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Fisher of Men

Are Atheists More Intelligent than the Religious?

Are Atheists More Intelligent than the Religious?

Even the legendarily left-leaning Huffington Post called it “provocative.” A new study claims that religious people are less intelligent than atheists.

The “study” is actually a review of 63 studies of intelligence and religion conducted over the past century (1928-2012). The “meta-analysis” apparently shows that in 53 of the studies there was an inverse relationship between having religious beliefs (and/or performing religious rituals) and intelligence.

In other words, non-believers scored higher than religious people on intelligence tests.

Some smelled raw meat, jumping immediately to the conclusion that “religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better.’”

Actually, no.

Study co-author Jordan Silberman says that it would be a mistake to assume their findings mean that if you’re a believer, you’re a few fries short of a Happy Meal.

“I’m sure there are intelligent religious people and unintelligent atheists out there,” Silberman says. “The findings pertain to the average intelligence of religious and non-religious people, but they don’t necessarily apply to any single person. Knowing that a person is religious would not lead me to bet any money on whether or not the person is intelligent.”

Or as the study’s conductor, Miron Zuckerman (a psychologist at the University of Rochester) offers, “It is truly the wrong message to take from here that if I believe in God I must be stupid.”

Fair enough, but not enough.

Let’s dig into the study itself.

The meta-anaylsis did not look at the type of religion, much less the role culture might play in the interaction between religiosity and intelligence.

To lump, say, Jehovah’s Witnesses with American evangelical Christians would be ridiculous for a study of this type, as JWs decry education (particularly for women), and evangelicals founded such intellectual bastions as Wheaton and currently laud such scholars as scientist Francis Collins, historian Mark Noll, and… well, you get my point.

And we all know the sad, tragic, heroic story of Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen last August in retribution for her public advocacy for girls’ education.

Would you diminish the worth of her faith due to her lack of education? And let’s be clear: the results of many intelligence tests rise and fall on the amount of educational stimulus an individual has received.

To that point, The Independent noted that the researchers used a very narrow definition of intelligence in the study, defining it as “the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience.”

Sounds good, but it excludes other forms of intelligence, such as creative and emotional intelligence (forms of intelligence more easily assessed independent of educational stimulus).

But for me, the most important observation came from public statements from both Zuckerman and the study’s co-author, Jordan Silberman. When asked why he thought the meta-analysis seemed to favor the atheist over the believer, Silberman said he suspected it had more to do with “intelligent” people having less of a “need” for religion.

Specifically, “Intelligence may also lead to greater self-control ability, self-esteem, [and] perceived control over the events.”

Is it just me, or does that translate as “pride”?

If you fancy yourself smart, and indeed perhaps are, you are prone to pride. Intellectual pride leads to a false sense of self-sufficiency coupled with a lack of teachability. You do not bow your knee to anyone – if anything, others should bow to you.

No wonder the study concludes that the higher the “intelligence,” the more likely that person is to challenge established norms and dogma (read: authority).   

Perhaps nowhere does that kind of pride run amok more than in academia. As Lillian Daniel has observed, “there is a certain peer pressure as one moves up the educational ladder to dismiss all religion as fundamentalism. It’s one of the last acceptable biases in an environment that prides itself on being open-minded.”

There’s that word again.


If you give in to that pride – particularly its highest form, which is putting yourself in the position of God – then there is no place for, well, God.

So maybe it’s not that religious people are less “intelligent” than atheists.

Maybe, in truth, the religious are the most intelligent of all. Not because they refuse to accept the facts, but because they do. Two in particular.

First, that there is a God.

And then the all-important second fact:

“And I’m not Him.”

James Emery White



The study first appeared in the online version of Personality and Social Psychology Review, an academic journal, and will appear next year in print version.

“Religious People Branded As Less Intelligent Than Atheists In Provocative New Study,” Macrina Cooper-White, The Huffington Post, posted August 14, 2013, read online.

“Are atheists smarter than believers? Not exactly,” Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service, August 16, 2013, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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