Study Suggests Atheists Are More Intelligent Because They Can Override Religious Instinct

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A new study has proposed an explanation for the negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence. Researchers from the UK and the Netherlands suggest that religion might be an instinct and rejection of instinct, being able to "rise above it", is linked to higher intelligence.

In their paper, published in Evolutionary Psychology Science, the researchers put forward the Intelligence-Mismatch Association model. They argued that religion is a so-called "evolved domain", what we would refer to as an instinct.

“If religion is an evolved domain then it is an instinct, and intelligence – in rationally solving problems – can be understood as involving overcoming instinct and being intellectually curious, and thus open to non-instinctive possibilities,” co-author Edward Dutton, of the Ulster Institute for Social Research in the UK, said in a statement.

Their ideas are based on the work of evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa’s Savanna-IQ Principles. Biologically, we haven’t changed much from our savanna-roaming ancestors, so the argument would suggest that our psychology is strongly influenced by how the first homo sapiens dealt with the world.

A meta-analysis of 63 studies showed that there’s a significant negative association between how religious people are and their intelligence. Let’s state clearly that this is a trend. This means that while on average, atheists are more intelligent than religious people, this is not an indictment of the ability of any single individual. Trust us, you can have incredibly bright religious people as well as not very clever atheists.  

The model that Dutton developed with co-author Dimitri Van der Linden from Rotterdam University also looked at the generic link between instinct and intelligence. In particular, they focused on instinct and stress as people tend to be a lot more instinctive and a lot less rational during particularly taxing periods. Intelligence – rationality – helps to cope with acting instinctively during those times.

“If religion is indeed an evolved domain – an instinct – then it will become heightened at times of stress when people are inclined to act instinctively, and there is clear evidence for this,” Dutton continued. “It also means that intelligence allows us to able to pause and reason through the situation and the possible consequences of our actions.”

For them, this fact has crucial consequence in people’s problem-solving ability. And this skill is important in the changed environment we now live in. Our way of life has dramatically changed in the last 11,000 years and instinctive behavior might sometimes be counter-productive. Researchers usually refer to this as an evolutionary mismatch: what was advantageous for our hunter-gatherer ancestor might be bad for us.

Human psychology is a complex field and I’m sure we haven’t heard the last word on this debate.

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