Dear Fellow Atheists and Agnostics: 

Shortly after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, comedian and agnostic Bill Maher tweeted this to much fanfare:

Although it may be humorous and satisfying to assert that a Pope or anyone else who believes in a God is unintelligent, such a conclusion is patently false. As rational thought grounded on empirical observation is our life blood, let's apply it here. 

  • Do we not all know of many people (family, friends, teachers, doctors, politicians, etc.) who are highly intelligent and yet believe in a Higher Power? 
  • Do we really believe that all Believers would score poorly on our best measures of intelligence (e.g., the Stanford-Binet or WAIS Intelligence Scales)? 
  • Do we not all hold certain beliefs that are irrational and without evidence (I can drive home safely; I'm not that buzzed)? 
  • Did not many of us intelligent non-believers previously hold religious beliefs?  Were we dumb then, only to become bright when we disavowed religion?
  • Does a Nobel Prize winner in say, physics, become suddenly dim if she suddenly becomes a Born-Again?

Although numerous studies have found a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity (at individual and national levels1,2,3), it is not a particularly strong relationship (only a few points difference in IQ favoring the non-religious).  More importantly, this aggregate relationship says virtually NOTHING about the actual intelligence of any given religious (or non-religious) individual, albeit a Pope or a politically incorrect comedian. To assume as such is to commit the ecological fallacy.     

It is not uncommon for extraordinarily intelligent people to hold beliefs that are at odds with their education and intelligence. Although some let their smarts shine through in all aspects of their lives, others cordon off certain domains from their critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. It's called compartmentalization, and it's not necessarily a sign that one is globally stupid. To conclude as such is intellectually lazy, snobbish, and quite frankly quite stupid. 

I love ya Mr. Maher, but you're the one evidencing a lack of intellectual depth here.


This blog grew out of a recent Facebook post and benefitted from the comments of several friends, especially fellow evolutionary psychologists Dave Schmitt and Todd Shackelford.


1Lewis, G. J., Ritchie, S. J., & Bates, T. C. (2011). The relationship between intelligence and multiple domains of religious belief: Evidence from a large adult US sample. Intelligence39, 468-472.

2Lynn, R., Harvey, J., & Nyborg, H. (2009). Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations. Intelligence, 37, 11-15. 

3Nyborg, H. (2009). The intelligence-religiosity nexus: A representative study of white adolescent AmericansIntelligence37, 81-93.

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Copyright © 2013 Barry X. Kuhle. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of Psychology Today and the University of Scranton, or my friends, family, probation officer, gut bacteria, darkest thoughts, and personal mohel.

About the Author

Barry X. Kuhle, Ph.D.

Barry X. Kuhle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Scranton.

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