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High IQ turns academics into atheists

Intelligence is a predictor of religious scepticism, a professor has argued. Rebecca Attwood reports

Belief in God is much lower among academics than among the general population because scholars have higher IQs, a controversial academic claimed this week.

In a forthcoming paper for the journal Intelligence, Richard Lynn, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Ulster, will argue that there is a strong correlation between high IQ and lack of religious belief and that average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 countries.

In the paper, Professor Lynn - who has previously caused controversy with research linking intelligence to race and sex - says evidence points to lower proportions of people holding religious beliefs among “intellectual elites”.

The paper - which was co-written with John Harvey, who does not report a university affiliation, and Helmuth Nyborg, of the University of Aarhus, Denmark - cites studies including a 1990s survey that found that only 7 per cent of members of the American National Academy of Sciences believed in God. A survey of fellows of the Royal Society found that only 3.3 per cent believed in God at a time when a poll reported that 68.5 per cent of the general UK population were believers.

Professor Lynn told Times Higher Education: “Why should fewer academics believe in God than the general population? I believe it is simply a matter of the IQ. Academics have higher IQs than the general population. Several Gallup poll studies of the general population have shown that those with higher IQs tend not to believe in God.”

He said that most primary school children believed in God, but as they entered adolescence - and their intelligence increased - many began to have doubts and became agnostics.

He added that most Western countries had seen a decline of religious belief in the 20th century at the same time as their populations had become more intelligent.

Andy Wells, senior lecturer in psychology at the London School of Economics, said the existence of a correlation between IQ and religiosity did not mean there was a causal relationship between the two.

Gordon Lynch, director of the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society at Birkbeck, University of London, said that any examination of the decline of religious belief needed to take into account a wide and complex range of social, economic and historical factors.

He added: “Linking religious belief and intelligence in this way could reflect a dangerous trend, developing a simplistic characterisation of religion as primitive, which - while we are trying to deal with very complex issues of religious and cultural pluralism - is perhaps not the most helpful response.”

Alistair McFadyen, senior lecturer in Christian theology at the University of Leeds, said that Professor Lynn’s arguments appeared to have “a slight tinge of intellectual elitism and Western cultural imperialism as well as an antireligious sentiment”.

David Hardman, principal lecturer in learning development at London Metropolitan University, said: “It is very difficult to conduct true experiments that would explicate a causal relationship between IQ and religious belief. Nonetheless, there is evidence from other domains that higher levels of intelligence are associated with a greater ability - or perhaps willingness - to question and overturn strongly felt intuitions.”

Readers' comments (224)

  • Very interesting article. However it seems that too much was not taken into account in the study. Such as the anti-Christian attitude of much of the professors of colleges and universities. If one in higher education is told enough that the Bible is full of errors and contradictions and that belief is foolish of course they are more likely to doubt beliefs. Many are taught to listen to their teachers they are more educated and knowledgeable.

    Another point is how much the public schools have berated and disallowed bible study and belief in God. They teach evolution as fact instead of a theory. They are taught that there is not right or wrong. What else with all the teaching against belief would be expected. Also it is not taken into account that higher education does not necessarily equate to higher intelligence. Not all people with high IQs can afford college educations. Nor are all with high IQs interested in so-called higher education. Many are so turned off by the limited intelligence of teachers they would not want to deal with even more arrogant professors who claim knowledge. This is how many I have known felt about teachers.

    Given the obvious slant of educators against religion is it any wonder that more and more are doubting beliefs? As an atheist it was easy to let pride cloud judgement to believe that religion is simply superstition and to be equated with psychics and spiritualists which of course we are told is foolishness. If one believes that religion is foolishness it is not hard at all to equate higher intelligence with unbelief. Of course as long as you do not doubt their religion of evolution. Let us not dare question that sacred cow.

    Though my email address is BibleL7, I was not always a believer. Most of my life I was in fact Atheist. I had no reason to doubt that believers were foolish and thus less intelligent. However at the age of 37 I found out different. I read the Bible from cover to cover and it made much sense. It answered questions that no evolutionist or big bang theory believers ever could. And that was just the first chapter. I have asked many atheists since to answer such questions yet have not received an answer yet. Oh other than to say that evolution is fact and everybody knows it.

