Why Are Atheists Generally Smarter Than Religious People?

For more than a millennium, scholars have noticed a curious correlation: Atheists tend to be more intelligent than religious people. It's unclear why this trend persists, but researchers of a new study have an idea: Religion is an instinct, they say, and people who can rise above instincts are more intelligent than those who rely on them. "Intelligence — in rationally solving problems — can be understood as involving overcoming instinct and being intellectually curious and thus open to non-instinctive possibilities," study lead author Edward Dutton, a research fellow at the Ulster Institute for Social Research in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.
In classical Greece and Rome, it was widely remarked that "fools" tended to be religious, while the "wise" were often skeptics, Dutton and his co-author, Dimitri Van der Linden, an assistant professor of psychology at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, wrote in the study. The ancients weren't the only ones to notice this association. Scientists ran a meta-analysis of 63 studies and found that religious people tend to be less intelligent than nonreligious people. The association was stronger among college students and the general public than for those younger than college age, they found.
The association was also stronger for religious beliefs, rather than religious behavior, according to the meta-analysis, published in 2013 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review. If intelligent people are less likely to perceive their own bias, that means they're less rational in some respects, Dutton said. So why is intelligence associated with atheism? The answer, he and his colleague suggest, is that religion is an instinct, and it takes intelligence to overcome an instinct, Dutton said. The religion-is-an-instinct theory is a modified version of an idea developed by Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, who was not involved in the new study.

Called the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis, Kanazawa's theory attempts to explain the differences in the behavior and attitudes between intelligent and less intelligent people, said Nathan Cofnas, who is pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Oxford. The hypothesis is based on two assumptions, Cofnas told Live Science in an email. "First, that we are psychologically adapted to solve recurrent problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors in the African savanna," Cofnas said. "Second, that 'general intelligence' (what is measured by IQ tests) evolved to help us deal with nonrecurrent problems for which we had no evolved psychological adaptations."

The assumptions imply that "intelligent people should be better than unintelligent people at dealing with 'evolutionary novelty' — situations and entities that did not exist in the ancestral environment," Cofnas said.

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