Intelligence and Religiosity

By: Aya Hayashi

I stumbled across this article on Facebook when it was shared by a scholar with whom I’ve had the privilege to collaborate and who is an outspoken atheist (at least on Facebook).  She linked it with the comment, “Well, duh.”

The article reports on a fascinating meta-analysis conducted by psychologists Miron Zuckerman and Jordan Silberman of the University of Rochester and Judith Hall of Northeastern University.  It examined the correlation between intelligence and religiosity across sixty-three independent studies.  Out of these, a whopping fifty-three demonstrated a negative correlation between the two factors (i.e. the more intelligent a person, the less likely they are to hold to any kind of religious faith); only ten showed a positive correlation.  Further more, thirty-five showed a significant negative correlation, while only two showed significant positive correlations.  The article presented Zuckerman, Silberman, and Hall’s possible reasons for this correlation, as well as the potential biases present in the meta-analysis.  For example, all sixty-three studies were written in English barring two foreign ones that were available in translation.  This would generally constrain the results to the Western world.

This analysis, of course, intrigued me because I am an academic by trade and a Christian; I’d be classified as an outlier in this stream of data.  This study (and by extension, the article) presented its work fairly.  However, certain ideas have seeped into our general socio-cultural environment of which we, as Christians, must be aware and with which we need to wrestle.

1.) People of faith are not thinkers.  Interestingly, the psychologists demonstrate that a strong negative correlation exists between intelligence and religiosity among American Protestants, who have developed a public reputation of being belligerently dogmatic and providing pat/unsatisfactory answers or running away when asked hard questions. (“I’ll take Biblical Hermeneutics for $1000, Alex.”)  We are called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  We need to not be afraid of complications and messy questions.  As a postmodern scholar, I can attest that postmodernism has excelled in showing us the brokenness of our world, interrupting the Enlightenment’s “myth of progress.”  We must engage the spirit of this age through the power of the Gospel.  Jesus didn’t shy away from this when he became human; neither should we.  We all know at least one or two or a dozen questions which fall under “The Hard Questions.”  Pick one, engage it, explore the arguments of people with whom you agree AND disagree, identify your own questions, and apply the Gospel.

2.) Religion is not the only motivation for people to be well or do good things.  The study posits that intelligence functions the same way for non-religious people as faith does for religious people.  These functions include granting people a sense of control/efficacy, helping them self-regulate with regards to money and other such factors, and providing self-confidence.

It was the final point, however, that intrigued me the most: the study concluded that when people experienced hardship (i.e. bad breakup or loss of a loved one), the religious person “turned to God” while the intelligent person turned to those with whom they had built strong relationships.

There are a couple of interesting things at work in this point.

A.) Our current age tells us that we can hold to whatever faith we want as long as we keep it private.

B.) Speaking personally, I have found that I have to choose moments to be outspoken about my faith because of the harm done to Christian public image through the loud, bellicose evangelicals of the past few decades.  However, it’s hard to find those moments to speak, especially in my own industry (Humanities), because the overall conclusion of this study is a governing paradigm: faith has no place in the intellectual sphere.

C.) Somewhere along the way, Christians accepted point A and made faith a “me-and-God” thing.  As a result, we turned our back on a core part of our calling – that we are to live relationally: to be in community with one another, bear each others’ burdens, and to sharpen each other.

By accepting that faith should be a personal thing, we have shriveled the Christian experience to matters of the heart.  This is not to say that the heart and a personal relationship with our God is not important – it’s essential.  But the Christian life is so much more than that.  Because of the Gospel, we can work out our faith through our heads (the normative), our hearts (the existential), and our lives (the situational), and through this transform our communities, industries, and world.