If religion is an instinct, intelligence may help us rise above it, a new study finds.
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. [Saint or Spiritual Slacker? Test Your Religious Knowledge]
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.
But why does this association exist? Dutton set out to find answer, thinking that perhaps it was because nonreligious people were more rational than their religious brethren, and thus better able to reason that there was no God, he wrote.
But “more recently, I started to wonder if I’d got it wrong, actually,” Dutton told Live Science. “I found evidence that intelligence is positively associated with certain kinds of bias.”
For instance, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that college students often get logical answers wrong but don’t realize it. This so-called “bias blind spot” happens when people cannot detect bias, or flaws, within their own thinking. “If anything, a larger bias blind spot was associated with higher cognitive ability,” the researchers of the 2012 study wrote in the abstract.
One question, for example, asked the students: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The problem isn’t intuitive (the answer is not 10 cents), but rather requires students to suppress or evaluate the first solution that springs into their mind, the researchers wrote in the study. If they do this, they might find the right answer: The ball costs 5 cents, and the bat costs $1.05.
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. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]