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Do Atheists Really Have Higher IQs than Believers?


Some atheists maintain their non-belief comes through superior intelligence. In particular, many online atheists like to quote, “A fool says in his heart there is a God.” He reads only those sources which confirm and conform to his view and eschews those which do not. And he isn’t shy about telling you how dumb it is not to believe as he does.

But consider: nearly all the greatest, best, highest, most beautiful minds that ever existed were theists. Aristotle? Augustine? Confucius? Aquinas? Bonaventure? Copernicus? Bruno? Kepler? Galileo? Pascal? Descartes? Newton? Bach? Mendel? The list is endless. Most people were and still are theists of one sort or another. It is only in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries where atheism picked up steam.

If one is to study the association between intelligence and religious belief it is clear that one must account for history. The year 1928 is not the same as 1978 particularly in countries like Vietnam, where in 1928 many theists lived, but where in 1978 they have mostly disappeared. The date is especially important if we define theist as one who publicly checks “Believer” on a survey, a survey the government may soon learn about. (For 1978 Vietnam did not take kindly to discover believers in its midst.)

In the above example, I did not choose the year 1928 arbitrarily. It was the time of the first study in the dataset reanalyzed (for the umpteenth time) by Miron Zuckerman, Jordan Silberman, and Judith Hall in their paper “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations” in Personality and Social Psychology Review. The conclusions in this paper have recently gone viral around the Internet.

One problem, however, is that in their study, Zuckerman et alia don’t recognize history as much as do Richard Lynn, John Harvey, and Helmuth Nyborg in their original analysis (data here). In their “Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations” in Intelligence, they say:

"Two of the most anomalous are Cuba and Vietnam, which have higher percentages disbelieving in God (40% and 81%, respectively) than would be expected from their IQs of 85 and 94 (respectively). This is likely attributable to these being former or current communist countries in which there has been strong atheistic propaganda against religious belief. In addition, it has sometimes been suggested that communism is itself a form of religion in which Das Capital is the sacred text, Lenin was the Messiah who came to bring heaven on earth, while Stalin, Mao, Castro and others have been his disciples who have came to spread the message in various countries."

Too bad they still used the data in their analysis. But then so did Zuckerman.

Here’s the picture of the data (the news media and Wikipedia have this backwards; the authors call atheism “non-religiosity”, a category which is fuzzy and which probably includes some theists, of a sort):
If we accept the data as is we learn that for IQs around 100, percent atheism runs from near 0% to over 80%. This means, of course, that IQ has little to say about percent atheism when IQs are around 100, which is defined as the mean. The USA, incidentally, has IQ 98.5 and percent atheism 10.5%.

The bottom IQs, and also lowest percent atheists, belong to Cameroon, Central African Rep, Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Guinea, Haiti, Liberia. You get the idea; many from the 1960s and 1970s, some earlier. But is it fair to compare Africa to modern Europe?

Another serious problem is that Zuckerman and friends cobbled together over sixty studies. Their Table 1 shows that the mechanism to measure IQ was different in different locations. The proportion of males varied from unknown, to low, to 100%. The measures of religiosity differed at different locations. Religions were also hugely different (is it the same to believe in animism as Protestant Christianity?). The samples, particularly in developed countries, were college kids, but elsewhere more non-college and precollege people were used. The lowest sample size was 22, but most were a hundred or so, with one topping out at over 14 thousand. And we already mentioned the widely disparate years the samples were taken.

Data of every flavor was observed, data that should not be mixed without an idea of how to combine the uncertainty inherent in each study and in how, say, kinds of IQ measurements map to other kinds of IQ measurements. In other words, they mixed data which should not be mixed, because nobody has any idea how to make these corrections.

But suppose somebody did know how. Then what? What could we possibly learn? Nothing. Or nothing of any use, except perhaps the extent which enculturation works (to convert people to atheism and theism). Look: we have already agreed that many people much smarter than us have been theists, but we also know that some clever folks have been non-theists. If we’re after raw body counts, the theists win handily.

Just because a person is or isn’t intelligent contributes nothing, not a thing, to the truth or falsity of any proposition (not related to the individual). Does God exist because Aristotle, perhaps the greatest intelligence of all, said so? Of course not. Is relativity true because Einstein, no small brain, thought it up? Again no. If it were true that merely being intelligent conferred truth then we would never have political disagreements, because all we’d have to do is give everybody an IQ test and put whoever scored highest in charge.

Except that highly intelligent people believe stupid and false things. And at a rate too depressing to contemplate.
Originally posted at WMBriggs.com. Used with permission.
(Image credit: CNN)

Dr. William M. Briggs

Written by

Dr. William M. Briggs is an Adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell University, where he acquired both an M.S. in Atmospheric Science and a Ph.D. in Statistics. In addition to teaching, William works as a consultant with specialties in medicine, the environment, and the philosophy of, and over-certainty in, science. He blogs at wmbriggs.com.

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  • 42Oolon

    "Some atheists maintain their non-belief comes through superior intelligence" I have never encountered such a statement from an atheist much less a serious atheists activist or promoter. It is not fair to make these unreferenced comments. How could we defend ourselves?

    But he is ultimately right. "Just because a person is or isn’t intelligent contributes nothing, not a thing, to the truth or falsity of any proposition" Absolutely. Lets talk about the actual differences in opinion between atheists and Catholics.

    • Maurice Hagar II

      Are you kidding? I hear from atheists on a regular basis that they are more intelligent and/or civilized.

      • 42Oolon

        No, I am not kidding. I am a member of an atheist group and I have never heard this said seriously. Whenever someone might suggest such a thing it is shot down immediately. Most of us are former theists or have loved ones who are, we don't think they are theist because they lack intelligence.

        • 42Oolon, now you're just spinning words. Dr. Briggs never accused atheists of claiming believers lack intelligence. What he said was that *some* atheists believe they have superior intelligence to believers. The atheists in question still consider believers to be intelligent in another areas--and therefore not "lack[ing] intelligence"--but think those who believe in God have some intellectual deficiency.

          • 42Oolon

            Well I just wanted to clear up that this is not a common or serious view of most atheists at least in my experience.

          • So you don't think most atheists gloated over the recent (misrepresentative) headlines claiming "Atheists smarter than religious believers", assuming that such conclusions prove that superior intelligence correlates with non-belief?


