Christians in East Asia are smarter than non-Christians

In my post below, Pentecostals are stupid? Unitarians are smart?, I derived some conclusions from data which suggests that different religious groups in the United States have different IQs and/or academic aptitudes. The data are not particularly surprising, as some noted the class biases of American Protestantism have long been observed, and class usually has some correlation with education and performance on intelligence tests. That being said, one must be careful about extrapolating from one nation to others. Darwin Catholic stated:

For comparison, I seem to recall reading that Christianity correlates highly with educational and professional success in some Asian countries (Japan was the one I was reading about). In that case, as with Unitarians in the US, it would again be a case of a self selected group: only people who had actively searched out a religion different from that they were born into.

...ah, this is an issue close to my heart. Many non-religious folk in the West tend to assume that the Western experience of secularization, more (Europe) or less (the United States), can be extrapolated to the rest of the world. But East Asia is a very different context, and our expectations are often confounded. Those of you familiar with the region's history will likely be aware of the fact that institutional religion has generally been a weak force, at least compared to the role of Christianity in Europe, Islam in the Middle East, Islam & Hinduism in South Asia and Islam & Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Though there have been periods when one religious dispensation has been ascendant in East Asia, for example, the power of Buddhism during the first half of the Tang dynasty, or the influence of Tibetan lamas during the Yuan (Mongol) period because of their relationship to Kublai Khan and his successors, but for the most part religious institutions have been subservient to the state.

Consider the history of Japan. During the 16th century the warlord Oda Nobunaga broke the temporal power of many Buddhist orders; burning down their monasteries and slaughtering monks. He was seen as relatively friendly toward Roman Catholic missionaries. But his motives here were not ones of personal belief or preference as much as political calculation; the Buddhist monasteries (which were often fortified and defended by armed monks!) were separate loci of power which Oda Nobunaga wished to crush to consolidate his own position as the paramount warlord in Japan. In contrast to the temples, the Roman Catholic missionaries were associated with powers which could provide him with weapons, trade and alliances. Subsequent warlords took a different view. Tokugawa Ieyasu viewed Roman Catholics as fifth columnists who might serve as agents of foreign powers; his suppression of Christianity was not due to his abhorrence the faith's beliefs as it was due to the political parameters associated. The Tokugawa shogunate forced all Japanese families to register with Buddhist temples not because they felt that all Japanese should avow a belief in the Buddhist religion, but affiliation with the native religious traditions would eventually extirpate Christianity from the land, and therefore the potential for foreign influence.

I could go on. Many secular thinkers tend to view the relationship of church and state in the West through a jaundiced lens. For example, Constantine's conversion to the Christian religion and his subsequent sponsoring of it as the imperial cult is depicted as an opportunistic move; the emperor aligning himself with the rising faith to secure his grip upon temporal power. Constantine's clear religious evolution over time (e.g., his coins still paid homage to the solar cult after his putative conversion to the Christian religion for some time), and his compromises with the pagan elite (e.g., he retained the customary offices of pagan priesthoods conferred upon any emperor so long as he did not have to participate in animal sacrifice), are interpreted as illustrating his fundamental lack of principle when it came to theological issues. I think this is a self-serving narrative that takes a very simplistic tack toward modeling the psychology of Constantine and the circumstances under which he ruled (Christian Roman emperors continued to subsidize pagan religious institutions for nearly 50 years after Constantine's death; not because they believed in paganism but because the senatorial class which aided and implemented their rule was still predominantly pagan until the early 5th century and their religious views had to be respected). That being said, I do think that this outlook is more appropriate to much of East Asian history, where potentates were extremely opportunistic and mercenary in terms of their religious policy. The founder of the Ming dynasty, for example, was early in his life a Buddhist monk because of his economic circumstances. Without the aid given to him by the monastery in which he took refuge he likely would have starved and remained illiterate. Yet upon conquering China he did not favor Buddhism to any great extent; rather, he backed the Confucian scholar-bureaucratic class as most emperors had (these mandarins generally criticized Buddhism as superstitious and inimical to the values which served as the foundations for Chinese culture).

All that was just a preamble to the main point of the post: in much of East Asia Christianity is a progressive and modernizing force, and Christians are overrepresented among the most educated & intelligent segments of society. In fact, because of the relative modal secularity of these societies Christians may actually be somewhat more intelligent, on average, than non-believers in some contexts. When I assert this many people are generally skeptical and surprised, so I'm going to throw some data out there so that it is on the web for all to peruse. I'll focus on South Korea and Singapore, because there's pretty strong evidence for the progressive nature of Christianity in these societies.

