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
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.