          • One of the more despicable atheists didn't gloat. I hate to say it, but I think he's right. You could almost have put his article here and there wouldn't have been much of a difference (aside from some choice language).


          • 42Oolon

            That link was down for me, the piece is by PZ Myers (Pharyngula). I actually expect to see other serious atheists and skeptics make the same criticisms and be quite skeptical of this claim. I certainly am. Lets also see how many smug gloaters comment on this article or try to defend the position that religion is caused by a lack of intelligence.

          • It is because we are in different regions, I suspect. You can search for the title: "Yall can stop patting yourselves on the back now"

          • PepperMintLatte

            42Oolon, just look below. Gaven's comment in regards to Maurice is a common one seen. It makes decent atheists like you look bad.

          • PepperMintLatte

            Also TheOpinionator. I'm not gonna go find them all for you.

          • Robert Jones

            "...it makes decent atheists like you look bad." Define "decent" compared to your position. Much like "privilege", the concept varies dramatically from person to person... depending on where the person "judging", lies on the spectrum... And for future reference, most individuals can only speak for themselves, so claiming a blanket statement across a particular group is foolish. It's complete confirmation bias, whether "I" or "we" (individual vs. collective).

          • PZ makes a good distinction, I think, between IQ and education. That's helpful for this sort of discussion.

            Though in the end, as all of us have noted, even if the study showed one group has typically higher IQs, that saying nothing about whether their worldviews are true.

            We just wanted to establish that fact at Strange Notions since, and on other sites (especially Facebook), some atheists hold tight to the claim that since:

            1. Atheists have higher IQs.
            2. Those with higher IQs better discern truth.
            3. Atheists discern that God does not exist.
            4. Therefore, it is true that God does not exist.

          • 42Oolon

            Can you accept that rather than gloat over this, prominent atheists are quick to be skeptical of this study. This is why we pointed you to PZ Myers, yes the man who purposefully blasphemed and threw the body of Christ in the garbage, looked at the study and called it bad, sloppy etc.

          • It's impressive that even Paul Myers was able to figure this one out.

          • josh

            I've never seen anyone make this argument. It is deductive and the only version of the argument anyone would make is inductive. Roughly:
            1.People with higher IQs are on average more likely to discern the truth.
            2.People with higher IQs on average are less religious.
            3. Therefore it is more likely that the irreligious position is correct.

            To put it another way: the hypothesis is that religion is irrational, i.e. a 'stupid' position. Smart people can hold stupid positions and stupid people can hold smart positions. But on average the correlation runs the other way and the observed correlation is consistent with the hypothesis (and not with the opposite hypothesis that religion is the 'smart' position.) Obviously this isn't an airtight argument and I don't expect it will compel any believers to deconvert, but it might be a reason to reconsider your beliefs.

          • icowrich

            Perhaps this thread would advance if you can link to an example (any example) of an atheist who completes that logic chain.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            I think you need to demonstrate that you have a methodology that allows you to expand claims about "some" to "most."

          • ScottL

            What do you mean by "most"?

          • icowrich

            More than 50%.

          • icowrich

            More than 50%.

          • icowrich

            I would argue that "atheists" aren't an identifiable group. I doubt they have many characteristics to distinguish themselves from the general population at all. Now, folks who identify as atheist (i.e.: define themselves by their atheism) are a different matter.

          • Albert8184

            Nowadays, Atheists tend to be on the Left side of the political/ideological scale.... for some "strange reason"..... perhaps for the same reason that every car coming out of the Buick factory tends to look like a Buick. Most atheists today are "manufactured" in school systems that heavily emphasize materialist doctrines centered around non-belief.

          • icowrich

            Most of the hard core, political atheists that I know are Ayn Rand devotees. They vote Republican, and the materialist doctrine runs strong with them. Materialism is a core doctrine of capitalism, after all.

          • Albert8184

            You make some interesting points here, icowrich. I wish I had more time right now to discuss, but it's time for work. I'll catch up with you. In the meantime, most Libertarians I know are very much not Republican. I see them as tending to be independents, except where the Paul candidacies are concerned. As far as capitalism goes, since I view capitalism differently than most, I would say that individual motives are the core doctrine of capitalism. Including materialism and any other incentive.

          • icowrich

            Ayn Rand detested Libertarians.

          • Albert8184

            Ayn Rand specifically detested the Murray Rothbardian sort of libertarians.... the anarcho-capitalists...

          • icowrich

            She was for a strong military, which put her squarely against the Libertarian model. She was, more than anything else, pro-capitalism...wherever that might lead.

          • Albert8184

            No doubt about what you've said here..... But then again, there are many modern libertarians that support the military too. In fact, the military is FULL of libertarian types, which I know from 25 years of personal experience on active duty, and even more exposure to the military culture both before and after my service. I think you're looking more toward the anarchist brands that really were her specific nemesis.

            I would recommend reading the FAQ on the Ayn Rand Institute concerning the libertarian movement, here: https://ari.aynrand.org/faq

          • Albert8184

            In the interest of openness, I'll state also that I'm not a fan of Rand's views. I don't consider myself a libertarian in any sense of the word, classic, modern, or otherwise.

          • icowrich


          • Vince Gotti

            She detested herself as well apparently.

          • Godmode_ON

            Something here isn't right. Most are less conservative, open to new ideas, and are therefore more liberal and democratic.

          • icowrich

            What do you mean? Most objectivists?

          • Godmode_ON


          • icowrich

            Oh, yeah, that's true enough.

          • Robert Jones

            I have noticed a lot of this. Since my breakaway from Christianity, I too, have moved left of my previous position, but I am a conservative and have yet to vote democrat.

          • Albert8184

            Well speaking as someone who has also been on both sides of the coin, I think the very nature of the Left requires, at least, adherence to a very secularized form of Christianity, and preferably non-belief. As far as political parties go - I don't think it really makes a difference

          • Godmode_ON

            Not true. I was raised as a christian and all through school I was, but when I realized that there was another option (atheism) I realized I never really believed. Just for note: I have 140 IQ and slight autism. Atheists tend to be more liberal than believers because we think that it is not right to chain people to a god and keep them believing it.

