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Are Religious People Less Intelligent?

Even the legendarily left-leaning Huffington Post called it “provocative.” A new study claims that religious people are less intelligent than atheists.

The “study” is actually a review of 63 studies of intelligence and religion conducted over the past century (1928-2012). The “meta-analysis” apparently shows that in 53 of the studies, there was an inverse relationship between having religious beliefs (and/or performing religious rituals) and intelligence.

In other words, nonbelievers scored higher than religious people on intelligence tests.

Some smelled raw meat, jumping immediately to the conclusion that “religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better.’”

Actually, no.

Study co-author Jordan Silberman says that it would be a mistake to assume their findings mean that if you’re a believer, you’re a few fries short of a Happy Meal.

“I’m sure there are intelligent religious people and unintelligent atheists out there,” Silberman says. “The findings pertain to the average intelligence of religious and nonreligious people, but they don’t necessarily apply to any single person. Knowing that a person is religious would not lead me to bet any money on whether or not the person is intelligent.”

Or, as the study’s conductor, Miron Zuckerman (a psychologist at the University of Rochester) offers, “It is truly the wrong message to take from here that if I believe in God I must be stupid.”

Fair enough, but not enough.

Let’s dig into the study itself.

The meta-anaylsis did not look at the type of religion, much less the role culture might play in the interaction between religiosity and intelligence.

To lump, say, Jehovah’s Witnesses with American evangelical Christians would be ridiculous for a study of this type, as JWs decry education (particularly for women), and evangelicals founded such intellectual bastions as Wheaton, and currently laud such scholars as scientist Francis Collins, historian Mark Noll and … well, you get my point.

And we all know the sad, tragic, heroic story of Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen last August in retribution for her public advocacy for girls’ education.

Would you diminish the worth of her faith due to her lack of education? And let’s be clear: The results of many intelligence tests rise and fall on the amount of educational stimulus an individual has received.

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James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.