Unique—Like Everybody Else

Personality, intelligence, and the differences that matter

More Knowledge, Less Belief in Religion?

A recent review of 63 studies found that higher intelligence was associated with less religious belief. The reasons for this are not known, although a number of explanations are possible. One factor that may be relevant is that religious people tend to be less knowledgeable about religion and about other topics than atheists and agnostics. Read More

Mormons vs Christians

"[Mormons] were more knowledgeable about Christianity than other Christians. Unfortunately, I currently have no idea why this might be the case. Future research studies might examine whether there is something special about Mormons that would account for this."

This one is actually easy to figure out when you know that Mormons are considered non-Christians by other Christians. Mormons don't believe in the Trinity, in the Apostolic Creed, or in any of the other common historical tenets of Christianity besides the Bible itself. Thus, the other Christian faiths deny them the right to call themselves Christian, which in turn pushes Mormons to prove that they are indeed Christians. But in order to do that, they first have to know WHAT Christianity is, how it's defined by the other Christian faiths. Which leads us straight to "Mormons know more about Christianity than other Christians" :)


Thanks for your comment, that sounds like an interesting idea. Perhaps having a minority or outsider identity has something to with how much knowledge people have. This might possibly have something to do with why Jews were also knowledgeable about Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

Do you know of any other

Do you know of any other factors other than religion that also inhibit the motivation for acquiring knowledge?do factors like pessimism,depression,some philosophical doctrines like nihilism also play a role in lack of interest for acquiring knowledge?

Motivation for knowledge

Hi Narek,
in regard to the specific examples you mentioned, I am not aware of any research that has examined them directly. When people answer surveys it is possible that their ability to answer correctly might be influenced by their mental state, e.g. if someone was deeply depressed they might not recall the answers to the questions, even if they have learned them. However, I don't think this has actually been tested. Depression and pessimism tend to be associated with the personality trait of neuroticism. In a prior post I showed that neuroticism does not have a substantial association with general knowledge, so I suspect that depression and pessimism probably do not on the whole inhibit learning. By philosophical doctrines like nihilism, I am guessing you mean the belief that nothing is true and that knowledge is impossible. I suppose if someone really did believe that, then they might think that acquiring knowledge was pointless. On the other hand, people tend to compartmentalize extreme beliefs like that, so even if someone claimed that there are no true facts, if asked for specific information they could probably still answer as well as anyone else. On a related topic, the postmodern idea that scientific theories are really no more than stories and that one story is just as good as any other seems to have become fashionable. One of my senior colleagues at university told me that he thinks that students who have bought into this postmodern nonsense are likely to have trouble grasping scientific concepts. So I would guess that anti-intellectual or anti-scientific beliefs might inhibit acquiring factual knowledge, although I don't think this has been studied.

Learning styles have been identified in at least one study I know of as a correlate of general knowledge. Specifically, students with a surface learning style (focus on simply learning enough to pass an exam) showed less knowledge than those with a deep learning style (desire to understand concepts, rather than simply memorising facts). General knowledge in this study encompassed non-specialized facts rather than things they were expected to learn through special study, so this suggests that a surface learning style affects how much people learn about the world in general rather than just how much they learn through education. Furthermore, surface learning style predicted less knowledge even after controlling for intelligence and openness to experience, so learning style makes a contribution beyond these things. The same study, and a number of others also, found that older participants had more knowledge, suggesting that people continue learning as they grow older.

Lifestyle factors may also play a role. The Pew survey I cited in my article also found that respondents with children had less religious knowledge than those without. I am guessing that people looking after children have less time to read books or surf the internet, hence they have less time to learn new things. Demands on a person's time probably affect their motivation to acquire knowledge then, which may be viewed as a luxury by busy people.

More broadly, a number of studies have shown that people with a strong interest in a particular subject tend to become more knowledgeable about it over time. The corollary would be that lack of interest in a topic would inhibit the desire to learn more.

Wow this was almost an entire

Wow this was almost an entire post!i enjoyed reading it a lot.I think what you said about postmodernism was true for me for a long time too.For some reason postmodernism became very fashionable here in Iran too a decade ago and now hardly anyone mentions it.Anyway thank for this careful response!

I'd be interested to know...

I'd be interested to know the percentage of college professors who claim to be atheists.

