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Are Theists Dumber Than Atheists, or More Intuitive?

Several recent studies attempt to explain why atheists are “smarter” than theists. But when it comes to intelligence, IQ is not the only thing that matters.
| Mar 22, 2018 | 11 comments |

This article is a reaction to several articles published within the past year that claim to have identified objective evidence that atheists are, in general, more intelligent than theists. One article (published by Big Think) claims that theists are less intelligent because they rely more on intuition. Another (by Live Science) claims that religion is an instinct and the IQ evolved to deal with situations which are not instinctual–so a person who is less intelligent relies more on instinct, while the more intelligent person is able to “rise above” that instinct (by becoming an atheist). (My thanks to Mike Duran, by the way, who posted the first of these articles on Facebook, drawing my attention to this topic and inspiring the comment that’s the basis for this post.)

To start off, these articles reference relatively small studies that probably do not definitively establish anything. I say that even though I do suspect there might be some truth behind the study which claims that religious believers are more intuitive than atheists.

Second, please note that both of these studies show bias right off by assuming that IQ equals intelligence. It’s a known fact that IQ tests only measure part of human intelligence. Creativity, for example, which most people (including experts) agree is a form of intelligence, cannot be measured by IQ. (There are other brain functions which are also not measured by IQ.) So any test presuming that higher IQ is an inherently superior or “more evolved” brain function is engaging in a presumption which cannot be proven.

Third, the right brain of a human being (speaking very generally here) is generally linked to pattern recognition. Recognizing patterns allows people to do things like recognize faces. While pattern recognition can contribute to IQ, in general, logical deductive reasoning is more associated with left brain activity and does not require much pattern recognition (again, speaking very generally–lots of specific details contradict what I just said, but very broadly speaking it’s true). I think pattern recognition contributes hugely to creativity, allowing people (for example) to imagine faces in clouds or to in other ways see the world differently than it objectively is, based on an exaggeration of patterns.

Fourth, intuition is also associated with pattern recognition. Note that pattern recognition is not something an intuitive person can always explain (explaining is in general a left brain function anyway)–you just know you have seen something before or know something to be true and you react accordingly. Though of course the reacting part of intuition goes beyond pattern recognition–so the two things are not exactly identical to one another.

Fifth, could it be that believers in general are more creative and better at pattern recognition than atheists? While atheists have higher IQs on average? I mean, could it be that the higher IQ that atheists are stated to demonstrate is coupled with them being weaker at pattern recognition? Or their higher IQ average is associated with being less creative?

In other words, maybe atheists develop their IQ more, playing to their natural strengths as it were, because they tend to have less of other forms of intelligence. Maybe most things in nature are a trade-off, so having more of one thing means having less of something else. Perhaps not in every case, but perhaps that’s true generally speaking (it certainly makes sense, anyway).

Since pattern recognition is at least partially independent from IQ and since creativity is not objectively measurable at all, perhaps atheists are not in fact more intelligent at all than theists. Perhaps they are, on average, simply intelligent in a different way.

Credit: patrice6000/Shutterstock

If what I just said is true (if), then this winds up creating a situation that perhaps makes a lot of sense. Perhaps believers, who may indeed be more intuitive and more creative than atheists, are inherently better at understanding the mind of a creative God than someone who has less of an urge to create. Perhaps also intuitive believers are better at pattern recognition than atheists–and perhaps we believers intuit very clearly the pattern of an intelligent being operating in the universe, a pattern atheist are in general less able to see.

Atheists, who perhaps may be stronger in logic because they are weaker in intuition, perhaps cannot as easily detect the pattern of God’s work in the cosmos. If that’s true, atheists would then be somewhat like color blind people, ones who are not only unable to see color themselves, who but have declared color to be a myth. And they are buoyed to confidence in this opinion by their personal certainty that they see more clearly than those who “claim” to see colors. (Please note that being color blind supposedly does offer some advantages in clarity of vision over color-based sight.)

Of course when I speak to atheists I make numerous logical arguments in favor of God. Usually atheists stop talking to me relatively quickly, apparently after discovering they cannot easily answer my points. Though that hasn’t always been the case. Sometimes atheists grudgingly admit what I say makes sense, even though they don’t agree.

I have known a few people who told me they came to faith in God based on logical argumentation, but only very few. Could it be that very, very few people are actually persuaded by rational arguments, no matter how high their IQ happens to be? While at the same time, what a person intuits to be true is very powerful and deeply influences everyone–even the atheists, even when their intuition may in fact be defective?

I’m speculating here, of course. I don’t really know if there is an inverse relationship between creativity/pattern recognition/intuition and IQ. But perhaps there is. And if so, it would completely change the discussion of who is more intelligent between theists and atheists. (Someone should conduct a study to try to find out–though it wouldn’t be easy. 🙂 )

What are your thoughts on this topic? Please share below!

Travis Perry is a hard-core Bible user, history, science, and foreign language geek, hard science fiction and epic fantasy fan, publishes multiple genres of speculative fiction at Bear Publications, is an Army Reserve officer with five combat zone deployments. He also once cosplayed as dark matter.

