A new study published March 23, 2016 in the PLOS (Public Library of Science) One, a peer reviewed open access scientific journal, is making the rounds of on-line publications like Sciencedaily.com and Awake Zone.
Awake Zone begins their presentation of the study by stating that religion is nonsense and the people who believe in God are stupid and goes on to claim that this scientific study proves their point, but does it?
Sciencedaily.com is a little less biased but insinuates that the researchers found proof that those believing in God and having a religious faith are less intelligent than those who do not believe in God, but before you start agreeing or disagreeing with them, be forewarned that they also claim that while athesists are more analytic and therefore more intelligent, they are also more prone to psychopathy with little empathy for anyone other than themselves. The article also claims that male brains are more analytical than female brains, thus females are less analytical; more prone to spirituality and less intellectual.
Such studies are not new. In April, 2012, Scientific American published an article entitled, Losing Your Religion: Analytic Thinking Can Undermine Belief: A series of new experiments shows that analytic thinking can override intuitive assumptions, including those that underlie religious belief
Of course one would wonder why science would go after religion and not superstition, but in many instances, scientific minds view all religions as superstitions or in the vernacular of atheists: Fairytales. Should religious pundits be concerned about this growing body of evidence that suggests they are less intelligent than the rest of the population or should they be more concerned that a scientific study is leading people to believe that only idiots believe in God? What are we to make of these studies and is their purpose to eradicate irrational thinking by indoctrinating children with the scientific method by removing God from private as well as public schools? Is there some secret agenda going on which should concern those who believe in a higher power outside of humankind?
As a Christian who graduated with honors in the field of science while conducting in-depth research using the scientific method, my first reaction was that the study was biased, so I decided to turn to the original study to find out for myself whether the research had any validity and to get a more realistic view of what the study actually found vs. what anti-religious groups gleefully proclaim proves that Jews, Christians, Muslims and other religions are indeed, stupid people who are incapable of seeing the facts through all the incense and visions of angels and demons dancing through their empty heads.
The abstract for the study states that it was based on previous research which suggested that analytic thinking is associated with a disbelief in God, whereas religious and spiritual belief have been positively correlated with social and emotional cognition, or in other words, people who believe in God tend to be more empathetic and moral. The abstract also suggests that those with autism, as well as those with brains which are strongly “male oriented” have less empathy for others and are less moral.
Their findings concurred with the 2012 study that people who are more intuitive thinkers are more likely to be religious, but by getting them to think analytically the strength or their religious belief decreases. Anyone who has ever taken a college level course in anthropology could probably attest to this study, but is it possible to be an analytic thinker and still believe in God or to have spiritual beliefs that worship man or nature? Are people who are religious and spiritual really less intelligent and are scientists really less moral? There are plenty of examples in current life that would defy that model, but studies tend to look at prevailing trends in certain populations not at individuals who refuse to be categorized as one or the other.
Few would argue, that rational thinking skills are often in conflict with spiritual beliefs. To an atheist, a Christian believing in God is as irrational as someone believing that the ghost of their great aunt Fran will provide them with the lotto numbers for a million dollar lottery so there is no need for them to go out and find a job because Fran will provide.
However, most Christians did not come by their religion irrationally. They observed their environments and the behaviors of those who did not believe in God or Christ. They looked at moral concerns, humility, willingness to serve others and relieve the pain and suffering of those less fortunate than themselves and found that rational thought often had a cruelness to it that lead to treating people as commodities rather than sensing beings with a right to pursue happiness, not to be subjected to the will of those with the most intellect and power over them.
While the 2016 study by Jack et al. suggests a direct conflict between analytical thinking and religious belief and spirituality, in reality, most people, if pressed hard enough, would admit that the two actually help to keep each other in check. There are ethical guidelines which all scientists must follow and there are rational guidelines which all religions must follow. If one took to killing children to study the potential of using their organs to grow new organs for adult transplant or the the other took to sacrificing children to appease the gods of Vulcan, there would be public outcry and demand for such practices to cease immediately, one would hope.