          • Robert Jones

            Agreed... Atheists come from all walks of life and are merely connected by lack of belief ONLY. It doesn't mean that people don't have similar experiences, but that doesn't correlate at all considering I and Christians, many Muslims and or Pagans most likely have had similar experiences also. Thank you for mentioning that you'd argue "atheists" as a group. I cringe whenever non-atheists lump all of us together by "similarities". Hardly.

          • NClaw441

            Brandon, perhaps, but I have heard and read many times statements by atheists that believers are stupid BECAUSE they believe, i.e., their belief is evidence of their low intelligence.

          • Robert Jones

            I like how you just totally ignored her own viewpoint; as if you know her and can accurately accuse her of lying. Atheists are individuals... and most atheists that I know of, speak only for themselves. Granted, the former statement is anecdotal, none the less, it applies. There are bad apples in every 'group' if that's what you wanna call atheists... People are more than what we (all of us) tend to categorize them in. Dynamics are always at play and relevant to this discussion.

          • Nana

            Which is the exact same thing he quoted...

        • mountainaires

          Maurice, you're being deliberately disingenuous if not outright intellectually dishonest.

      • Gaven

        The truth hurts.

        A black man can say over and over how much darker he is than a white person. That doesn't make him a liar or superior; it means he is stating to obvious.

        Atheists aren't the ones out there bombing abortion clinic, walking into public markets and blowing themselves up along with innocent people, beheading women for infidelity, fighting against equality for women or homosexuals, or believing in fairy tales so fiercely that they would rather end life-long friendships with their "atheist friends" than tolerate one more moment being subjected to the rationale and logic atheists advocate.

        All in all, atheists *are* more civilized and intelligent, on the average, than theists. Religion tends to pray on the weak, the hopeless, and the less intelligent because those are the people who need "the strength of something higher" to get them through life or because they are simply too dimwitted to think for themselves. Intelligent people are smart enough to get through life without a crutch and know how to think for themselves.

        There are tons of studies that correlate higher intelligence with atheism. The only people that vehemently refute the results of these studies are - wait for it - theists and theistic organizations.

        Hmmm…I wonder why that is. I think it would be like the hypothetical white person above arguing against the black man's claims because he doesn't want to accept reality.

      • TheOpinionator

        That's because it's true. Usually atheists are more intelligent than religious people.

      • Joe

        I'll bite. We ARE more intelligent, getting increasingly so (explanation at the end), and that's been proven in numerous studies.

        Every religious person must make several extremely delusional assumptions and major rational lapses to consider their religion seriously. For an Athiest, it's only a question of "how far can we get before we uncover your irrationality". It's really that simple. NO religious person i have ever met has ever given a completely rational argument, and i've seen hundreds of data points. Go watch Richard Dawkins clean the clocks in religious debates on youtube if you deny this. The religious arguments consistently suffer from major delusions or from logical fallacies. So therefore, religious people fall into two categories. 1) those simply too stupid to think critically about what they believe, or 2) intelligent enough to do so yet avoid the necessary critical thinking for fear of cognitive dissonance. (because they ARE wrong - it cannot stand up to the light of reason).

        I submit to you most religious people fall into the first category (too stupid). A smaller minority fall into the second, and those people most likely to convert to atheism, increasing our pool of smart people, and decreasing yours.

    • ""Some atheists maintain their non-belief comes through superior intelligence" I have never encountered such a statement from an atheist much less a serious atheists activist or promoter. It is not fair to make these unreferenced comments."

      42Oolon, I've seen this myriad times. Perhaps the most prominent example is some new atheist figures--Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins most notably--coining the term "Brights" to describe themselves. What do you think this label communicates other than, "Atheist are bright, and those who disagree are not?"

      Also note that Dr. Briggs did not make a general accusation. He qualified his claim by the word "some."

      • 42Oolon

        So it should not be hard to find a citation from at least one prominent atheist who claims this to be the case so I can respond to the kind of atheists you're talking about.

      • Perhaps the most prominent example is some new atheist figures--Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins most notably--coining the term "Brights" to describe themselves.

        This does not appear to be factual. Wikipedia says,

        The Brights movement is a sociocultural movement that aims to promote public understanding and acknowledgment of naturalistic, unspiritual and irreligious worldviews, including equal civil rights and popular acceptance for adherents of such belief systems. It was co-founded by Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert in 2003.

        However, it does note

        The movement gained early publicity through articles by Richard Dawkins in The Guardian[3] and Wired,[4] and by Daniel Dennett in The New York Times.[5] Within a year, registered Brights numbered in five figures and spanned 85 nations.

        And then there's this

        Dennett posed the idea that super may serve well as a positive title for those who believe in the supernatural. He also suggested this during his presentation at the Atheist Alliance International '07 convention. . . .

        . . . . Daniel Dennett has stated in his book Breaking the Spell:

        There was also a negative response, largely objecting to the term that had been chosen [not by me]: bright, which seemed to imply that others were dim or stupid. But the term, modeled on the highly successful hijacking of the ordinary word "gay" by homosexuals, does not have to have that implication. Those who are not gays are not necessarily glum; they're straight. Those who are not brights are not necessarily dim.

        Almost anyone who identifies with a group believes his or her group is superior in some way to groups that maintain different views. It is rather foolish to believe that groups should give themselves neutral or self-effacing names. Doesn't the Catholic Church call itself the "One True Church" and even say bluntly that the Protestant churches are not churches "in the proper sense"?

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Doesn't the Catholic Church call itself the "One True Church" and even say bluntly that the Protestant churches are not churches "in the proper sense"?

          Yes. The Catholic Church defines a church as a body of baptized believers headed by successors of the apostles and possessing valid Sacraments. This is why the Catholic Church considered the Orthodox and other "eastern" churches true churches but Protestant ones not.

          At the same time, the Catholic Church considered Protestants "separated brothers," that is, truly Christians by virtue of valid Baptism.

    • ladycygnus

      I've heard directly or indirectly it too many times to count.

      "Most [scientists|college graduates|educated people] are atheists" - and thus theists are uneducated (or can't be educated)
      "we believe in science, not magical sky fairies" - theists are easily duped and can't think logically.
      "We use our brains to rationally analyze the evidence - you should try it" - ahem... -.-

      Although I usually stop that nonsense with "I have a degree in astrophysics". After that I'm either a) accused of lying, or b) have it explained to me that the intelligence of the person has no bearings on the validity of the argument. I love it when it's (b) because then I can say "Thank you for making my point - now can we discuss religion and not your perception of my intelligence?"

