Religiosity and Intelligence


The relationship between religiosity and intelligence is the subject of much research and controversy. Although IQ is a clearly operationalized measure, some professionals believe that IQ is given too much attention over other measures of human ability. Also, religiosity studies can be too broadly defined, and must be careful to identify relationships between beliefs, sentiments, and practices. Studies have begun to explore the link between religiosity and issues related to intelligence, such as educational level.

Research shows that the poorest countries are consistently the most religious, and experts have proposed that religions may play more functional roles there. Various studies further suggest that intuitive thinking styles (as opposed to reflective, questioning, analytical thinking styles) tend to increase belief in gods, and decrease the likelihood of changing views held in childhood. Intuitive thinking styles may also lead to more convicted beliefs in general. In other words, IQ could correlate with atheism, not simply because of raw cognitive ability, but because higher IQs lead to more critical analysis.

Intelligence is an umbrella term used to describe a property of the mind that encompasses many related abilities, such as the capacities to reason, to plan, to solve problems, to think abstractly, to comprehend ideas, to use language, and to learn. There are several ways to define intelligence. In some cases, intelligence may include traits such as creativity, personality, character, knowledge, or wisdom. However, some psychologists prefer not to include these traits in the definition of intelligence. I.Q. is calculated by testing individuals’ abilities in a variety of task. It is used to predict educational outcomes and other variables of interest. Others have attempted to measure intelligence indirectly by looking at individuals’ or group’s educational attainment, although this risks bias from other demographic factors, such as age, income, gender and cultural background, all of which can affect educational attainment.

Dissatisfaction with traditional IQ tests has led to the development of alternative theories, all of which suggest that intelligence is the result of independent abilities that contribute to human performance. In 1983, Howard Gardner proposed the theory of multiple intelligences, which claims a broadening of the conventional definition of intelligence is needed, since, if intelligence is defined as the cognitive or mental capacity of an individual, this would logically include all forms of mental qualities, not simply the ones most transparent to standardized I.Q. tests. The categories of intelligences Gardner proposes are logical, linguistic, spatial, musical, kinesthetic, naturalist, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences. Jean Piaget developed stages as an alternative to IQ after studying the nature of the wrong answers on items. The ‘Model of Hierarchical Complexity’ was formed as an alternative to IQ. Performance on the items varying in hierarchical complexity from 0 to 14, is absolute, and does not require norms. Because the orders are content and context free, they can be used to measure performance in any domain, including the ones mention by Gardner and Goleman.

Religiosity is a sociological term referring to degrees of religious behavior, belief, or spirituality. The measurement of religiosity is hampered by the difficulties involved in defining what is meant by the term. Numerous studies have explored the different components of religiosity, with most finding some distinction between religious beliefs/ doctrine, religious practice, and spirituality. Studies can measure religious practice by counting attendance at religious services, religious beliefs/ doctrine by asking a few doctrinal questions, while spirituality can be measured by asking respondents about their sense of oneness with the divine or through detailed standardized measurements. When religiosity is measured, it is important to specify which aspects of religiosity are referred to.

In 2008, intelligence researcher Helmuth Nyborg examined whether IQ relates to denomination and income, using representative data from the ‘National Longitudinal Study of Youth,’ which includes intelligence tests on a representative selection of white American youth, where they have also replied to questions about religious belief. His results, published in the scientific journal Intelligence, demonstrated that Atheists scored an average of 1.95 IQ points higher than Agnostics, 3.82 points higher than Liberal persuasions, and 5.89 IQ points higher than Dogmatic persuasions. Nyborg also co-authored a study with Richard Lynn, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Ulster, which compared religious belief and average national IQs in 137 countries. The study analyzed the issue from several viewpoints. Firstly, using data from a U.S. study of 6,825 adolescents, the authors found that atheists scored 6 IQ points higher than those adhering to a religion. Secondly, the authors investigated the link between religiosity and intelligence on a country level. Among the sample of 137 countries, only 23 (17%) had more than 20% of atheists, which constituted ‘virtually all… higher IQ countries.’

