Are Atheists Smarter Than Religious People? 1 November 2013

Stephen Hawking

In August this year, a study was published which suggested that there was negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity. The “meta-study” from two psychologists at the University of Rochester analysed 63 studies conducted since 1920, and found that in 53 of them, there was a negative relationship between intelligence and religiosity.

As the psychologists themselves pointed out, the findings could do no more than suggest that more intelligent people are likely to find it easier to live without religion. They certainly could not suggest a direct causal link between being less intelligent and having religious faith. Nor could they demonstrate that religious beliefs are, of themselves, unintelligent.

Despite this, comments flooded in from triumphant atheists when this study was discussed on BBC1’s Sunday Morning Live. Many smugly opined that “stupid” people were of course more likely to believe “fairy stories”, or to be irrational and uncritical.

But these responses, as well as the study itself, have a fundamental flaw: their failure to nuance. There are undoubtedly religious people who fail to examine their beliefs critically, and may be less prone to such rationality – but to present the discussion as if all religious people are irrational whilst atheists are rational, critical, superior beings is, in itself, uncritical and irrational.

Throughout history, some of the finest examples of reasoning have been produced by those with theistic convictions. Consider Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, or John Locke. This cannot be dismissed as people simply being misguided into believing in God, as this was the norm at such a time, as many people rejected beliefs during mediaeval and Reformation periods. Equally, most academic fields contain prominent theists: aside from countless theistic theologians, there are prominent scientists, philosophers, historians, classicists and social scientists, many of whom are partially motivated by their beliefs in God.

By the same token, there are and have been atheists who demonstrate little evidence of critical thinking or well thought-out reasoning. Hundreds of Twitter users often uncritically re-tweet sentiments of Richard Dawkins, or paraphrase sentences from The God Delusion, in a manner not dissimilar from those who quote the Bible without offering any context or analysis of the line in question.

There are, therefore, more rational and less rational views among both religious people and non-religious people. So when it comes to analysing reasoning and intelligence, the key distinction is not between religious and non-religious people. Rather, we must instead ask if people have thought through their beliefs and, indeed, questioned them. We must ask whether they have freely and rationally chosen the sources of authority they allow themselves to be guided by. The enemy of intelligence is not religious belief, but dogmatic repetition of sentiments with no thought or reasoning – whether from the Bible, the Qur’an, or The God Delusion

Of course, there are some who will regard religious belief as inherently irrational. But for many people, faith is only strong because it makes good, rational sense. Many faithful Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, along with adherents of several other religions, have puzzled over difficult questions in order to ensure that their faith is consistent and coheres with their daily experience.

Equally, whilst some dismiss religious contributions to any moral or political debate on the basis that they must be entirely irrational, proper consideration of the religious arguments (on different sides of debates) made on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia demonstrate this to be a false assumption. Religious figures commonly reason on the basis of important questions which, while arguing on the basis of principles deemed to be consistent with people’s own faith perspectives, are nonetheless discussed in terms of what is best for society as a whole, rather than from unjustified dogmatic assertions. They may, for instance, argue on the basis of protecting the vulnerable, promoting stronger societal bonds, or the equal value of citizens in a democracy, rather than quoting isolated verses from the Bible or Qur’an.

Religious people are not inherently irrational. Neither are atheists inherently more rational. The important question is not whether one is religious or nonreligious, but whether one’s beliefs (or lack thereof) arise from a reasoned position, or have been uncritically adopted.

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About Andrew Grey

Andrew Grey graduated from the University of Oxford with BA and MPhil degrees in Theology. He is a Writer and Editor at a national charity. The opinions expressed in his articles are his own.

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