Are Religious People Really, On Average, Less Smart than Atheists?

Summary: A new study addresses whether religiosity is associated with lower intelligence. Researchers report religious people appear to be predisposed to rely more heavily on intuition when it comes to decision making, over reasoning. They conclude cognitive training could allow religious minded people to maintain their beliefs without over-relying on intuition when making decisions.

Source: BPS.

Of course, there are examples of extremely intelligent individuals with strong religious convictions. But various studies have found that, on average, belief in God is associated with lower scores on IQ tests. “It is well established that religiosity correlates inversely with intelligence,” note Richard Daws and Adam Hampshire at Imperial College London, in a new paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, which seeks to explore why.

It’s a question with some urgency – the proportion of people with a religious belief is growing: by 2050, if current trends continue, people who say they are not religious will make up only 13 per cent of the global population. Based on the low-IQ-religiosity link, it could be argued that humanity is on course to become collectively less smart.

One suggestion is that perhaps religious people tend to rely more on intuition. So, rather than having impaired general intelligence, they might be comparatively poor only on tasks in which intuition and logic come into conflict – and this might explain the lower overall IQ test results.

To investigate, Daws and Hampshire surveyed more than 63,000 people online, and had them complete a 30-minute set of 12 cognitive tasks that measured planning, reasoning, attention and working memory. The participants also indicated whether they were religious, agnostic or atheist.

As predicted, the atheists performed better overall than the religious participants, even after controlling for demographic factors like age and education. Agnostics tended to place between atheists and believers on all tasks. In fact, strength of religious conviction correlated with poorer cognitive performance. However, while the religious respondents performed worse overall on tasks that required reasoning, there were only very small differences in working memory.

Also, some of the reasoning tasks, such as an extra-hard version of the Stroop Task known as “colour-word remapping”, had been designed to create maximum conflict between an intuitive response and a logical one, and the biggest group differences emerged on these tasks, consistent with the idea that religious people rely more on their intuition. In contrast, for a complex reasoning task – “deductive reasoning” – for which there were no obviously intuitive answers, there was much less of a group difference.

a person praying
As predicted, the atheists performed better overall than the religious participants, even after controlling for demographic factors like age and education. Image adapted from the BPS news release.

Daws and Hampshire concluded: “These findings provide evidence in support of the hypothesis that the religiosity effect relates to conflict [between reasoning and intuition] as opposed to reasoning ability or intelligence more generally.”

If, as this work suggests, religious belief predisposes people to rely more heavily on intuition in decision-making – and the stronger their belief, the more pronounced the impact – how much of a difference does this make to actual achievement in the real world? At the moment, there’s no data on this. But in theory, perhaps cognitive training could allow religious people to maintain their beliefs without over-relying on intuition when it conflicts with logic in day to day decision-making.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Emma Young – BPS
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is adapted from the BPS news release.
Original Research: Open access research in BPS in Psychology.

Edit: A previous version of the summary written by Victoria D. had numerous errors.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]BPS “Are Religious People Really, On Average, Less Smart than Atheists?.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 29 January 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]BPS (2018, January 29). Are Religious People Really, On Average, Less Smart than Atheists?. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 29, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]BPS “Are Religious People Really, On Average, Less Smart than Atheists?.” (accessed January 29, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


The Negative Relationship between Reasoning and Religiosity Is Underpinned by a Bias for Intuitive Responses Specifically When Intuition and Logic Are in Conflict

It is well established that religiosity correlates inversely with intelligence. A prominent hypothesis states that this correlation reflects behavioral biases toward intuitive problem solving, which causes errors when intuition conflicts with reasoning. We tested predictions of this hypothesis by analyzing data from two large-scale Internet-cohort studies (combined N = 63,235). We report that atheists surpass religious individuals in terms of reasoning but not working-memory performance. The religiosity effect is robust across sociodemographic factors including age, education and country of origin. It varies significantly across religions and this co-occurs with substantial cross-group differences in religious dogmatism. Critically, the religiosity effect is strongest for tasks that explicitly manipulate conflict; more specifically, atheists outperform the most dogmatic religious group by a substantial margin (0.6 standard deviations) during a color-word conflict task but not during a challenging matrix-reasoning task. These results support the hypothesis that behavioral biases rather than impaired general intelligence underlie the religiosity effect.

