Critical Thinking Training Makes Kids Smart And Also Atheist

I'm weeks late to the party here. If you pay attention to atheist issues you've probably heard that a recent major meta-study* concludes that at the population level, atheists are a bit smarter than religious folks (mainly Protestant Americans and English in this case). Not dramatically so, but in a statistically significant way. The difference persists even if you control for gender and education level. This means that if you look only at poorly educated people, the unbelievers are a bit smarter, and likewise if you look only at highly educated people, or women, or men. Here are some thoughts about this.

Intelligence is, to the extent that it is measurable, caused by both genetics and environment. Take a pair of twins and give one good nutrition, care and education – and withhold all this from the other twin. Then the first twin will score better at IQ tests than her sister. On the other hand, kids with smart parents tend to grow up smarter than other people even if they are separated from their parents at birth. The new study documents a drop-off in the difference in intelligence between atheists and believers after higher education. Atheists are still smarter, but the difference shrinks. That is very telling to me.

I don't think having atheist beliefs makes you smarter. Nor does being smart make you more likely to become an atheist. The study's authors suggest that the main explanation for the difference is that “intelligent people do not accept beliefs not subject to empirical tests or evidence”. This is almost certainly the wrong explanation. It may be an observational truth, but it is not a causal explanation.

Here's how I think it works. It has to do not only with the amount of education controlled for by the study, but with the content of your early indoctrination and later education – specifically, whether you are encouraged to think critically or not.

By definition, religious upbringing and education teaches acceptance of some scriptural authority. Not only on ethical issues, but on matters of fact, such as “Is there a god and what's her name?”. This is why religious affiliation runs so strongly in families, communities and cultures. There are an awful lot of Hindus in the world, for instance, but geographically and culturally they are sharply delimited. This religion's success has nothing to do with smart people in India looking over the global options and picking the best one. It is due to everybody in that area, smart or stupid, being indoctrinated in the readily available and culturally accepted default faith. Religious people often attend religious schools and universities.

Non-religious upbringing and education, on the other hand, tends to be equally big on the ethics but more critical and open on factual issues. My kids, for instance, often get the reply “Can you guess?” when they ask their dad questions. This, I believe, gives a child's intelligence a big push. The fact that this correlates with atheism is simply an epiphenomenon. If taught critical thinking, kids become more intelligent and also happen to be less open to accepting untestable or empirically false religious beliefs. Critical thinking training makes kids a bit smarter – and also atheist.

* Zuckerman, M.; Silberman, J. & Hall, J.A. 2013. The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations. Personality and Social Psychology Review, Aug. 6, 2013.

I was inspired to write this blog entry by the discussion on episode #100 of the excellent Skeptikerpodden podcast. Congrats guys, keep up the good work!

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My thought on your hypothesis is that while I agree one's religion is most commonly the product of indoctrination, Atheism (or even agnosticism) isn't, in my experience. Surely there are some who grew up in rational households, that nurtured critical thought, but most (myself included) had an ecumenical upbringing.

SDTerp, I take it you agree then. Atheism is a product of other factors in a person's upbringing.

Article: The study’s authors suggest that the main explanation for the difference is that “intelligent people do not accept beliefs not subject to empirical tests or evidence”. This is almost certainly the wrong explanation. It may be an observational truth, but it is not a causal explanation.

But isn't {not accepting beliefs not subject to empirical tests or evidence} part of critical thinking, and doesn't critical thinking develop naturally, the more so, presumably, in those of higher intelligence?

John, no, there are lots of intelligent people in societies with a very low incidence of atheism as well. It's just that if they hadn't been brought up to believe in dogma they would probably have been even more intelligent. And more likely to to be atheist.

@ sdterp
My thought also. I note that the analysis seems to be based to a large extent on studies carried out in the US where the percentage of households professing no religion is very low compared to Sweden. However I have only read the abstract.

Hi Martin R.

I disagree with your gist and the assumed backdrop.

First, I see atheism as cutting-edge scientism and the underlying attraction - to be frank - tends to be arrogance. Similarly intelligence and arrogance tend to go together (although ultimately arrogance is un-intelligent, although may not effect test scores).

The generic criticism of religion is that it tends to encourage rigidity. Fine. On the other hand the fundamental position of science(/scientism/atheism) is that life is a material-only affair and the rigid adherence to that position is easily on par with that encountered amongst religions. And rigidity hinders intelligence.

