There’s been a lot of discussion around the traps that studies show repeatedly that those who are atheists or otherwise irreligious are on average a bit smarter than those who aren’t. The usual ballyhoo has followed, with atheists claiming that religion makes you stupid or only stupid people follow religions, etc. I want to suggest another interpretation than the proposal that smarter folk see the stupidity of religion, or the undiscussed one that those who are not religious tend to be of a higher socioeconomic stratum and so are better educated.
First let’s dispose of those suggestions. I know personally many smart theists whose religious views are equally or more elaborated as any atheist’s views that I know. While this is not a statistical observation (anecdote does not equal data, and all that) it is a proof of concept that religion need not be stupid. Smart people might simply adopt smarter religious views. The claim that religion is the purview of stupid people is really dumb. Moreover, there is no reason to think that religion makes people stupid; although there’s plenty to suggest that they are often the victims of confirmation bias in areas they find contested but sacred. Unless being an atheist somehow modifies the cognitive structures of the kinds of apes we are, confirmation bias is equally rampant among atheists – consider Dawkins’ recent base rate neglect in arguing that all of Islam (a cultural and racial group) has fewer Nobel prizes than one privileged UK college. This is like saying that all Macdonald’s customers have fewer Super Bowl trophies than the Dallas Cowboys. Islam is not a commensurate group to Trinity College, Cambridge. For a start, one can be a member of Trinity without being Christian. Second, one can win a Nobel without mentioning one’s religion. I know at least one Nobel Laureate who supported active eugenics* – can we now say that there are more eugenicist Nobel Laureates than supporters of the Dallas Cowboys? And so on. Apples must be compared to apples.
The socioeconomic one has more bite. For a while there has been an observed difference in IQ between developed nations and undeveloped nations, suggesting that IQ is in part a measure of one’s ability to navigate the educational structures of developed nations. The so-called Flynn Effect indicates the fluidity of what IQ measures, and we can suspect that this is not about intelligence, but privilege. So the claim would be that those who are better educated are better able to be educated. Not very enlightening, overall. However, this may also be the result of less traumatic upbringings, and better diet when young, as well as political and economic factors.
But, and here’s my own thinking on this, what if it’s a measure not of atheism, but of the tendency to adopt nonconformist positions? If atheism were the long standing social norm, perhaps intelligent (that is, early adopter and critical thinking) folk would become religious instead? In short, is the difference about being able to critique the comfortable certainties of ordinary life, rather than the endogenous aspects of either religion or atheism? After all, if there are stupid (or as I prefer to think of them, late adopters and less critical thinkers) in a population, they will tend to have adopted whatever the standard and paradigmatic view is from around them no matter what it is. So the default view will be loaded with these folk. Any deviation from that social norm takes an early adopter, and so if atheism were the norm the early adopters would be religious believers.
So I think that we can’t draw very many conclusions about religious belief per se, from these studies.
*Frank Macfarlane Burnet.