As for the study itself there are some flaws, chief among them is using an online test and choosing subjects to take the tests online rather than in controlled conditions. Old-school researchers continuously criticize the use of computer testing from home as such tests do not control for distractions in the home and in tests of intellect, there is no way to determine if the person is not cheating by getting someone else to help them or googling the answers.
The study also puts a lot of emphasis on which areas of the brain “light up” or show activity when people are thinking about spirituality or doing a complex analytical problem. They also base part of their research on past male brain/female brain studies which are currently coming into question with larger studies.
Previous studies claimed that a disproportionately larger hippocampus in female brains explained their tendency toward greater emotional expressiveness, stronger interpersonal skills, and better verbal memory. While male brains seemed to be oriented toward problem solving or analytical skills, making males better at math and highly complex technical skills.
Recent meta-analyses (or widespread studies over a greater population with a greater number of test subjects) disproved these purported sex differences in the brain and found that there is no difference in the size of the corpus callosum; white matter that allows the two sides of the brain to communicate, nor did men and women differ in the way their left and right hemispheres processed language.
So we have a current study looking at old studies that had inaccurate findings and basing current findings on disproven theories which sets researchers with a bias which can skew results. Just about any research can be set up with a bias which supports one’s theory which is why double blind studies… where neither the researcher nor the subject know what is going on, as well as control groups help to prevent bias.
In the case of the Cleveland Study in question, a sample of 236 adults was chosen from Amazon Mechanical Turk (an online job site that allows individuals and businesses (known as Requesters) to perform tasks that computers are currently unable to do..such a data input, labeling, etc. ).
The hypothesis being tested was that religious and spiritual beliefs are in tension with analytical beliefs. In other words, the more spiritual and moral you are, the less analytical you will be. The Briggs Myers test refers to this as sensing/feeling or intuition vs. thinking (just the facts Jack). Moral concern was measured with the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI).
Some of the questions on the test include:
I daydream and fantasize, with some regularity, about things that might happen to me.
I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.
I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the “other guy’s” point of view.
Sometimes I don’t feel very sorry for other people when they are having problems.
I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel.
To measure cognition, subjects took an online Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT). Here is a sample of the questions on that test;
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?
If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take
100 machines to make 100 widgets?
In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size.
If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it
take for the patch to cover half of the lake?
Here are the answers:
(1) 5 cents (not 10)
(2) 5 minutes (not 100)
(3) 47 days (not 24)
…and if it makes you feel any better, I got them all wrong and I thought I was a pretty intelligent person! Oh well, maybe the study is correct after all, but I doubt it. The last two answers make sense to me, but the first one will make your brain spin. If you are a purist, here is the reasoning: Say the ball costs X. Then the bat costs $1 more, so it is X + 1. So we have bat + ball = X + (X + 1) = 1.1 because together they cost $1.10. This means 2X + 1 = 1.1, then 2X = 0.1, so X = 0.05. This means the ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.05…see, the bat costs $1 more, but the total adds up to $1.10. Yeah, and now most of you are feeling as stupid and confused as I am but are you less religious having put your analytical skills to use? Probably not.
Still, the exercise demonstrates that intuitive thinking, while it seems highly logical, is in fact not very logical at all and such knowledge can make you question your spiritual beliefs, but does that mean that Christians and Jews should not want their children educated in math and science? No, not at all, but thinking cognitively often seems to compete against thinking intuitively and religion and spirituality are intuitive not cognitive for the most part. Probably a good thing they are because if we intuitive types had to take a cognitive test to get into heaven there would not be many who could pass. Thank goodness for grace in any event!
Before you totally decry the 2016 study as garbage though, they also tested intelligence using vocabulary comparisons, for those of us who would like to think of ourselves as intelligent but are not good with complex math skills requiring formulas and tabulations. The research labels this as study 2 and used 233 adults to match the best meaning of a word to five other possible meanings. There were five other tests, one measuring morality, another looking at self-report measures which are not as accurate as direct testing. In study 7 the researchers state that they found no positive association with religious belief but based this part of the study on findings from other research.
One would wonder how doing eight different tests with different subjects in each test would yield conclusive results to begin with. Purportedly none of the subjects was present for testing, all tests were sent in via computer, which again can cause discrepancy and does not control for environment or interference from non-test takers.
