Myth Buster: Are atheists more intelligent than the religious?

Myth Buster: Are atheists more intelligent than the religious?

Intelligent people are less likely to believe in God, claims researcher and academic Richard Lynn.  Professor Lynn is also quick to point out that academics are less likely to believe in God.

“Why should fewer academics believe in God than the general population? I believe it is simply a matter of the IQ. Academics have higher IQs than the general population. Several Gallup poll studies of the general population have shown that those with higher IQs tend not to believe in God,” states Prof. Lynn.  (Times Higher Education Magazine)

Lynn points to the decline of religious observance over the last century and the rise in the overall Intelligence Quotient (IQ) as more proof that intelligence and religious observance don’t mix well.  The professor claims that religious belief had declined across 137 developed nations in the 20th century at the same time as people became more intelligent.

The journal Intelligence published Lynn’s study in 2008 where Lynn lists the country by average IQ and then by percent of citizens for believing in God.  (Look below for the country chart.)   However, if you analyze the data from the 137 countries, as Denyse O’Leary of did, you’ll find there is no consistent relationship between religion and IQ.

O’Leary gives her analysis:

I first became suspicious when Lynn et al. tried to explain why the United States is anomalous “in having an unusually low percentage of its population disbelieving in God (10.5 percent) for a high IQ country [98].”

Looking at the chart closely, I noticed another anomaly: The Czech Republic and Slovakia split on January 1, 1993. In 2008, the Czech republic clocked IQ 98, 61 percent disbelieving in God, and Slovakia at IQ 96, with only 17 percent disbelieving in God. The difference is obviously cultural.

[Then look at] Israel and Portugal -with very different culture and histories – both feature IQ 95. But in Israel 15 percent disbelieve and in Portugal 4 percent. So tripling or quadrupling the number of atheists did nothing for IQ when culture and history are different.

Perhaps. The reader may protest, after all, that these are individual cases. Very well, let’s be daring. Let’s drop from the list all nations where government either enforces or forbids religion or is known to be generally unrepresentative. Most such countries report lower average IQ. But the centralized thinking of authoritarian culture could well cause lower IQ.

So here’s the trimmed list, with countries listed by IQ – in alpha order when showings are equal. The only serious purpose of this list is to demonstrate that the case for “a negative relationship between intelligence and religious belief” is nonsense.

Countries by IQ and percent not believing in God

  • Singapore 108 13
  • South Korea 106 30
  • Japan 105 65
  • Taiwan 105 24
  • Italy 102 6
  • Iceland 101 16
  • Switzerland 101 17
  • Austria 100 18
  • Netherlands 100 42
  • Norway 100 31
  • United Kingdom 100 41.5
  • Belgium 99 43
  • Canada 99 22
  • Estonia 99 49
  • Finland 99 28
  • Germany 99 42
  • New Zealand 99 22
  • Poland 99 3
  • Sweden 99 64
  • Australia 98 25
  • Czech Republic 98 61
  • Denmark 98 48
  • France 98 44
  • Hungary 98 32
  • Latvia 98 20
  • Spain 98 15
  • United States 98 10.5
  • Russia 97 27
  • Ukraine 97 20
  • Moldova 96 6
  • Slovakia 96 17
  • Slovenia 96 35
  • Israel 95 15
  • Portugal 95 4
  • Romania 94 4
  • Bulgaria 93 34
  • Ireland 92 5
  • Lithuania 91 13
  • Croatia 90 7
  • Mexico 88 4.5
  • Philippines 86 0.5
  • Trinidad and Tobago 85 9
  • Saudi Arabia 84 0.5
  • India 82 3
  • South Africa 72 1
  • Kenya 72 0.5
  • Jamaica 71 3

Note, for example, that four nations scored an even IQ 100. Arranged by level of atheism, they are:

  • Netherlands 100 42
  • United Kingdom 100 41.5
  • Norway 100 31
  • Austria 100 18

In other words, the level of atheism could range from 18 percent up to 42 percent, with the average IQ at 100. There is no consistent relationship between religion and IQ.


  • LTC Ted
    Posted at 14:22h, 19 July

    I’d throw out nations which were deeply involved with the USSR, including Germany (owing to the influx of “East” Germans. Governmental policy in those nations discouraged religious expression until the current generation.

  • adanac
    Posted at 15:39h, 20 July

    How is a nations IQ determined?

  • United Families International
    Posted at 16:40h, 20 July

    Good question. Anyone out there know?

