Fundamentalism, Spirituality, and IQ
Why are some people religious? Putting aside arguments over whether the claims of particular religions have factual validity or not (up-front declaration: I’m an atheist), the existence of wildly varying degrees of religious sensibility in every society studied is quite perplexing for psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists. Some colleagues and I have just had a paper published (PDF here) which attempts to provide a piece of this puzzle, focusing on the relationship between religious beliefs and general intelligence, or IQ.
For some time, psychologists and neuroscientists have made attempts to explain religion, ranging from the ill-fated ‘God Helmet‘ (the idea that religious experiences might be a form of temporal lobe epilepsy) to ideas about how religions bind us into communities, to approaches involving hypothesised psychological mechanisms such as the hyperactive agent-detection device (HADD; an evolutionarily advantageous ability which would see us ascribing ‘human-like agency [to the] environment that might not actually exist’ (p. 31), and misinterpreting, say, the rising of the sun as an intentional act which must therefore have some kind of supernatural actor). None of these theories are necessarily mutually exclusive – it’s clear a future psychological theory of religion will need to explain evidence from a wide variety of perspectives.
Of course, to many people, any attempt to scientifically explain their deeply-held beliefs will be highly offensive, but probably the most controversial research in this area has involved IQ. A wide range of recent studies have looked at connections between cognitive ability and religiosity. To take just three examples: this study found that atheism rates in 137 countries correlated highly (r = .60) with the country’s average IQ, while this one showed in a sample of students that high-IQ individuals are more likely to question religious beliefs, and this one found that atheist adolescents had higher IQs than their moderately religious peers, who in turn were higher in IQ than religious fundamentalists. There are plenty of other studies, too.
A common response to this kind of research is summed up by atheist blogger extraordinaire, PZ Myers, in this rather unhelpful and misguided post. Myers seems to misunderstand why we bother collecting scientific data when he says: ‘I’ve known lots of religious people who really are brilliant, and I also know lots of atheists who were sincerely religious once upon a time…’. Ironically, given he often criticises pseudoscientists for basing their arguments on anecdote, Myers seems to be saying that his personal experiences invalidate several statistical studies on large samples. Huh. Not so impressive.
What is impressive, to get back to the studies, is the consistency of the data. In every study to date (that I’ve seen), higher religious beliefs have been found to be associated with lower scores on IQ tests. Now, I know some people, like Myers, just hate IQ tests, possibly because they’ve read The Mismeasure of Man (which, as an aside, is looking less and less credible as time goes on), but IQ really is a part of mainstream psychological science, and I can assure you you’d find it very difficult to make an evidence-based argument against it having validity (I always like to point IQ-skeptics – and the far more irritating IQ-deniers – towards this Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper, which I think makes a pretty convincing case that IQ is both real and useful).
While those previous studies on religion and IQ are consistent in their results, they do have a number of limitations, outlined in our paper. For instance, we now know that religion isn’t a binary value (it isn’t just that people are religious, or they aren’t). Papers using the statistical technique of factor analysis have found that people vary on several different facets of religiosity, some reflecting the more fundamentalist, literal-minded types of religion, and others reflecting more ‘spiritual’ elements. Most IQ-religion papers don’t examine these. Others have used relatively small sample sizes, or – like one of those linked above – rely on aggregate data, which can be inaccurate. Finally, IQ isn’t the whole picture – no previous studies have looked at how personality factors, like openness to experience (which does seem to be linked to religion) might mediate the relationship between IQ and religious belief.
To get around these problems, we – that is, Gary Lewis, Tim Bates, and I – used data from the MIDUS, a huge-scale survey of thousands of adults in the US which asked them questions on almost everything, from their socioeconomic status to their occupational information, from their health behaviours to how well they sleep, and also included IQ and personality tests (it really is a goldmine). Thus, our study had the advantages of a large sample size (around 2300 people), and a wide range of sub-scales of religiosity (specifically: religious mindfulness, spirituality, religious support, religious identification, private practice, and fundamentalism – see the paper for definitions and sample questions). Controlling for level of education, trait openness to experience, age, and sex, we looked at the strength of the relationship between IQ and each of the religious variables in turn.
It turned out that higher IQ scores were significantly associated with lower scores on five of the six measures of religiosity – all of them except spirituality. Thus, the more intelligent you are, the less likely you are to be religious – except if you’re just ‘spiritual’. Higher IQ was most negatively associated with fundamentalism (the tendency to agree with statements like ‘the Bible is the word of God’). The other associations were interesting, too – education level related very negatively to fundamentalism, while people high in openness were much more likely to report being ‘spiritual’, but less likely to be fundamentalists. Older people were more likely to report higher instances of prayer and identification with a religious in-group, while females were more likely to be spiritual, but no more likely to be fundamentalists, than males.
How do we explain the IQ-related results? We think it’s most likely that higher-IQ individuals will tend to question the stories and claims of religions, which is perhaps why they’re particularly unlikely to believe the Bible is the final word. For skeptics, familiar with ‘New Age’ spirituality, our results might make some sense, too; those of average intelligence, but very high (some would say too high) openness to new experiences, might get involved with quasi-religious practices we’d characterise as ‘woo’ – crystals, distance healing, that sort of thing (maybe our paper is empirical confirmation of the old adage that if you’re too open-minded, your brain will fall out…). A future study we’re planning will look at how IQ and openness relate to beliefs in alternative medicine.
So, think of it this way: A set of basic cognitive tests which include ‘repeat back this list of numbers/words from memory‘ and ‘how many words can you think of that start with the letter B?‘ are a statistically significant predictor of what someone’s beliefs will be about the meaning of life and the origin of the universe. I think that’s a pretty fascinating finding, and worthy of further investigation, with the following two caveats. First, our study was almost entirely on Christians, meaning that one should be cautious in generalising the findings to other religions.
Second – and this isn’t really a caveat, but an important finding from the study – only a small part of the variance in religious belief was explained by IQ. That is, as mentioned above, we’ll have to look further than just IQ for our future super-theory of religious belief, and shouldn’t expect such a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon to be explained by intelligence alone. Our study provides new insights about which particular forms of religious belief are related to IQ, bringing us a teeny bit closer to an understanding of the psychology of religion.