is that we are dealing with averages. Obviously, the leading intellectuals in each camp, such as Russell Kirk, are going to be brilliant individuals. But the studies I link to seem to show that conservatives on average possess slightly lower IQs than liberals. You make a fair point that this may not be true in every society or every time period – in fact I’m certain you are right about that. That’s another reason not to infer anything about the veracity of particular opinions because of the average intelligence of the people who hold them.

    1. I”m not sure what proxy they used for “intelligence”, “liberal” and “conservative” in the poll you cite, but Pew also did a survey of Democrats and Republicans (reasonable proxies for conservative liberal) and found Democrats knew fewer basic political facts (e.g., name of senators) and more democrats believed in the Evil Eye and Ghosts.

      I don’t mention that to argue that liberals are dumber, but that these little polls and silly social science surveys can make you dumber if you take them seriously and build your beliefs around them.

      Pew’s religious poll questions read like Pew hired a secular poll researcher educated at some typically secular college who only knows what a liberal arts degree teaches you about religion. Why not have actual believers devise their respective part of the poll? I’d bet that atheists in the blogosphere would enjoy less of their confirming sense of superiority.

  3. I smoked the quiz and found it funny how elementary the questions appeared to be. I am a Christian, and I have read through the Bible several times and have a pretty good grasp of theology. At the same time, how could one who is committed to a given faith not be interested in the faith of others? I gave a talk at my church last week about the Kalam cosmological argument. I had no difficulty discussing how Christians, Jews and Muslims (we all agree) differ from competing religions on the beginnings of the universe. As one who has invested much in coming to grips with Christian theology, I find it inexplicable how so many who claim the same faith are clueless when it comes to competing doctrines. Once again, the quiz was full of softballs. It was not as if one were asking to explain the origins of logos christology (BTW, read Philo of Alexandria).

    1. Yes, the quiz was extremely easy, and yes, it’s extremely frightening how few Americans – of all faiths and non-faiths – can answer these questions correctly. I myself was raised as an evangelical Protestant (my current religious views are complex and the best one-word description might be “Bayesian”), and I was encouraged to learn a great deal about my own faith but not necessarily about others. I just don’t know how anyone could know anything about world affairs and American society without being able to identify the religions that Vishnu and the Dalai Lama are associated with, for instance.

    2. Marc,
      I love it when someone starts talking about Philo of Alexandria and logos christology. Anyway, enjoyed this post.

  4. Jason, I think the answer for why Mormons did (relatively) so well on this quiz is primarily institutional. Practicing Mormons (those most likely to identify themselves as Mormons in a study like this) attend Sunday School weekly from the time they are 18 months old; High school youth attend a daily “Seminary” class that emphasizes scripture study, including 1 year on the Old Testament and one year on the New Testament; many young adults go on a 2 year or 18 month proselytizing mission in which they spend most of their time talking with people of other faiths about religious doctrines. All this, when added up, makes for a lifetime of religious study. I don’t think that kids in any other Christian tradition spend as much time formally and informally studying religious ideas as Mormons do.

    I think that these institutional features are going to swamp any kind of sociological explanations one might come up with.

    There has been some scholarship (the best is probably by Christian Smith) talking about the decline in the importance of doctrine generally among Christians in America. Many young people learn very little about their religious traditions, even when they are relatively active in them.

    1. I think that’s right, and that’s what Somin means as well when he refers to Mormons as being relatively cosmopolitan.

  5. Reports like this where academics tell themselves that people like them are smarter strike me as funny, like a group of basketball players start giving each other high-fives because a survey on which athletes are the tallest said they were #1.

    The only worry I have is that some people take arguments like yours seriously. I see this in the way our ruling class now seems to define “merit” as “the ability to manipulate words” (like the IQ studies you cite).” Sometimes this gets simplified to “which college were you good enough at passing school tests to get it into?” When merit is defined as how “writing proficiency,” is it any wonder that our government churns out 2000 page bills that no one can actually read? Or that Wall Street lawyers produce financial instruments that (as we now know) no one actually understood the risk involved? Or that we have a president who thinks he can solve problems like race or Mideast conflict with a well-intentioned speech?