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  1. I wonder if it is religion that causes people to process information less effectively. It would be interesting to do a study on previously religious people and see if they have the same score as atheist. The question is can ones environment impact on IQ or intelligence based tasks.

  2. The explanation is simple. The older and more intelligent my children become, the less they rely on and listen to me as their father. The same is true of our relationship with God. How arrogant many of us are to believe our finite minds can fathom or dismiss the infinite mind of our creator.

  3. To those of you that hate this study, invoking Christianity in your post and ranting isn’t making your point. View the research, point out it’s flaws, state your case to why it’s wrong. Saying how smart you are, stating an unverifiable education level or professional position, posting scripture, etc, doesn’t work.

    You want to say this is wrong, then provide cited backup. At the very least outline some type of logical reasoning.

  4. Given the HUP rooted in the PUP, that any number times infinity is infinity and Von Neumann himself pointed out that Pascal had a very compelling point in his wager, it seems that the publishers of this study have come to their conclusions through flawed logic. But as Jesus explained:

    “In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hid these things from the wise and prudent, and have revealed them to babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered to me of my Father: and no man knows who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him.”

    Praise to God, Father, Son and All Good Holy and Life-Giving Spirit now and ever an to ages of ages, Amen.

    1. Apparently you aren’t aware that Jesus never explained anything. Every word attributed to Jesus was written by someone decades after his death, written by people who never met him or heard him speak. Everything you read in the new testament is “hearsay” and thus suspect. It’s very easy to put words into someone’s mouth when they are no longer around to dispute it. If it’s hearsay how can it be trust worthy? There is no way to test it… other than blind faith.

  5. All it demonstrates is that less intelligent people turn to intuition for guidance because they lack education or higher capacity for reasoning. It doesn’t indicate that religion is the cause. Most scientists are theists, and the scientists who are atheists have the lowest average intelligence among scientists. They are also the least educated outside of their own fields. Also, the world’s most intelligent man is a devout Christian.

    Religion does not dumb anyone down; in fact, it has a tendency to promote an interest in education and higher reasoning in those who have the potential for it. I know this both from studies and from personal experience; when I was a devout Catholic, I had an avid interest in science, discovery and invention that I didn’t have before I became a devout Catholic. It opened my mind to the possibilities. Most converts to religions, whether Christian or otherwise, report an increased interest in science, education and culture. Religion gives people a sense of purpose that science devoid of faith cannot provide.

    Religion attracts the least intelligent and the most intelligent. Atheists are still firmly planted in the middle of the spectrum of potential human intelligence. That’s because a disbelief in something that science can neither prove or disprove is both unscientific and unintelligent. On the other hand, extrapolating the existence of God based on scientific reasoning requires great intelligence. Leaps of intuition require no intelligence, but leaps of extrapolation require genius level intelligence.

    Without intuition and extrapolation, there would be no science, no invention, no progress. We must first feel that there is an answer before we can devise a scientific method to verify what we feel to be possible or true. There is no way to get around this. When there are no scientific answers, all we have left is placeholder beliefs to get us through the day. The only survival tool we have left is intuition. Without it, there can only be nihilism, which leads to self destruction.

    Science cannot answer all questions. Atheism is a poor basis for morality, ethics, sense of purpose, societal order, etc. This is born out by history and statistics. Religion may have its flaws, but at the end of the day, it’s the best survival tool we have. Science is for the few, religion for the many.

    1. Michael, do you have any studies to backup anything you stated? See, these researchers provided their study which you can view. I get it, you’re religious and hate someone saying that you and your ilk are not on the same intellectual capacity as non-religious individuals.

      In the future, you might want to provide cited material to back all your rantings.

  6. People, if you dislike this research because it states something you don’t like, which is likely that you are a religious minded person being told you are less intelligent, then READ the research first then point out its flaws. Throwing out questions that are likely being addressed in the linked and published research just means you are trying to knock it without putting forth the effort to actually understand it. That’s not using logic and reasoning.

  7. Its amazing the attack on people who believe in God. It is blatantly biased and unequivocally slanted to portray them in a less than favorable light. I have a Electrical Engineering degree and believe with my whole heart in God and the peace that he has brought in my life. The sad part about most people who don’t believe in God is that most believe we just came from nothing.

