Are Atheists More Intelligent?

Showing your Christian convictions online leads to some people assuming you are probably irrational and so unable to think critically and logically. Now, as someone with an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, and two post graduate degrees in other fields (and a career in the development and application of embedded software) I’ve always scratched my head at this state of affairs. Why would anyone I don’t know, automatically assume that I am not an analytical or critical thinker? That I’m stupid? This feels like … bias. And maybe even raw prejudice. But is it generally true? Are atheists just generally smarter people?

One helpful person on Twitter assured me that the majority of Christians today are “poor and ignorant” souls. Well, a very recent study was done by Zuckerman and Miron, and their conclusion may bear out this Twitter opinion. The study says that “our findings support the view that intelligent people are less religious because they are more rational.”[1] Atheists are more rational that believers.

This is a fascinating conclusion. I think it struggles to account for a broad range of contemporary evidence suggesting atheists are generally no smarter than believers.

Let me explain.

First – because recent history is full of influential critical, scientific thinkers who were professing Christians.

Did you know that in the twentieth century, over 65% of Nobel Prize winners in science believed in God? That’s between 1901 and 2000. The majority were Christians, receiving awards for advancements in physics and medicine. Surely these fields require analytical, critical and logical thinking, and these individuals were at the very top of this game?[2]

Throw the net further afield, and the most recent study that explored the relationship between scientists and religious faith shows that over 51% of currently active professional scientists in the last 10 years have a religious belief.[3]

Clearly this data makes a compelling case that it is not a disadvantage to have a religious belief when it comes to an analytical job like a field of science. Actually – as an aside – I would argue that ALL people have a faith position. Everyone. We just disagree on the identity of the real God.

In summary then, I feel the assumption that atheists are smarter than Christians is not borne out in the field of science. In fact, the data might suggest the opposite conclusion, as more religious believers are Nobel Laureates.

Second – because there is evidence that the conclusions of the Zuckerman study were driven by skewed data and (ironically) incorrect correlations between data and their conclusion.

The problems with this recent study are discussed in the video, “Are Atheists More Intelligent”[4] and they make a rational, analytical and critical case. They argue that there is evidence that:

  1. The higher our IQ, the more likely we are to have a blind spot on our personal biases.
  2. The Zuckerman study defines religiosity in a confusing way, focussing on extreme viewpoints rather than the mainstream and conflating different viewpoints. On mainstream religiosity the data does not suggest Christians are disadvantaged regarding intelligence.
  3. The study does not quantify how much more intelligent atheists are compared to religious believers.
  4. Believers outnumber atheists in this study by 9 to 1. The equations they use does not work on this sort of skew in the data, so it generates misleading results that suggests atheists IQ was significantly higher. Yet this is not seen in the data they used. This renders the study results meaningless.
  5. Their measure of intelligence was completely non-standard, and ignored the gold standard measurements – Wechslier Adult Scale of Intelligence (WAIS) and Stanford Binet Test. They didn’t properly correlate religiosity to these gold standards.
  6. When they included university GPA scores, the difference in intelligence between atheists and believers was virtually non-existent and too small to have any practical significance. Did they choose not to include this measure because it adversely affected their misleading conclusions to the study? I wonder.

The folks analysing this study suggest that what is happening here is that Zuckerman et al are actually shoe-horning their own anti-Christian biases into this data.

Third – because there is mounting evidence that Christians in post Christian cultures are smart people.

Inspiring Philosophy also cite another recent study which makes an interesting observation about Christians in post-Christian cultures. In countries like England (where I happen to live), the link between analytical thinking and religiosity reverses. Here, it’s the atheists who tend towards less analytical thought. Why? Because for most people, there is a desire to conform to the mainstream, which may be atheism. The deeper thinkers are the ones who choose a different view on religiosity.

“In cultures where institutional religion is waning and where acceptance of atheism arises from tendencies to conform, it is possible that cognitive reflection may predict the rejection of atheism, a matter for future investigation.”[5]

This seems to suggest that people with low analytic intelligence tend to confirm to the majority view, whatever that is. This study suggests that to be a Christian believer in post-Christian England clearly takes work and the application of intelligence.

Conclusion

Atheists aren’t smarter than Christians. Contrary to the bullying and intimidation that happens online, and the prejudice that is sometimes shown against Christian believers, there is no convincing reason to suggest that higher levels of analytical thinking lead to atheism. So Christians should not feel any need to feel intimidated by those who are simply going along with the crowd, and repeating old atheistic ideas. When you take a good look at them, these ideas really do not hold up to scrutiny.

 

[1] Zuckerman, Miron, et al, The Negative Intelligence-Religiosity Relation: New and Confirming Evidence,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, October 2019, 10, quoted in “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

[2] John Lennox, How Many Nobel Prize Winners Believed in God, 23rd January 2019, accessed 26th January 2020, https://www.johnlennox.org/resources/145/how-many-nobel-prize-winners.

[3] Scientists and Belief, Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life, November 5th, 2009, accessed 26th January, 2020, https://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/.

[4] “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

[5] Gervais, Will M. et al, Analytical Atheism: A Cross-Culturally Weak and Fickle Phenomenon?, 2017, 272, quoted in “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

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I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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