For nearly a century, psychologists have studied the relationship between religious beliefs and intelligence. A recent review and meta-analysis of research from 1928 until the present time, found 63 studies investigating this topic. The results show that religiosity has a significant negative relationship with intelligence, suggesting that stronger religious beliefs are associated with lower intelligence. While this finding is not new, there are some interesting ideas about why this relationship exists.

First, the authors discuss the idea that atheists are nonconformists, and that more intelligent people are less likely to conform. As the authors state, “if more intelligent people are less likely to conform, they also may be less likely to accept a prevailing religious dogma.”

The second possible explanation is that more intelligent persons rely more logical reasoning and empirical evidence in their belief systems. It might not be intelligence per se that leads to a lack of religious beliefs, but a cognitive style that is more critical of the prevailing religious beliefs in a community.

The third explanation offered, which is relatively new in the literature, is that religious beliefs satisfy a number of psychological “functions,” such as a sense that the world is orderly and predictable. The authors argue that intelligence confers a sense of personal control that negates the need for religious beliefs. A second function that religiosity might offer is greater ability to control impulses. Finally, religion might serve the function of enhancing self-esteem (most religions emphasize a personal relationship with god—a superior being), and religious communities offer a sense of belonging.

This research was recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Review:

Zuckerman, M., Silberman, J., & Hall, J.A. (2013). The relation between intelligence and religiosity: A meta-analysis and some proposed explanations. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17, 325-354.

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