      • Jay

        Hey!!! Oh my goodness, it's your Ask a Catholic A question buddy! Hope all is well with you :) Started up a Carmelite pre-novitiate just a few days ago.

        Oh, and good response... You always had good responses when we evangelized, LOL!


        • ladycygnus

          Wow, how little the internet is! I was just thinking about you the other day - I got teased for my excited reaction to Mormon's visiting and thought "well I'm not the *only* one." I'll be praying for you in the Carmelites - that's exciting :-D

    • hahahehe

      ok the actual difference is Catholics believe in God and atheists believe in their own understanding or lack thereof; but it's all a matter of faith. An atheist can no more believe in God than a Catholic or a Christian can't help but believe in God because it's what they believe!

      I think many atheists are obsessed with talking about it all the time because they're trying to make themselves believe either their atheism or that there is a God. In other words, I think they're in continual crisis or swither and this causes their hostility and depression. One of their favorite ploys is to blame others for their misery and pound a moral hammer while they're claiming their is no morality. It's like a computer getting conflicting instructions; they're trying to force a belief which can't be enforced with any notion of truth or morality because if their atheism is true, neither can actually exist.

      I work with an atheist who is obsessed with talking about it. He's the most miserable person I know. He suffers terribly but cannot admit how much he suffers though he whines constantly while continually trying to convince everyone around him he is mentally superior to us all. It's really a sad state for him but because he must protect the superior view of himself he cannot admit that his atheism is failing him and ask for help to come out of it.

    • William Michaelis

      They're more intelligent because they're less likely to believe in something at face value. They take more time to do research, to contemplate, and to understand the logic and reasoning behind something.

      No religion has evidence to support itself, so believing in it at face value is quite gullible. So believing in a book with absolutely no evidence to support itself, is just stupid. (AKA: Agnostics and Atheists)

      It's the exact same with tradition. An intelligent person wouldn't believe in a tradition at face value. They would take the time to understand the logic and reasoning on why that tradition is upheld. (AKA: Liberals)

      But don't confuse wanting to believe and actual belief. As people who blindly believe are not the same as people searching for a belief. Sometimes a person searching for a belief, might be mistaken for someone who actually believes. (AKA: Blind Belief vs Soul Searching)

  • Angelo Ocampo

    I've seen many an atheist, agnostic and anti-theist proclaim that they are intelligent while any theists are seen by them as stupid idiots. If you haven't seen someone proclaim that, then I think that either you're lying, trying to cover something up or that you really haven't met someone that bigoted.

    • 42Oolon

      I have certainly met encountered terrible atheists who might say this. The Amazing Atheist and Thunderf00t would be two prime examples. But no one has ever said what is claimed in this article to me. This is why when you make comments like this it is good to qualify what you mean in a serious discussion. Mel Gibson is a Catholic and says all kinds of deplorable things and I think we could find many others. But lets have a serious discussion about what the issues really are and not suggest these straw men.

      • Angelo Ocampo

        I remember debating with an anti-theist a few weeks ago. When I had defeated him in the debate, he pulled out a CNN video saying that liberal atheists are smarter than Christians. Odd thing is, he almost always resorts to that tactic when defeated in debates, and not just against me.

        • ObjectiveLiberal

          Maybe you should start debating an Atheist who can properly defend his position....Sounds like you're pulling a Mayweather Jr. (Picking easy fights against the 'Less-Capable'). Not to undermine your intellectual capabilities, but it's impossible to win a debate against a Theist, anyways. Not because they're on the winning side of the argument, but because It's impossible to have a logical debate against a Party that bases its beliefs on Faith, not Fact.

          • PepperMintLatte

            You can't win an argument with a theist or an atheist. Both of them are an argument of what exists. Logically and scientifically, God can not be proven or disproven, it is a matter of faith (as is anything) . But yes, matters of faith are meant to answer different questions from matters of science. They are not exchangeable, they are different by default. That's why I disagree with mixing faith and science in a debate. They exist for different reasons and should not be confused.

          • theist . atheist both suck

            Like Bill Nye vs. Ken Hamm? That was less an actual debate than it was a platform for anti - creationism, which is fine because the young earth theory is stupid, but when you use a fringe fundamentalist ideology to represent all Christianity you're pretty much kicking a baby and saying you beat up his whole family. The simple fact is that no matter what either side believes or doesn't is not a justification to be an intolerant dick. Science and religion needn't be incompatible. All atheists aren't scientists and not all Christians are creationists but we're all human beings and this debate is pointless unless it is serving the greater good of humanity. Denying either has done equal parts good/bad to humanity is the greatest self delusion ever

        • Boris

          You have never defeated an atheist is a debate. You are a liar and you know it, I know it, we ALL know it.

  • Loreen Lee

    Don't want to get involved in an 'ad hominem' argument or discussion. Thanks.

    • ObjectiveLiberal

      'Out of the mouths of Fools comes Wisdom'...And Theists wonder why questions such as the one addressed in the studies, keep getting asked..tsk tsk

      • Loreen Lee

        Seems like I conflated a couple of sayings: I'll leave these for your proper discernment.

        "He who doesn't know says he does; he who does know says he doesn't." - Zen Buddhist saying.

        The origin of original quote is: "Out of the mouths of babes comes
        great wisdom," and can be traced back to the bible in Matthew 21:16: "God
        ordains strength out of the mouths of babes and sucklings." There are
        several old sayings that are similar to this one. My favorite - that is
        also quite well known - probably is, "Fools and madmen speak the

        • Zari

          That just means that the creators of christianity knew even back then that their foolish tales have no sense. So they wanted to minimize those who pointed out their fallacies.
          Its amazing how some people like you just suck these tricks up.

          • Matthew W Phillips

            You sound really smart. How did you get to know more than the several billion people who believe in a god?

          • Doug Shaver

            How did you get to know more than the several billion people who believe in a god?

            By discovering how many times, throughout human history, most people have been wrong about something.

          • Matthew Phillips

            We should all seek to be worry of your intellect. Maybe we should build a temple in your honor. Erect a large mural of your likeness in the center of time square for all to marvel at.

