Why Are Atheists Generally Smarter Than Religious People?

Why are Atheists Generally Smarter Than Religious People?

Couple of academics just asked the question, “Why is Intelligence Negatively Associated with Religiousness?”

“The answer”, one report says, “is that religion is an instinct, and it takes intelligence to overcome an instinct”.

That’s odd, because it was just three weeks ago we read that brain damage was caused religious fundamentalism. So which is it? Instinct or brain damage?

It’s science!

The authors of the new study, Edward Dutton and Dimitri Van der Linden, are pleased to start their work by saying, “It was widely remarked upon in Classical Greece and Rome that ‘fools” tended to be religious while the ‘wise’ were skeptics.” But they unwisely forget that Rome’s greatest poet Virgil in Georgics wrote, “Above all, worship the gods.” And Plato had Timaeus say, “All men, Socrates, who have any degree of right feeling, at the beginning of every enterprise, whether small or great, always call upon God.” Let us do the same.

Dutton and Dimitri Van der Linden think “a solution to understanding the negative religion-intelligence nexus” lies in evolutionary theory.

If religion is an evolved domain, then it is an instinct and intelligence — in rationally solving problems — can be understood as involving overcoming instinct and being intellectually curious and thus open to non-instinctive possibilities.

Now Dutton and Van der Linden have no proof of this. It is just a theory, full of ifs, supposeds, conjectures, maybes. Worse, it commits the Religion Research Fallacy. As I wrote three weeks back:

It is an old argument, but a good one: If the brain [through evolution] causes our thoughts, then it cannot be trusted. For what guarantee is there that if it misleads us in one area it’s not misleading us in another? There is none. If the brain causes false religious beliefs, it could also cause false science beliefs. And there’s no way to tell the difference.

Dutton and Van der Linden call their theory the “Intelligence-Mismatch Association Model”. But they didn’t consider an even simpler theory about religion and intelligence. I call it the Smart People Believe Dumb Things theory. It goes like this.

Some smart guys

Know who was a smart guy? Jean Jacques Rousseau. Dude really had a wigged head on his shoulders. Everybody said, “That Jolly Jean Jacques is sharp as the blade of a guillotine.”

Know what he said? “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

Tumultuous applause still greets that line every time it’s heard, even though, as is obvious, it is preposterously false. Set a baby down and leave it be. See how “free” it is. So contrary to common observation is this, and many, of Rousseau’s sayings, that they could only be the product of a brilliant mind.

Know how intelligent Mao Zedong was? Boy, was that man’s mind keen! Every Western visitor remarked on the number of books Mao possessed. And he read them! He used to make notes in the margins to have “arguments” with the authors.

All that reading swelled to magnificent proportion his little gray cells. One intelligent man. And, let’s face it, it takes a genius to slaughter tens of millions and still come out smelling sweet.

Mao did not love God. Rousseau wasn’t too enamored, either. Neither Stalin. Or Marx.

None of these guys were dumb. But each of them, like many others of high intellect, rejected the simplest and truest and plainest argument there is. That God exists.


The secret answered revealed!


  1. hmi

    A quibble, but not inappropriate in a discussion of standards of evidence:
    No given utterance by any given character in a Platonic dialogue can be taken to represent the thought of Plato. There is no reason to suppose that Plato intended Timaeus’ comment about the divine to be taken as Platonic doctrine any more than Thrasymachus’ skepticism about justice in the Republic. And, of course, the fact that men, whether of right or wrong feeling, habitually invoke gods, says little about their actual beliefs.

  2. Briggs


    Very true. especially in interlocutors of Socrates! But in this case, as with evidence from Republic, I think we may take it Plato looked kindly on religion. Anyway, there is only so much you can do is 800 words.

  3. Sheri

    I always thought atheism correlated to extreme ego, though admittedly, egotistical people do believe they are smarter and many smart people have huge egos, so the researchers may have missed that variable.

  4. Smarter people think out of the box and tend to go their own way. Religion tells people to follow the leaders. Disputing dogma is a heresy.

