Episode 117: Why Are Atheists More Intelligent?

The Doubtcasters return from their ridiculously long, unannounced break to dissect  the research behind the much reported headline that non-religious people are, on average, more intelligent than the religious. While the available data makes it clear that religion is negatively correlated with intelligence, the reasons behind this relationship are less clear. We will review some of the best theories advanced to explain this relationship for this episodes “God Thinks Like You” segment. Also, a new counter-apologetics segment asks “What is the probability that God would want to raise a first century religious leader from the dead?”; and the laughter is contagious in this weeks “Stranger Than Fiction”

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Episode Links:

Zuckerman, Silberman & Hall’s Meta-Analysis on Intelligence and Religiosity

In mother Russia, feelings hurt you!

State Department’s office of “religious engagement”

Atheism is warning sign for suicide according to Marine Corps

Can Atheists be military chaplains


  1. Ido says

    Hello Doubtcasters!

    I’m an Israeli atheist and a long time listener of the show. I want to first thank you for the great show. It’s really a delight to listen to your discussions. My comment is about your discussion on the meta-analysis by Zuckerman et al. While reading the paper (quite a long time ago…) I had two objections to it that I’m not particularly certain about, but made me lean against the dominant interpretation of their data. I would really like to know what you think about them.

    First, I’m not convinced that there is an actual phenomenon that requires any elaborate explanation. Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t, but this meta-analysis didn’t seem to me conclusive. The paper reported a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence. However, this correlation was weak, so weak in fact that I would say it might be negligible. In their various statistical tests for a correlation between religiosity and intelligence, Zuckerman et al used the Pearson correlation coefficient (r) statistic. Their statistical tests were statistically significant (p < 0.05), but the correlations had |r| < 0.2 and sometimes even |r| < 0.1.

    I'm a biochemistry graduate student and therefore usually apply statistics in biological studies, not psychological or sociological studies. When I find such a correlation between two variables, I don't even bother trying to find an explanation, because it's so weak that it might just be a fluke (which in this case is certainly possible, considering the test for heterogeneity in this meta-analysis was positive). However, I know that in different scientific fields statistics are interpreted in different ways. Does this kind of weak correlation is conclusive enough to warrant an explanation in psychology and sociology? I would like to hear the your views on this matter, particularly the view of Doctor, Professor, Optimus Prime, Doubtcaster in Cheif, Michigan's Blooming Sensual Sensation Luke "Do you have a Ph.D?" Galen. ;)

    Second, and this is far more important, even assuming there is a phenomenon to be explained, its relation to atheism is far from obvious. I only skimmed over several of the studies included in the meta-analysis. It seemed to me that most of them didn't distinguish between the non-religious and atheists. This means that when Zuckerman et al calculated the differences in IQ points between believers and non-believers, the most conservative interpretation of what they did is that they calculated the IQ difference between non-religious and religious people. So it seems to me us atheists should not really be giving ourselves that big of a pat on our shoulders. Furthermore, it doesn't seem justified then for Zuckerman et al to explain their results in terms of hypotheses that pertain to atheists in particular. And yet, this is exactly what they did, and extensively too. It seemed to me very convoluted.

    I would like to hear your thoughts on this. Keep up the excellent work. :)

  2. says

    They’re not more intelligent. Atheism is no more a guarantor of overall intelligence than is Mensa membership. Also, atheism is no guarantor of moral superiority, either.

    As a non-Gnu atheist, shite like this is why I normally don’t call myself an atheist.

  3. BradC says

    Good episode, I enjoyed it!

    Can you guys fix your iTunes feed?
    I still get episodes with no valid date, so they sort in alphabetical order.

  4. FactoidJunkie says

    Glad you guys are back from sabbatical (can I use that last word?). I found the meta-study discussion intriguing.

    In terms of the portion devoted Craig’s twisted logic, I pose the following question. Wouldn’t a better evidence of God’s moral intention and Jesus deity be that Jesus lived for a thousand or two thousand years (or longer?) on Earth, rather than dying and resurrecting to a small, suspect group of observers?

    For SocraticGadfly, I ask if you believe there is variation in intelligence, and if so, how we might test the variation.

  5. jesse says

    @FactoidJunkie– there may well be variation in intelligence — but that depends on what you mean by “intelligence.”

    There’s been a lot of back and forth about it, but generally I’d say you have to be very specific about what you are measuring. I draw a parallel with athleticism. Many people — say Michael Phelps — have attributes they are born with that make them better at what they do. For instance Phelps has longer than average arms for his body type/ shape. (Really!) Not by much but in a sport where 0.001 seconds matter it’s enough. That doesn’t mean he would be a “natural” at baseball or football. The skills are very, very different. Same for ballet.

    intelligence is probably much the same. There are certain inborn attributes, whatever they are, that make you just a bit better at certain things. Even among really smart people there are variations in what they are good at, depending on practice, inclination, and a host of other confounding factors. While there might be some g factor that makes it easier to learn a wide range of skills, what does it mean if that person has to work harder at some than others? I know nobody, not even super-geniuses, who find everything they do easy, anymore than the greatest athletes do.

    I might add, that like intelligence, athletic performance can come from practice and it is not always easy to tell the difference and parse out what is inborn. Billy Martin and Pedro Martinez are good examples of this. By Martin had to work really hard to stay in the big leagues (one reason he was so uptight around Reggie Jackson, whose natural gifts made it easier for him) and so did Pedro Martinez, who was arguably one of the top pitchers of the last 20 years. Pedro was considered too short to be a pitcher, but he was great anyway. How did that happen? What “natural” gift did he have? Or was it just bloody-mindedness on his part? Then you get Alex Rodriguez, who is plainly talented in a “natural” way, but would he be that if he went into tennis? Soccer? Diving? Maybe. But it’s awfully hard to tell.