First, for South Korea, my main source is Characteristics of Religious Life in South Korea: A Sociological Survey by Andrew Kim. A little background, most of you who are American might assume that most South Koreans are Christian. This is not true. Rather, there is selective emigration from South Korea of Christians, and, Korean Christian churches in the United States are very aggressive in targeting new immigrants who are not Christian for conversion. To a great extent in the Korean American context the Christian churches are the primary expressions of civil society. This is not necessarily as true in South Korea. Over the past 3 generations the number of Christians in South Korea has increased by about an order of magnitude. Roughly, about 1/4 of the population is Christian, about 1/4 Buddhist and 1/2 non-religious (recent data suggests a slight shift toward Christianity in the proportions, but not a strong one, conversion has leveled off in the past 15 years it seems). In South Korea the lower orders tend to be populated by Buddhists and the non-religious, the urban areas tend to have greater religious affiliation than the rural areas, and the intellectual and political elites are disproportionately Christian. Some might argue that South Korea is shifting from being a Buddhist nation to a Christian one; the reality is more complex. It seems that over the past century South Korea has been shifting from being a typical East Asian society with weak institutional religions with a loose hold on the loyalties of individuals, to a culture oriented toward a confessional model where individuals have a strong connection with one tradition (think Germany, or Netherlands a few generations ago). Contrary to the idea that South Korea is shifting from Buddhism to Christianity, it seems plausible that South Korea is more Buddhist than it was 100 years ago (judging from the rise in devotional Buddhist sects like Won) in terms of sincere and passionate belief, but that Christianity has simply grown faster.

Here are beliefs in various supernatural concepts by religion in South Korea:

  National Average Buddhists Protestants Catholics No Religion
Absolute Being/God 48.3 44.9 89.0 75.1 29.5
Paradise/Heave 42.2 42.6 86.0 73.0 21.8
Spirits 52.6 54.2 86.4 77.5 36.0
Miracles 59.6 52.6 89.1 82.5 47.1
Devils/Angeles 51.4 54.5 84.7 67.1 35.1

First, note that Buddhists and the non-religious tend to cluster together somewhat. The sociological data do show this repeatedly; despite the rise of Buddhist sects such as Won, there are still many individuals who avow Buddhism in a very nominal manner, and operationally adhere to the default background assumptions of traditional Korean society. There are several studies which attest to the fact that Buddhists tend to be much more Confucian in their values than Christians, which would surely confuse the Confucian critics of Buddhism as well as irritate the Jesuits who attempted to convert the Chinese elite predicated on the notion that Christianity and Confucianism were compatible. Christians tend to have much higher rates of belief in supernatural entities of various sorts; their intensity and commitment is also relatively high (cultural Christianity makes less sense in a culture which is not traditionally Christian!). But do note that Protestants are more supernaturalistic in orientation than Roman Catholics. The latter have a reputation of being more liberal and socially progressive.

Now speaking of class....

  Buddhists Protestants Catholics No Religion
Upper-middle class 2.4 3.5 11.3 3.3
Middle class 48.3 63.1 64.8 51.0
Working class 11.3 15.2 9.9 13.5
Urban low class 7.9 5.8 5.6 4.3
Farming class 30.1 12.3 8.5 28.0

Note that Roman Catholicism is a middle and upper-middle class religion. Buddhists and the non-religious tend to be more downscale. Protestants are somewhere in the middle. Jesus Christ makes you rich!

And smart too! From the paper:

In general, Buddhists are relatively over-represented in low educational attainment level, while Christians tend to be better educated.... nearly 30 percent of Korean Buddhists have elementary education or less, while only 3 and 11 percent of Catholics and Protestants, respectively have the same educational background...One-fourth of Korean Protestants have a university degree or better-this figure fits the overall profile of Korean Catholics as well-while just 7 percent of Buddhists have similar educational attainment.

Disgraced stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk is a Buddhist...but he converted from Roman Catholicism. In any case, the intelligent also tend to be more active believers in terms of their practice.

  University or higher High-school diploma Middle School diploma Elementary or lower
Attend religious service once or more times a week 53.0 45.7 40.1 28.2
Pray once or more times a day 50.0 43.9 41.7 37.1
Read religious texts at least 3-4 times a week 27.7 24.7 20.9 17.7

This shouldn't be as surprising. One point in social science even in many Western nations is that though anti-modern religious beliefs (i.e., fundamentalism) tend to decrease as one goes up the socio-economic scale, religious practice, affiliation or attendance may often increase. Remember, religion is in part a social phenomenon, and the middle class is often the most socially conscious and aware segment of society. In contrast, the lower orders may be characterized by greater anomie and atomization, and a general rejection of mainstream institutions (e.g., the history of anti-clericalism in many Roman Catholic nations among the working classes).

OK, the final point about South Korea that I want to suggest: Christians are liberal and social progressive individuals in comparison to non-Christians, even the secular!

  Buddhists Protestants Catholics No Religion
Male dominance in the family 68.3 57.9 59.0 64.4
Husband-wife division of labor 68.8 58.2 57.6 61.8
The offspring's submission to parents 49.9 42.3 43.8 39.8

There is some difference between Buddhists and non-religious here. What's going on? I suspect that non-religious individuals are probably somewhat younger (in many East Asian nations there is a strong skew toward older women among Buddhist temple goers), that might explain their greater liberalism on issues such as parental control. If one is a traditionalist and religious Buddhism is probably a more natural choice than the two varieties of Christianity, which entail a greater commitment to anti-Confucian values because of their Western associations. In the United States and much of Europe Christianity is often seen as the repository of reactionary values. In contrast, in East Asia Christians are often vectors for a shift toward liberalism in attitudes toward parental authority and the rights of women. This should not surprise greatly if one recalls the history of the West; Christians have been pro-slavery and anti, socialist, and anti and pro-evolution and anti. Nevertheless, on the balance, I think one can say that as the dominant institutional religion in the West Christianity has generally aligned itself with the forces of conservatism more often than liberalism (or, more accurately, a devout Christian is more likely to identify with the social Right than the social Left).