  5. acricketchirps

    Hans’ answer is just the polite way of phrasing Briggs’ “Smart People Believe Dumb Things”.

  6. Jim Fedako

    Keep in mind that “intelligence” is a question begging epithet.

    I know, I know, only a progressive revisionist would claim there are forms of intelligence that cannot be “tested” by the standard set of indicators. However, that proposition is false. We all know it is, especially those of us who “test” well. We just do not want to admit that others — those who do not test well — might possess high levels of intelligence — whatever that really is — in areas where we lack.

    Simply define intelligence in a way that excludes a belief in God and the atheist is more intelligent.

    However, consider what Paul wrote, “Professing to be wise, they became fools … ,” along with this in Proverbs, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.'”

    So we should not be shocked that many of those professing to be wise have become fools, saying, “God is dead.”

  7. Jim S

    As an atheist, I’m embarrassed by such pseudo-intellectual studies. Making an appeal to the black-box of “evolutionary psychology” to “explain” something is every bit as irrational as when a religious person mistakenly commits a “God of the Gaps” fallacy.

    William James (a hero of mine) makes the best and most rational argument for religious belief – see his essay The Will to Believe – which was a response to W. K. Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief.

  8. Sander van der Wal

    Breathing is an instinct too. Smart people understand that they die without breathing. So instinct is a good thing, based on this particular sample of one instinct.

    Why is religion an instinct? If that would be the case then you would expect animals to have religion. Animals after all have all other instincts. They are called instincts because you don’t need human-level brains for them to exist in a brain.

  9. Shecky R

    “…God exists.”
    There are no certainties, and there are no proofs; no proof even that you exist Briggs (…though, perhaps you do).

  10. Briggs


    Are you certain there are no certainties?

  11. Gary in Erko

    Atheists are smarter than religious people because atheists need only one word and religious people need two. There, that settles it. That’s about the level of evidence and argument involved in this. Why does anything think it needs a rational rebuttal. It’s a joke If it proves anything, it’s obviously the opposite, because how could anyone except an atheist believe this gumph.

  12. Michael 2

    Sander van der Wal “Why is religion an instinct?”

    Because we (*) define it that way. Belief, *and* disbelief, evolved in parallel (or were created, works out the same either way). It is necessary to be able to believe things; it is useful to doubt things.

    Religion is simply that which you believe, usually cast in the realm of right and wrong, prescribed and proscribed behaviors.

    * We is whoever defines it that way!

    “If that would be the case then you would expect animals to have religion.”

    Likely so, depending on the intelligence of the animal as demonstrated by learning ability.

    It is trivial to say God exists and be correct; it is much less rational to say God does not exist, since in most cases no party to these debates bothers to say what they mean by the word.

    If you will kindly explain what kind of God you think does not exist, I could add a great many more to that list, all of them invented by someone, often for the purpose of saying it/he/she doesn’t exist.

    I use the word “intelligence” to signify problem solving abilities. A raven or crow can solve problems and use tools; they demonstrate intelligence thereby. Intelligence tests often require some form of problem solving.

    Christianity has an important concept: Sheep know their shepherd’s voice. I know God because I’ve heard his voice, I recognize it and distinguish it from other, contrary, voices. I do not start from reading words in a book or even having been taught; my parents had no religion, my father proclaims himself an atheist (but can recite the Lord’s prayer, so I have a doubt about his atheism, a thing unlike non-theism where a person just doesn’t care).

    Intelligence leads to rational religion.

  13. Michael 2

    Followup to my previous.

    I do not assert the existence of an Omni-Omni God, a being so powerful he can create an object so heavy he cannot move it but of course, being Omni-Omni he can still move the thing so heavy he cannot move it.

    What I know for sure is that there’s a being (possibly or likely more than one), that knows I exist, cares that I exist, cares that others exists, does not directly intervene in dramatic ways but frequently intervenes in small ways sometimes not certainly different than normal circumstances but other times very definitely miraculous. This being has preferences, not for himself, but with regard to how I treat others. It matters how I treat others and he wishes that I treat others as I am myself treated by him; with care and compassion, but not smothered so that I do not learn and grow by my own experiences.