    As for the scientific community I would not put much into what it says when I was a child we were told that scientist all agreed we were headed into another ice age now all scientists agree we are having global warming. The give statistics from what they think would be the case hundreds or more years ago yet there are no records of these statistics we are just to take it on faith in their calculations. When these so-called more intelligent people put their beliefs to the same tests they claim that disprove God such as only considering what has been measured and tested and verified by actual evidence perhaps they will find that their faith is misguided.

    Sinners who wish to deny the existence of God so they don't have to consider themselves sinners will still not escape the final judgement of God. The evidence all points to one Creator, One Truth, and that Truth is also the Way and Life. Not wanting to believe and claiming we are too intelligent to believe will not be an excuse.

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  • Thanks, Skye Mc Leod, for that sermon. However, your "They teach evolution as fact instead of a theory" comment only supports the findings, which is that low intelligence people are more likely to believe in a god / fairy / dragon etc.

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  • On the subject of Evolution: in the time of Darwin, Evolution was just a theory, but today evolution is essentially fact (as far as anything can be considered fact), if not self evident. The only issue is whether Evolution created humans directly or whether some other entity (presumably the result of evolution itself) designed us. However currently the evidence suggests it is most likely that we are direct products of Evolution, there is no evidence on the other hand to suggest we have in anyway been designed, even if it looks like that on the surface to those who have a lesser understanding of how evolution works.

    In response to Skye Mc Leod:

    I think Skye's comments go a long way to prove just how probable the correlation between intelligence and propensity to atheism is.

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  • Many are taught to listen to their teachers they are more educated and knowledgeable.

    Certainly at university level, the students should have been taught to critically assess everything the teaching staff say, and check it against independent sources, make sure it makes logical sense and gain a personal view, supported by evidence, of the subject to hand. This is diametrically opposite to teaching them to swallow everything the teaching staff say. This attitude of critical assessment and independent co-oberation probably contributes to the higher rates of atheism.

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  • There have been numerous studies that verify this finding. There are also studies showing that crime is lower in areas where there is little or no religious belief. Religion has no place in school other then to be studied as mythology. The thing is that unintelligent people, who are often religious, will not look at the facts. They have little utility to understand the scientific method and will dismiss study after study that shows the relation between low intelligence and religion. Come on people. We have regected almost all of the gods of the past as stupid superstition. Let's take it a step further.

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  • I agree with Skye. The bible actually answers a lot of questions that contrary theories do not answer. As a matter of fact, the bible has gone as far as predicting these days when people will get deceived and abandon their belief in God. The truth is obvious, and that is why there is so much debate against it. The debates don't change the truth, rather they strengthen it. Jesus is Lord regardless. Life after death on earth is true. Believe in Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.

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  • "It answered questions that no evolutionist or big bang theory believers ever could. And that was just the first chapter."

    Anyone can answer questions by 'making up' answers. If the bible had claimed that the universe was sneezed out of the nose of the 'Great Green Arkleseizure' would you also live in perpetual fear "The Coming of the Great White Handkerchief"?

    There are thousands of different creation myths from different civilisations, why not believe in those instead? They all have the same basis in reality as the Douglas Adams one I've used above.

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  • "Though my email address is BibleL7, I was not always a believer. Most of my life I was in fact Atheist. I had no reason to doubt that believers were foolish and thus less intelligent. However at the age of 37 I found out different. I read the Bible from cover to cover and it made much sense."

    I very much doubt that this is true (yes, I think you're lying...). Here's why I think that:

    1. I know of no atheist who would use capitalize the word, as if it was some sort of belief system, rather than an attitude of disbelief.

    2. No one could possibly read the Bible from a skeptical point of view and come to the conclusion that it "[makes] much sense". What few atheists have reverted to their previous state of belief have usually done so independently of a serious study of religion (usually as a desire to get back to the safety of childhood after a psychological shock). The belief comes first, the study comes later.

    The only way to believe the Bible is to read it while one is already a believer. I have also read the Bible cover to cover: all I found there was a disgusting description of a violent tribal god willing to perform genocide on behalf of one small tribe; intense hatred for anything outside the "tribe"; and a view of humanity so sad as to have little value in the real world.

