Could people with atheist beliefs be more intelligent than religious people? Let’s see what science has to say.

In the last ten years, there have been several studies that suggest people with atheist beliefs and a more liberal outlook tend to score higher on IQ tests.

Whilst there is data to support this theory, it is important to consider the definitions of both ‘liberal’ and ‘atheism’ in contemporary times. Furthermore, the importance of IQ scores in relation to emotional intelligence and creative intelligence is constantly being reassessed.

Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is a key figure within this field of research. His theory states that more intelligent people are more likely to adopt ‘evolutionarily novel preferences and values. By this, he means preferences and values that humans are not biologically designed to have and that our ancestors probably did not adhere to.

Such novel values include liberalism, as liberalism encourages caring about genetically unrelated strangers. In contrast, our ancestors would have followed a more conservative way of life, caring for their immediate family around them. It would make little evolutionary sense to spread resources to those who are not going to be continuing one’s immediate gene pool.

Religion and intelligence

Similarly, religion is seen by Kanazawa as a conservative value, because it is a byproduct of human suspicion. Kanazawa states,

Humans are evolutionarily designed to be paranoid, and they believe in God because they are paranoid.

He continues that it serves humans to be paranoid because it makes sense of incoherent events and natural disasters. They are a mystery as they are “God’s Will” or part of a greater plan. Traditionally, it also helps people cope with poor living conditions, as the belief more awaits them in the afterlife.

More intelligent people, Kanazawa believes, do not buy into these thought patterns. Even though it may go against an evolutionary tendency, people with atheist beliefs want to take greater responsibility for human’s actions and their effects. For example, many atheists campaign for greater awareness about the human impact on climate change, trying to encourage people that this is not in the hands of God, but in the hands of mankind.

The studies

There is data to support Kanazawa’s claims about IQ scores and the relation to liberalism and religion. Studies from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health support Kanazawa’s theories. They found that young adults who describe themselves as being “not at all religious” have an average IQ of 103 during adolescence, while those who identify themselves as being “very religious” have an average IQ of 97 during adolescence.

In terms of liberalism, young adults who identify as being “very liberal” have an average IQ of 106 during adolescence while those who identify themselves as “very conservative” have an average IQ of 95 during adolescence. It is worth noting that both the description of very religious and very liberal is subjective, and means something different to each participant in the study.

What do the results actually mean?

Whilst there is definitely evidence to suggest that people with atheist beliefs are more intelligent, it must be considered that the definition of what it means to be both liberal and religious is ever shifting. In an increasingly volatile political climate, fewer people may be willing to identify themselves as being either liberal or conservative.

This is because in doing so, it identifies one with a greater political system that many people see as failing. Similarly, many people nowadays would rather identify as spiritual rather than religious because of the connotations that religion holds.

Furthermore, IQ is not the only indicator of intelligence. These days many people regard emotional intelligence as being of greater value than a high IQ and that is something that both liberal, conservative, religious and atheists can all have.

Do you have atheist beliefs and/or liberal views? What’s your opinion on the above? Let us know in the comments below.


Ruth Newton, M.A., B.A.

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