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Atheistic Liberals ARE Smarter, But for a Funny Reason

Why are intelligent people more likely to be atheistic liberals?

This post is in response to
Why Atheists Are More Intelligent Than the Religious

William F. Buckley was a Catholic and a staunch Conservative, and though many educated people found his attitudes annoying, he was clearly a brilliantly intelligent fellow. Statistically speaking, though, it’s a lot easier to find someone like Richard Dawkins or E.O. Wilson – brilliant folks who espouse ideas atheistic or liberal. Satoshi Kanazawa, who seems to enjoy stirring things up, has posted a couple of blog entries on this topic, complete with graphs suggesting that people who say they are “not at all religious” have about 6 IQ points on those who say they are “very religious,” and that those who are “very liberal” have an average of about 12 IQ points over those who are “very conservative.”

If you’re a liberal nonbeliever, those statistics are kinda fun to hear, bringing to mind comparisons between erudite well-educated liberal leaders such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as compared to less apparently stellar minds such as Sarah Palin and George Bush. And it is tempting to speculate on what logical features of liberal or atheistic beliefs makes them especially appealing to intelligent people (or conversely, what it is that makes the folks who voted for Sarah Palin and George Bush so illogical).

But let me offer a slightly less smug and rather simple possible explanation: highly intelligent people are simply playing a different mating strategy, and it’s one that doesn’t go well with being conservative or highly religious.

How does that work? The argument is one that was advanced, along with some supportive data, by my colleague Jason Weeden (one of those overly educated types who has both a law degree and a Ph.D. in social psychology. I’ll leave it to you to guess what his political leanings are).

Here it is in a nutshell:

1. Smart people are more likely to go to college.

2. If you are going to get a college degree, it helps to delay starting a family.

3. Smart people still have sexual drives.

4. If you don’t want to wait till you are in your mid- to late- 20s to start having sex, but aren’t ready to settle down, you have liberal attitudes about sexual behavior, birth control, and abortion.

On the other side of the coin, if you are not going to go to college, and you want to have a family early, you don’t want a lot of promiscuous people running around – available unattached sexually experimenting people disrupt monogamous families. Early reproducing women don’t want those “loose women” hanging around tempting their husbands, because that means less resources for their children, and a possible divorce. Early reproducing men don’t want promiscuous men lurking around, because they want to be sure that those children they’re supporting are their own.

Weeden sees the game as a contest between “dueling mating strategies” linked to different life histories – one involves high investment in a few very educated children, the other involves lower investment in an earlier brood. I’ve discussed more about how this works in an earlier posting - Religious piety as a mating strategy. There I describe some of Weeden’s research demonstrating that sexual attitudes are at the core of conservative religious beliefs for Americans. I also describe some experimental work supporting Weeden’s ideas that he and I did with Jessica Li and Adam Cohen (published just this month in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology). If the argument is correct, though, it suggests that liberal nonbelievers adopt a certain set of attitudes not because they are more logically compelling, but because they serve a particular lifestyle and mating strategy. Because liberals are more educated, they are better at expressing their ideas in compelling logical ways. But although the beliefs on "our" side may seem more logical and enlightened, Weeden has abundant data to show that political and religious attitudes are less about logic than about serving one's own reproductive goals.

Incidentally, I'm NOT at all saying or implying that religion makes you stupid, or that mating strategy is all there is to religion (for some additional thoughts, see: Jews, Jesuits, Geniuses: The IQ religion link is JUST a correlation!).


Li, Y.J., Cohen, A.B., Weeden, J., & Kenrick, D.T. (2010). Mating Competitors Increase Religious Beliefs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 46, 428-431.

Weeden, J., Cohen, A.B., & Kenrick, D.T. (2008). Religious attendance as reproductive support. Evolution & Human Behavior, 29, 327-334.

Related Psych Today blogs:

Kenrick, D.T. (April 29, 2010). Jews, Jesuits, Geniuses: The IQ religion link is JUST a correlation!

Kanazawa, S. (April 11, 2010). Why atheists are more intelligent than the religious.

Kanazawa, S. (March 21, 2010). Why liberals are more intelligent than conservatives.

Kenrick, D.T. (December 24, 2009). Religious piety as a mating strategy.