The divine is in the detail

Clumsy questions and dodgy data bedevil claims that high IQ leads to atheism, says Denis Alexander. A closer look offers a different picture

June 26, 2008

Is it true that "IQ turns academics into atheists" (Times Higher Education, 12 June)? Of course IQ doesn't "turn" anyone into anything, although it may correlate with professional or other pursuits. As researchers know, sorting out cause-and-effect relationships based on correlative data is not easy.

The paper due to be published in the journal Intelligence, entitled "Average Intelligence Predicts Atheism Rates across 137 Nations", referred to in the Times Higher Education article, does nothing of the kind. Rather it takes a dodgy data set generated from a wide range of surveys reporting percentages of disbelief in God - data that even the authors describe as problematic - and then correlates these with national IQ figures. Not surprisingly, high levels of disbelief are found in secularised, educated European countries - populations good at IQ tests.

But what sort of prediction is it when UK and US populations are reported to level-peg at IQs of 100 and 98 but have disbelief levels of 41.5 per cent and 10.5 per cent respectively? Moreover, the question of "disbelief in God" is based on monotheism. So when Japan is reported in the Intelligence article as having an average IQ of 105 but 65 per cent "disbelief in God", the data are meaningless: the dominant Japanese religions, Shintoism and Buddhism, don't involve monotheism.

The question of religiosity and secularisation in different countries has much to do with sociology and history, and nothing to do with IQ. But if, as far as atheism is concerned, IQ is a red herring, there still remains the more interesting question of the religious beliefs of the scientific community.

The Royal Society data mentioned in the Times Higher Education article are of little value. The simplistic questionnaire was circulated to fellows in an e-mail from Richard Dawkins, and the sample was self-selecting. Some refused to participate because of the obvious propaganda element and its association with an atheist campaigner.

Furthermore, the very first question asking for agreement/disagreement was: "I believe that there is a strong likelihood that a supernatural being such as God exists or has existed." No member of an Abrahamic faith could have assented to a statement with its implication of a God who had somehow ceased to exist. The definition of theism that followed left no room for polytheists, deists or any other kind of religious belief, and the figure of 3.3 per cent of respondents who apparently agreed with the statement as cited is incorrect because a 1-7 point scale was used and the 3.3 per cent refers only to the maximum "strongly agree" category. Moderate-strong agreement comes to 11 per cent, which gives a different picture, and in any case this cannot be compared with national census survey data, which involve a different question.

The US data are more reliable and show that within the American scientific community, the level of belief in a personal God who answers prayer remained stable at about 40 per cent between 1916 and 1996. More general questions elicit much higher levels of religiosity. But certainly levels of belief are far lower among elite US scientists, the best data being from recent papers by Elaine Ecklund based on 21 top US universities, reporting 52 per cent of scientists without religious affiliation compared with a national figure of 14 per cent.

Why? This is where the fun really begins, and the answers are certainly multifactorial. The US is unique in locating a large minority of its scientific community within religious institutions, but their research outputs are lower because they often lack the expensive facilities that characterise the major secular universities and institutions. Ecklund reports that those from non-religious backgrounds "disproportionately self-select into scientific professions". A successful scientific career involves a high level of commitment that may place science above institutional attachments of any kind. Ecklund reports a 15.3 per cent Jewish component in her elite scientist sample, compared with a national 1.8 per cent, and cultural Jews often call themselves atheists. And so the explanations go on. Which are correct? More data are needed to draw conclusions, but suggested answers clearly have nothing to do with IQ.

Fundamentalist atheists, as much as fundamentalist religious believers, like simple answers that ignore the complexities. One task of a good education is surely to show how difficult questions can have quite complex answers. If silly publications about IQ and atheism provide an opportunity to convey this message to our students, then maybe they are not a complete waste of time after all.

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