Why Intelligent People Are Less Likely to Be Religious
My story is almost always met with surprise: How could an atheist convert to Christianity at Harvard, the bastion of secular intellectual elitism?
Now this reaction has some empirical justification. A recent meta-analysis of studies on religion and intelligence found that yes, overall, people with high IQs and test scores are less likely to be religious. Researchers analyzed 63 studies on religion and intelligence from the past 80 years with differing results to discover the slightly negative correlation between the two.
Unlike previous studies that tried to explain the data by suggesting that smart people simply see past religion's claims, these researchers, led by University of Rochester psychologist Miron Zuckerman, tried to identify other social factors in play. Nevertheless, the hype about their conclusions is overblown, and all of us—the religious and the non-religious—should be wary of placing too much weight on their findings.
There are the standard caveats. Correlation does not equal causation. Just because intelligent people are less likely to be religious doesn't mean that their brilliance causes them to reject religion. One look at Christians' intellectual contributions throughout history —made by thinkers such as Donne, Newton, Aquinas, and many others—does away with this misconception.
Plus, in spite of presenting a sweeping meta-analysis, the study's authors relied on a limited range of research, as they admit in the paper. They primarily address Protestants, in the U.S. (This highlights a common problem in psychological research, which is heavily weighted toward a particular population that is rather WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic—when compared to the rest of the world.)
The most significant issue comes with the very question these researchers chose to explore. The way they framed their study suggests an implicit bias in the way scholars think about religion. "Secular researchers are likely to discover what they already suspect which is a co-relation between their values and high levels of intelligence," noted atheist sociologist Frank Furerdi. He questioned the value of such a project, where "social science research turns into advocacy research."
Furerdi's point echoes something I've previously argued about religion among academics: Intelligent people don't simply reject religion because it's wrong; they reject it because their social environments lead them to think it's wrong.
We choose which questions to grapple with on the basis of how important they are to us. When society keeps repeating that "smart folks reject religion," then religion becomes an object no longer worthy of investigation. Everyone finds questions really worth their time and leaves religion to the fools who just don't know any better.
Rather than the result of a causal correlation, the researchers' findings on religion and intelligence seem to fit inside a particular cultural narrative. In the U.S., we assume that intelligent people grow up, then reject faith. Faithful teenagers go off to secular colleges, stop attending church, and become skeptics. As individuals situate themselves in this narrative, the story becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This has been the story in academia for some time now. Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political philosopher from the University of Chicago who recently passed at age 72, came back to the Christian faith after abandoning it during college. She described her youthful transition away from religion using a narrative you could easily hear today:
I had slowly but surely inched over to join the company of those who chided those who believed. I decided I was not gullible, like those folks, and if they wanted to cling to wishful thinking, they could certainly do that, but I was at university, after all, where I had learned skepticism, and indeed I had decided that I had become a skeptic myself, joining most of my professors in that designation.
Fortunately, much work is being done to improve the situation in the academy. InterVarsity, Cru, Navs, Chi Alpha, Christian Union, and countless other campus ministries continue to help Christian students navigate their university context and lead non-believers to faith. Their discipleship helps raise a new generation of brilliant Christian thinkers.
I'm proud to work for The Veritas Forum, where we partner with campus ministries and Christian professors bring together students and faculty for open conversations about their religious beliefs. As we help to expose students to the most credible and articulate Christian intellectuals, often in dialogue with secular peers, so we have the opportunity to change the narrative surrounding faith.
And things are changing. The Social Science Research Council stated in 2007, "the academy is no longer the bastion of secularism it was once assumed to be." Those who attend college are actually more likely to stay religious now than those who forgo higher education. Note that Zuckerman and his research team found that intelligent people who don't attend college reject religion at the same rates as those who do, so education itself can no longer make the difference.
If these trends continue, I can imagine a world in which the prevailing narrative is not "go to college and lose your faith" but "come to college to save your faith." For just as the university taught me to think rationally, to question well, to delight in knowledge, it was the best place I could come to learn how to worship God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Jordan Monge is the northeast regional director of The Veritas Forum and a regular contributor to Fare Forward.