          • Doug Shaver

            Something else I've learned from a lifetime of study: No human being's intellect should be accorded that kind of respect. There was a time in my life when I suspected that mine should. Luckily, I got over it.

  • DannyGetchell

    Once we are comparing nations against one another, the population sizes (assuming correct sampling) should be large enough to ensure that innate intelligence can be held constant. Given that, it seems fair to conclude that any significant difference of religious faith (in either direction) is not driven by intelligence.

    The argument that great minds through history have been theists is contaminated by the fact that the penalty for expressing atheistic views was once death, then became exclusion from various career paths, then became (and is today, but to a milder extent) social ostracism.

    Personally I think that deists are the most intelligent of all, but that's not an unbiased view :-)

  • Jay

    Something else to add... Regardless of whether or not the study is accurate in saying that there is a correlation between being irreligious and higher levels of intelligence, simply because their is a correlation does not necessarily mean that they are related. They are simply correlated.

    As the number of people eating ice cream increases so does the number of people attacked by a shark. Does this mean that eating ice cream increases your chances of being attacked by a shark? Obviously no. There is a third variable that explains both--the weather. Warmer weather increases the likelihood that you will eat ice cream and also increases the chances that you will go swimming, which in turn obviously increases the chances you will be attacked by a shark.

    I've heard this claim about the correlation between being irreligious and having higher levels of intelligence, but I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone (within either the atheist or deist community) talk about potential third variables. How do we know that this is the best way to interpret this data if 3rd variables haven't even been considered? What of wealth? And when I say "wealth" I don't mean just multimillionaires. The average middle class American and much of the rest of citizens of 1st world countries are much wealthier than not just the majority of people on this planet, but the majority of people who have ever walked the earth. Is there not a correlation between higher intelligence and having a higher level of wealth? Aren't children who have wealthy parents more likely to end up going to college than those who do not? Does the Bible not say that it is easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God?

    • josh

      There are certainly atheists who have talked about other correlations that might explain this one. One apparently good correlation is between religiosity and several measures of social dysfunction, or between religiosity and social uncertainty/anxiety. So, just as an example, we could imagine that a dysfunctional society tends to make people turn to religion as a way of ameliorating the uncertainty they feel about their earthly well-being. At the same time, a dysfunctional society is likely to have lower levels of education and stress, malnutrition etc. can negatively affect IQ. I'm inclined to think that several of these things are somewhat self-reinforcing, there is feedback between the different factors.

      None of which is to say that a particular individual can't be poor but smart, smart but religious, religious but secure, etc. And it's always worth bearing in mind that differences of ~15 IQ points around the average aren't staggering differences in intelligence.

      • Jay

        Thanks. Do you have any references to what you just said? I would be rather interested to hear these arguments more in depth.

        Anything that deals with variables dealing with cultural attitudes towards religion? Specifically cultures found within the college atmosphere. I'm really not convinced that the high number of students who end up losing their faith in God after entering college has that much to do with education and has much more to do with cultural attitudes towards religion on the college campus. I definitely agree with you when you say "I'm inclined to think that several of these things are somewhat self-reinforcing, there is feedback between the different factors." Maybe it is a mixture of both. I would still be very interested to see what others are thinking within this area.

        • josh

          Jerry Coyne has blogged on this topic a few times. He's particularly interested in how religion correlates with opposition to evolution and in turn how social dysfunction correlates with religiosity. He wrote a paper a while back summing up some of the evidence


          I've seen other similar takes from atheists and studies but would have to google things to find specific examples.

          In terms of the effect of universities I'm sure it is hard to sort out different causes. Obviously, a religious person might go to college, learn let's say architecture and come back with very little impact on their beliefs because there is little obvious overlap between their prior beliefs and their education. A creationist who sincerely learns biology or geology for example is in a different boat.

          But more generally, college is for many people the time when they begin to seriously move out from under their parents influence, and where they can be exposed to a multitude of different cultures and ideas that may have been invisible or verboten in their hometowns. I don't think education and culture can be cleanly separated in a case like that. I.e., learning about unfamiliar culture is part of the education, but it is also true that part of the general culture is that then is the time to try on new identities and ideas.

          • Randy Gritter

            He seems to focus on evolution and therefore on what I would view as a much less rationally defensible form of Christianity.

            I do think kids sticking to their faith through their young adult years depends more on where they came from rather than where they go to. That is if their parents dealt with all the strongest objections to the faith in a coherent way then the kids will be less likely to be shocked by what they run into when they leave the nest. That is regardless of whether or not they go to college.

          • josh

            Well, although the hierarchy is officially okay with a watered down version of it, evolution is still a stumbling block for a large number of Catholics. Jerry's view (I think) is that religion is the primary obstacle to acceptance of evolution, especially in first world countries, and that you can't thoroughly fix that without a decline in religion which will probably have to come with increasing social well-being. I'm just using evolution as an example here about the correlations and possible causes of various factors. In a third-world country it seems likely that lack of education by itself, in addition to religion, is a problem for acceptance of evolution.

            I don't think that the good objections to faith can be dealt with in a coherent way. But I don't doubt that a certain type of indoctrinated 'preparedness' can harden young people against challenges to their received beliefs. Creationists actively do this: there are some dedicated programs to get creationists through degree programs so that they can list some credentials in creationist literature. Obviously though, these programs try to front-load the idea that everything they will be 'learning' is some sort of conspiracy or mass delusion when it comes to the scientific interpretation.

          • Jay

            Thank so much for your time :) I do appreciate it! Take care!

  • Peter Piper

    I am in complete agreement with the last couple of paragraphs: the fact that people who disbelieve something are, on average, more intelligent than those who believe it doesn't say much about whether the thing is true or not. I think this is a good fact to keep in mind, because it lowers, to some extent, my bias towards the idea that people who believe similar things to me are (on average) more intelligent. After all, even if that were the case, I couldn't use it to bolster my beliefs. So I don't feel compelled to invent whatever arguments I can (be they bad or good) for this proposition. Instead, I feel free to look at the evidence a little more dispassionately and try to work out what is really going on and why.

    This is why I am so annoyed that the bulk of the OP consists of what seem to me to be awful reasons to reject the meta-analysis it discusses. It seems so needless. First, the fact that so many intelligent people have been religious: since the question is one of average effects, the presence of particular instances which buck the trend is irrelevant. This is all the more true since these instances are mostly culled from societies in which, for the same sorts of historical reason as the OP itself discusses, almost everyone was a theist.