    1. Good comment – I’m a nuclear engineer and seeing cell animations it seems pretty obvious that the Occam’s razor explanation for why life looks intelligently designed is because it is. We have to remember though that we must be as little children to enter the Kingdom of God – so let’s play dumb and pray for them as it seems all we have today is prayer – logic and reasoning seem to have been abandoned for atheistic dogmatism.

    2. Guys, it’s pretty consistent that the few educated creationists tend to be engineers. Unfortunately that doesn’t qualify you for an educated opinion about evolution. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that religious people are dumber than non-believers, but they are VERY OFTEN less educated, certainly less educated about evolution. People who reject evolution are almost always people who don’t understand it, like you Mr. andrewhollandweb. Life is NOT intelligently designed, it’s actually very badly designed in many ways. I say this as a biologist by the way, and I give you only one example: our genome is full of junk, completely non-functional DNA, including thousands (!) of non-functional genes. Happy to discuss the details, but do your homework first before you start complaining.

  8. Most atheist or agnostics use deductive reasoning to arrive at their beliefs , hence the difference in these cognitive test!!

  9. I’m an atheist surrounded by the religious, and I’ve never noticed that I’m on average more intelligent. Most of my friends and acquaintances, both religious and not, are college educated; how that applies is what I don’t know.

    I do find I am better informed on religion, but that doesn’t indicate superior intelligence; It’s simply the results of my search as I began to lose my faith.

    I’m not critiquing the study. I lack the credentials for one thing, and I’ve not done much research, either. But the equating of a reliance on intuition with a lack of intelligence is rather a jump. I wonder how you eliminated the other possible reasons for intuitive thinking.

    1. Russell, the study is addressing the very things you are discussing. You by your own admission associate with a subset of the population. This study tried to level that field for a comparison that is apples to apples. And just because you might not understand the research, doesn’t make it any less credible.

      Your opinion is that reliance on intuition vs logic doesn’t mean anything. I happen to agree and believe taking a step back saying a person using logic vs how they feel would get you to that answer regardless. For example, how many intuitively believe that their Christian God is involved in every facet of their lives, but shutdown or balk at the thought that logically that same God would have a hand in rape, child molestation, starvation, etc, etc? A logical person would then have to assume that if their was a Christian God it would likely not have any hand in human affairs. Is that the Christian at large stance? No. Because intuition blocks many from accepting what is just logical using cognitive reasoning.

  10. “controlling for demographic factors like age and education”

    Ok, so the exact problem with this is that this researcher planned to get a biased result based on picking people with an imbalance on the type of degrees they have…… so essentially people with certain degrees or types of degrees will do better on these tests than people with other types of degrees, yet you can still say they are just as educated with a bachelors, masters etc….. So if I pick Religious people with all science based degrees like biology, computer science, physics, math etc….. and then I pick atheists with every other type of degrees that are not science/math/ problem solving based like English, Art, History etc…… I can make the test go the entire other way and religious people will be the ones who seem to have a higher intelligence!

    Go download the supplements these two articles are based on here

    and see how much of a joke this is and how this vagary can easily be manipulated!

    Also keep in mind that in certain science classes in many colleges an atheist agenda is pushed on the students and they are reprimanded for speaking against evolution and a billions of years old Earth and universe, or even mentioning anything religious at all! In fact many colleges are set up to coerce and subtlety influence peoples minds into becoming atheist or at least thinking like an atheist along with much of the main stream media printing garbage articles like this! What a joke! For SHAME!!!!

    God is REAL and can be proven in a court of LAW!!!

    (The biologically immortal organisms that lack senescence are already extremely great proof for God and his design but if you want more…..

    The 3 main forms of evidence that would be acceptable and legitimate in a court of law for the
    existence of God would be…..

    “Life after Death experience studies where people witness a creator God- “, ……….

    Multiple Studies on the effectiveness of prayer from multiple religions involving a creator God
    like in the book “The Divine Matrix by Gregg Braden” ”
    +matrix+gregg+braden&sprefix=divine+matrix%2Cstripbooks%2C195&crid=3BXKVNJABO9OK ” along with
    other such studies proving a positive co-relation, …… Positive co-relation to prayer in a
    peer reviewed study………. …………

    and scientific facts mentioned in the Bible before their human discovery by a divine influence, …….

    For example…..