    I am not *made*, I am *grown*.

  14. Sander van der Wal


    I’m sure an animal will believe it needs another drink, but that wasn’t the question.

    If there is a new definition of instinct one has to know which behaviours are instincts under the new definition, and which are not. This is supposed to be scientific, not some kind of sophistery.

  15. Michael 2

    Sander van der Wal writes “This is supposed to be scientific, not some kind of sophistery.”

    Abandon hope all ye who participate in blogs! There be no science here; ’tis impossible. Just words sometimes cleverly written.

    I believe an intelligent person is less moved by declaration and more inspired by his own observation. If he is religious it is because he chose it, it did not choose him.

  16. Ye Olde Statistician

    intelligence of the animal as demonstrated by learning ability.

    But learning is explicable entirely by a) sensation, b) memory, and c) practical imagination – that is, the ability to form images (not necessarily visual) in the absence of the thing itself. Intelligence, as the name suggests — inter legere — requires the ability to “read between” the lines; that is, to read what is not there.

    I use the word “intelligence” to signify problem solving abilities.

    A great deal depends on the kind of problem beings solved. If it involves only the knowledge of concrete particulars, like picking pockets to get the key to escape a cage (as a friend’s daughter told of some chimps kept in a lab) that is one thing; but some problems are more abstract than that.

    I do not assert the existence of an Omni-Omni God, a being so powerful he can create an object so heavy he cannot move it

    I’m not sure what an omni-omni God is; only that it is not the sort of Being contemplated by the traditional Christians. The contemplated feat is what is known as a logical contradiction. Not everything expressible in words is a live possibility. God cannot make a married bachelor, either.

    If there is a new definition of instinct one has to know which behaviours are instincts under the new definition.

    The “new” definition of instinct is the one that goes back to Descartes and the Scientific Revolution. The Scientists essentially regarded animals as “meat puppets.” Their Aristotelian predecessors had regarded instinct as rather more supple and even creative. Most animals are capable of learned behaviors. Otherwise, there’d be no circuses or dancing bears.

    The animal must know certain intentions which external sense does not apprehend, such as the harmful, the useful, and so on. For example, the sheep flees naturally from the wolf as something harmful. This is called the estimative power, is acquired generally by natural instinct and in some cases by learning. For example, leopard cubs must be taught by their mother how to hunt, but the instinct for hunting seems to be inborn.

  17. DAV

    I use the word “intelligence” to signify problem solving abilities.
    depends on the kind of problem beings solved

    Reminds me of the car ad where a kid is trying to identify the specs of a car by its sound while his friend looks to see if he’s right. After describing the specs of the car in amazing detail, his friend says: “Yeah! But what color is it?”

    Problem solving such as finding a route vs. finding a mathematical proof involves the same procedure of recursively finding subgoals. That Intelligence somehow depends on the subject matter (the problem’s “color”) is just plain silly.

    Intelligence is more properly defined by how the available information is processed instead of the specific information used. Encyclopedias contain a lot of information but process it poorly.


  18. Ye Olde Statistician

    But some problems (perhaps most) can be solved by simply waiting them out. Others can be solved by guess and by golly. Another by imitation of something else. Still others can be solved by an understanding of root causes. Another by mere industriousness rather than intelligence. And so on.

    Of course, when an age is enthralled to a particular paradigm, it is easy to frame everything in terms of that paradigm. This results in the illusion that all problems are the sort of problems that fit that paradigm or, worse, the attempt to trim all problem as Procrustes did so that they do fit the paradigm. That’s why, when high tech meant aqueducts and hydraulics, the world was conceived in terms of “humors” and the like. And later, when clocks were the cutting edge, the world was conceived in mechanical terms. Today, computers are all the rage, so we imagine everything in programming terms.