Your statements on the relationship between religious belief and indoctrination are not correct. See the book "Born Believers".

The topic is about intelligence and ironically raises a serious problem. They are not finding any significant DNA basis for the variation in intelligence! Beyond this, the basic presumptions of the world's most famous atheist 'DNA beget you (and you are so lucky to be alive!)' after enormous efforts are still to be corroborated. That is the Missing Heritability problem.

There is a large variance found between twins (presumably you mean monozygotic) which challenges the logic you have laid out in your twin experiment.

Finally, if you would like to allow your critical thinking to look outside the science-box you might take at look at the paper I wrote at the new medical site Cureus,
A number of these points are touched on there.

Ted Christopher
Rochester, NY

By Ted Christopher (not verified) on 07 Sep 2013 #permalink

the underlying attraction – to be frank – tends to be arrogance

But if arrogance causes atheism, then why is atheism so irregularly spread across the globe? Why are countries with more affluent and well-educated populations less theistic? Are you arguing that affluence and education makes a person arrogant? And that religious people are generally humble?

the fundamental position of science(/scientism/atheism) is that life is a material-only affair

No, science would be happy to accommodate a non-materialist view of life if there was any evidence for such a position. Science is about finding out how the world actually works. It has turned out that no set of religious scriptures offers opinions on such matters that can be squared with the evidence.

Martin R.,

Sorry about the delayed response here but I was expecting an e-mail alert indicating a response.

You apparently haven't read much of what I wrote. Although the lead-in is perhaps in the vicinity of philosophical, the rest of my points aren't. The origins of our religious inclinations are innate - not indoctrinated. That is the central point of "Born Believers" (a somewhat overlong book) and the associated field (from reports in the book) has a heavy atheist presence amongst its research community.

Science's central pillar about our lives - your individual aspects as beget by DNA - has seen enormous efforts to confirm it. They have overwhelmingly been failures.

When you write something like "science would be happy to accommodate a non-materialist view of life" it is essentially a confession "I will not question the assumptions of science or my own idealizations about science". Science absolutely rejects even considering the possibility of a non-materialist contribution to life. I have encountered this repeatedly. In trying to get my paper published the relatively open-minded people at Cureus acknowledged the enormous rigidity of scientists on this point and the head guy - a neuro-guy - acknowledged "Science is in many ways it's own religion". With of course its own following.

Finally, as a simple example of a strong rebut to the material-only purview consider the following paragraph from my paper,

A suggestive final example was found in Darold A. Treffert’s fascinating book, Islands of Genius [24]. The description of a modern prodigy there was as follows [24 (pp. 55-56)]:
By age five Jay had composed five symphonies. His fifth symphony, which was 190 pages and 1328 bars in length, was professionally recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra for Sony Records. On a 60 Minutes program in 2006 Jay’s parents stated that Jay spontaneously began to draw little cellos on paper at age two. Neither parent was particularly musically inclined, and there were never any musical instruments, including a cello, in the home. At age three Jay asked if he could have a cello of his own. The parents took him to him to a music store and to their astonishment Jay picked up a miniature cello and began to play it. He had never seen a real cello before that day. After that he began to draw miniature cellos and placed them on music lines. That was the beginning of his composing.
Jay says that the music just streams into his head at lightning speed, sometimes several symphonies running simultaneously. “My unconscious directs my conscious mind at a mile a minute,” he told the correspondent on that program.
This was an example of what led Treffert to conclude that prodigal behavior typically involves “know[ing] things [that were] never learned”. Additionally, whatever their origins some prodigal capacities seem to challenge biological feasibility. This last example introduces the remainder of this paper and its consideration of some remarkable intellectual phenomena.

By Ted Christopher (not verified) on 09 Sep 2013 #permalink

"Are you arguing that affluence and education makes a person arrogant?"

I certainly would argue that. People who have enough wealth and political power to avoid many kinds of suffering and enjoy many material benefits tend to start thinking that they deserve that good fortune and will always have it. Too many Americans seem to think that they should never experience loss, harm or offense, or ultimately death, and that they should be able to have whatever they want when they want it; then too many of them go bananas when those assumptions are challenged. It has nothing to do with religious belief systems, as theists are equally liable to arrogance.