    There’s nothing wrong with the smarts that accompany book learning, but equally, there is nothing to identify it as the supreme virtue. A host of other virtues: moral uprightness, courage, humility and a willingness to listen, the ability to create something beautiful, practical knowledge of the world, etc., may all be more important.

    I know that nothing you said in your post contradicts this directly, but when your list of political views and intelligence puts your views at the top and those of people you argue against at the bottom (what an amazing coincidence!!), it makes me wary. For decades we’ve been ruled (government & business) by the “best and brightest” from the Ivy League–the people who score as “intelligent” in the IQ/Liberalism article you cite–and frankly, they they’ve done a piss poor job. Well, I guess they’ve done well for their own bank accounts, but not at much else.

  6. George – I find nothing disagree with there. Virtue of course trumps all other personal traits altogether. And as I noted, intelligence often leads people to wicked conclusions because of their overconfidence in their own abilities. Finally, it’s not true that I put people I disagree with most at the bottom of my predictions. As a libertarian, I often wish I could be apolitical and I vehemently disagree with Marxists. My predictions of how ideological partisans stack up on average IQ is based on my personal experiences and the fragmentary scientific evidence available.

  7. I think these findings have something to do with the (justifiable) belief that salvation is not based on knowledge or how much you know but, rather, on how you outwardly act and behave. In short, you can be a dumb saint.

  8. As a Catholic with an IQ over 184…I find the conclusions here kinda cute… Look I am a Professor with a Liberal Arts degree and I am smarter than you…BULLCRAP. Harvard found that no matter the education level attained IQ was higher at each level for conservatives over liberals…your methodology is poor..you conclusions are faulty…. if you had tried this in one of my classes I would have failed you….

  9. As other have mentioned, the few surveys I’ve read that claim leftists are brighter use incredibly silly proxies for intelligence, and exhibit confirmation bias more strongly than anything else.

    However, there are some sound reasons that we should expect the more intelligent lot in the US and the UK to have fewer religious among them. Only, none of those reasons have to do with the leftists making more intelligent choices.

    Here are a few factors:

    (1) Social pressure: there is simply no tolerance for religious views among the intelligentsia — people who wear their erudition like a badge. Anybody who values that social setting experiences very strong pressure to abandon their religious faith in order to be accepted by the group. Young people clearly value the opinion of the intelligentsia higher than more mature people do. So bright young people who want to look smart find themselves more frequently in settings where they are encouraged (an understatement) to renounce their faith, and many of them do. Voila! Over time, more intelligent people have fewer religious among them.

    (2) Leftward bias of educators:

    (A) Surveys of the beliefs of professors at major universities show that there are almost 100 leftists for every conservative. That’s not because conservatives don’t want to teach, it’s because leftists only hire their own kind, and have done for about 80 years. So every student who attends university gets exposed to strong, leftward bias (another understatement. Some professors actively attempt to shame religious students into abandoning their religion.) And since the most intelligent students are the ones who attend university…voila! Over time, more intelligent people have fewer religious among them.

    (B) The public school system is dominated and run by social and political progressives. Their attitudes appear clearly and disproportionately in the materials written for the elementary and secondary grades. The more attention paid to educational materials, the more the children absorb the biases — during years when they are unable to detect and filter out biases. The less intelligent students pay less attention to the material, and have less need for it, so are less affected by it. Voila! Over time, more intelligent people have fewer religious among them.

    That’s just off the top of my head.

    Of course, we could simply accept the understated self-congratulation of the intelligent leftists themselves, as they make self-adoring references to their own tolerance and intellectual flexibility. Only, those of us who who disagree with these same leftists, wonder how it is that folks who possess such flexible intellects all manage to end up using exactly the same catch-phrases to say exactly the same things as the next flexible intellect. And since we also have discovered that the reflexive response of these tolerant, flexible individuals to hearing disagreement always involves references to fascists and rednecks, we know precisely how much stock to place in explanations that make reference to their open minds and tolerant attitudes.

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