    Next, a lot of time is spent on discrediting a completely different study (that by Lynn, Harvey and Nyborg). But although this study is cited by the meta-analysis, it does not form part of the data that was actually analysed. In the `selection of studies' subsection of the meta-analysis, it says: `Studies were included ... if they examined the relation between intelligence and religiosity at the individual level. ... comparisons at group levels ... were excluded' (I apologise for skipping so much of the dense paragraph I am quoting, but you can look it up and check that I haven't distorted the meaning.) The study that the OP goes to so much trouble to discredit is at the level of groups (namely countries), so was excluded and is irrelevant.

    Finally, the OP suggests that we should reject this meta-analysis simply because it is a meta-analysis (it surveys and consolidates the results of a large number of other papers), as if the very project of meta-analysis were doomed rather than simply difficult. I confess that I am not qualified to assess whether this meta-analysis was done well or badly, so I don't put a lot of weight on its conclusions. But the arguments made against it in the OP are uniformly terrible.

  • Probably a more interesting study would be a scientifically conducted survey (that is, one conducted using techniques used by major pollsters such as Gallup, Pew, Harris, etc.) of believers and nonbelievers inquiring as to why they hold the position they hold and why they think the other group holds the position it holds. That is, it would be a poll that ask atheists why they (and other atheists) are atheists and theists are theists, and ask theist why they (and other theists) are theists and atheists are atheists. I rather doubt that IQ would be cited much at all.

    I suspect some of the most frequently offered explanations from both groups would be (1) raised that way, (2) deluded, (3) willfully in denial, (4) aren't really atheists/theists deep down, (5) fearful.

    • PepperMintLatte

      Thank you for this comment, and indeed that WOULD be interesting. Also add something about Agnostics, if possible.

  • Randy Gritter

    Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? Humility. Rich people tend to find it harder to be humble because society puts them on a pedestal. In modern society you can say the same about people with high IQ's. Society tells them they are better than everyone else. It makes it harder for them to bow before God and offer Him their life. So without doing any studies I would tend to think intelligent people would be less inclined to be committed Christians. At the end of the day it is not an argument but an invitation. Will you bow down and serve God? The biggest obstacle to that will always be pride. Anything that correlates with pride will correlate negatively with Christianity.

    • Chuck the Frog

      FALSE. Religious people are the ones who feel superior because they claim to know the truth and that believing in this "truth" guarantees them a spot in Paradise.

      • PepperMintLatte

        Chuck the Frog, you sound angry. Randy had a balanced view on how pride could affect someone (in multiple ways, mind you). You might disagree, but really, you just give off the impression that you're angry. Your comment afterwards also makes you seem more judgmental. Do not wonder if people don't really think you're to be taken seriously.

        • 0kg0on3

          Confirmation bias much, Pepper?

          "balanced view"? What are you...Fox News?

    • Luovahulluus

      "Will you bow down and serve God? The biggest obstacle to that will always be pride."
      The biggest obstacle is not pride. The biggest obstacle is the complete and utter lack of proof of God. For me, the second biggest obstacle is that the biblical God is a vengeful monster, who doesn't seem to be concerned about the wellbeing of his followers. Do you know how many christian amputees has had their lost limb grow back?

    • Doug Shaver

      Will you bow down and serve God?

      Not just because you tell me to. If I hear it from him, we'll see what happens.

  • Marie Van Gompel Alsbergas

    Many of these comments ignore the concept that, "In other words, they mixed data which should not be mixed, because nobody has any idea how to make these corrections". No where in the article or the following discussions has anybody mentioned Howard Gardner or others who propose that each person has 'multiple' intelligences. They are Musical, Visual, Verbal, Logical, Kinesthetic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic and Existential. The last among those intelligences has also been called spiritual or religious intelligence. Isn't this like comparing apples to elephants as living things with skin?

  • GothAgatha

    Last night I sat next to an eminent author at dinner. I happened to quote Flannery O'Connor, on peacocks, not on religion, and she asked me, Are you a Catholic?
    When I said Yes, she said she was a cradle Catholic who'd realized it was all rubbish in her twenties and had been an atheist ever since. She finished up by saying, "No one who believes in God can be intelligent."
    Did I take offence? No, it made me laugh and also, more seriously, I think I touched a nerve there. Bother, should have said I'd pray for her, that would have annoyed her intensely. I will, anyway.

    • Who was the eminent writer?

      • GothAgatha

        Sorry, won't reveal her name; we're fellow writers and it would be ungracious to do so. I don't want to repay her rudeness in kind!

    • Tularian Roman

      She was clearly an idiot, she offended Isaac Newton and other various great minds of centuries.

  • m8lsem

    Guess I'm the 'sport' in the studies, in that while I've never seen an IQ measurement of myself, I did score in the 99.6 percentile on the LSAT some time ago and am retired from being a Pastoral Associate at a Catholic Church. I was sort of faithful in college and law school, and see myself as having progressed to working for the Church.

  • scottrb

    I am an atheist, quite intelligent, and with many intelligent associates. I was raise Protestant but by age 14 had dismissed theist completely. It was a process in critical thinking - not just IQ.
    If, based on my experience, I had to pin down what intellectual characteristic leads to atheist, in would be what could be called an "engineering attitude". I am a software engineer, and as I would hope with all engineers, what I expect of myself is that I will look at problems without regard for my own well being. So, for example, whether or not I will have a job the next day is not a factor in properly estimating an engineering problem. It should be easy to see that if you take your own well being out of the equation, there's little point is conjuring up empathetic deities. The real issue becomes, do you think you can see better through survival-oriented eyes.
    There is one religious trait that I seems, from my experience, to be tied to IQ. The brainier the worshiper, the less corporal their view of the afterlife. So, for example, people of average IQ seem to be more willing to view their afterlife as including arms and legs than their brainier pew mates.

  • Doc Frey

    On the methodology, the author is correct. The statistical problems associated with this type of meta-analysis would not withstand rigorous review. Appropriate meta-analysis requires consistent construction across all models from each study that are aggregated for the meta-analysis. This was not the case across these studies. Their best approach would have been to focus on studies related to a consistent subset.