  • mojo101
    Posted at 00:41h, 30 September

    Professor Lynn obviously did such a poor scientific job, it just hurts one’s eyes to read that. Thanks for pointing out a few of the weak spots in his argumentation. One could continue down the list and mention the fact that correlation does not necessarily induce causal dependancy, but is merely a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite. Correlation between two series means that they vary together, causality means that one varies BECAUSE of the other. So, even if there were a correlation between high IQ and atheism, this would not imply that intelligence would lead to atheism, as the author obviously wanted to imply, but merely, that, for whatever reason, high IQ and atheism COULD have the same origin, or simply are based on the same boundary conditions. Calculating the correlation coefficient for the nations that you have shown here leads to a correlation of 0,53, a very weak correlation. When taking out the countries with low atheism rate, as small number produce large relative errors, the correlation coefficient becomes 0,11, virtually non-existent. So, even if there was a law of cause an effect between high IQ and atheism (could be the other way around, for all that matters, or based on the same origin – like a common humanistic culture – ‘puffed up in pride because of their ways of learning’??), the correlation is so weak that one cannot make this point showing these data.
    But then, it’s a catchy header, and the general public never questions what they read in print from a ‘scientist’. Professor Lynn, please do not use science as an excuse or fig leaf (sorry, is that too religious of an analogy?) for your personal choices, rather use good standards when applying the principles of science to any topic of your choice.

  • RIL
    Posted at 11:23h, 27 September

    The issues I have are:
    1) These results depict two different studies. Lynn’s study was a study on the distribution of IQ across Liberalism and atheism vs non. This study is nothing more than the distribution of atheism with a side note of national IQ. I hope the majority of people can recognize the difference between these.

    2) The IQ of a nation is expected to be 100 +- SD, thus this data is useless.
    Liberalism and Atheism is generally a position which people tend to “choose” in opposition to a religious upbringing. That’s what make’s Lynn’s study interesting. People don’t usually choose to be a particular nationality, that is a simple matter of chance… what country that you’re born in, is chance… like flipping a coin, you expect to get 50/50. (but anywhere between 45/55 is within normal deviation)

    3) The data seems to be flawed. Apparently, Jamaica has an average IQ of 77? Do you seriously think that the majority of Jamaicans are borderline, mentally deficient? (lower than 80 is borderline deficient) I would love to know how these numbers were determined… even if it is accurate, anything that deviates to such a degree of the expected outcome should be omitted from the study. (Like omitting people who are not susceptible to placebos during medical testing)

    Atheism rates of each country is not interesting… that is nothing more than a statement cultural and political stances. The study should have been showing, regardless of cultural and political influences, the distribution of Liberalism and Atheism in each country.
    I.E. If the Czech Republic has an average IQ of 98 and Atheism is 61%… what is the average IQ within this 61%? Is it higher than the other 39%? THAT is the interesting data.

    Also, just to add, Atheism in North America is interesting because it is in opposition to culture… looking at cultures with higher levels of Liberalism and Atheism would, not skew but diminish the potential differences. You would expect to find a larger differences in the more ‘non’ LnA countries, because it’s not a huge cultural taboo.

  • RIL
    Posted at 11:27h, 27 September

    grammar fix*** You would expect to find a larger difference in the more ‘non’ LnA countries, because it’s a huge cultural taboo.***

  • Jeriel
    Posted at 23:22h, 27 March

    Off course, culture and history would effect religiosity of a nation. What the hell is wrong with this O’Leary character.
    Compare IQ and religiosity of people with similar backgrounds. e.g. Those in the same country!
    They did that and it the negative correlation between IQ and religiosity has been shown.

  • Joao
    Posted at 09:38h, 09 April

    This is a bad aproach to data.

    Using the IQ/atheist % given here anyone can calculate the correlation and certify that it is 0,5. Its high enough to say theres a correlation. Cherry picking data for intuitive comparison is silly. No myth busting is effectively done this way.

    Of Course IQ is not the only cause for religion. Is just one of them. There is culture, socio-economic status, and random luck.

    Anyone can verify for themselfs that the correlation is there here:

  • Jeriel
    Posted at 08:52h, 11 April

    @Joao If you base it off solely on this article then it is silly. Read the actual papers of the studies and look at the methodology, etc.
    One must compare IQ and religiosity from a population with similar backgrounds to “eliminate” (not absolute, that’s why I put it in quotes) those factors. That’s why it is silly to compare the IQ/religiosity of different countries with different backgrounds.
    Was this approach to eliminate other factors taken by these studies? I don’t know.
    Are there multiple studies with majority (or all) in consensus with Lynn’s conclusions? I don’t know.
    Based solely on this article, it seems that it is O’Leary who was cherry picking data to counter the conclusions of Lynn’s study.

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