Skeptics Are Smarter

by | November 7, 2019

By James Haught

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.

Several research studies find that skeptics are brighter than religious believers.  More than 60 scientific reports were analyzed in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review, which said the results “showed a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity.”

Newsweek (May 18, 2017) summed up the article:

“Atheists tend to be more intelligent than religious people because they are able to rise above the natural instinct to believe in a god or gods.  Having a higher intelligence… allows people to override these instincts and engage in more rational, and therefore enhanced, problem-solving behavior.”

A report titled “Why Atheists are More Intelligent than the Religious” in Psychology Today (April 12, 2010) commented:

“More intelligent individuals are more likely to be atheistic than less intelligent individuals.  For example, among the American sample, those who identify themselves as ‘not at all religious’ in early adulthood have a mean childhood I.Q. of 103.09, whereas those who identify themselves as ‘very religious’ in early adulthood have a mean childhood I.Q. of 97.14.”

Similarly, a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that doubters are better-educated than believers are.  Chief researcher Conrad Hackett told The New York Times:

“The higher the level of education in a country, the larger the share of people with no religion tends to be.  Atheists and agnostics, or people with no religion in particular, have higher education levels than the religiously affiliated do in the United States.”

Frankly, I’m surprised that the I.Q. gap is only six points.  I would expect it to be larger, because most of the world’s brightest people – outstanding thinkers, scientists, writers, reformers and others who left their marks on history – have been religious skeptics.  Here are some, and their views:

Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to John Adams:

“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

Albert Einstein wrote in The New York Times:

“I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism.”

Mark Twain wrote in his journal:

“I cannot see how a man of any large degree of humorous perception can ever be religious – unless he purposely shut the eyes of his mind & keep them shut by force.”

Emily Bronte wrote:

“Vain are the thousand creeds that move men’s hearts, unutterably vain, worthless as wither’d weeds.”

Sigmund Freud wrote in a letter:

“Neither in my private life nor in my writings have I ever made a secret of being an out-and-out unbeliever.”

Thomas Paine wrote:

“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

Thomas Edison told The New York Times:

“I cannot believe in the immortality of the soul…. No, all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life – our desire to go on living – our dread of coming to an end.”  (Edison also said “Religion is all bunk.”)

Voltaire wrote in a letter:

“Christianity is the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and bloody religion that has ever infected the world.”

Clarence Darrow said in a speech:

“I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose.”

President William Howard Taft said in a letter declining the presidency of Yale University:

“I do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe.”

Luther Burbank told a newspaper:

“As a scientist, I cannot help feeling that all religions are on a tottering foundation….  I am an infidel today.  I do not believe what has been served to me to believe.  I am a doubter, a questioner, a skeptic.  When it can be proved to me that there is immortality, that there is resurrection beyond the gates of death, then I will believe.  Until then, no.”

Bertrand Russell wrote:

“My own view of religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.”

George Bernard Shaw said:

“At present there is not a single credible established religion in the world.”

Leo Tolstoy wrote, in response to his excommunication by the Russian Orthodox Church:

“To regard Christ as God, and to pray to him, are to my mind the greatest possible sacrilege.”

Charles Darwin said:

“The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.”

Kurt Vonnegut said:

“Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.”

Gloria Steinem said:

“By the year 2000, we will, I hope, raise our children to believe in human potential, not God.”

Michel de Montaigne, creator of the essay, wrote:

“Man is certainly stark mad: he cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozen.”

Baruch Spinoza said:

“Popular religion may be summed up as a respect for ecclesiastics.”

Further, Beethoven shunned religion and scorned the clergy.  Abraham Lincoln never joined a church, and once wrote a skeptical treatise which friends burned in a stove to save him from wrecking his political career.  And the motto of Margaret Sanger’s birth-control newsletter was: “No gods, no masters.”

Bright minds throughout history have doubted supernatural gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles and the rest of church dogmas.  Today’s freethinkers can be proud to share this fine heritage, which sparkles with higher intelligence.


(Sources of personal quotes – if you want them)

Thomas Jefferson – letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823.

Albert Einstein – New York Times commentary, Nov. 9, 1930.

Mark Twain – Mark Twain’s Notebooks and Journals, edited by Frederick Anderson, 1979, notebook 27, August 1887-July 1888.

Emily Bronte – No Coward Soul, January 1846.

Sigmund Freud – letter to Charles Singer.

Thomas Paine – The Age of Reason, 1794.

Thomas Edison – interview in The New York Times, Oct. 2, 1910, front of Magazine Section, by Edward Marshall.

Voltaire – letter to Frederick the Great, quoted in the Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Prometheus Books, 1985, p. 715.

Clarence Darrow – speech at Toronto, 1930, cited in The Great Quotations. by George Seldes, Lyle Stuart publisher, 1960, p. 190.

William Howard Taft – The Life and Times of William Howard Taft, by Harry F. Pringle, Farrar & Rinehart Inc., New York, 1939, p. 373.

Luther Burbank – San Francisco Bulletin, Jan. 22, 1926, page 1, by Edgar Waite, headline: “I’m an Infidel, Declares Burbank, Casting Doubt on Soul Immortality Theory.”

Bertrand Russell – opening lines of “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization,” essay, 1930.

