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Atheists are more intelligent than religious people? That's ‘sciencism’ at its worst

This study exhibits more prejudice than worthwhile research

There was a time when religious leaders used the highest authority of all – that of God – to condemn and ostracise those who rejected the faith. In the 21st century those who wish to denounce religion have adopted the same tactic. The highest authority is no longer God but that of Science. And sadly the rhetoric of science has been usurped and turned into a weapon to morally condemn religious people.

It has just been announced that a meta-analysis of 63 ‘scientific’ studies have concluded that people of faith are less intelligent than atheists. Outwardly the study, titled 'The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations', published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review, bears all the hallmarks of a rigorous scientific monograph. Atheists looking for an argument can now say “research shows”. However experience suggests that the relationship between “research shows” and the truth is often as dodgy as that between the claim ‘God said’ and what actually occurred.

As everyone who has looked at attempts to compare the intelligence of different groups knows such studies are fraught with methodological difficulty. Intelligence itself is a contested concept and it is far from evident what is measured in these studies. Attitudes towards cultural values are mediated through a variety of influences that are relational, context specific and whose meaning becomes lost if it becomes quantified and reduced to numbers. Any attempt to establish a causal relationship between personal belief and raw intelligence is likely to be an exercise in forced abstraction. 

At most what the majority of papers reviewed in this analysis show is that because smart people spend more time in education and because high schools and especially universities tend to be secular institutions they will produce proportionally more atheists people than those who drop out. Secularism and atheism is part of the cultural script of higher education to which a significant minority readily conform. Smart kids who don’t go to university are more likely to retain their religious affiliation because they are expected to conform to different values. And secular researchers are likely to discover what they already suspect which is a co-relation between their values and high levels of intelligence.

As a sociologist the question that interests me is why do people embark on a project that seeks to determine the relationship between intelligence and religious belief. Most researchers do not get up in the morning, brush their teeth and say ‘gosh wouldn’t it be great for science if I discovered whether atheists are more or less intelligent that religious folk’! Our research projects are motivated by subjective as much as objective concerns, which is why so much social science research turns into advocacy research.

It’s not that researchers are dishonest but that they like anyone else suffer from a tendency to discover what they already suspect. In the current era where religion is increasingly associated with out-dated beliefs, dubious traditions, dogma and prejudice it is inevitable that the authority of science will be harnessed to prove the religious stupid. Is it any surprise that in a smug tweet Richard Dawkins refers to this meta-analysis with feigned surprise as to why the cleverness of atheists should even be questioned?

The polemical use of science – called scientism- has nothing to with real science, which is the disinterested pursuit of the truth. It uses the authority of science to invalidate the moral status of groups and individuals and their practices on the ground of their natural inferiority. It is the 21st century equivalent of 19th century craniology.

Regrettably the mantra “research shows” has become a substitute for a critical engagement of views. Devaluing the intelligence of your opponents is what children do when they call one another stupid. It absolves its practitioners from taking the arguments of their opponents seriously.

As an atheist I take an exception to the claim that my views are the product of my intelligence. Like many others I exercised my capacity for moral autonomy and made an existential choice. I believe that I made an intelligent choice not to believe. But I don’t think that atheism can be equated with intelligence any more than religion with stupidity. Why? Because the experience of life shows that the ranks of atheists have their fair share idiots. If you doubt my words – launch a research study that does a content analysis of their tweets.