Back in 2007, I wrote a blog entry entitled Lower IQs Lead to Faith in God? where I examined the claim that religious people were less intelligent than atheists. The question arose because a website compared the average IQ in various countries and correlated the data with a poll where people answered the question of whether God was important to them. The data showed that the countries where the people said that God was "very important" to them were the same countries that had the lowest IQs. The implication was that religious people were not particularly smart.
I took issue with the study, and since I don't want to restate my entire argument here, I invite readers to click on the link to the article and see why I reasoned that the correlation amounted to statistical nonsense. Additionally, at the end of the article I suggested a stronger reason for the correlation.
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.
On Sunday, as I was perusing various articles over the Internet, I put a clothespin on my nose and opened an article through the Huffington Post entitled Why Atheism Replaces Religion In Developed Countries by Dr. Nigel Barber. Dr. Barber, the author of the Human Beast blog on Psychology Today, has claimed that religious beliefs are deeply irrational. (Of course, despite objections from atheists to the contrary, atheism is also a religious belief which means his claim is necessarily deeply irrational, too.) But in reading his material, I am impressed that despite his prejudice which colors his conclusions he intuitively reached the right conclusion in this particular article.
In his article, Dr. Barber notes the same correlation between poor countries and belief in God that I analyzed in my 2007 blog entry. Unlike the individuals who jumped to the conclusion that religious people are not as smart as atheists, Dr. Barber gave a much more reasonable and probable analysis (even though his disdain of religious belief shows through in his writing). He notes:
It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people can expect to die young. People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion. Hence my finding of belief in God being higher in countries with a heavy load of infectious diseases.
In my new study of 137 countries, I also found that atheism increases for countries with a well-developed welfare state (as indexed by high taxation rates). Moreover, countries with a more equal distribution of income had more atheists. My study improved on earlier research by taking account of whether a country is mostly Muslim (where atheism is criminalized) or formerly Communist (where religion was suppressed) and accounted for three-quarters of country differences in atheism.
In addition to being the opium of the people (as Karl Marx contemptuously phrased it), religion may also promote fertility, particularly by promoting marriage (3). Large families are preferred in agricultural countries as a source of free labor. In developed countries, by contrast, women have exceptionally small families. I found that atheism was lower in countries where a lot of people worked on the land.
Even the psychological functions of religion face stiff competition today. In modern societies, when people experience psychological difficulties they turn to their doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist. They want a scientific fix and prefer the real chemical medicines dished out by physicians to the metaphorical opiates offered by religion. No wonder that atheism increases along with third-level educational enrollment (1).
The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms. First, with better science, and with government safety nets and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in people's daily lives and hence less of a market for religion. At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs.
In a very basic sense, Dr. Barber and I are in agreement -- we are simply looking at it from different angles. We both agree that the reason that people become less religious in developed countries is the fact that they no longer think that they need God. Dr. Barber attributes the rise in atheism to a replacement of belief in God to cure ills with a trust in science that arises from higher education plus the existence of a social safety net that protects people from poverty in developed countries. In my 2007 blog entry, I attribued the rise in atheism to the fact that people in wealthier countries think that they don't need God because they feel confident in their own abilities to care for themselves. (This is reflected in the fact that many outspoken atheists on the Internet are young, educated men who feel like they are, for all practical purposes, invincible and in charge of their lives.) We are both in agreement that the lack rise of atheism is, at heart, an "I don't need God" thing.
Thank you, Dr. Barber, for supporting my argument. It is a welcome concession.