September 2007

I’ve been reading the stuff on your site with interest. Unfortunately there is more there than I have had time to read. So my next comment may have been already made by someone whose mail I have not yet read…

A number of respondants have expressed the belief that religious believers are unintelligent or that atheists are more intelligent. What does this say about the person who was once a sincere and practising fundamentalist-type Christian (or its corollary in any other religion) but loses these beliefs as they aquire and apply knowledge? Does this person become more intelligent as they lose their beliefs? I think not.

My first independent research project in psychology followed up a large sample of people who had been members of a university evangelical club some ten years previously. There was no significant difference in the intelligence level of those who lost their beliefs and those who did not. This may have been an artifact of the fact that the group was fairly homogenous in this respect anyway.

The factors that did separate them were related to personality type and environmental influences.

Those who lost their beliefs had non-authoritarian personalities which were able to deal with uncertainty and a range of “greys”. Those who retained them had relatively rigid personalities who were uncomfortable with uncertainty and prefered to simply things into black and white categories.

The belief losers had inquisitive minds, enjoyed novelty and tended to question everything. The belief keepers shied away from novelty and were uncomfortable with intellectual challenge.

The environmental factor was twofold. The first part related to the knowledge and ideas to which the person was exposed. Those who studied subjects such as philosophy, behavioural sciences, comparative religion, and university level biblical studies were exposed to material which challenged their beliefs far more than those who studied other subjects.

The other environmental factor involved the company which people kept. Those who maintained close contact with others of their faith tended to retain their beliefs or modify them according to slowly changing norms of the group. Those whose friends and significant others came from different backgrounds were more likely to change their original religious beliefs more radically or lose them entirely.

In summary, if a person had strong religious beliefs in their early adult years, intelligence did not play a large part in whether they continued to believe. What made a difference were innate personality traits, exposure to new ideas and social influence.

It is not wise, therefore, to assume that all religious people are stupid. They may simply be intelligent people who have yet to be exposed to information or experiences which challenge their beliefs.

You may have guessed, by now, that my motivation for undertaking the research was to see what I might share with others who had taken a path similar to my own. I can see now that I did not become more intelligent as I lost my belief in the supernatural; I simply learned to apply the intelligence I had more productively.

That is an exceptionally interesting piece of research, and I really appreciate your sharing it. One question my spouse had regarding the study — do you know how the intelligence level of the evangelical group compared to the intelligence level of the population in general? Some people might assume that it was lower than average, but I’d guess that probably was not the case (particularly given that this was a university group).

Posted on September 24, 2007 at 1:21 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Misc

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