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Parker J. Cole

What I really love about this article, Travis, is how you show that all intelligence cannot be based on a singular standard. How often do we hear book smarts vs street smarts? If people are multifaceted gems, it then comes to reason so is everyone’s level of intelligence is reflective of that.

And, forgive me if I preen a bit here, I love how you said: “Creativity, for example, which most people (including experts) agree is a form of intelligence, cannot be measured by IQ.” Maybe I’m smarter than I thought! hahaha!

I know there is a push for intellectualism, and I fully support that in regards to the faith. In the battle of ideas, you have to use the same kinds of weapons as your enemy only make sure yours are better aimed and just as sharp. But at the end of the day, God meets us where it matters, in our hearts.

Thanks again for a great article.

Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor

What I see is that atheists love their sin so much they wouldn’t admit to belief, much less follow Christ, if he were to stand right in front of them. Deep down inside they do believe but suppressed it so much they have even fooled themselves. I’m not saying to give up on them, just be prepared to give a very convincing argument.

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Interesting thoughts, Travis. I’m not ready to give credence to those studies, though. I mean, just because someone doesn’t hold a degree in science doesn’t mean they have a lower IQ. Think CS Lewis and Pascal and William Lane Craig and John Lennox and a host of others. Here’s an article that lists 50 such scholars: https://thebestschools.org/features/smartest-people-faith/

But apart from all that, Scripture says spiritual things are discerned spiritually. So in truth, intelligence plays no part in having a relationship with Jesus Christ. It probably plays a part in our ability to articulate our faith and to explain faith to those who claim they don’t have any (they do have faith, but they misunderstand it, thinking that all faith is blind faith, but their faith in a scientific report is somehow different that faith in the Bible. It’s not. They have not conducted those scientific studies: someone else has and they are simply trusting the results and the conclusions to those people they agree with.)



Really, intelligence is not the issue, because smart people are willing to believe dumb things all the time, i.e., anti-vaccination weirdos.

It’s more about motivated reasoning and cognitive dissonance.


I’d be very nervous about actually posing this argument to an atheist/agnostic … because I think an enhanced tendency toward pattern recognition is precisely the *weakness* they would charge against believers.

Erroneous “recognition” of patterns that aren’t actually there is what gives rise to superstition. Imagine that you hang a rabbit’s foot on your bag as decoration, and every time you bring it along to work, you happen to have a good day. If you’re highly prone to spotting patterns in things, you might notice this correlation between the presence of the rabbit’s foot and good events in your life, and conclude that preserved rabbits’ feet are lucky.

The key to defeating a superstition like the above is to remember that you need a large sample size and well-designed experiment before you can conclude anything … if you observed many people carrying many rabbits’ feet over the course of many days, alongside a control group who weren’t carrying, the correlation between rabbits’ feet and good luck would most likely disappear. But these are scientific/rational thoughts, not intuitive thoughts. Atheists, who allege that all religion is elaborate superstition, will not be impressed by claims that we are good at intuiting patterns. They’d consider that the *problem.*

You mentioned the ability to see faces in clouds and so forth (the technical name for this is “pareidolia”). I’ve actually seen an atheist use this as a defense against people’s claimed experiences of supernatural phenomena, such as “ghosts.” (Oh, you thought you saw a face or some other spirit-form? That could’ve just been pareidolia. Your pattern-happy brain imagined the whole thing.)

If atheists really do have superior IQ (on average of course), and if I had to venture a guess as to why, here’s what I would suggest:

1) As someone who struggled horribly with doubt when I was a teenager, and got essentially no help from fellow Christians, I would suggest that the church often fails those with rational personality types. I hid my doubt from others because I was too ashamed to speak of it … and those to whom I did mention it assumed I was rejecting Christianity out of a desire to rebel. (In reality, I wanted nothing more than for the doubts to go away, but I couldn’t dispense with intellectual honesty, so I was stuck … until I finally managed to re-stabilize things on my own.) There’s a tendency to think the arguments in favor of God’s existence are just so *obvious* that anyone who doesn’t find them convincing is being willfully stupid, so there’s little patience with those for whom it’s *not* obvious. I’ve seen poorly researched, poorly argued apologetics materials treated as worthy tools; other times, it seems there’s just not much effort given to apologetics at all.

2) 1 Corinthians 1 might indicate that, when God draws people to Himself, He exercises a preference for those with inferior intelligence. “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were *wise by human standards*; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” In other words, God makes a point of not filling the church with superheroes, because He wants it to be obvious that He, not us, is the power behind it.

A. Walker Scott

As a former (and probably future) member of Mensa, I can absolutely attest that a fairly large percentage of individuals with high IQs have bizarrely low intuition. High IQ correlates with a whole range of odd things you might not expect: suicide, homosexuality, autism spectrum disorders, difficulty holding a job. Atheism could be one more thing on the list. But Mensa has subgroups (SIGs) for Catholics, Jews, Wiccans, Charismatics, Athiests, UFO believers… There’s an Anglican priest who used to conduct an interconfessional service on the Sunday morning of every Annual Gathering. Faith and non-faith, of many varieties, are both well represented among high IQ individuals.