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  • Having read the article I felt some reservations about the direct link between IQ (which as an indicator has to be treated with caution - I thought there was a lot of debate over the validity of IQ as a measure of intellect) and religiosity. However, I think David Hardman hit the nail on the head with his point "there is evidence from other domains that higher levels of intelligence are associated with a greater ability - or perhaps willingness - to question and overturn strongly felt intuitions.". I think it is this questioning nature that leads one to the open conclusions of agnosticism or atheism (I would argue most atheist are ideologically agnostics, but rate the probability of finding any evidence to prove the existence of a creator so slim that to all intents and purposes they are atheists).

    There are a few responses I would like to give to Skye's comments.

    "When these so-called more intelligent people put their beliefs to the same tests they claim that disprove God such as only considering what has been measured and tested and verified by actual evidence perhaps they will find that their faith is misguided."

    Firstly, it is not for anyone to disprove a theory or ideology, but for the believers to prove it. Scientist, as far as I am aware are not trying to disprove God. I'm also not aware of any scientific effort to disprove the exisitance or leprechaun's or other mythical creatures.
    They are ultimately pointless tasks that have no end. In addition to this, how would you set about disproving something that has no evidence to say it exists, other than a story book (be it a religious story, or a mythical story. The myths of the Norse, Romans and Ancient Greeks once made up religions too) Regarding leprechauns. although there existence has not been disproved, I doubt many people truly believe they exist.

    Science is not biased on faith, at least not for the community scientists engaged in the research. They have highly trained critical analytical skills to test their theories with. They have methodically tested their theories against the available evidence. Some theories fail these tests, and as such are discarded and replaced by an theory that more completely describes the evidence (sometimes this replacement theory is a modified version of the original).

    Scientific theories are peer reviewed and so have been tested by scientists other than those who proposed the theory. This overcomes any theory being adopted due to personal feelings. By this mechanism of peer review any unfit theory is discredited. This leads to the adoption of the best possible theory at that point in time. If new evidence arises that somehow contradicts the prevailing theory then the theory is re-examined, along with any competing theories. This is a continual process. Obviously we don't know everything and I am sure that in time many of the accepted theories of today will be overthrown by improved theories as human knowledge expands.

    For those outside of the scientific research process, I can see that a lot of the claims the scientific community makes have to be taken on faith. There is of course the option to study the subject area oneself, through books and reliable internet resources, to allow critical consideration of what the scientific community are saying, so there is an alternative to simply taking on faith whatever the media says the scientific community is saying (not always the same as what the scientific community is actually saying, either because it doesn't make such a nice headline or through genuine misunderstandings).

    There is often confusion over the term "theory", and it seems Skye has fallen into this trap. The everyday definition of "theory" is a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural. A scientific theory has however been through the extensive peer review process described above, and so has considerable evidence in it's favour. In this sense a scientific theory is far from conjectural. A scientific theory should also make predictions beyond the current body of evidence to allow the theory to be tested. Only once passing these hurdles is a scientific theory accepted.

    As Skye correctly points out, evolution is a theory. People may often incorrectly take this to mean that evolution is somehow not really thought to be an accurate explanation of how life came to be the way it is today. While I will agree evolution is not a fact, I will say that it is as close to fact that anything can be. There is a huge body of evidence in support of evolution. Contact your local University's Biology Department. I am sure they would help explain the case to any interested parties. I have yet to have heard of any competing theory or ideology that explains the evidence around us well as evolution.

    On belief, the matter was rather nicely summed up in a conversation I had with a friend yesterday. He had just listened to a radio phone in show hosted by an atheist on the topic of religious belief. A questioning believer had phoned up and asked "How can atheists not believe in God?". The host asked the caller if he believed in Unicorns, and the caller explained he did not. The host said then questioned why the caller didn't believe in Unicorns. The caller explained he'd never seen any evidence of Unicorns. The host said, I think you have just answered your own question.

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  • Thanks to Chuck and Chris for the drive-by sneers of Skye McLeod. Such disdain is a typical reaction of some "intellectuals" to arguments they disagree with but cannot refute.

    Even if it were true that intelligence is correlated with atheism, it only provides more proof that intelligence is not the same as wisdom.

    Like Skye, I am an adult convert to Christianity after being a convinced atheist. By the time I was converted (at age 32), I had a post-graduate degree. Go figure!

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