The More Intelligent You Are, the Less Religious (and vice versa)

            I participate in a Unitarian Universalist spiritual community. The UU faith has some basic beliefs, largely universal truths about how to be a good person, but when it comes to answering the big religious questions – is there a God, what happens when you die – UU-ism leaves that up to the individual. It’s a religion for independent thinkers. Which makes a new study on the relationship between intelligence and religiousness particularly intriguing, because it suggests that independent thinking and religion don’t go together very well.


      How religious are you? How intelligent are you? The study finds that the more you are one, the less likely you are the other. That’s right. The more religious you are (defined as “the degree of involvement in facets of religion…such as beliefs in supernatural agents, costly commitment to these agents like offering of property, using beliefs in those agents to lower existential anxieties such as anxiety over death, and communal rituals that validate and affirm religious beliefs”), the less intelligent you are likely to be. The more intelligent you are (defined as “the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience”) the less religious you are likely to be.

            That may sound simplistic (it is) and judgmental (it is), but it may not sound all that surprising. This study was actually a meta-analysis of 63 other studies over the past several decades, most of which found the same thing; as intelligence increases, the role of religious beliefs in your life tends to decrease, and vice versa. But this study offers something new, a fresh explanation for this inverse relationship.

            The standard explanations have always been something like; religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, rejected by intelligent people who are just too smart to be taken in by all that superstitious mumbo jumbo. Let’s call that the Richard Dawkins explanation. Another standard explanation has been; intelligent people are more independent thinkers, more likely to challenge the tribal creed of beliefs proscribed by the Leaders of the Pack. Intelligent thinkers are not pack thinkers. Call that the Galileo explanation.

            (Lots of cognitive science research has established the naivete of such intellectual arrogance. Plenty of highly intelligent people are indeed ‘follow-the-pack’ thinkers, with plenty of beliefs that contradict or are unsupported by any evidence.)

            The new explanation offered for why more intelligent people are less religious, is more sophisticated. Miron Zuckerman, Jordan Silberman and Judith A. Hall suggest that religion and intelligence both provide the same thing, in four important areas.

  • “Compensatory control”. A chaotic world with no order or predictability is a
  • scary world. Religious faith reassures us that the world is orderly and under the predictable control of a Supreme Force. Intelligence and faith in science does the same thing, providing the reassuring sense that the world is orderly and under the control…of physical laws.

  • “Self-regulation”. Religious belief that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior
  • behavior is punished is an external pressure that helps us moderate our behavior. Intelligence gives people the internal mental firepower necessary for the same self control. (Remember the famous ‘marshmallow test’ , where kids are told they can eat the marshmallow sitting on a table in front of them right away, but they would get two marshmallows if they can avoid eating the one right in front of them and wait a few minutes? The kids with self-control rated higher on intelligence scores.)

  • “Self enhancement”. Religiousness helps people feel better about themselves.
  • “I am a better person than others because I am more religious.” Intelligence does too. “I am better person than others because I am smarter.”

                4.  “Secure Attachment”. As social animals, we need to feel attached to others in order to feel safe. Religion helps us feel attached to others, and to a deity. The study cites evidence suggesting that being intelligence encourages the same thing, noting that intelligent people are more likely to marry and less likely to divorce and to have close personal attachments to others, fulfilling same need for attachment.

         I have a lot of quarrels with this study. The business about how intelligence provides us with “Secure Attachment” seems like an intellectual stretch. And there is a ugly intellectual arrogance when researchers say things like; “High IQ-people are able to curb magical, supernatural thinking and tend to deal with the uncertainties of life on a rational-critical-empirical basis.” Cognitive science clearly shows that this smug claim, often made by smart people, is not true, demonstrating just how dumb ostensibly intelligent people can be.

                Further, the study suggests that intelligent people are more likely to be non-religious deity-denying atheists because atheists are non-conformists, too intelligent to be taken in by supernatural hocus pocus. But atheists are conformists too, adhering to and fiercely defending their own code of tribal beliefs. Atheism is a religion in every sense of the word except the part about believing in God. (The study’s analysis of atheism is discussed at length in this article in The Independent.)

                But the basic finding of this study seems pretty solid; a large majority of studies over the years looking at the relationship between intelligence and religion find a clear inverse relationship between how much we think for ourselves, and how much we let religion do the thinking for us. And the authors make a persuasive argument that the reason may be that intelligence and religion both provide the same thing. The spiritual community I participate in may in fact provide confirming evidence. Unitarian Universalism, the religion for more independent-minded thinkers, remains one of the smallest faiths in America.

    Politics & Current Affairs

    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
    to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.


    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
    violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
    do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
    speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
    to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
    controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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