Intelligence and Dogma: A Letter from a Sheep

I recently stumbled on a growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating some interesting results. Turns out, religiosity — self-professed religious belief — is negatively correlated with analytical thinking and general intelligence measures, such as IQ, to a high degree of statistical significance.1 This trend is true both at the national level (i.e., nations with higher average religiosity have lower average IQ) as well as at the individual level, and holds even when controlling for other factors like race, age, and nationality.2 Moreover, passing through adolescence into adulthood, with the attendant improvement in cognitive function, is strongly correlated to declining belief in God and increasingly negative attitudes toward religion.3 One study found that, even when controlling for sex, race, education, earnings, and religion, more intelligent children are significantly more likely to grow up to be atheist seven years later.4 Another large study found, with p<.001, that “Atheists score 1.95 IQ points higher than Agnostics, 3.82 points higher than Liberal persuasions, and 5.89 IQ points higher than Dogmatic persuasions… [where] Liberals were defined as more open-minded, critical, less committed, metaphorical, cultural heritage-type individuals, and Dogmatics were defined as more committed, to have a personal relationship with Jesus, to emphasize sinfulness, to be ready to follow guidance and strict rules for behaviour, and to feel more of a need for atonement.”5 The natural question to ask is what accounts for this robust intelligence-atheism correlation. One researcher muses that

religiosity occupies many people — almost everybody in developmental countries, but also a majority in developed societies (Zuckerman, 2006). The latter observation is puzzling, because religiosity is basically incompatible with a modern rational or scientific understanding [!]. Religiosity thus refers to 1) beliefs, ranging from souls, invisible worlds, supernatural Gods or forces, to angels, devils, and holy spirits, and 2) claims about supernatural forces that control our behavior, feeling and thinking. 6

Another seeks to explain the origin of such religious belief in terms of evolutionary psychology:

[H]umans should have the cognitive bias to overinfer agency, attributing personal and intentional causes behind natural phenomena, rather than to underinfer agency, attributing impersonal and unintentional (natural) causes behind phenomena caused by humans and animals. In other words, we should be evolutionarily designed to be paranoid, but it is good to be paranoid, because it might save your life (Haselton and Nettle 2006).7

So believing in agents at work behind events with unknown causes (e.g., seeing the hand of God) was, historically, evolutionarily advantageous. This kind of thinking, which includes a tendency to “promiscuous teleology,” is variously described as “pre-historic,” “magical,” and “irrational.”8 General intelligence is theorized as an ability to respond to novel situations, and atheism is a historically novel phenomenon, so researchers conjecture that this might help to explain why more intelligent individuals are more likely to be atheists — also liberal, sexually exclusive, and vegetarian — all “novel” traits from an evolutionary perspective.

One thing to note about these studies is that in general they do not satisfactorily take account of confounding variables, even though these are often captured in the data sets. The most obvious of these are race, income, and education level. However, as noted above, it appears that the intelligence-atheism correlation remains robust even when these variables are held constant (at least, that was the case in the large study of adolescent white males). So let us assume that the correlation is at least as robust as the researchers would have it.

I have one observation and two questions.

First, the observation: these findings make me uncomfortable. I want to believe that my faith is rational and intelligent. I wonder if this is only because I want to believe that I am rational and intelligent. I suspect that this is the case. I worry that my “Dogmatic” beliefs (I perfectly fit the category so characterized) are somehow less likely to be true if other people who hold them are, on average, less intelligent. Strictly speaking, nothing about the truthvalue of “Dogmatic” Christian belief follows from the intelligence level of its adherents, especially because intelligence is about responding to novelty and problem-solving, not about knowing true things. (Also, “more intelligent individuals are not better than less intelligent individuals at solving evolutionarily familiar problems, such as those in the domains of mating, parenting, interpersonal relationships, and wayfinding.” 9) Given that someone has above-average intelligence, these findings say nothing about the veracity of his or her beliefs. But still. Surely there is correlation (even causation?) between being rational or intelligent and believing true things. I want to think that my Christian friends and I are both intelligent and correct, and a reason to doubt the former is prima facie a reason to doubt the latter.

Question 1. What, from a Christian perspective, would account for this phenomenon?

I submit that if the gospel is true, then this phenomenon is exactly what we would expect to see. Indeed, we are assured that “the message about the cross is foolishness” (1 Cor 1:18). In my experience, the most significant predictive variable for atheism is perceived self-sufficiency, i.e. the degree to which someone believes that they can attain satisfaction and happiness (whatever that means to them) on their own resources. This variable is inversely proportional to the traits associated with “Dogmatic” beliefs like my own: a personal relationship with Jesus, emphasis on sinfulness, readiness to follow guidance and strict rules for behavior, and feeling a need for atonement. Christian adults, at least, do not adopt these traits just because they are stupid or “promiscuous” with their teleology. They adopt them at least partly because they perceive that they are broken and unable to manage their own lives, and unable to give themselves satisfactory answers to life’s most pressing questions about what matters most and what to do with the short time given to them – answers that the Gospel provides. Such people are open to the idea that there is someone bigger than they are who knows better what it is true and how to live life well. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes. Fear the Lord” (Pr 3:7). Belief in the gospel demands humility and a failure of self-sufficiency. “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). As intelligence becomes ever more indicative of economic and personal self-sufficiency, it is becoming ever less likely that intelligent people will be “poor in spirit” and therefore harder for them to accept that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor 1:25).

Question 2. So what should we think about this phenomenon–should it bother me?

In light of the personally humiliating and intellectually a-rational nature of the gospel message, not at all. St. Paul himself observed and expected that the intellectually lowly would be the first to get the gospel:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor 1:26-29)

Indeed, if the correlation between intelligence and religiosity were otherwise, we should worry that something had gone wrong–that we had watered down or excised the inherent “foolishness” of the gospel, traded good news for good philosophy. To believe that a Jewish Palestinian zombie carpenter from 2000 years ago is the author of the universe and my personal savior always has been, and always shall be, foolish. I would never believe it myself, were I not convinced that my own intelligence is immeasurably more foolish on its own terms.

Nathan Otey ’15 is a Features Editor for the Ichthus, concentrating in philosophy and math.  


1 Shenhav, Rand, and Greene, Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God, 2011. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Available at ecolevo/divineintuition.pdf; Kanazawa, Satoshi. Why liberals and atheists are more intelligent. Social Psychology Quarterly, 2010. Available at spq/snaps/liberals.cfm

2 Lynn, Harvey, and Nyborg, Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 countries. Intelligence, Vol 37 Issue 1 Jan- Feb 2009, pp. 11-15. Available at http:// S0160289608000238; Nyborg, Helmuth, The Intelligence-religiosity nexus: a representative study of white adolescent Americans. Intelligence, Vol 37 Issue 1 Jan-Feb 2009, pp. 81-93. Available at article/pii/S0160289608001013.

3 L.J. Francis, Measuring attitudes towards Christianity during childhood and adolescence, 1989. Personality & Individual Differences, 10, pp. 695–698

4 Kanazawa, 2010.

5 Nyborg, 2009.

6 Ibid.

7 Kanazawa, 2010.

8 Shenhav, et al., 2011. ; Nyborg, 2009.

9 Kanazawa 2004b, referenced in Kanazawa 2010.

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