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Are Atheists Sadder But Wiser?

Dec 17, 2019

By Stuart Vyse

Recently, a friend and colleague posted a Live Science article on Facebook that suggested atheists are more intelligent than religious believers, and soon I was drawn into one of those sticky internet conversations that rarely work out well. The article was based on a 2013 meta-analysis of sixty-three studies of the relationship of religious belief to intelligence, and the authors found a “significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity” (Zuckerman et al. 2013, 325). To their credit, my secular colleagues reacted with skepticism toward the article’s conclusion and pointed to friends and coworkers they knew who were both religious and very intelligent. Skepticism that is potentially against self-interest is particularly admirable, but as I quickly pointed out—while trying not to be too annoying—anecdotes are a weak form of evidence. For obvious reasons, this is a fraught area, but after coming across some recent research that sheds light on the topic, I have rashly decided to wade back in.

IQ Disclaimer

I should begin by acknowledging that any discussion of intelligence or IQ is going to be difficult. There are disputes about racial differences, sex differences, whether there are multiple intelligences, and whether the concept of intelligence is meaningful at all. Finally, there is a tendency among many people to essentialize IQ, making it a quantity that is fixed at birth and immutable. This is decidedly not the case. The so-called Flynn Effect, discovered by intelligence researcher James Flynn, showed a pattern of increasing intelligence scores over generations that could not be explained by genetics, and subsequent research has shown that educational interventions can produce substantial increases in IQ (Shenk 2017; Skuy et al. 2002). All of this leads to questions about what we are talking about when we talk about intelligence.

Researchers continue to be interested in intelligence test scores because they are related to a number of life outcomes, such as educational attainment, occupational status, and income (Ceci and Williams 1997; Spinks et al. 2007), and as the Live Science article suggests, the general public is also interested in intelligence and continues to use the construct in everyday conversation (e.g., “Aunt Rachel is really smart!”). So, having briefly laid out the caveats, let’s return to religion.

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