    Philosophically, atheism is also a religion based on its faith in things not seen or provable by scientific methods. The intelligent position is to admit complete ignorance on the topic. I think most highly intelligent people recognize that modern religions such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism have far too many contradictions and errors within their representative texts regarding readily observable phenomenon as to not be truly inspired by God. However, that does not mean that they aren't onto something. One suspects that there may be some reason for so many people to believe with such conviction indicating the definite possibility for a higher power. Or, not;]

    • AnonDude123

      Philosophically, atheism is also a religion.

      "Bald" is a hair color. And "Off" is just another channel on TV.

      "One suspects that there may be some reason for so many people to believe"

      Indeed - that would be the "complete ignorance" you were talking about. Once you learn and become educated about how things work, you come to understand that gods are unnecessary explanations. And there is no reason to believe that any exist.

  • k8

    The separation clearly isn't between religious/irreligious but rather between races. Look at all those un-label high IQ dots underneath Taiwan. I'm willing to bet that those are all either East Asian or White countries that happen to be religious.

  • Jerkyl Freud

    Once a Theist is inspired, he or she may be able to access their intellect in ways most atheists can ever imagine to. The reason is that atheists trend to be more complacent when it comes to thinking the extra mile.

    • AnonDude123

      Your invalid assumptions do you a disservice. Most atheists come from highly religious families, and generally know more about the religion than those who practice it. It is in going the extra mile with their thoughts that removes the idea of god.

  • hahahehe

    Atheists "believe" they're smarter than everyone else, They put all their faith in their own intellect no matter how small it is, as long as they believe they're smarter than everyone else then it still boils down to a matter of faith! This produces the common characteristic of arrogance and condescension they often exhibit, it's a superiority complex based in false belief.

  • AnonDude123

    You left Einstein off your list of intellectual greats. That is probably because he did not believe in a "personal" god.

  • Johnni Kock Sørensen

    Ah, this article was laughable! It's very biased and yes, it's fair to compare USA to Africa, because of the fact that poor education is one of the main factors (beside brainwashing and being stupid) to be religious.
    -with love from an Agnostic

    • Victor Polk

      Coming from a one who's even worse than a typical misinformed fundementalist.

      Agnostic? Don't make us laugh.

      • John Smith

        you're an idiot :)

        • Victor Polk

          So your secret weapon is using ad hominem attacks, huh? Good for you.

    • Victor Polk

      Coming from a one who's even worse than a typical misinformed fundementalist.

      Agnostic? Don't make us laugh.

  • atheist240

    you mention history, and dates.. yet you make no mention that historically saying you are an atheist has been very dangerous.. and that many atheists through history had to be "closeted" there are periods in history where the religious set up whole torture circuses to get people to admit to atheism, even falsely.. non of that is mentioned in your article.. you leave out the parts of history that have little bearing on your position, or worse obliterate it completely.. so how can you look back at history and say any of the things you say here.. your information is flawed at best

  • Myssi Graves

    Saying great thinkers in that era is unfair. Many lied about religion due to fear of persecution.

  • Kevin Burke

    You open your argument with this highly flawed statement :


    Some atheists maintain their non-belief comes through superior intelligence. In particular, many online atheists like to quote, “A fool says in his heart there is
    a God.” He reads only those sources which confirm and conform to his
    view and eschews those which do not. And he isn’t shy about telling you
    how dumb it is not to believe as he does.

    But consider: nearly all the greatest, best, highest, most beautiful
    minds that ever existed were theists. Aristotle? Augustine? Confucius?
    Aquinas? Bonaventure? Copernicus? Bruno? Kepler? Galileo? Pascal?
    Descartes? Newton? Bach? Mendel? The list is endless. Most people were
    and still are theists of one sort or another. It is only in the
    twentieth and twenty-first centuries where atheism picked up steam."

    And you are supposed to have the intelligence level of a professor yet it never occurred to you that all or most of these people either lived before the time of Charles Darwin or before his idea of Evolution picked up steam ? If you are to be taken as an example of someone who believes in God who is smarter or of equal intelligence of an atheist then you fail. I think it is obvious that Richard Dawkins is smarter than you that is why he is associated with Oxford and you with the more lowly Cornell. BTW, I didn't bother reading the rest of your post since your opening was invalid or wrong.

  • ThisArticleIsBullshit

    IQ has nothing to do with religion, but it has something to do with writing a proper (grammatically correct and based on real information) report, and I can tell you needed some extra IQ for this job.
    Anyway, I see all these religious people complaining about being called "stupid", well that's because religious people always discriminated atheists, not because they are annoying or anything but just because we wont believe someone made the universe out of nothing, and if we are ever caught answering "no" to the question "do you believe in god?" we seem unwanted atrocities.
    My own biology teacher gave me a lecture and an F -what that fuck?- for choosing evolution over creationism at the lesson where we learned about "Evolution".Agian, WHAT THE FUCK? Christians are supposed to forgive, help and live a peaceful life, not judge people because they chose to FORGIVE, HELP AND LIVE A PEACEFUL LIFE(that's right, most atheists are humanists as well) without having to believe that you will go to hell if you wash your clothes in a sunday...

  • Rob

    Athesim, is by definition, both an illogical and irrational, and in truth, a very UNscientfic approach to thinking, ie, to believe something cannot exist, because you simply cannot "see/measure/study it"? Indeed, IF "god" was in a form that you or I could do do all those things....s/he/it wouldn't be a very impressive "god" would it?

    Also, can we please stop, allowing people like Dawkins etc to hijack the sciences, for their book selling ends. Science proving or disproving "god" has ZERO relevance. One is the study of the natural order, the other is religion - both are vehicles for mixed human behaviour!

    Finally, why would anyone - anyone - WANT to be an "atheist" in the first place? - in case you've not observed, believer or not, we ALL reach an end to the Earthly road....before I lay me down to sleep....I really do pray there just might be something out-there - period!

    • Damon

      Athesim, is by definition, both an illogical and irrational, and in
      truth, a very UNscientfic approach to thinking, ie, to believe something
      cannot exist, because you simply cannot "see/measure/study it"?

      Atheism is, by definition, "disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods." That is not the same as believing something cannot exist. If I were to say I don't believe God exists, that wouldn't mean I believe God doesn't or cannot exist.

