Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Fides et Ratio – Faith and Reason

By Peter Bowditch

Are reports of a negative correlation between intelligence and religious belief a tabloid beat-up?

I spend a lot of my time talking with and about religious people, but I don’t usually write about it here because I am somewhat of a moderate NOMAist – that is, I generally subscribe to Stephen Jay Gould’s “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” concept that science and religion are different things for different purposes. I make exceptions, as did Gould, in cases where religions make testable claims about matters that are properly the concern of science (such as the age of the universe or the exact instant when a human foetus becomes viable) and also in cases where scientists try to perform such mental gymnastics as proving the non-existence of gods. Usually, however, I manage to compartmentalise myself into the atheist commentator on religious matters and the science commentator with a BA (which included science subjects, plus history and philosophy of science).

This month I’m going to make an exception, because science has been investigating religion and coming up with some results that are causing people to respond with comments like “Everyone knows that” and “That’s a gross generalisation”. To make things a little more controversial, the research has been looking at comparisons of intelligence between groups, something I was warned about often and strongly when I was studying statistics and psychology.

Before I get onto the research, however, I would like to mention a bit of history. A few years ago someone had the realisation that there was no single word that could be used to describe people who are part of the atheist/freethought movement. Looking at the example of the adoption by the homosexual community of the word “gay”, it was decided to suggest that another common word should be co-opted. Unfortunately the word chosen was “bright”.

This became one of the world’s great PR disasters. You don’t win by picking a name that suggests you are smarter than the people you criticise, thus letting them divert discussion away from the topic and onto the name. Also, the analogy with “gay” was not valid for both linguistic and sociological reasons.

The first piece of research was a meta-analysis of 63 papers published between 1928 and 2012, of which 53 showed a negative correlation between intelligence and religious belief. My atheist confirmation bias immediately kicked in, but there was some significant information missing from the mainstream media reports of this news.

When you look at the actual paper you see in the abstract: “The association was stronger for college students and the general population than for participants younger than college age; it was also stronger for religious beliefs than religious behavior. For college students and the general population, means of weighted and unweighted correlations between intelligence and the strength of religious beliefs ranged from −.20 to −.25 (mean r = −.24).”

It’s been a while since I did statistics, but I don’t remember correlations around the 20% mark being greeted with shouts of joy. In this case the number is a result of an analysis where 80% of the included papers showed negative correlation.

There are many problems with meta-analysis, and I suspect that here the various studies included were not comparable. One of them, for example, is a study of a cohort of children with IQ>135 that has been tracking the participants since 1921. These subjects are hardly representative of the normal population, and a study conducted over that long a period probably shouldn’t be mixed in with ones that consisted of an IQ test and a questionnaire.

Were the Brights right, and are non-believers smarter than believers? Maybe, but I’ll need more than this paper to convince me that it’s a general principle.

The second paper was a bit more fine-grained, and has been reported in the mainstream media as showing that Protestants are more creative (and therefore smarter?) than Catholics or Jews. My lapsed Anglican confirmation bias immediately kicked in, but again I thought I would see what the research really showed.

What I found was a tabloid beat-up, and the authors of the paper aren’t happy. The paper is really about the ways that religious beliefs (or more correctly, sectarian beliefs) affect the way people respond to cognitive dissonance related to issues of sexuality. The defence mechanisms used by Protestants were different to those used by Catholics or Jews.

This would not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the history of Christianity (and Judaism) over the past few centuries. We don’t use the word “Calvinist” to describe a strict moral conservatism for no reason.

So, as an ex-Protestant atheist am I smarter and more creative than all those believers? As the young folk say: “If only”.

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (www.skeptics.com.au).