Debunking: the non-religious are smarter than the religious

religious intelligenceA couple of days ago the UK’s Independent, and several other media outlets, have promoted this claim …

Religious people are, on average, less intelligent than atheists, researchers claim. 

To be clear, this posting is not simply a dig at the Independent. Other outlets ran with the same story. The International Business Times very explicitly claims this as well …

atheists are smarter than the religious people

… and of course the other less reputable outlets such as the Daily Mail play the me-too game (no, I’ll not even bother linking to them)

Like the majority of people in the UK, I’m not religious. Since this is something that panders to that demographic then I should be loving this, but I’m not. There is one small tiny flaw with the claim, if you go check out the precise details of the published paper that the UK’s Independent cites as “Evidence” then what you discover is a huge disconnect because what the paper is actually all about and what they are claiming for it.

So let’s take a quick peek into it and see what we actually discover.

Negative Relationship between Reasoning and Religiosity

The full title of the paper, published in Frontiers In Psychology, is …

The Negative Relationship between Reasoning and Religiosity Is Underpinned by a Bias for Intuitive Responses Specifically When Intuition and Logic Are in Conflict

Published in Dec 2017 they explain very explicitly in the first paragraph something that is rather hard to miss …

the religiosity effect is strongest for tasks that explicitly manipulate conflict; more specifically, atheists outperform the most dogmatic religious group by a substantial margin (0.6 standard deviations) during a color-word conflict task but not during a challenging matrix-reasoning task. These results support the hypothesis that behavioral biases rather than impaired general intelligence underlie the religiosity effect

In other words, they are very explicitly telling you in this opening paragraph that their paper does not support the idea that religious people are stupid, but rather that when you are religious then there are specific cognitive biases in play.

What exactly is that colour-word conflict task that they refer to?

If you are given a word that spells a colour, but the word font is actually a different colour, then you have a conflict. For example RED and YELLOW and BLUE creates a conflict between the word as written and the colour you see, so how you respond and resolve that conflict can reveal a cognitive bias. It will point towards you either responding intuitively to the colour you see, or pausing, examining it analytically, and working out that the word as written is not the colour you see.

What they are explaining within that opening paragraph is that when they tested people, the non-religious tended to think analytically and correctly identify the colour that the word spelt out. As a contrast, the religious tended to approach it intuitively and used the colour they saw.

In other words they identified a correlation between people who self-reported as religious and the observation that they tended to lean towards thinking intuitively.

This leads to questions

Try this …

  • Are people religious because they think intuitively, or do they think intuitively because they are religious?

The paper does not go into that, but instead it simply established a correlation, hence you do need to ask if there is in fact a causal relationship here at all?

Additionally intuitive vs analytical is not a binary condition. In reality we all use both intuitive and also analytical thinking to one degree or another. Nobody could function if they exclusively used just one or the other, so this simply points to which of those two modes tended to slightly dominate.

I also suspect that over time we all might have variations to having a preference to either intuitive or analytical approaches, and may even have a bias for which dominates depending upon the topic. For example this week our choice of what to eat off a menu might be handled intuitively, but selecting what to buy at the supermarket might be more analytical, and last week we reversed both of those.

It is still however interesting that they found a correlation between being religious and also a tendency to lean towards intuitive gut-reaction decision making.

Are Religious people stupid?

Some are and some are not. That however is something that applies to all humans, and is just as true for those that are not religious.

Atheism is simply a conclusion for one question. Do you believe there is a God? No … OK, so you are an atheist. That’s it, that is the entire scope.

You will find people who do not believe in a God and yet still believe plenty of other utterly daft ideas. You will also find plenty of humans who identify as religious and are also very smart.

Religion also tends not to be binary, but instead is a collection of ideas that are embraced with vastly varying degrees of confidence. If for example you listed ten popular Catholic beliefs and randomly asked any Catholic how true they felt each was using a scale of 0-100, then I would be rather surprised if anybody, except the most devoutly fanatical, marked 100 for all ten.

One other key observation is this. People are often religious for cultural or emotional reasons. They embrace it as part of their life without giving it too much thought. It acts of a social glue that binds them to their circle of friends, or perhaps binds their family together, and so it does serve a function in the social context that they move within. It is essentially an emotional investment in the associated relationships and human interactions rather that the idea itself. Because the cost of giving it serious thought is too high a price to pay, it is compartmentalised and so retained. The degree of intelligence in play tends to not have a role in this.

What perhaps does potentially play a role is that people who tend to lean a bit more more towards thinking analytically rather than intuitively might start to think a bit more analytically about things such as belief and so they might wonder if it is really true and conclude that it is not due to the lack of any evidence. That, at the very most, is what the paper suggests.

Going way beyond that to atheists are smarter than religious people” is simply not a position supported by this paper.

To put all of that another way – rationality and intelligence and not the same thing. Highly intelligent humans are capable of dreaming up incredibly smart ways of justifying utterly absurd ideas, and that perhaps is all part of the human experience.

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