    • Doug Shaver

      Finally, why would anyone - anyone - WANT to be an "atheist" in the first place?

      I didn't. I'm OK with it now, but I didn't get here because I wanted to be here.

  • Manfrom Modesto

    I wrote an article similar to this one, and made some complementary points:

  • Dustin Rand

    Ok I agree this is pretty flawed. I think a good start would be skipping countries where free thought is not permitted(i.e. communist etc) that goes for both sides, just like in Vietnam, they weren't allowed to say they are believers, there is countries where they can't say they aren't either. I don't think IQ is a good way to test this anyway, it's basically recognizing patterns and shapes, which is not what Atheists like myself, claim theists tend to lack. I think I can speak for any atheist on here and say there are incredibly intelligent religious people, but they tend to lack either scientific literacy or the use of reason(A lot of times both). They might be really good at math who knows.....Also using any theist who was pre-Darwin and pre-Einstein is diluting the truth hugely. Everyone was a theist back then, so of course most of the best minds were as well(even though not all).

  • guy

    It's nothing to do with intelligence, the two factors are 1) Indoctrination from birth and 2) Ignorance with respect to religions and science.

  • Vince Gotti

    Most atheists just happen to be arrogant and self righteous. They lack real empathy. They want to be God.

  • Jesus of Nazarene

    Jesus claimed he's one with God, but aren't all people? If someone believes a book and his emotions inside a culture he didn't select or analyze, is that believer a wise man? Believing in eternal life makes one immortal or silly?

  • David

    Oh goodness this is funny. "third world country atheists without schooling aren't very intelligent at all" "Atheists who are under an iron fist aren't very intelligent"
    You figure that out all on your own? The study was done on developed countries with access to education and found that intelligent people tend to avoid the irrational beliefs. tsk tsk tsk. Such dishonest tactics you religious people use to bolster your ego.
    I'm not surprised you don't understand how to perform proper experiments though... if you were an Einstein you wouldn't be writing in defense of a silly anthropomorphic deity that's riddled with contradictions.

    And I love that your examples of intelligent theists are people from a time when we knew virtually nothing about the universe. They knew the bare minimum. In comparison a 5 year old today has the capability of knowing more than any Aristotle with 15 seconds on the internet. (the internet by the way will be what kills religion in the end)
    And wouldn't you know it, thinking of newton he also believed in alchemy. Yet his intelligence is no more a case for alchemy than it is a case for UFO abductions.

    So we have a handful of influential theists from a time where claiming not to be a theist would very likely have you killed or locked up, who also believed in alchemy.
    And just about every highly intelligent person in the information era deciding that anthropomorphic deities are naive, childlike fantasies.
    Not saying theists are dumb, more like dumb people are drawn to theism for its simplicity. While overly intelligent people are repelled by it's promotion of ignorance and have no real reason for religion... where its a supplement to those who lack the ability to determine right from wrong from rational discourse.
    If you're going to try and pull out the "you must consider history" Then I'm going to see your history and raise you " You must consider the size of the gap in knowledge from then and today and the ability to pull that information up in an easily accessible way."
    As the previous comment stated 2 years ago I'm not one of those atheists who says my atheism comes from superior intelligence, I don't suppose my intelligence is anything spectacular I disbelieve your idea of god for a great number of reasons.
    And if you'd like to ask that question of if my reasons will withstand scrutiny if god does happen to exist... well frankly yes. Any god that's actually interested in "good" or "justice" will understand a lack of adequate reason IS a reason to not believe something.

    • Swizzler

      You have horrible grammar, sir.

  • KeyboardWarrior

    IQ is an outmoded and culturally biased measure of intelligence that favors those with Western-style education and affluence. It's defended by those who need that high-IQ score to reinforce their arrogant sense of superiority to others. If we're making sweeping assessments based on limited measurements, then I can make the assumption that all smart people are emotionally stupid.

  • Richard Race

    Its not just plain intelligence, people are generally caring and its difficult for them to accept the concept of nothing after life at all except everlasting death for eternity. The belief of god solves this problem, and I can see why they want to believe in god. Intelligence may change when people start to think more emotionally vs rationally. Someone can be smart, but when emotions take over, intelligence can become irrelevant.

  • Swizzler

    "Except that highly intelligent people believe stupid and false things. And at a rate too depressing to contemplate."

    Let's say the writer believes something and asks the opinion of a group of "highly intelligent people", they disagree.
    Do we then conclude that the highly intelligent people are wrong.
    Wow! Amazing reasoning :-|

  • Nana

    Please remove some of those people from that list of great theists. Galileo was "Christian" because the church threatened to kill him for believing that there was no God and going against the Bible and saying the earth revolves around the sun. Newton would have been called a heretic, because there were no beliefs in "no god" so he look to nature and physics for his answers, contradicting the Bible multiple times. The same thing applies for pascal and Descartes. Mendel actually discovered natural selection which turned into evolution, so in a way, he's the father of evolutionistic atheists, despite being a monk. Aristotle actually was not a theist. He turned to deism, believing that higher thinking such as metacognition was his God, not a God who could intervene his world, which is the definition of theism, therefore making him not a theist, and the word for not being a theist is atheist. Although people like the say and believe that he was a theist, his philosophies obviously contradicted this. One point he brings out is, if Adam and eve were immortal, they wouldn't need to eat since they can't die, and therefore shouldn't have even been tempted to eat the forbidden fruit. The thing about smart people is (directed towards you saying is relativity true because Einstein thought it up) that they tend to be right on things don't haven't been tested, simply because they can see the pattern in the nature of things. Einstein, for example, thought of many things that he couldn't prove. Everything so far that we know he has thought of without proof, have all been proven true if we were able to test them; every single one of those ideas.

    I believe it's true what you said, atheist do not have to have larger iq, only because iq is an arbitrary way of determining intelligence, since it is not nearly extensive enough to tell. However, atheists do tend to score fairly high on iq tests, and in general are smart. The reason that some atheist have become atheists, is because they were once religious, or brought up in a religious household, and found that the fallacies in religion went against too many laws to be true, so inevitably turned away from it. Many of them were too much of critical thinkers to believe in things that are farfetched, on top of being very intelligent; they were able to actively spot out flaws and think for themselves, instead of being fed ideologies given to them.