I think Roger Poole (philosopher) pointed out that scientists (and the like, skeptics, atheists, etc...) have just as much "faith" as anyone else. i.e. Faith that the world can be made entirely sensible and is logical in all respects and so can be investigated fully and fully understood. allowing a nice reductionist stance. positivism if you like,

I suspect such faith can lead to or can be "scientism", the belief science has not just truths but is the truth. However, unlike Ted's belief, I am not sure this necessarily always involves arrogance. It might involve impatience though and frustration with the obvious not being acknowledged. i.e. the dishes are not done, no problem for me as I just don't "see it", but a big problem for my wife "who does see it" and wants me to acknowledge it (and clean them, thank you).

Perhaps education (formal and informal, wide and varied), if it's a meaningful one, pries one out of certainty about existential realities even as it confirms the solidity of natural events at the local level or the mechanical.

And this is the balance point or grey area perhaps. Atheism (and the scienticism that may attach itself) is in ways like religion in that it lives across a range in how "intense" it may be felt and what it pays attention too.

If anything, being "smarter" (and I shudder at even using that term, what kind of intelligence are we talking about??-though I am sure we can bring out the neuro science to try to nail it down, which itself rests on certain presumptions about what ways of knowing are to be valued-chicken/egg anyone?) should leave people at least agnostic, less sure, more flexible in consideration, more humble, more "forgiving"(?)

For me I am agnostic I admit. There aren't I wonderful. lol. You knew I was going there didn't you. :-)

Not arrogant enough (I hope) to think the human prefrontal cortex will reveal all, though I have an abiding respect and love for that little piece of flesh.

This makes me think that perhaps the surge in neuro science, will inevitably, take us through a scientism of neuroscience for a while, until we come out the other side (again, as in all the "newest" way to understand) and realize, we know a lot, we just won't know it all, likely never.

I do natural science at times and I do social research and I love it. But really, the more I know, the more I think those with the hardened positions of belief (religion or atheist, i am agnostic about my agnosticism. lol) are like one small grain of sand on a huge beach, shouting out "there truth is where I am placed."

I appreciate some of the comments made following my comments. I add a bit.

I will dodge (and return to) the topic of arrogance. The confidence science has - and broadcasts - in its material-only vision is extraordinary and appears to be largely unquestioned officially. As a simple example, find an NYT article in the last 10 years that meaningfully questions this material-only vision (and no the philosophy exercises like Nagel's recent piece do not count)?

Yet real-life rebuts to this vision are readily available as I introduce via some examples in my paper.

Back on arrogance. This summer I was at a table in which an engineer was talking about his experiences in helping with some hospital work. At one point he said simply, 'Basically you can not tell a doctor they are wrong'. That kind of arrogance is also prevalent - if not inflated - amongst scientists on fundamental issues. And that kind of arrogance carries over within the following of science which of course is reflected amongst the atheist movement. Simply read the readers comments at NYT on some religion vs. science article.

As a relatively neutral example I followed some religion vs. science discussions at a (western) Buddhist website. In the back and forth between those taking Buddhism literally (as the religion it has been for thousands of years) and modern-ites (some rallying around the term "Buddhist atheists") where do you think the impolite comments (to put it politely) came from?

By Ted Christopher (not verified) on 16 Sep 2013 #permalink

Unfortunately, there has been too much emphasis given to critical thinking, which is not a good approach. Instead of critical thinking, our children should be trained to think creatively, as creative thinking is the only way we can produce quality people.

By Faisal Saya (not verified) on 20 Sep 2013 #permalink

To those who disbelieve: “science would be happy to accommodate a non-materialist view of life” consider the placebo effect. Medical science was happy to test whether a placebo (by definition the most non-materialistic of medicine) works, did so, and accepts it as of definite although limited efficacy. Thereby fully disproving the effectiveness of psuedo-science medicines as devoid of any effect other than of a placebo.

"Unfortunately, there has been too much emphasis given to critical thinking"

There is no such thing as too much in this case! The human race needs MORE critical thinking if we wish to have any hope of surviving for more than another 100 generations or so. Maybe you don't care, but I feel we have a responsibility to our descendants, even those to be born millions of years from now. If we want to give them a chance, then we must become more science oriented, more rational, or else we will die off before long, having used up this planet like a parasite without a new host available!

By Justin Charles… (not verified) on 09 Oct 2013 #permalink