Are Atheists smarter than Religious people?

There is a prevailing thought that Atheists tend to be smarter than religious people. Is this just a belief based upon anecdotal observations or is it actually true?

To put that question another way, I used to be religious, today I’m not. Does that imply that I have have become a lot smarter?

There does appear to be a correlation

A quote that does the rounds on the internet, and often incorrectly attributed to Seneca the Younger, is this …

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.

(No original source confirms that Seneca wrote this exists. The generally accepted actual origin is that it was Edward Gibbon who wrote it when describing Rome in the 18th century)

There is no denying that in todays politics, religion truly is something that has been embraced by unscrupulous individuals such as Trump to leverage as a useful tool to manipulate the mob. In public he will go on camera holding a bible, but can’t actually quote his favourite verse, nor does he associate with or attend any church, yet has managed to successfully con the Evangelicals into believing that he is very much their messiah, the one who has been supposedly divinely chosen to be president. Once that idea takes root what then naturally emerges is the belief that any alternatives are “evil” because they are supposedly thwarting the will of God.

To put that another way, a term that naturally comes to mind when considering this mob of sycophants is perhaps something akin to “stupidity incarnate”.

The truth is not a deep dark secret. His former aides are quoted on record as saying that in private, he mocks his evangelical supporters and has nothing but contempt for them …

… Trump seemed delighted by the “scam,” Cohen recalled to me, and eager to highlight that the pastor was “full of shit.”. “They’re all hustlers,” Trump said…

… Trump has viewed right-wing evangelical leaders as a kind of special-interest group to be schmoozed, conned, or bought off, former aides told me…

… In Cohen’s recent memoir, Disloyal, he recounts Trump returning from his 2011 meeting with the pastors who laid hands on him and sneering, “Can you believe that bullshit?”…

… “I always assumed he was an atheist,” Barbara Res, a former executive at the Trump Organization, told me. “He’s not a religious guy,” A. J. Delgado, who worked on his 2016 campaign, told me. “Whenever I see a picture of him standing in a group of pastors, all of their hands on him, I see a thought bubble [with] the words ‘What suckers,’” Mary Trump, the president’s niece, told me…

… Trump, he said, frequently made fun of Romney’s faith in private—and was especially vicious when he learned about the religious undergarments worn by many Latter-day Saints. “Oh my god,” Cohen said. “How many times did he bring up Mitt Romney and the undergarments …”

Just to be clear, this is not just one opinion piece, but instead consists of insights sourced from multiple people very close to the man. They have observed who he really is.

I’m shocked I tell you, shocked, by the discovery that Mr “Grab them by the pussy” is not really religious, and that he simply cosplays one when needed for support. Well yes, many of us saw him for who he really was from day 1.

He is literally the living embodiment, an illustration, of a power grab that has been achieved by utilising religion to manipulate vast numbers of rather foolish religious people.

So back to our original question. Are religious people stupid?

There is no denying that the Trump supporters are, but there are also vast numbers of religious people who rather wisely are not Trump supporters.

What does the scientific evidence actually reveal?

There is a ten year old 2013 meta-Analysis that was published within the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review. Titled “The relation between intelligence and religiosity: a meta-analysis and some proposed explanations“, this meta-analysis of 63 studies does indeed reveal that there is a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity.

As you might anticipate, that paper upset a few people. The results were challenged. Seven years later in 2020, with access to a lot more data, the meta-analysis was re-run using all the available new studies. The title of the new paper tells you the same story, “The Negative Intelligence-Religiosity Relation: New and Confirming Evidence

So that’s it then, religious people are stupid.

Ah but wait, hold on now, it’s a correlation. That means that such studies do not reveal that being religious makes you less intelligent, nor does it reveal that only less intelligent people embrace religion. It is simply a correlation. In other words, something else may in fact be going on here.

Hint: Yep, you can see where I’m going with this perhaps. It’s not intelligence at all. You can indeed be very smart, highly intelligent, and also religious. You can also be deeply stupid and non religious.

So why is it like this, why is there an apparent correlation between intelligence and non-belief?

The famous ball and bat question beautifully illustrates what is really going on.

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Our natural human instinct is to leap to the answer – 10 cents.

But wait, that’s not the right answer at all. You need to carefully analyse the question to work it out. The question is not telling you that the bat costs $1, but rather this – if you take the price of the ball and add another $1 to that, then that is how much the bat actually costs. In other words, $1 is the difference between the bat Price and the Ball price. The real answer is that the Bat actually costs $1.05, and the ball cost 5 cents making a total the $1.10.

We instinctually get it wrong because our brains rapidly process “The bat costs $1.00” … and miss the extra words that read … “more than the ball“.

Getting that wrong does not mean you are stupid and unintelligent. Instead it reveals a bias towards a specific way of thinking.

We all think about things either instinctively or analytically. Nobody could ever exclusively use just one, it’s a mixture. This is because we just can’t analyse everything. If we did, then nobody would get anything done. Analytical thinking takes too much time to do and so we quite naturally fall back upon a gut emotional instinctive form of rapid decision making that will generally work rather well. The price we pay for that ability is that there are times when it will lead us to the wrong conclusion, so when faced with unusual stuff that we are unfamiliar with, we need to analyse that to get to the right answer.

Religious Belief is essentially an emotional experience

It brings comfort, certainty, meaning, belonging, safety, resolution, and much more. It is also rather popular. We are quite naturally enticed and attracted to all of this. Our gut emotional reaction is to embrace it and uncritically accept it without really giving it very much thought.

If however we begin to analyse it, questioning it, seeking evidence for the various claims, then we soon discover that it is not actually true.

When we think about things, we all deploy a mixture of intuitive thinking and analytical thinking. What we use often depends upon the circumstances.

If we work in a specific field that requires a considerable degree of analytical thinking, then we become more inclined to begin to utilise analytical thinking in many other contexts, for example analysing the truthfulness of our culturally inherited religious beliefs. The result of this is that those deemed to be educated and intellectual, the smarter people, can end up analysing themselves out of a general acceptance of religious beliefs. This is not always the case, but instead for many is a consequence of training their minds to be more analytical.

In other words, the correlation between being non-religious and intelligence appears to be a consequence of leaning a bit more into thinking analytically about religious claims.

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