The Religious Response to the Zuckerman’s Atheist Intelligence Study

Miron Zuckerman, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, recently published a study that probably all atheists have heard of by now. It turns out that we’re generally more intelligent than religionists. I won’t get into the study methodology or argue the validity of the results –I have some opinions on this. I thought instead that I’d highlight a few responses from the religious to the religious about this study.

From the Religion News Service:

Are atheists smarter than believers? Not exactly.” They emphasize that Zuckerman is careful to say that the results of the meta-analysis reveal that “intelligent people may have less need for religion.”

They go on to quote R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., who has “great concerns” about the study: “We do not draw support for our faith from scientific reports. Anyone whose faith is shaken by the claim that research proves that higher intelligence leads to lower levels of religious belief has a misplaced faith.”

And Congregationalist pastor, Lilian Daniel: “It’s not that intelligence leads to atheism, or education leads to loss of faith,” she said. “But I think 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.”

From the Christian Post:

Study Draws Skepticism After Concluding Atheists ‘More Intelligent’ Than Their Religious Counterparts” They cited “strong criticism” of Zuckerman’s use of the word “intelligence” which they say “only considered an analytic framework of intelligence and did not address the impact that other forms, such as creative and emotional intelligence, had on a person’s overall aptitude in relation to an individual’s religious identity.” The Christian Post was also concerned that Zuckerman “narrowly defined a person’s religious influence as one’s involvement in part or all aspects of religious practice.”

Creative intelligence? Emotional intelligence? And how dare someone assume that religion means involvement in religious practice.

The CP was also bothered that Zuckerman didn’t address the personal impact that faith and unexplained meta-physical occurrences has on shaping one’s religious identity.”

Christian Today ran a very brief article on it: “Study links religious belief to intelligence,” just 11 sentences long. At first glance, they really had nothing negative to add, they simply reported the study and the results without critique. However, I read it again more carefully and noted that they included this sentence: ”Most extant explanations (of a negative relation) share one central theme – the premise that religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better’,” a quote from the study itself. Perhaps they simply took the tact of painting the research as snooty, elitist assumption. Or perhaps someone was genuinely trying to report in an unbiased fashion and thought this interesting. Hard to say.

Like I said, I have some opinions on studies of this nature. One of which is that it might be that what we’re looking at is a function of social conservatism rather than religiosity. Helmuth Nyborg conducted a very similar study in 2008 which seemed to show a link in just this area. The more conservative a religious sect was, the less intelligent the membership appeared. For instance, Pentecostals rated fairly low while Episcopalians rated fairly high. In fact, Episcopalians and Jews ranked marginally higher than atheists and agnostics in intelligence with his study.

All fascinating stuff and important to understand when trying to break the spell of religion.

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