    Intelligence is probably a multi-factor phenomenon. You can measure certain bits of it, but I doubt there’s one “g” that makes you “smarter” than X number of people on the planet. An that makes sense — the brain isn’t a one-factor organ. There is a part for language, another for spatial reasoning, and the interaction between all these bits makes us conscious (somehow, nobody knows yet the exact mechanism). It’s why when you have a brain injury you don’t suddenly lose all cognitive abilities equally– some people are aphasic, some lose math, some suddenly lose their first language and become fluent in a second. Some lose the ability to recognize objects. The variation is pretty wild.

    I’ll give one example: I’m pretty good at learning languages. I enjoy it. But I struggle mightily with calculus. Am I smarter or dumber than a theoretical physicist who can’t get through Spanish 101? We might perform equally well or poorly on a traditional IQ test.

  6. =8)-DX says


    They’re not more intelligent. Atheism is no more a guarantor of overall intelligence than is Mensa membership. Also, atheism is no guarantor of moral superiority, either.

    As a non-Gnu atheist, shite like this is why I normally don’t call myself an atheist.

    If you had listened to the podcast you’d understand that the topic was a discussion of a recent meta-study of the correlation between intelligence and non-belief. No one was saying atheism is a guarantor of intelligence, in fact that was pointed out multiple times by the doubtcasters. Your “shite like this” is a statistically significant correlation between intelligence and nonbelief, with some interesting possible causes mentioned by the researchers (more intelligent people are more likely to be in an academic setting, rely on themselves instead of religion, think more analytically etc.)

    Off-the-cuff rejections of a whole topic based on knee-jerk reactions by atheists who can’t even be bothered to do their homework (or even frickin’ read/listen to the stuff they’re commenting on) are of course a nice example of the fact that not all atheists are reasonable or intelligent.


    Loved this episode, the full gamut of segments were a delight to listen to. Thanks!

  7. says

    That corpse of an argument you’re kicking? It’s made of straw, dude. Or did you only read the post heading? Overall, there is a positive correlation between atheism and higher IQ. That’s so far from saying that atheism implies higher intelligence that it’s not even in the same game, let alone the same ball park.

    I think you’re demanding too much of the term ‘intelligence’ and are in danger of defining it out of existence. For the purpose of analyses such as these, there’s only one useful definition: intelligence is the set of mental skills assessed by IQ testing. Sure that excludes a lot of other abilities and aptitudes, but so what? It’s only when we start assuming that intelligence *should* include such variables that things get sticky. There’s a lot to be gained from Star-Trekky explorations of what constitutes intelligence from a philosophical perspective, or a moral perspective, etc. But to actually measure attributes we need narrow definitions, and in this instance we’re talking about a tool to measure strictly human variation in a particular suite of aptitudes. IQ is not without its problems (hell, nor are other more ‘objective’ measures such as BMI!) but the problems do not eliminate the usefulness of IQ as a yardstick. (And once we can measure it, we can test for variation, for correlation with other variables, and so on; which we can’t do if we’re too busy arguing about whether the ability to appreciate beauty isn’t, like, a kind of intelligence too, man….) As long as we acknowledge the limitations, I see not great problem with accepting the narrow definition in this context.

  8. jesse says

    @panoueast — that is why I said you have to be careful — and specific — about what you are measuring. IQ has a pretty sorry history. Stephen Jay Gould noted that whenever anyone discussed variations on intelligence invariably the group represented by the discuss-er was at the top. That makes it rather suspect. Nobody has ever done an IQ study that says “white people are dumber.” Red flags and all that, you know?

  9. andrewviceroy says

    The evidence presented here is certainly compelling, but why didn’t the functional explanation include a simple redirection of educational value as well? Or did it? This is to say that theism may simply require more precious time be allocated to scriptural studies and prayer, etc., let alone that certain brands of theism are more likely to downplay the value of empirical evidence, LET ALONE the possibility that academic knowledge is easier to avoid when Armageddon or eternity in heaven are always just around the corner.

  10. andrewviceroy says

    Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot had a nice interview with Christian philosopher Lydia McGrew on the issue of priors and god’s motivation (Episode 71). You should have a debate with her on that topic. THAT would be awesome.

  11. Jephalopod says

    Excellent episode, and I’m glad you guys are back. However, I second the complaint about your iTunes feed. New episodes fail to even show up on the iPhone. This is because of the lack of a date-stamp. To get your show, I’ve been manually checking the archives for new episode numbers. It’s probably costing you some listeners who don’t realize you’re still podcasting. Anyway, thanks for the show.

  12. mullett says

    Guys, I really enjoyed the counter-apologetics segment in this episode. I am soon to do a dialogue with someone who is doing a “MA” in apologetics from Biola “University”, so I will definitely re-listen when that comes up. Keep up the good work, much appreciated.

  13. Charles Knutson says

    On the Marine Corps thing, I certainly could see where having had a -recent- “loss of spiritual faith” could be a potential warning for suicide when included with other symptoms. -the person could be dealing with some depression or cognitive dissonance at realizing the religion they had been following is false.

    -But that’s obviously different from just being an Atheist or non-religious.

  14. says

    Great site you have here but I was curious if you knew of any forums that cover the same topics discussed in this article?
    I’d really love to be a part of group where I can get feedback from other knowledgeable people that share
    the same interest. If you have any suggestions,
    please let me know. Appreciate it!

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