Why atheists are brighter than Christians

30 May 2014

Research compiled by Edward Dutton reveals that, on the face of it, there is a correlation between intelligence and a lack of belief. He unpacks his findings


"SO, BASICALLY, your book is saying I'm thick," an Evangelical friend of mine said to me. In fact, I am saying no such thing.

My book Religion and Intelligence is based on a large "meta-analysis" (combining findings from a number of independent studies). This found that there is a weak but significant negative correlation between "religiousness" and "intelligence".

In short, this means that atheists have higher IQs than liberal religious people, who, in turn, have higher IQs than religious conservatives. And this is not by chance. It also finds that religious people score lower on proxies for intelligence - such as being highly educated.

It also finds something else that, interestingly, my friend was happier to accept. We had met in 1999 at Durham University, when she had been a member of the Evangelical Christian Union.

At about that time, the Christian Union was effectively being persecuted, by those who might legitimately be called Marxists, for its views on homosexuality. Absolutely certain that they were right (and rather aggressive, in my experience), they made the life of the CU difficult on many campuses.

But my research finds that it is not only fervent religiousness that is associated with low intelligence,but any fervent advocacy of an ideology - whether it is Marxism, multiculturalism, or conservative nationalism. Indeed, I would argue that ideologies are, in many ways, replacement religions.

It was at Durham University that I first became fascinated by the paradox of highly intelligent but religious people, such as my friend. And I have since set out to try and solve it.

"INTELLIGENCE" means the ability to solve problems quickly. It is important because it is linked with important things: levels of education, socio-economic status, salary, health, criminality (negatively), fu-ture orientation, and much more. This means that it is vital in all cultures.

Ideas such as "emotional intelligence" may be comforting, but they refer to personality characteristics that are independent of intelligence, and are not linked as strongly with the same outcomes.

Intelligence is measured by IQ tests. These strongly relate to intuitive measures of thinking ability (such as schoolwork), and they are not culturally biased. The great thing about intelligence is that it allows us to rise above simply acting emotionally.

As a theology undergraduate, it seemed obvious to me that the arguments for the existence of God were not logical. Intelligence is tied to the ability to think logically; so intelligent people ought not to believe in God. My research now finds that this is the general trend.

But why were there so many exceptions at university? Fascinated by people who were religious and yet intelligent, I did my Ph.D. fieldwork, based at Aberdeen University, on Christian Unions.

I discovered that the Christian Union at Oxford University (OICCU) was more religious, more active, and (percentage-wise) much bigger than the one at Aberdeen University (AUCU). Why was this, when OICCU members are presumably more intelligent?

The findings - published in a book, Meeting Jesus at University: Rites of passage and student Evangelicals (Ashgate, 2008) - suggested that this was because Oxford in-duced higher levels of stress. I have since discovered, however, having conducted more research, that religiousness is about 44 per cent genetic, and religious conversion (also higher at Oxford) is 65 per cent genetic. So that explanation is incomplete.

THE Revd Simon Ponsonby, the Pastor of Theology St Aldate's, Ox-ford (one of the churches attended by OICCU members), implied that OICCU was more religious than AUCU because Oxford students were cleverer.

Oxford University contained, he said, "highly intelligent students, seriously, intellectually considering the claims of Christ and profoundly convicted by the truth. I can assure you that the intellectual, rational, and reasonable nature of the Christian faith is very important in people coming to faith."

It is remarks such as these that begin to solve the paradox. Here we have an undoubtedly intelligent man who has failed to notice the contradiction in his argument. "Faith" means "strong belief based on conviction rather than proof", whereas "rational" is "in accordance with reason or logic". In other words "proof".

Faith is not rational, and if it is, then it is no longer faith. The failure to see that implies bias, which is caused by having an emotional investment in something. This is why we can have many people who are intelligent and not only religious (the liberal religious are relatively intelligent) but conservatively religious.

If people have pronounced personality traits (which are about 50 per cent genetic), then these can overwhelm their intelligence.This makes sense of the CU, and explains why the negative religion-intelligence correlation is weak.

When I began my fieldwork in Oxford in 2003, I remember asking a student for directions to St Aldate's. We got talking. She said that she hated OICCU members because they had "brainwashed" her friend. But even she had to admit that they were "nice". This had always been my impression of the CU.

PSYCHOLOGISTS generally agree that we have five essential personality characteristics - the "Big Five". These are (1) extraversion: experiencing positive feelings strongly; (2) neuroticism: experiencing negative feelings strongly; (3) conscientiousness: impulse control; (4) agreeableness: altruism; (5) openness-intellect: intellectual curiosity, creativity, hypnotisability, unusual psychological experiences.

These have important life implications. Very high extraversion predicts obesity and alcoholism, while very high neuroticism is linked with depression.

