FAITH FILE: No, Atheists Aren’t Smarter Than Christians; Nor Vice Versa

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Mark Tapscott Executive Editor, Chief of Investigative Group
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Sooner or later, Christians engaging in pubic debate with atheists hear the assertion that “studies show” people who claim there is no God are measurably smarter than those who believe there is a deity. It’s often delivered with an air of smug satisfaction.

What the studies actually show is there is virtually no correlation between high IQs and the absence — or presence — of belief in God.

The atheists’ claim of superior intelligence received a huge boost from a 2013 meta-analysis by three professors of 63 prior data-driven studies of the relationship between IQ and religiosity. The trio published their findings in the Personality and Social Psychology Review (PSPR).

Their findings “showed a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity. The association was stronger for college students and the general population than for participants younger than college age; it was also stronger for religious beliefs than religious behavior,” according to the review abstract.

Journalists constantly are told by special interest advocates that their “studies show” why their proposals should be adopted. Readers would be far better-served if journalists hearing that claim would routinely respond by saying “show us your datasets.” Data can be manipulated, but manipulators are less likely to do so if they know their work will be examined independently by others.

Among the others who have since examined the PSPR meta-analysis’s datasets is Christian author Natasha Crain, who published her findings last year at Cross-Examined.org, an apologetics website. Crain has an MBA from UCLA in marketing and statistics and her analysis shows why it’s essential, particularly for journalists, to dig behind the claims of advocates bearing data.

Crain found that among the 63 studies brought together in the PSPR meta-analysis:

  • Thirty-five showed a significant negative relationship between intelligence and religiousness (the more intelligent a person was, the less likely they were to be religious).
  • Two showed a significant positive relationship between intelligence and religiousness (the more intelligent a person was, the more likely they were to be religious).
  • Twenty-six showed no significant relationship between intelligence and religiousness.

“In other words, only about half of the 63 studies suggest that the more intelligent a person is, the less likely they are to be religious. The other half of the studies don’t show that at all,” Crain said, adding that “the researchers themselves acknowledged, ‘the relation between intelligence and religiosity has been examined repeatedly, but so far there is no clear consensus on the direction and/or the magnitude of this association.’”

Such a wide divergence among the 63 studies is accounted for by multiple factors, including especially these, according to Crain:

  • Some studied precollege teens, some studied college students, and some studied noncollege adults (people recruited outside an academic context).
  • Sample sizes ranged from 20 to more than 14,000.
  • The studies were done over an 84-year span of time (the earliest study was conducted in 1928 and the most recent in 2012).
  • Some studies measured religious behavior (for example, church attendance and/or participation in religious organizations) and some measured religious beliefs (for example, belief in God and the Bible).
  • Twenty-three different types of tests were used to measure intelligence (for example, university entrance exams, vocabulary tests, scientific literacy tests, etc.). Details weren’t provided on how exactly each study measured religious behavior and beliefs, but that surely varied extensively as well.

“Generally speaking, combining such disparate studies is a statistical disaster,” Crain said.

Which leads to Crain’s strongest point: The PSPR meta-analysis found a negative .20 correlation between intelligence and religiosity among college-educated respondents. Such a correlation indicates what “is considered to be  a trivial or negligible relationship by most statisticians. In other words, hardly worth mentioning,” according to Crain.

Bottom-line: No, the PSRP meta-analysis is not proof that atheists are smarter than believers. There are smart folks on both sides, so let the debate continue.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and chief of its Investigative Group. Follow Mark on Twitter.

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