    1. The singing stars. Job 38:7 declares the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy. It sounds like a bit of Bible poetry but not much more. After all, stars shine, not sing, right? Well, it turns out scientists have been able to convert patterns from start light into audio wavelengths, according to Discovery News. The “amount of hiss” in the audio reportedly allows scientists to measure the surface gravity on a star and gauge where it is in its stellar evolution.

    2. Weight of the winds. In Job 28:25, we are told that God weighed out the wind. This one may be no more self-evident to us than it was to an ancient Israelite reader of this text. But, we know from modern science that air, since it does have mass, weighs something. You might be surprised to know how much though: an estimated one ton of air is weighing down on shoulders, according to this science site (which explains that we don’t feel it because the air is exerting its force in all directions). This is pretty basic stuff for modern scientists, but it’s quite a credit to the inerrancy of Scripture that the author of Job got it right so long ago (approximately in the second millennium BC).

    3. A massive fountain of water deep beneath the Earth!!! Genesis 7:11 “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.”

    “Scientists dig the world’s deepest hole – and find ‘water from NOAH’S FLOOD’ at the bottom The revelation also reportedly “disproves the myth” that the earth is made up of dry rocky layers”

    All these would stand the scrutiny of a judge and jury for the case of a creator Gods existence
    and the legitimacy of the Christian Faith!!!
    But I am feeling generous so I will give you two more great forms of evidence, how about this
    book where a forensic officer who is atheist studies and researches the Bible to see if it proves
    a historical Jesus and if he was murdered wrongfully?
    Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels,
    afterward he became Christian!!!

    Also, why don’t you just pray to God yourself and ask him if he is real? What more can I say??? Then you would have
    personal evidence and proof of Gods interaction yourself…..

    I mean, there is actually way way way more evidence for God than this but it either would go over
    your head or you would not understand it properly and you would question it, but this is really
    solid evidence and proof I have given you up above that would hold up in a court of law……….. if you decide to RUN from it, at
    least admit to yourself that is what you are doing……..)

  11. So I’m curious how an intuition test defines intelligence. And also, shouldn’t demographics be placed at the forefront? Like for example, atheists and believers in Harvard University, instead of just random individuals out there. It’s well know that those with less access to wealth and higher education are more susceptible to religion as a means of coping with dire or unfavorable conditions, as those who have such things feel less of a need for a god. So this can easily be due to economic and educational factors, not religion.

    1. Evan, read the study first, then point out the flaws. The article addresses some of what you are asking, just throwing out random questions isn’t reasoning out the problems. Read the research, then state that X, Y and Z are issues or lacking.

  12. This news broke almost 2000 years ago:
    1 Cor 1:26-27
    Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you.
    Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.

  13. Okay, guys. A couple of big holes:
    What “IQ tests” did you use? Hopefully not the ubiquitous Stanford-Binet, which has never been validated and never proven that it is
    intelligence that’s being tested.
    When did “religion” and “religiosity” become synonymous?
    When did intuition become the antithesis of intelligence?
    How were these studies you refer to constructed? Randomized? Double blinded? Statistically significant numbers of subjects?

    1. The study being discussed is open access. Agree or disagree all you like, BUT you really should read the paper and follow the citations BEFORE you go overboard with snarky questions and criticisms.

    2. Mary, to be blunt, an intelligent person should read the research first, then criticize. They have a link for you to read. What you’re doing is exactly the problem with many today regarding topics more important than this. You don’t research the item, just want to ask random questions, believing that somehow that discredits it.

      Try this. Read the research, then point out what you view as flaws.

    3. Did you read the entirety of the above statement?
      They don’t use “religion” and “religiosity” interchangeably. They use “religion” when talking about the various systems that have belief in transcendent being. They use “religiosity” for strong religious belief (or a little more toward the degree of belief).
      The title may be misleading, but the article doesn’t suggest that intuition is the antithesis of intelligence. Only that it isn’t the same as intelligence, and that religious people aren’t performing as well in the tasks where intuition fails. In terms of academic problem solving, that can definitely be an issue.
      And they used 63,000 respondents to “two large-scale internet-cohort studies.” So there is (probably) some selection bias, double-blind doesn’t really exist in this context (at least not in the medical way), and 63,000 observations is definitely enough to use robust statistical techniques and to rely on the Central Limit Theorem, so they are probably fine in terms of power.

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