My meta-analysis in Religion and Intelligence found that religiousness is weakly related to being agreeable, or conscientious. Neuroticism is linked with periodic bouts of religious fervour, or unusual religiousness.

Openness-intellect relates to religious experiences. In addition, years spent in education link with conscientiousness, openness-intellect, and, to a lesser extent, agreeableness, and an optimum level of neuroticism. Intelligence links with school and undergraduate success.

So, what is often called "good moral character" (agreeableness and conscientiousness) ties in with both religiousness and educational success. In addition, openness and neuroticism are linked with both educational success and temporary religiousness, which are likely to be set off by such factors as uncertainty and social exclusion.

We can begin to understand why OICCU might be more religious, and larger than, AUCU, despite the presumed higher intelligence of its members. My fieldwork found that the experience of being a student at Oxford seemed to induce higher levels of uncertainty, and feelings of exclusion.

Unlike their counterparts in Aberdeen, most students were far from home, and under intense academic pressure. Interacting with higher levels of neuroticism, this would cause greater religious fervour.

OPENNESS-INTELLECT correlates with intelligence, meaning that higher intelligence would make for a greater likelihood of religious experience. So the nature of Oxford would create greater (albeit sometimes temporary) religiousness. Also, high levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness would help to get you into Oxford in the first place. And - if they were extremely pronounced - they would overwhelm intelligence.

This would also, of course, explain why we sometimes find highly intelligent and yet religious people, including religious academics. Their pronounced personalities have overwhelmed their intelligence.

Beyond the undergraduate world, I found that post-graduate students were generally less religious than undergraduates, and Ph.D. researchers were less religious still. The most successful academics, such as Nobel Prizewinners, were the least religious of all.

This is just as the intelligence model would predict - although there is an interesting nuance. Compared with the general population, academics are agreeable, conscientious, open, neurotic, and intelligent. Further up the academic ladder, the range of personality and intelligence is very narrow. Within this narrow range, highly original thinkers have very high openness-intellect and very high neuroticism, alongside relatively low agreeableness and conscientiousness (tied to atheism).

This means that they are less likely to care if their new ideas offend, and are more likely to reject orthodox ways of doing things. Their offices tend to be chaotic, and their dress-sense embarrassing; they are dreadful people to live with, and they find other people (and thus life) difficult. But they have brilliant ideas.

Almost 70 per cent of academics at prestigious universities in the United States seem to have (with varying degrees of frequency) mystical experiences, describing themselves as "spiritual", and as atheists who none the less "believe in God sometimes". This would be linked to high openness-intellect, which they would be expected to have.

Finally, the Big Five explain the aggression of the atheist opponents of the Christian Unions. My analysis suggests that ideological fervour is linked with low agreeableness, low conscientiousness, high neuroticism, and low intelligence.

In other words, ideologues, in comparison with Christians, would probably have similar IQs, but they would be nasty, have poor emotional control, and be mentally unstable. This also explains the paradox of the unintelligent atheist, who is likely to be a psychopath whose personality has overwhelmed his or her intelligence.

SO, MY answer to my Evangelical friend is this: she is not "thick". She is an intelligent person, but is likely to have very high agreeableness, conscientiousness, and, perhaps, openness and neuroticism.

Evangelical Christians (and religious people in general), however, are likely to make better friends and partners than non-religious people, when intelligence is taken into account.

Even if it is not taken into account, they are still likely to be preferable associates, although they will probably be less original in their thinking, and less good at solving problems than atheists (in general). In fact, it may be that religiousness was selected for in pre-history (remember, it is about 44 per cent genetic), because people liked the characteristics associated with it.

At this point, I find that religious critics tend to personalise things. "You're an atheist, you're biased," they might say; or they change the subject completely, and enquire: "So, why are you so interested in religion?"

These are fallacious arguments, but the honest answer is that I have had religious experiences, and I "believe in God sometimes", especially at times of stress. This is, indeed, what the research would predict.

I do not see why Christians should take offence at the findings, because, in many ways, they por-tray religious people in a positive light.

I begin Religion and Intelligence with two quotes: the first, from the play Bellerophon, by Euripides, calls those who believe in the gods "fools" for accepting something without evidence; the second is from Psalm 14 - "The fool says in his heart 'There is no God'" it famously says. But it adds: "They are corrupt, their deeds are vile, there is no one who does good."

My research suggests that an argument can be made for both the classical and biblical viewpoints.

Edward Dutton is Adjunct Professor of the Anthropology of Religion at Oulu University in Finland, and is married to a Finnish Lutheran priest. Religion and Intelligence: An evolutionary analysis, is published by the Ulster Institute for Social Research at £20.

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