Atheists Smarter Than Religious? Not Worth The Outrage

The media people like to believe they are more intelligent than their non-celebrity readers. They are also probably more likely to be atheists or agnostics. So naturally they will like publishing stories like this. And media people like it even better when their work stirs up outrage, as we see from this headline

Cue outrage: Study concludes atheists smarter than religious people. An analysis of 63 scientific studies by the University of Rochester has concluded (somewhat controversially) that atheists are more intelligent than churchy types. Of the studies analyzed, 53 reflected ‘a reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity.’ The team of psychologists hastened to point out, however, that it didn’t mean people were dumb if they believed in God — rather, that the more intelligent a person was, the more inclined they were to form their own world view. For the purposes of the study, intelligence was defined as ‘ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience.’”

This is not worth getting outraged over.

There are any number of ways these studies could be inaccurate. And they don’t mean anything about the rationality of belief in God. There are several issues that entangle the question. I don’t have space to deal with them all.

Religion has taken over most of the world. On a grand scale, measuring the intelligence of religious people simply means measuring the intelligence of everyone, while measuring the intelligence of atheists means measuring the intelligence of a small group that has broken with the rest. By definition, only smarter people are even going to consider departing from the consensus of the majority. The difference in average intelligence doesn’t mean anything unless you measure people in specific life circumstances. For example, are Christians and atheists in the same university graduate program noticeably different in intelligence? If there are more atheists in the graduate program than in the population at large that might be interesting, but it can be explained in any number of ways that have nothing to do with atheists being smarter than their similar Christian counterparts.

How many smart people in the past have committed themselves to ideas that are really stupid but which the relatively less intelligent populace refused to embrace? I haven’t done the research, but I think I’m on safe ground to guess that there was a time in our history when the people who embraced, taught, legislated, and attempted to popularize “scientific” eugenics measured as far more intelligent, on average, than the people who believed that eugenics was ungodly fiction. But eugenics was and is a garbage idea.

Common sense about human nature and some pretty obvious anecdotal evidence, will tell us that smart people like to differentiate themselves from “the masses.” Rejecting Christianity is an easy way to do this. But while intelligence might explain the temptation, it doesn’t prove that intelligent people are, in fact, being intelligent to reject Christianity.

Anyone who measures his intelligence by just imitating what smart people do has already disqualified himself. So don’t give such a person the power to make you outraged.