Debunking the “Atheists are Smarter” Myth

Several researchers in the field of psychology descended from the ultra-recirculated, purified air of academia to address the amoebic, unwashed masses (us). Citing 53 out of 63 studies that show a “negative correlation” between religiosity and intelligence, they declare that atheists are smarter than religious people, after which they ascended once again to their lofty heights. We can all await their second coming and further revelations.

Professor delivering a presentation

When I saw this my BS detector went off like an air raid siren. In my life, I’ve had a lot of fun peaking behind various “wizard’s” curtains and finding a snake oil salesman. I know that this sort of published conclusion is often meant to sound audacious, edgy and pioneering, and it’s usually intended to give its proponents a certain prestige and mystique in academic circles. By the time it trickles down through a few layers of “logic-free” zones, on the internet, it becomes: “atheists are smart and religious people are dumb.” A few more layers and you get: “all I have to do to be smarter is become an atheist,” which is, most likely, the original point of the exercise.

Atheism is as much of a religious belief as any kind of “theism,” mono, poly or what have you. There is no empirical proof of the existence or non-existence of a Supreme Being. Any assertion for or against it is a belief regarding religion, and therefore a religious belief.

Anyways, I decided to have a little target practice with some basic logic and took a closer look. Sure enough what I found was the academic version of the old bait-and-switch con game where the con man advertises one thing but then delivers something of inferior quality.

The “bait,” religion, is a very broad and encompassing field of human life.

The “switch,” in this case, are studies that were based mostly on a small segment of a small population of the planet: U.S., Canada, Europe, and a single religious concept; a belief in God (which they never bothered to define); and a very narrow, narrow definition of intelligence (the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience”).

A further look at the studies cited revealed that the moment you go outside these narrow bounds, the conclusion falls apart. A quick scan of IQ rankings by country reveals that performance on IQ tests is more a matter of training and environmental demand upon rational thinking than any other factor. Those countries with the highest IQ scores are the ones which most actively value education and where economic competition is high. Whoops!

Next problem: the moment anyone opens their mouth to assert a belief about religion, that belief is, by definition, religious. Atheism is as much of a religious belief as any kind of “theism,” mono, poly or what have you. There is no empirical proof of the existence or non-existence of a Supreme Being. Any assertion for or against it is a belief regarding religion, and therefore a religious belief. Further, religion is, by all definitions, a group activity, so the second you get two or more atheists agreeing and asserting “there is no God” they will find themselves in the embarrassing position of having formed a religion, which, according to our researchers, makes any group of atheists dumber than a bag of hammers. Whoops again!

Darwin fish

Finally, there is the granddaddy of all logical “face plants” when it comes to materialism versus spirituality: it’s the presumption that the strict materialist—who is unable to detect, discern or otherwise have an experience outside and beyond the measurable material world—is superior to a anyone who is able to. According to these academics, this disability is superior to an ability. This “disability” would include many savants. It also includes the inspired, intuitive type of genius which Tesla, Einstein and other mental giants from the sciences to the arts have personally credited for their accomplishments. Whoops again!

For all I know, everyone could be wrong and the entirety of existence was set up by a giant iguana named Carl. Crusading atheists, while focusing on the “God-no God” thingy, miss the point of religion as it is practiced at ground level. Most think of God as some old, bald man wearing a sheet, sitting on a cloud, seeing and directing all. Santa Claus without a sense of humor.

Yet if anyone reading this bothered to look up the actual definitions of religion, what they would have found is the re-bar inside the pillars of civilization. A civilization which, through long periods of peace, prospered so well that it provided the luxury of exploration into science, atheism and pretty much any other kind of “-ism” you could want. Like it or not, religion, community and civilization itself are all inextricably, and symbiotically linked.

I could speculate that the genesis of religion itself was an answer to savagery and barbarism. Maybe some ancient hunter came home to his village one day to find it destroyed down to the last stick and baby, then asked himself the logical question: “If things can be this evil, how good can they get?”, then proceeded to explore that question.

Across the country and across the world, the majority of people of every sect and every religion take the same break from the harsh reality of life as they gather together to contemplate, celebrate and reaffirm an ideal that within all of us there is something perfect and infinite that transcends routine life. An ideal worth striving for.

It is that meditation upon an ideal that directs a religious individual’s everyday decisions toward a better life. The doctrines of a particular religion may be harsh or even seem arbitrary, but the practice of religion by everyday men and women across the planet is beautiful. Even while the officials of the Spanish Inquisition carried out their reign of terror, the rank-and-file Christian in towns and villages carried forward the message of kindness and decency, passing it on to succeeding generations. The material reality of a perfect Supreme Being is of little importance compared to the idea of one. And who’s to say that if it can be conceived it is not “real” in some way or another?

Sure. There are, and always have been, psychos out there who screw up religion along with anything else they get their hands on, but they are only a tiny fraction of mankind, dwarfed by the billions who earnestly practice their religion for the purpose of making a society worth living in.

Though there has never been a happy and prosperous atheist society, if you were to find one, you would find it built upon the basic religious tenets of community: fairness, peace, love, compassion and all the others which it inherited from the religions of its ancestors. You would find them working toward an ideal.

Rodger Clark
Contractor, history buff, compulsive learner, currently in recovery from authoritarian education.