Do you think this headline is true? If so, would you conclude that people are dumb if they don’t read my blog?
Yet many people are reaching a similar conclusion (HuffPost: “Religious People Branded As Less Intelligent Than Atheists In Provocative New Study”) about a recent population study. Get a load of this headline from the British Daily Mail (click to enlarge).
This is wrong on so many levels. The Daily Mail article goes on to conflate intelligence with atheism and make all kinds of errant conclusions.
The actual study, whose abstract you can read here, does not prove that atheists’ intelligence “makes them more likely” to do or be anything. The first fact about statistics that every informed reader must remember is that correlation does not equal causation. The negative correlation between belief and intelligence in this case is very small. What would you conclude, by contrast, if you saw a study of the intelligence of cat lovers versus dog lovers? (The following graph, from Scot McKnight’s blog, is hypothetical, but it “looks” like the graph that emerges from the study.)
You wouldn’t conclude that intelligence makes someone prefer cats over dogs. Because you would think of all the really smart people you’ve known who’ve loved dogs, and you would say, “That’s a nonsensical conclusion.”
It just so happens that the correlation in the case of atheism and intelligence corresponds nicely to the story our modern culture tells itself.
One possible explanation for the difference in intelligence, according to the study, is the question of conformity. This makes some sense to me. The path of least intellectual resistance in America, at least, is to believe in God. (Atheists account for less than five percent of the population.) People believe in God, in other words, almost by default. That hardly makes believing in God wrong, just something that most people do—and “most people,” by definition, are going to be of average intelligence—whereas it’s easy to find a small segment of the population that exceeds the average.
Suppose a study compared the average intelligence of communists in America (a vanishingly small number of people, I imagine) with capitalists and showed that being communist was correlated with higher intelligence. Would that prove that capitalists are less intelligent than communists—or that they’ve chosen communism over capitalism because they’re smarter? That would be laughable. But, you know… lies, damn lies, and statistics.
Now go read the comments section of the Huffington Post article, and you’ll probably feel like crying!