How Risky Is It, Really?

Why our fears don't always match the facts

More Religious, Less Intelligent—and Vice Versa

A study finds an inverse relationship between religiousness and intelligence.

I participate in a Unitarian Universalist spiritual community. The UU faith has some basic beliefs, largely universal truths about how to be a good person, but when it comes to answering the big religious questions—is there a God, what happens when you die—UU-ism leaves that up to the individual. It’s a religion for independent thinkers. Which makes a new study on the relationship between intelligence and religiousness particularly intriguing, because it suggests that independent thinking and religion don’t go together very well.

How religious are you? How intelligent are you? The study finds that the more you are one, the less likely you are the other. That’s right. The more religious you are (defined as “the degree of involvement in facets of religion…such as beliefs in supernatural agents, costly commitment to these agents like offering of property, using beliefs in those agents to lower existential anxieties such as anxiety over death, and communal rituals that validate and affirm religious beliefs”), the less intelligent you are likely to be. The more intelligent you are (defined as “the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience”) the less religious you are likely to be.

That may sound simplistic (it is) and judgmental (it is), but it may not sound all that surprising. This study was actually a meta-analysis of 63 other studies over the past several decades, most of which found the same thing; as intelligence increases, the role of religious beliefs in your life tends to decrease, and vice versa. But this study offers something new, a fresh explanation for this inverse relationship.

The standard explanations have always been something like; religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, rejected by intelligent people who are just too smart to be taken in by all that superstitious mumbo jumbo. Let’s call that the Richard Dawkins explanation. Another standard explanation has been; intelligent people are more independent thinkers, more likely to challenge the tribal creed of beliefs proscribed by the Leaders of the Pack. Intelligent thinkers are not pack thinkers. Call that the Galileo explanation.

(Lots of cognitive science research has established the naivete of such intellectual arrogance. Plenty of highly intelligent people are indeed follow-the-pack thinkers, with plenty of beliefs that contradict or are unsupported by any evidence.)

The new explanation offered for why more intelligent people are less religious, is more sophisticated. Miron Zuckerman, Jordan Silberman and Judith A. Hall suggest that religion and intelligence both provide the same thing, in four important areas.

1. “Compensatory control.” A chaotic world with no order or predictability is a scary world. Religious faith reassures us that the world is orderly and under the predictable control of a Supreme Force. Intelligence and faith in science does the same thing, providing the reassuring sense that the world is orderly and under the control…of physical laws.

2. “Self-regulation.” Religious belief that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished is an external pressure that helps us moderate our behavior. Intelligence gives people the internal mental firepower necessary for the same self control. (Remember the famous "marshmallow test," where kids are told they can eat the marshmallow sitting on a table in front of them right away, but they would get two marshmallows if they can avoid eating the one right in front of them and wait a few minutes? The kids with self-control rated higher on intelligence scores.)

3. “Self enhancement.” Religiousness helps people feel better about themselves. “I am a better person than others because I am more religious.” Intelligence does too. “I am better person than others because I am smarter.”

4. “Secure Attachment.” As social animals, we need to feel attached to others in order to feel safe. Religion helps us feel attached to others, and to a deity. The study cites evidence suggesting that being intelligence encourages the same thing, noting that intelligent people are more likely to marry and less likely to divorce and to have close personal attachments to others, fulfilling same need for attachment.

I have a lot of quarrels with this study. The business about how intelligence provides us with “Secure Attachment” seems like an intellectual stretch. And there is a ugly intellectual arrogance when researchers say things like; “High IQ-people are able to curb magical, supernatural thinking and tend to deal with the uncertainties of life on a rational-critical-empirical basis.” Cognitive science clearly shows that this smug claim, often made by smart people, is not true, demonstrating just how dumb ostensibly intelligent people can be.

Further, the study suggests that intelligent people are more likely to be non-religious deity-denying atheists because atheists are non-conformists, too intelligent to be taken in by supernatural hocus pocus. But atheists are conformists too, adhering to and fiercely defending their own code of tribal beliefs. Atheism is a religion in every sense of the word except the part about believing in God. (The study’s analysis of atheism is discussed at length in this article in The Independent.)

But the basic finding of this study seems pretty solid; a large majority of studies over the years looking at the relationship between intelligence and religion find a clear inverse relationship between how much we think for ourselves, and how much we let religion do the thinking for us. And the authors make a persuasive argument that the reason may be that intelligence and religion both provide the same thing. The spiritual community I participate in may in fact provide confirming evidence. Unitarian Universalism, the religion for more independent-minded thinkers, remains one of the smallest faiths in America.

 

 

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an Instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

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