In my long running dialogue with atheists on belief, science, organized religion, and the nature of the universe, one theme recurs quite frequently. Avowed atheists almost always seem to overtly or subtly think that their worldview is "smarter" than that of those people who believe in a higher power. Ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the greatest minds in history were not atheist, and that there is as much scientific evidence for the existence of God as there is proof against it (i.e. none either way), such atheists seem to derive much of their identity and meaning from the fact that they are intellectually superior to the lowly people that believe in deity or who follow organized religion.
Now such self-congratulatory atheists may have found themselves a new champion -- LSE evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa. Kanazawa's latest study, published in the March 2010 edition of Social Psychology Quarterly, claims to find supporting evidence that shows that atheists (in addition to liberals and monogamous males) tend to be marginally smarter than their non-atheist, conservative, and sexually permissive counterparts.
When I first saw the headline, I was halfway through writing an article for Huffington Post that focuses on how there is no substantive evidence that atheism is any more intelligent a choice than belief, so I obviously read with interest. As background, I am certainly not a religious zealot and I have nothing against atheists. I'm also a die hard liberal. But what I found in this article was perplexing. It would be putting it mildly to say there are massive problems with Kanazawa's study, both in methodology and conclusion. More bluntly, drawing wild conclusions about the evolutionary purpose of belief based on a handful of IQ test scores is bad science.
According to CNN, Kanazawa's test group were all Americans. In America, atheism and liberalism are both value systems embraced by the educated middle class and are part of the cultural fabric of liberal arts universities, Ivy League colleges, and the American intelligentsia. Therefore, saying that among a small group of Americans, liberals and atheists had higher IQ test scores is a bit like saying that people with more college education in this country tend to know more. I would be curious to know what the results of the same study would be in a population where belief in God is not popularly considered to be at odds with intelligentsia. In India, for example, there would be a much lower percentage of people in the scientific and academic communities who identify as atheists, so the results would be skewed very differently. In Saudi Arabia, where almost no-one is an atheist, the results would show a vast majority of people testing high on the IQ scale who do in fact believe in God. And in China, where there is a higher percentage of atheism due to the years of communist rule, the results would be tipped much further in favor of atheists.
In short, environmental and cultural factors are the unspoken backdrop of this study. Simply because atheism in America has been a luxury of the educated does not make it any more intelligent of a worldview scientifically. And because of the failure of many religious institutions in this country to modernize on key issues, many educated and intelligent Americans have abandoned their faith and now identify as atheist. Therefore, while this study says something about the socio-cultural state of religion and atheism in our country it says little to nothing about the relative intelligence of believers vs. atheists en masse. (I will not even go into the cultural bias in using IQ as a measure of intelligence, except to say that this is another flaw in the study. Again, it is akin to saying "those most likely to have higher IQ test scores actually do have higher IQ test scores." Imagine that.)
Kanazawa then uses the results of his study to find a common thread among the group who scored higher on the IQ test. The best thread that he and his team can come up with is that people who think outside the evolutionary box -- like atheists, monogamous males (?), and liberals -- are smarter than those who don't.
It sounds somewhat logical, but there are several leaps along the way, particularly in relation to the evolutionary history of belief. Kanazawa theorizes -- as many woefully myopic yet famous atheists such as Bertrand Russell have -- that belief in God is an evolutionary mechanism designed by lesser minds out of fear, but of course offers no evidence in support of his theory. His 'theory' in fact only exists to make the common thread of his own study stand up.
Specifically, Kanazawa states that belief in God evolved out of paranoia, because, in his words "it helps life to be paranoid, and because humans are paranoid, they become more religious."
How this baffling conclusion is achieved from the data at hand is unclear. Certainly a group of American atheists scoring slightly -- and I mean slightly -- higher on their IQ test scores than American non-atheists, gives little to no insight into why humankind has experienced and worshiped deity for 99.99% of its history. Like most atheists, Kanazawa is looking at results rather than causes, i.e. he's taking the ripple effects of organized religion and then confusing that for the evolutionary cause of humanities belief in religion. This would be akin to saying that the reason human beings make music is because they want to sell out and the reason we have political structures is because people are by nature corrupt. The fact that there are sell outs and there is corruption does not logically prove this as the root cause, just as the fact that religion at times has been used to keep people in fear does not have anything to do evolutionarily with why people believe.
Apparently, such leaps in logic are not foreign to Kanazawa, who has been accused in the past of making sweeping assumptions based on narrow statistics. In 2006, Kanazawa released a controversial study claiming that poverty in sub-saharan Africa was a result of low IQ. The study was slammed by many prominent scientists, who wrote that Kanazawa "mistook statistical associations for evidence of causality."
In his outlandish claim that paranoia is the evolutionary cause of religious belief, Kanazawa has done the exact same thing. The founders of the world's major religions, none of whom -- even the Buddha -- were atheists, and all of whom were out of the box thinkers, do not strike me as particularly "paranoid" or motivated by fear. Nor do the early gnostic Christians, or the cave-dwelling Buddhist hermits, or the Lakota Sioux elders who call their God the great mystery, or the brilliant Hindu yogis of 9th - 11th century Kashmir. The great minds of classical India and of renaissance Europe were all believers. How would Leonardo and Michelangelo -- both believers -- tip the results of the study? How would they score on an IQ test?
For that matter, how would a Lakota elder? Or an aboriginal hunter? The idea that it is somehow paranoid -- in other words "less" or "inferior" -- to experience this universe outside of the realm of modern western concepts of intelligence is a very dangerous one. There are ways of knowing -- direct experience, intuition, spiritual practice -- that do not translate into test scores but serve just as profound an evolutionary and socio-cultural purpose as being able to name the next number in the Fibonacci Sequence. There are aspects of belief, myth, and spirituality that are just as important to the human organism as the ability to unscramble words.
Kanazawa's study, implemented anywhere else but the modern western world and in any other time period, would have drawn drastically different results. One simply cannot make the conclusions his team does without consideration of the cultural, environmental, and historical landscape. It is far too simplistic. If the conclusions of his study are any indication, the evolutionary reason behind humanity's practice of spirituality is far more complex a subject than he is capable of grappling with. If he wants to attempt to delve into the vastness of our relationship with the larger universe, I suggest he find a more -- shall we say -- 'intelligent' platform on which to do it.