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