One of my co-bloggers, J.L. Hinman, author of the very fine Metacrock's Blog recently showed me some data which some atheists are using to support the claim that atheists are smarter than Christians. He pointed me to a website where it measured the average IQ of a country and correlated it to the statement from a Pew survey of the percentage of people who said that religion was "very important" to them. Thus, in Angola, 80% of the people said that religion was very important to them, but the average IQ was a lowly 69. In Bangladesh 88% of the people said that religion was very important to them and their IQ was higher but still only an average of 81. Meanwhile, the three highest IQ countries were Korea, Italy and Germany with average IQs of 106, 102 and 102, respectively. In those countries, the percentage of people who thought that religion was very important to them were 25%, 21% and 27%, respectively.
What conclusion can be reached from these statistics? Well, some might conclude that religion makes people dumb. After all, if it is in countries where people find religion important that we find the people with the lowest IQs, it may be reasonable to conclude that religion is one of the causes of that lessening of IQ scores. I don't think that's a legitimate conclusion, and here's why: The graph is a straight correlation that does not take into account other factors. I can personally think of several reasons why the IQ of a country like Angola is low. Could it be, for example, that IQ is affected by poverty? Consider, for example, this:
Contrary to "The Bell Curve" findings, a new study by researchers at Columbia and Northwestern Universities suggests that poverty and early learning opportunities -- not race -- account for the gap in IQ scores between blacks and whites. (The study will be published in the April  issue of Child Development.)
Adjustments for socioeconomic conditions almost completely eliminate differences in IQ scores between black and white children, according to the study's co-investigators. They include Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Pamela Klebanov of Columbia's Teachers College, and Greg Duncan of the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research at Northwestern University.
As in many other studies, the black children in the study had IQ scores a full 15 points lower than their white counterparts. Poverty alone, the researchers found, accounted for 52 percent of that difference, cutting it to 7 points. Controlling for the children's home environment reduced the difference by another 28 percent, to a statistically insignificant 3 points -- in essence, eliminating the gap altogether.
In other words, a major factor in terms of a person's IQ is the poverty in which they were raised. Is Angola poor? You bet. Looking at the chart, what are the places where the IQ is the lowest (70s or less) you see many poor countries: Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria, Mali, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Guatamala, Ghana and Angola. Most of these countries are poor African countries -- several of which appear on the UN's list of least developed countries. Those that aren't on the list certainly don't strike me as wealthy countries. South Africa is probably the wealthiest of the countries on the list, but the average IQ there is brought way down by the fact that they are having to deal with the new black majority that was held back in poverty by the evil system of Apartheid for so many years.
What about the other direction? Germany certainly isn't poor, is it? Only 21% of its people say religion is very important yet the average IQ there is 102 -- one of the highest on the chart (2nd to only South Korea). But how much poverty is in Germany compared to Angola? Not much. How good are the schools in Germany? While not considered to be the best in Europe, German education is still among the better educational systems in the world. Does the education a person receive make for a higher IQ? You bet. According to brainy-child.com:
Schooling is an important factor that affects intelligence. By schooling, one can improve knowledge of specific facts for intelligence tests, familiarity with testing practices, concentration and attention span, and verbal problem solving skills. Therefore, there is no doubt that schooling helps raise one's IQ.
On the other hand, research has indicated that children who do not attend school or who attend intermittently eventually have poorer scores on IQ tests than those who attend regularly. At the same time, children who move from low-quality schools to high-quality schools are more likely to show improvements in IQ scores. Besides
transmitting information to students directly, schools teach problem solving, abstract thinking, and how to sustain attention, which are all skills required to score well on IQ tests.
The bottom line is that there are many, many reasons for many of these countries to have higher IQs than others, and religion seems to be virtually a non-factor.
Perhaps this is the conclusion that the statistics may lead us to: smarter people don't find religion to be that important. In other words, atheists are really smarter than Christians. If that is the conclusion that a person draws, she really needs to reason through it again. First, we need to be careful about what the Pew survey really revealed. Saying that a person doesn't find "religion very important" isn't the same as saying that they are atheists or disbelievers in God. They simply may not rate religion as important as business or family or football. They may simply never have looked into the issue or have rejected a particular faith in which they may have been raised. It may not even be Christianty that they are rejecting -- even in Germany. Thus, we have to be careful about what it means when someone says "religion is not very important."
Second, continuting to use Germany as an example, it appears that Germany has an average IQ of 102 and only 21% of the people find religion to be very important. Now, personally, I think an average IQ of 102 is nothing to brag about. If the average IQ score is 102, then roughly 50% of the people have IQs higher than that and 50% have IQs lower than that rather average number. If 79% of the people in Germany don't think religion is that important, than it seems reasonable to conclude that a large number of people with IQs below 100 (possibly well below 100) don't find religion very important. Can we conclude from such data that it is people with lower IQs don't find religion important?
Third, there is no data as to which percentage of the highest IQ people in these countries believe that religion is very important. Some might conclude that the highest IQ people don't believe religion is that important, but such a conclusion is not based upon the statistical evidence. It's possible (albeit, admittedly unlikely) that all 21% of the people who find religion to be very important in Germany lie within the top 50% of the IQ in the country. It may even be possible that they constitute the entire top 21% of the IQs in the country and that those that don't find religion that important all have IQs that are below those who find religion to be very important. The data simply doesn't tell us one way or the other, and drawing a conclusion from this data that one group has a higher IQ than the other is simply reading one's own predilictions into the data.
Fourth, let's suppose for a moment that the percentage of people who find religion important is uniform throughout the population. If that is the case, then in the top 10% of IQs in Germany the same percentages would hold, i.e., 21% of the people wold agree that religion is very important while 79% of the people would hold that religion isn't very important. Does that mean that the 79% who think one way are necessarily more right than the 21% of the people in the same range of IQ scores who disagree? Hardly.
Also, consider this: suppose virtually all of the people in Germany that are religious are not as intelligent as those who think that religion is not very important. This is an extremely unlikely scenario. My IQ scores are well above 102 and I am completely and affirmatively Christian. But supposing that almost the entire 21% of those who think religion is important are in the bottom 21% of the country's IQ scores. But suppose also that just one person in the highest possible tier of IQ scores -- the top .00001% of the country with an IQ of, say, 210 -- is a devout believer who finds religion true and very important. Why would it be inappropriate to believe the one guy who is apparently among the very brightest of people in that country? If even one very intelligent person believes in God, then it seems that IQ levels are irrelevant to whether a person is going to believe in God.
Having said all of the foregoing, I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that some very smart people not only don't find religion important, they are devout atheists. Does that somehow mean that the people with the lower IQs are wrong? Certainly not. In fact, the poor and the less gifted people are going to be attracted to religion more than the gifted and intelligent but not because they aren't smart enough to know better. Instead, people who are gifted and intelligent tend to have a higher view of themselves and their own importance and abilities. In all sincerity, it isn't necessarily a "I'm smarter"-thing, but rather a "I don't need God"-thing. People who already recognize that they aren't as smart or as gifted as other people are more ready to recognize that they need help -- that they cannot make it on their own.
Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Those who are proud of their own intellect and their gifts are not seeking God, and what they aren't seeking they will never find.
Addendum 3/22/07: GodandScience.org has published a graph which shows a correlation between the IQ scores and religion, on the one hand, and IQ and GDP per capita which can be found here. I am also going to try to reproduce it right here:
I think this graph demonstrates what I was talking about in the first part of my post.