    Naturally, each of these metaphors led to insights; but each led to blind spots because we could not “see” anything that did not fall within the metaphor/paradigm. As Heisenberg put it in Physics and Philosophy: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”
    A different method of questioning – a different metaphor – might expose different aspects of nature, or even direct out attention beyond nature.

  19. DAV

    some problems (perhaps most) can be solved by simply waiting them out. Others can be solved by guess and by golly. Another by imitation of something else. Still others can be solved by an understanding of root causes. Another by mere industriousness rather than intelligence. And so on.

    Yes. Intelligence (defined by problem solving method) is a continuum and not just the top tier of problem solutions.

    Then, too, the range of problems that are solved. A robot(or mouse) that solves mazes by bumping into walls and using that information to find paths is exhibiting intelligence but its intelligence is limited to maze solving thus is low. Something that solves the problem more efficiently (whatever that might mean) would be higher on the intelligence scale.

  20. DAV

    (* dratted internet *)
    While something that applies its maze solving abilities to other problems would be even higher on the scale.

  21. Ye Olde Statistician

    But what is a “problem”?

    And what is a “solution”?

    When I taught problem-solving, there were several species of each.

    Bumping into walls until you blunder out of a maze does not in my mind constitute “solving” the maze. It is not even clear if it would get you out of the same maze a second time, let alone out of a different maze, even by the same blundering. (In fact, there are several species of maze.)

    Why is getting out of the maze a solution? Maybe it is better to remain inside the maze because outside is a radioactive wasteland. How does a thing inside the maze – say, a robot – “know” that it is in a maze in the first place?

    It might be that intelligence is knowing when a problem does not need to be solved.

  22. Ye Olde Statistician

    So which is it, behavioralist or gestalt? (Or are there other schools of psychology?) Recall that problem-solving was said to be independent of the kind of thing being called a problem. So far, I’ve seen nothing to suggest otherwise. Vague generalities about change-path visioning and the like may tell us what problem-solving is suppose to do — though it also tells us what strategic planning is supposed to do — but it does not adequately explain how to solve problems of various sorts.

  23. DAV

    So which is it, behavioralist or gestalt?

    Got me. You’re the one changing the subject so I gave you something to chew on. I give a chew toy to the dog when he wants to be annoying. Keeps him occupied.

    You earlier said: But some problems (perhaps most) can be solved by …. but afterward ask But what is a “problem”? . You know how some problems can be solved but don’t know what a “problem” is? And now you want characterization? Sheesh!

  24. Ye Olde Statistician

    Intelligence had been characterized as “problem-solving.”

    I noted that there are different species of problems and the solving of them was different. In particular, I would not regard bumbling about and stumbling out of a maze a “solution” to the maze.

    Some folks demurred and insisted that all problem-solving was the same. But this sameness consisted of conceptions to generic as to be useless in solving any particular problem.

    Hence, my rhetorical question as to what constitutes a “problem” and what constitutes a “solution” to the problem. For example: if my dog has fleas, does throwing the dog into a furnace constitute a solution on the grounds that fleas cannot survive at elevated temperatures?

    I don’t think we are really in serious disagreement here. You may enjoy the following short story:

  25. DAV

    In the chew toy I supplied, the first sentence is: A problem arises when we need to overcome some obstacle in order to get from our current state to a desired state.

    A bit wordy but IOW: a problem is generally an obstacle to a goal and a solution is how the obstacle was surmounted. There really isn’t any need at this point to go into what might be different problems (some are solved with hammers, some with screwdrivers and some with paper and pencil — not to mention a host of others). You seem to have missed that intelligence is a continuum from low to high.

    Not sure who claimed all problems are the same. Although I did mention two specific problems that use the same procedure making them effectively the same except for subject. The general procedure for most problems that can be partitioned into subgoals (likely most problems) is to recursively solve for the subgoals. In that light, most problems are at least superficially the same.

    Yes, if bumbling about circumvents an obstacle to the goal it is a solution. Not the most elegant perhaps but then the idea is get around the obstacle. Ever watch a human in panic mode? They’ll try most anything.

