Are religious people really less smart, on average, than atheists?

Various studies have found that, on average, belief in God is associated with lower scores on IQ tests.

Of course, there are examples of extremely intelligent individuals with strong religious convictions. But various studies have found that, on average, belief in God is associated with lower scores on IQ tests. “It is well established that religiosity correlates inversely with intelligence,” note Richard Daws and Adam Hampshire at Imperial College London, in a new paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, which seeks to explore why.


It’s a question with some urgency – the proportion of people with a religious belief is growing: by 2050, if current trends continue, people who say they are not religious will make up only 13 per cent of the global population. Based on the low-IQ-religiosity link, it could be argued that humanity is on course to become collectively less smart.

One suggestion is that perhaps religious people tend to rely more on intuition. So, rather than having impaired general intelligence, they might be comparatively poor only on tasks in which intuition and logic come into conflict – and this might explain the lower overall IQ test results.

To investigate, Daws and Hampshire surveyed more than 63,000 people online, and had them complete a 30-minute set of 12 cognitive tasks that measured planning, reasoning, attention and working memory. The participants also indicated whether they were religious, agnostic or atheist.

As predicted, the atheists performed better overall than the religious participants, even after controlling for demographic factors like age and education. Agnostics tended to place between atheists and believers on all tasks. In fact, strength of religious conviction correlated with poorer cognitive performance. However, while the religious respondents performed worse overall on tasks that required reasoning, there were only very small differences in working memory.

Also, some of the reasoning tasks, such as an extra-hard version of the Stroop Task known as “colour-word remapping”, had been designed to create maximum conflict between an intuitive response and a logical one, and the biggest group differences emerged on these tasks, consistent with the idea that religious people rely more on their intuition. In contrast, for a complex reasoning task – “deductive reasoning” – for which there were no obviously intuitive answers, there was much less of a group difference.

Daws and Hampshire concluded: “These findings provide evidence in support of the hypothesis that the religiosity effect relates to conflict [between reasoning and intuition] as opposed to reasoning ability or intelligence more generally.”

If, as this work suggests, religious belief predisposes people to rely more heavily on intuition in decision-making – and the stronger their belief, the more pronounced the impact – how much of a difference does this make to actual achievement in the real world? At the moment, there’s no data on this. But in theory, perhaps cognitive training could allow religious people to maintain their beliefs without over-relying on intuition when it conflicts with logic in day to day decision-making.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

This article was originally published on BPS Research Digest. Read the original article.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Space toilets: How astronauts boldly go where few have gone before

A NASA astronomer explains how astronauts dispose of their, uh, dark matter.

Videos
  • When nature calls in micro-gravity, astronauts must answer. Space agencies have developed suction-based toilets – with a camera built in to ensure all the waste is contained before "flushing".
  • Yes, there have been floaters in space. The early days of space exploration were a learning curve!
  • Amazingly, you don't need gravity to digest food. Peristalsis, the process by which your throat and intestines squeeze themselves, actually moves food and water through your digestive system without gravity at all.
Keep reading Show less

Steven Pinker's 13 rules for writing better

The Harvard psychologist loves reading authors' rules for writing. Here are his own.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21: Steven Pinker speaks onstage during OZY Fest 2018 at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on July 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Media)
Personal Growth
  • Steven Pinker is many things: linguist, psychologist, optimist, Harvard professor, and author.
  • When it comes to writing, he's a student and a teacher.
  • Here's are his 13 rules for writing better, more simply, and more clearly.
Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less