Students, after all, are paying these persons to share their knowledge with them. You certainly hope that they have more knowledge than you... and odds are that they do... in their field of expertise. It's been my experience though that many assume that expertise in one field means competency in all. This is a fallacy... but it does lead many students to feel that when their biology professor says that God does not exist that they should know what they're talking about, even if the evidence does not directly lead to that conclusion.

Secondly, students who would question their instructors must remember that the professor controls their grade. If they do not respond on their exams as the professor wishes, the results could be detrimental to their academic and professional careers. It's hardly deniable that pressure exists for the student to conform to the professor's beliefs.

My point is simply this; I question whether your thesis is somewhat a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our brightest students are being taught by a population that, to all appearance, is largely comprised of atheists and agnostics. I highly doubt that these professors are motivated to present a vigorous defense of God's existence; so if any evidence for theism is presented at all, it is likely a cursory argument at best... a straw man that is quickly burned. After students are exposed to four or more years of such instruction, it should be no surprise that the professors produce more in their own image than those who would disagree.

It is also understandable when Christian colleges and universities produce a higher than average number of professing Christians as graduates. But when one compares the ratio of secular institutions to non-secular institutions, it's not difficult to predict the average belief of our college graduates.

Of course, belief or disbelief in something doesn't make it true or false. One must weigh the evidence for and against an argument. If the evidence to be fairly presented, we need more diversity of belief among our professors. No theistic professor is going to fairly present arguments for atheism because (hopefully) he's already considered them and finds them wanting. For the same reason, no atheistic professor is going to strenuously defend God's existence.


Alternatively, it may be that people who have a particular thirst for knowledge find religious belief incompatible with their natural curiosity. Recently, Pope Francis actually stated that “the spirit of curiosity distances one from God.” Many atheists and agnostics may well agree.

Uh oh, that's very mean!

From that note:

The spirit of curiosity generates confusion and distances a person from the Spirit of wisdom, which brings peace, said Pope Francis...

The Pope began his homily by commenting on the first reading from the Book of Wisdom, which describes “the state of the soul of the spiritual man and woman”, of true Christians, who live “in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. And this wisdom carries them forward with this intelligent, holy, single, manifold and subtle spirit”.


“This is journeying in life with this spirit: the spirit of God, which helps us to judge, to make decisions according to the heart of God. And this spirit gives us peace, always! It is the spirit of peace, the spirit of love, the spirit of fraternity.

In the Gospel, the Pope underlined, “we find ourselves before another spirit, contrary to the wisdom of God: the spirit of curiosity”.

“And when we want to be the masters of the projects of God, of the future, of things, to know everything, to have everything in hand… the Pharisees asked Jesus, ‘When will the Kingdom of God come?’ Curious! They wanted to know the date, the day… The spirit of curiosity distances us from the Spirit of wisdom because all that interests us is the details, the news, the little stories of the day. Oh, how will this come about? It is the how: it is the spirit of the how! And the spirit of curiosity is not a good spirit. It is the spirit of dispersion, of distancing oneself from God, the spirit of talking too much. And Jesus also tells us something interesting: this spirit of curiosity, which is worldly, leads us to confusion.”

Curiosity, the Pope continued, impels us to want to feel that the Lord is here or rather there, or leads us to say: “But I know a visionary, who receives letters from Our Lady, messages from Our Lady”. And the Pope commented: “But, look, Our Lady is the Mother of everyone! And she loves all of us. She is not a postmaster, sending messages every day.”

Such responses to these situations, he affirmed, “distance us from the Gospel, from the Holy Spirit, from peace and wisdom, from the glory of God, from the beauty of God.”

“Jesus says that the Kingdom of God does not come in a way that attracts attention: it comes by wisdom.”


“The Kingdom of God is among us: do not seek strange things, do not seek novelties with this worldly curiosity. Let us allow the Spirit to lead us forward in that wisdom, which is like a soft breeze," he said. "This is the Spirit of the Kingdom of God, of which Jesus speaks. So be it.”

Let's stop it there. Hope this extensive quotation sheds some light in that mean way of quoting the Pope on this article, because of course, the Pope is not talking against gathering knowledge, but gathering knowledge that do not break peace and do not distant the person from wisdom.

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Scott McGreal is a psychology researcher with a particular interest in individual differences, especially in personality and intelligence.


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