The final study looked at the findings of the previous seven studies. Study 8 asked questions about religious belief and attendance of religious services and social gatherings of a religious nature. One could argue that going to church daily does not make one more spiritual than someone who does not attend church at all, so this study is also somewhat suspect, though would provide insight on social amenability not necessarily related to a belief in God.
Only one study was a lab-based study, with a total of 2212 test subjects from varying backgrounds, but all capable of using a computer. The strongest correlation occurred with the IRI (test 1) which significantly predicted religious belief. It would seem the more moral and concerned one is for others feelings the more religious they are likely to be, yet the thing getting the most attention is the fact that analytic thinkers who do not believe in God are more intelligent than people who do believe in God… less caring perhaps, but more intelligent. It does make one wonder!
While the study does bring up some interesting information and correlations, it does not prove, as some publications have assumed, that those who believe in God are not intelligent. What it does show is that those raised in the church and by intuitive people who care about society, tend to be more concerned with morality and the well being of others, which could lend itself to an interesting study on why so many people seem to defy authority these days(running through stop signs and train crossings and shooting and killing others for personal gain or anger management issues). It might also lend itself to neurological studies of those with high functioning autism who seem to struggle with personal relationships with others or have issues with proper socialization skills, so the study itself is useful, but has too many flaws to use it as a weapon to further diminish the intelligence of Christians or other religious beliefs.
Anecdotally, we can all dispute the study findings. The brilliant mathematician who is also a missionary and works for a Christian-run math tutorial, the lawyer turned animal healer who intuitively receives voices and insight from beyond the known realm an has proven results from clients, the pastor who spends hours studying philosophy and language to better understand the message of the Bible… none of these people are “stupid”.
We can also point out many atheists who care deeply about the environment and the plight of the human condition and work tirelessly to help others, asking nothing in return. Are these people outside the norm? Are they less intelligent because they choose to put others over themselves or are they more intelligent because they refuse to believe in things unseen and must see factual proof in order to believe?
It was interesting to note that in study 7, researchers found a correlation between loneliness and belief in a higher power. This loneliness also increased a person’s tendency to anthropomorphize or give human like qualities to animals and inanimate objects with an assumption that lonely people may be more likely to turn to God and spirituality to find comfort from feelings of isolation.
The journal article ends by stating that the study puts new light on morality and religion and those with greater moral concerns are more likely to turn to religion rather than science for the answers. Again, the vast number or articles on this study fail to bring up this observation and prefer to focus on the fact that religious people tend to do worse on math problems than non-religious people.
It would be best to view the study as a stepping stone for further research into the differences between the analytical mind and the feeling/sensing mind rather than use the study to fuel an attack against “ignorant” believers who are too stupid to believe that God does not exist and science holds the answers to all things!
As always we encourage readers, that when you are faced with information that contradicts what you believe, you should research it for yourself and not take it as fact. It is possible to apply intelligent thinking to Biblical teachings by researching the historical facts, artifacts, putting the wisdom into practice and observing the results and studying the original language and context of Biblical passages to better understand their true meaning.
We would also caution against attacking others as being stupid, though it is tempting to do so on both sides. Publishers of the Awake Zone, when citing this study as proof that Christians are stupid stated, “It’s been said that there was a time when religious leaders used the highest authority of all (that of God) to condemn and even kill those who rejected their stupid faith. Thank earth, that time is gone. But the highest authority is no longer God, [sic]less and less people doesn’t [sic] believe in this nonsense any more. Instead they believe more in themselves. And [sic] the greatness of what one human can do.Also [sic] an increasing factor is Science[sic]. And [sic] the good news is that the victory’s [sic] of science has increased human endeavors without the religious mumbo jumbo. People has [sic] a greater understanding now, of their own capability’s [sic].”
I will be polite and let you come to your own conclusions as to who is most intelligent above. All I can say is heaven help us all if we disregard science, intellect and God, as all work together to bring about a greater good and all work marvelously well at keeping the others in check which will hopefully lead to our greater good and a greater understanding of the marvelously complex world around us which has room for all faiths and beliefs as long as they work in unison to help others and do good for all.