Are Atheists Smarter Than Christians?

By.  Zak Schmoll

Well, there has certainly been a lot of controversy over an undergraduate psychology assignment given at The Ohio State University. A student anonymously submitted the following question to the people at Campus Reform which was actually on his homework assignment.

Theo has an IQ of 100 and Aine has an IQ of 125. Which of the following statements would you expect to be true?

a) Aine is an atheist, while Theo is a Christian

b) Aine earns less money than Theo

c) Theo is more liberal than Aine

d) Theo is an atheist, while Aine is a Christian

The correct answer was A, and it certainly has many Christians calling foul. This stereotype is pervasive in our society, so while I am not terribly surprised to find a question like this in academia, I think that it deserves a little bit deeper consideration.

You might remember a study that was done by Miron Zuckerman of the University of Rochesterthat performed a meta-analysis and found a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity. I assume that that is where these kinds of textbook questions are coming from.

However, we first need to remember that correlation does not imply causation. Let me give you an example. When the spring comes, the snow begins to melt outside of my house. The birds also begin to come back and start chirping in the trees. Birds chirping and snow melting are very highly correlated, but it would be ridiculous to think that one causes the other. There is a third variable under there that involves the rising temperature. We first need to remember that basic rule of statistics. Everyone likes to jump to conclusions on correlations, but they are often times not justified.

Second, I am assuming that this question is hypothetically set in the United States. Otherwise, why did they not choose Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists? According to a recent poll done by ABC News and BeliefNet, 83% of Americans identify as Christians whereas 13% claim to have no religion and 4% have a variety of other religions. If you gave me two random people out of the general population with the given IQs, I do not know why I would expect one of them to be an atheist. The odds are certainly against that. The most likely scenario is that I do grab two Christians from the American population.

However, let’s think about this statistically. 83% of the American population is Christian. With that many people believing in Christianity, some of them are going to be very intelligent, and some of them are not going to be quite as bright. The beauty of an IQ test is that it is designed to be a normal distribution. For non-statisticians, this is your traditional bell shaped curve if the sample size is large enough.

The average IQ is supposed to hover at 100, so we would expect half of the American population to the above that mark, and we would expect half of the population to be below that mark. Again, this is not me trying to rationalize; this is just the statistics behind the basic proposition.

Now, I am going to be incredibly generous. Let’s say that the textbook question is right. Let’s say that all 13% of American nonbelievers are above average IQ. That is definitely a stretch, and that is not proven, but just for the sake of argument, I will go with that. It is not the case that every atheist is brilliant by any means.

Remember, now we have 50% of the above average American population and 13% of that has been reserved for nonbelievers. I would even give you that the miscellaneous 4% of other religions is in that top 50%. As a result, 17% of the 50% is hypothetically not Christian.

33% of that top 50% is Christian. In other words, there are more than double the number of above-average Christians than above-average nonbelievers. For some reason, even in this group that deals with only people of above-average intelligence, we still have a majority of Christians.

I guess my point is that even in the most generous estimate I can produce, this question seems odd. It is first incredibly necessary to remember that correlation does not equal causation whatsoever. We don’t know what confounding variables might be in the aforementioned research that I assume this question was derived from. Second, in America today, if you have above-average IQ, even by the most radical estimates, the odds are that you are still going to be a Christian.

I know that this hypothetical question seems to have stressed everybody out a little bit, but I think the best approach is to actually step back and think a little bit. This might be an opinion in the marketplace of ideas, but we don’t need to panic. We might be smarter, or we might not be. However, I would propose that rather than making sweeping claims about whether atheists or Christians are more intelligent as a group, why don’t we sit down as individuals and really talk about these ideas? It will surely be more useful.


About Jian Ming Zhong

In short, I am a five point calvinist, amillennial, post-trib rapture, paeudobaptistic (not for salvation), classical cessationism , and covenantal. I embrace Reformed Theology and subscribe to the WCF 1647. I do not break fellowship with anyone who holds to the essentials of the faith (i.e., the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, Jesus' Physical Resurrection, Virgin Birth, Salvation by Grace through Faith alone, Monotheism, and the Gospel being the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus) but does not affirm Calvinist Theology in the non-essentials. I strongly believe that God's grace and mercy are so extensive that within the Christian community there is a wide range of beliefs and as long as the essentials are not violated, then anyone who holds to those essentials but differs in the non-essentials is my brother or sister in Christ. Romans 11:36 "For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To whom be Glory forever. Amen!"
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