  26. Ye Olde Statistician

    if bumbling about circumvents an obstacle to the goal it is a solution. Not the most elegant perhaps but then the idea is get around the obstacle.

    One day you come home and step into your kitchen and instead of clomp-clomp, you go splish-splash. You look down and see water all over the kitchen floor running out from under the sink. Do you have a problem?

    Yes. (It’s not a trick question. A problem is when AS IS ? SHOULD BE. The floor SHOULD BE dry, but instead it IS wet.

    So immediately, you turn off the water main, get out a mop and bucket and mop up the floor. Soon, it is clear and dry.

    Have you solved the problem?

    Ever watch a human in panic mode? They’ll try most anything.

    Sure. I’ve also seen humans in problem solving mode. Looks a lot different. Fellow had a car that wouldn’t start. He had no idea why, so he just started replacing things until eventually it started.

    OTOH, Dorian Shainin was once asked by an automaker to help them with a problem in which some cars were not starting. “We think it might be the carburetor but we don’t know how to prove it.” OK, Shainin said, put two cars aside for me, one that starts and one that doesn’t. “We can’t do that. If it starts, we ship it. If it doesn’t start, we cannibalize it for parts. We got shipments to make.” Shainin said, Let me know when you’re ready to get serious, and he hung up. Two days later he gets another call: “OK, we got two cars set aside, but hurry over because logistics is giving us the the stink-eye.” So Shaining goes over. This car starts and that one doesn’t? Right. And you think it’s the carburetor? Right. OK, take the carburetor from this car and put it in that car; and take the carburetor from that car and put it in this one.

    When they had done as he had asked, that car started and this car did not. “Yup,” said Shainin. “It’s the carburetor.”

    We could have done that ourselves! his client complained.

    “No you couldn’t have. You couldn’t even get the two cars set aside without my prodding you.”

    The next step was to remove the top assemblies from the carburetors and switch them; and then a subassembly from the top assembly. That was enough to narrow the search for the cause to a particular component.

    Who was the problem-solver: the first individual in panic mode or Dorian Shainin?

  27. DAV

    Have you solved the problem?

    Yes, if the goal is to return to a dry floor. At any given time the problem is to reach the current goal. It is irrelevant that there may be other goals or that the current one is merely a subgoal. The solution to a subgoal may cause additional problems given other goals. Yet another problem. Is it a good solution? Maybe, maybe not. Solving the problem of keeping the floor dry after turning the water back on is just another problem.

    The problem of a leak making the floor wet likely wouldn’t bother a horse nor would it likely bother a three year old. human. Stop insisting on only human (adult or otherwise) perceived problems.

    If all you are trying to say is that perception of goals is also a measure of intelligence then I agree. Don’t recall saying problem solving is the only measure.

  28. brian (bulaoren)

    I think that photo’ is of a young Mao. (and I have been living in China for the past 15 years). Are we talking about intelligence, or mere feral, animal, cunning? Things do get simpler when G-d is not part of the equation.

  29. SAV

    I’m a practising Buddhist so that makes me religious but also means I’m an an atheist. So I guess that makes me smarter than myself whichever side you take in this phony debate.

  30. Daniel

    The fact that you voluntarily choose to fight a losing war tells me everything I need to know about your intelligence.

    Good luck proving the existence of imaginary friends through mental gymnastics.

  31. Ye Olde Statistician

    imaginary friends

    One of the great impediments of the Late Modern Age is the inability to distinguish between the intellect and the imagination.

  32. Michael 2

    Daniel writes: “The fact that you voluntarily choose to fight a losing war tells me everything I need to know about your intelligence.”

    There is nothing that you need to know about my intelligence. However, the comment speaks to character, not intelligence. Choosing to do a right thing even in a losing war speaks highly of courage and character.

    “Good luck proving the existence of imaginary friends through mental gymnastics.”

    I don’t know anyone trying to do that, but for those making the attempt, I salute you.

  33. David Beckham

    It’s funny to read this after the “Midwit” had become a meme.

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