George Bernard Shaw – Major Barbara, preface, final paragraph.

Leo Tolstoy – letter April 4, 1901, to the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, in response to his excommunication, cited in Tolstoy, by Henri Troyat, Doubleday, 1967, p. 591 – and in The Life of Lyof N. Tolstoi, by Nathan Haskell Dole, Scribner’s, 1923, p. 371-2

Charles Darwin – cited in Peter’s Quotations, by Laurance J. Peter, Wm. Morrow & Co., 1977, p. 45.

Kurt Vonnegut – Peter’s Quotations, p. 191

Gloria Steinem – Peter’s Quotations, p. 103.

Michel de Montaigne – Apology to Raimond Sebond, 1580, Essays book 2, chapter 12.

Baruch Spinoza – quoted by Eugene Brussell in The Dictionary of Quotable Definitions, Prentice-Hall, 1970, p. 490.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: James Haught.

One thought on “Skeptics Are Smarter

  1. Indi

    I really thought we’d moved past this embarrassing, peak-New Atheist crap.

    Once upon a time it made sense to trumpet data like this, because once upon a time atheists were a social fringe that no one knew anything about, let alone understood. Highlighting data like this was a way to get us known for positive characteristics, that we could leverage in our arguments for a better seat at the political table. But those days are long past. Everyone knows about atheists now, and for better or worse, the set of traits stereotypically associated with us has been more or less cemented in the public consciousness. That one of those traits is irritating smugness is unfortunate, but if this is the shit we’re publishing about ourselves, I’d have to admit we kinda deserve it.

    But aside from the embarrassment, there’s a more insidious problem here. It’s not just that the claim is unnecessary, or untrue. This kind of claim is actually dangerous.

    First let me explain the bit I’m sure got a lot of people’s hackles up: that the claim is untrue. Explaining why in detail would take thousands and thousands of words – it’s always more work to debunk a dumb claim than it is to make it. So I’ll just offer some bullet points you can chew on or google.

    1. Saying someone is “smarter” merely because they have a higher IQ is a straight-up category error.

    2. What most of these studies are probably measuring is not really intelligence but social status. People who are richer tend to be both better educated, and to have more free time to spend considering questions that have no practical import, like whether any gods exist.

    3. In other words, it may be that in fact the current crop of atheists is the dumbest set of motherfuckers who have ever walked the Earth… but they just happen to have been lucky enough to be born into a time and place where they had fantastic educational resources and opportunities, and thus learned all the problems with religious claims while also developing their reasoning skills enough to do well on an IQ test. Meanwhile, the religious may be actually intrinsically smarter, but because of where they were born, they never got the same opportunities – they never learned the tricks to ace an IQ test, and they didn’t have the time or resources to read the right books or watch the right YouTube videos to make the breakthrough realization about their religion.

    4. And of course, assuming cause-and-effect with data like this is just a complete fantastic leap. So you’ve found that better educated people are less religious? Great! Wait, you thought that they’re less religious because they’re better educated? Ha ha, sucker! It could be as simple as the fact that a person’s religious affiliation is primarily determined by their social circle… not their intelligence, or lack thereof. The fact that better educated people are more likely atheist could simply be because that’s where atheists happened to be clustered thanks to a historical fluke.

    5. And so on….

    But as I said, the real problem with making claims like this is that it is dangerous. Anytime a group of people assert that they are superior to others – or that others are inferior to them… that’s a problem. And the really ridiculous irony here is that we recognize when religious people do it, and chastise them for it. It’s apparently okay when we do it, though. Right?

    It’s dangerous enough to foster an “us-versus-them” mentality – even more so an “us-versus-them” mentality based on our imagined intellectual superiority – but the current social context makes this even more dangerous. We are no longer the ignored fringe of society; nonbelievers have significant political power these days (granted, not nearly as much as we should, considering our numbers). We can and have forced our will on religious people many, many times recently… and while most of those cases have been very justified, some were arguably just abusive. You don’t have to spend too much time on social media to hear atheists justifying outright cruelty toward religious people on the basis of their alleged intellectual inferiority.

    We don’t need to do this. We don’t need to rally the atheist community around the claim that “we’re smart and they’re dumb”. We’ve figured out the correct answer to one of the simplest questions ever… that’s it. That’s all. The fact that others haven’t bothered to ask seriously enough, or have been hoodwinked by very clever people into confusion about the answer, or have decided that their emotional connection to a specific answer is more important to them than the logical answer… none of those things means we’re “smarter” than them!

    Rather than crowing about how we’re superior to religious people, we should be recognizing their humanity. We should be spreading the meme that we’re all equal – no-one is “better” than anyone else. We should be reaching out to religious people as fellow travellers who may have gotten a little lost along the way, but who are nevertheless our brothers, sisters, friends, and family, who we share the world with, and who we need to work together with. Religious people are not our enemies, nor are they inferior “sheeple” we need to be shepherding because they’re too dumb to manage themselves. They are our future fellow atheists… that is, if we’re doing our job properly of showing them why our community is the place to be.

    (I’m not even going to bother going into the problems with glorifying “skeptics” or “skepticism” without very careful qualification – that way lies the madness of “climate skepticism” or “vaccine skepticism” or, perhaps most insidiously, “skepticism” about gender inequality or rape statistics.)


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