Professor Gordon Lynch, from London’s Birkbeck College, expressed concern that the study failed to take into account a complex range of social, economic, and historical factors— each of which has been shown to interact with religion and IQ in different ways. Gallup surveys, for example, have found that the world’s poorest countries are consistently the most religious, perhaps because religion plays a more functional role (helping people cope) in poorer nations. Commenting on some of the above studies in The Daily Telegraph, Lynn said ‘Why should fewer academics believe in God than the general population? I believe it is simply a matter of the IQ. Academics have higher IQs than the general population. Several Gallup poll studies of the general population have shown that those with higher IQs tend not to believe in God.’

Even at the scale of the individual, IQ may not directly cause more disbelief in God. Dr David Hardman of London Metropolitan University says: ‘It is very difficult to conduct true experiments that would explicate a causal relationship between IQ and religious belief.’ He adds that other studies do nevertheless correlate IQ with being willing or able to question beliefs. The idea that analytical thinking makes one less likely to be religious is an idea supported by other early studies on this issue including a report from Harvard University. First of all, the Harvard researchers found evidence suggesting that all religious beliefs become more confident when participants are thinking intuitively (atheist and theists each become more convinced). Thus reflective thinking generally tends to create more qualified, doubted belief.

On the other hand, the Harvard study found that participants who tended to think more reflectively were less likely to believe in God. Reflective thinking was further correlated with greater changes in beliefs since childhood: these changes were towards atheism for the most reflective participants, and towards greater belief in God for the most intuitive thinkers. The study controlled for personality differences and cognitive ability, suggesting the differences were due to thinking styles – not simply IQ or raw cognitive ability. An experiment in the study found that participants moved towards greater belief in God after writing essays about how intuition yielded a right answer or reflection yielded a wrong answer (and conversely, towards atheism if primed to think about either a failure of intuition or success of reflection). The authors say it is all evidence that a relevant factor in religious belief is thinking style. The authors add that, even if intuitive thinking tends to increase belief in God, ‘it does not follow that reliance on intuition is always irrational or unjustified.’

A small 2004 study by Ellen Paek empirically examined the extent to which religiosity is related to the controversial idea of Emotional Intelligence (EI). The study examined the extent to which religious orientation and behavior were related to self-reported (EI) in 148 church attending adult Christians. (non-religious individuals were not part of the study). The study found that the individuals’ self-reported religious orientation was positively correlated with their perceiving themselves to have greater EI. While the number of religious group activities was positively associated with perceived EI, number of years of church attendance was unrelated. Significant positive correlations were also found between level of religious commitment and perceived EI. Thus, the Christian volunteers were more likely to consider themselves emotionally intelligent if they spent more time in group activities and had more commitment to their beliefs. Tischler, Biberman and McKeage warn that there is still ambiguity in the above concepts. In their 2002 article, entitled ‘Linking emotional intelligence, spirituality and workplace performance: Definitions, models and ideas for research,’ they reviewed literature on both EI and various aspect of spirituality. They found that both EI and spirituality appear to lead to similar attitudes, behaviors and skills, and that there often seems to be confusion, intersection and linking between the two constructs.

The relationship between the level of religiosity and the level of education has been a philosophical, as well as a scientific and political concern, since the second half of the 20th century. Whereas the ‘level of religiosity’ remains a concept which is difficult to determinate scientifically, on the contrary, the ‘level of education’ is, indeed, easy to compile, official data on this topic being publicly accessible to anyone in most countries. Different studies available show contrasting conclusions. An analysis of ‘World Values Survey’ data showed that in most countries, there is no significant relationship between education and religious attendance, with some differences between ‘western’ countries and former socialist countries, which they attribute to historical/ political/ economic factors (not intelligence). Other studies have noted a positive relationship.

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