Are Atheists and Liberals Smarter?

I am an atheist, and I am also a liberal in the true and classical sense, meaning that I advocate human liberty and individual rights, including in the economic sphere. (By this understanding, most people who today call themselves “liberals” are in fact anti-liberal.) One might predict, then, that I would feel some smug satisfaction when reading comments like the following:

“Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent”

“Liberalism, atheism, male sexual exclusivity linked to IQ”

“Liberals and atheists are further along the evolutionary scale than conservatives and religious believers.”

And yet, because such comments reflect the abuse of science, I instead find them irritating.

While one study indeed correlates higher intelligence with self-identification as a liberal or atheist, the study certainly does not demonstrate that people tend to become atheists or liberals because they are more intelligent.

The study in question, “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent,” by Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science, comes from the March, 2010, Social Psychology Quarterly. Here’s what the abstract says:

The Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis, derived from the Savanna Principle and a theory of the evolution of general intelligence, suggests that more intelligent individuals may be more likely to acquire and espouse evolutionarily novel values and preferences (such as liberalism and atheism and, for men, sexual exclusivity) than less intelligent individuals, but that general intelligence may have no effect on the acquisition and espousal of evolutionarily familiar values (for children, marriage, family, and friends). The analyses of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Study 1) and the General Social Surveys (Study 2) show that adolescent and adult intelligence significantly increases adult liberalism, atheism, and men’s (but not women’s) value on sexual exclusivity.

The basic theory, then, is that smarter people are more likely to believe novel things. This is plausible. Smarter people tend to engage in more theoretical reasoning, and they may feel less at home among their social peers, so they tend to adopt new ideas and practices.

The abstract’s claim, then, that “adult intelligence significantly increases adult liberalism” etc. is clearly bogus. The term “increases” implies a causal connection where only correlation is evident.

Thankfully, a CNN science report Elizabeth Landau actually does a pretty good job of explaining the implications of the study. She points out the following details regarding the study:

* The study involves people in the U.S. who self-identify as liberal or atheist.

* The IQ differences are statistically significant but small.

* “George Washington University leadership professor James Bailey… said that these preferences may stem from a desire to show superiority or elitism, which also has to do with IQ.”

* The study takes an absurd (my term) view of “liberalism,” defining it as “concern for genetically nonrelated people and support for private resources that help those people.”

* “Vegetarianism, while not strongly associated with IQ in this study, has been shown to be related to intelligence in previous research, Kanazawa said.”

Following are merely some examples of what’s wrong with the study:

* Many “conservatives” advocate “liberalism” as defined by the study. Certainly many Christians do.

* Many Christians are also (self-identified) liberals. So if you’re a liberal Christian, does the study predict you’ll be smart or dumb?

* Many smart people move to the city to work at high-paid jobs. Of course metropolitan attitudes tend to run more “liberal.” I suppose that what the survey is really showing is that “smart people tend to move to big cities.”

* Smarter parents tend to have smarter kids, so that may be expanding the bias noted above.

* Smarter people might be better at gaming surveys, and they might be more intensely aware of the presumed biases of the surveyors.

* Some variants of religion are quite new and complex, while some variants of atheism are pretty silly. Likewise, some strains of conservative thought are highly abstract and novel, while some variants of “liberalism” are bone-headed and ancient. So, presumably, some of the very smartest people are turning to the most novel forms or interpretations of conservatism and religion.

* In many cases the adoption of atheism and liberalism probably has a lot more to do with cliquishness than intelligence. As Bailey indicated, the attitude may be something like, “I think I’m pretty smart, and I want to fit in with all my smart friends, so I will parrot their views.” (Obviously cliquishness would also apply to conservatism and theism.)

So does the study show that higher intelligence drives people to turn to atheism or liberalism? No, it certainly does not. It shows a slight correlation that could mean any number of things.

Here’s what the study does prove beyond any doubt: More intelligent people are more likely to publicly articulate novel and pseudo-scientific nonsense.

1 thought on “Are Atheists and Liberals Smarter?”

  1. Comment by Anonymous March 19, 2010 at 7:55 AM

    I agree with your analysis of the data. Statistics are so abused as to be useless most of the time.

    However, what I do notice is that to be an Atheist you must be able to hold and understand a huge number of discrete and important specifics that religion and socialism ignore entirely. (What Obama says he failed at generalizing for the american public enough about health care reform for them to understand.)

    The vast majority of people cannot handle this level of specificity. They blank out as Rand put it. They get to a point where their brain can’t handle it any more. Religion and socialism provide simple, general answers that people can understand: Talking points and slogans are the order of the day.

    Being an atheist requires that you have a huge amount of knowledge and understand the details of why things are the way they are. (or that you just hate god, but I’m talking about Atheists that intentionally became atheists)

    The same is true of true liberalism. Socialism in all forms can be broken down into slogans. It prays on religious views of altruism to say “help your fellow man” and “The whole is greater than the parts”. There isn’t any discrete logic or detail. It’s like looking at the forest from space and seeing green versus walking through the forest and seeing the trees AFTER you’ve seen it from space. Seeing green and saying it’s green is easy. Recognizing each tree and holding everything that is different about each tree is hard. Especially when the forest is so vast.

    Liberalism is a little different tho, because you don’t have to have a solid basis for your belief. You can simply prefer to be left alone and thus want limited government. This allows for slogans and context dropping so it’s easier to digest. This is what a libertarian is and why Rand so abhorred libertarians. Yes, they want similar things, but they don’t know why they want those things. However, in most of these people’s cases, they can’t wrap their head around the value system necessary to defend their position.

    What I have noted about Atheism and liberalism (to a lesser extent because the concepts aren’t quite as difficult) is that it takes a very specific type of person to be able to hold this information. They are a little bit Asbergers-like and have a tenancy to be able to process and hold information very significantly better than average.

    To that degree, I would agree with the suggestion that liberalism and atheism, at least when intentional and done through non-contradiction al-la Rand definitely requires a genetic trait to be able to then hold and learn everything you need to.

    I’ve been teaching people about both for long enough to know within minutes if a person’s brain can even handle the concepts involved and I tailor the depth of the discussion and how far I go based on that knowing that I’ll hit a wall at some point that won’t be because of any disagreement, just simple lack of ability to hold and process the amount of detail required.

    Now if you were to take objectivists and measure the difference in a real study, I would suggest that it would be VASTLY more obvious what I’m talking about. The requirements for detail of understanding and full contextual relational thought is so high, that even most intellectuals dismiss it as over simplifying, when it is actually so incredibly complex that they can’t understand it….

    Comment by Anonymous March 22, 2010 at 1:53 PM

    Studies like this are usually pretty useless because terms like “atheist” and “liberal” vary so widely in their definitions — as do their antonyms. Even if there were a definition of these terms that everyone, or most everyone, would agree on, there is no way studies like this can correct for people who self-describe themselves one way, but actually believe quite differently for whatever reason.

    And how is IQ even assessed? There’s no one-size-fits-all test for this and even if there were, IQ is not the be-all end-all — Bobby Fischer apparently had an IQ of 180 but that guy is as crazy as bat guano.

    Comment by Anonymous March 22, 2010 at 8:37 PM

    This reminded me of a bumper sticker I saw earlier that read “I think therefore I’m liberal.” Surely this person’s cognitive skills were on sabbatical the day he affixed this to the bumper. But sadly this kind of myopia exists across the entire political and religious/non-religious spectrum.

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