But in East Asia Christianity is not (outside of the Philippines) the traditional established religious order. Rather, it is sociologically a "New Religious Movement" which implies a break with cultural traditions. For example, in Confucian societies where ancestral rites are customary one may have to cease them as that is perceived to be idolatry. During the latter Tang dynasty Confucian scholars attacked Buddhism for its role in undermining filial piety; but some of the same dynamic applies in East Asia with Christianity, where Confucians have accused Christians of substituting the Father above for corporeal biological father. Despite Christianity's alignment with establishment any casual reading of the New Testament can support rebellion and revolution, as can be attested by millenarian movements from Montanism in the 3rd century to more radical Protestant sects of the 16th down to the present day.

Of course, I don't think there is any unique connection between social revolution and Christianity. The White Lotus movement in Chinese Buddhism long had radical tendencies, so much so that the Jesuits were at pains to distinguish it from Catholicism when they began to note that followers of this sect were engaging in false conversions so as to use Christian institutions as covers for their organizing activities. In the United States white Buddhist converts are not usually socially conservative, rather, they tend to come from the set of Lefty professionals. In The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge report that converts to "New Religious Movements" in the United States (sects without a connection to Christianity such as the Hare Krishnas) tend to draw from a very well educated and affluent segment of society. Jews in particular are overrepresented in these heterodox religious movements. Though the various forms of Buddhism are not as transgressive as the New Religious Movements, some of the same generalizations apply (see All Is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West). In East Asia the roles of Buddhism and Christianity as inverted; the latter is the choice of the avant-garde who wish to ground their lives in the wisdom of another culture, the former is the safe traditional choice (though Buddhism is obviously originally an alien religion, it is in East Asia as Indian as Christianity is Middle Eastern in Europe). The main contrast is that the relative weakness of Buddhism in East Asia in comparison to Christianity in the West, at least until the past few generations, means that non-affiliated individuals might also be more traditional in orientation than Christian converts! Because non-affiliation and lack of involvement with organized religion has been normal in East Asia it is obviously not as clear a signal that one is willing to transgress boundaries by rejecting religion.

OK, I don't want to just focus on South Korea. You could claim that it's a special case after all, sui generis. What about Singapore? Statistics Singapore is a great resource:

  Below Secondary Secondary Post Secondary University
  1990 2000 1990 2000 1990 2000 1990 2000
Christianity 6.3 6.4 16.1 14.6 24.7 20.8 39.3 33.5
Buddhism 34.1 51.5 30.3 41.7 25.7 38.3 15.1 23.6
Taoism 29.4 13.2 14.8 5.8 13.0 5.5 7.4 2.7
No Religion 8.7 7.7 16.9 14.3 24.4 20.0 31.1 28.9

What do these data tell us? First, I removed Islam, Hinduism and Other Religions from the list. I was only interested in the changing dynamics within the dominant Chinese community, and unfortunately they didn't disaggregate by ethnicity for the educational attainment table. The columns would normally add up to 100 percent, so the values you see are the proportion of a given religion (or lack of) for an educational bracket in a particular year. So in the year 2000 the Singapore Census noted that 51.5% of those who had below a secondary education (i.e., they didn't complete high school) were Buddhists. So what can we say here? As you can see, Christians tend to be rather well educated. That has persisted over the decade. The stereotypical Christians in Singapore would be educated professionals; though ruling Lee family are Buddhists, I have read that around 1/3 of the legislature are Christian (about double the representation within the population). But there is another dynamic going on in Singapore's society: Taoism is giving way to Buddhism, and Buddhists are, on average, climbing up the socioeconomic ladder. The catch-up is a byproduct of Singapore's prosperity, when the society is mostly middle class then the distinction between middle class Christians and lower class Buddhists is less salient. Since Christianity has been far less successful in converting the populace Buddhism has been able to consoldate its hold upon the majority, drawing upon the reservoir of Taoists, which operationally really means syncretistic Chinese folk religionists. Also, note that in Singapore the non-religious are not necessarily less educated than Christians, a Western tendency where lack of affiliation might correlate with more elite status might be discerned here. Remember that Singapore was a British colony, and despite his espousing of Asian values Lee Kuan Yew, the former Harry Lee, was raised with English values by has Angophile father. And a relatively young city-state state that is highly influenced by its immigrant character might by necessity be different from the situation in South Korea, where there is a large base of non-affiliated rural peasants into which Christianity, and to a lesser extent Buddhism, are drawing from. In Singapore religious institutions and identities might have played more important roles because of the relative lack of civil society because it was a culture created de novo from the synthesis of Fujianese, Hakka, Babbas, Malays and Tamils.

The original comment mentioned Japan. As most of you know Japan is not a very Christian society, unlike South Korea Christian evangelism in Japan has had little impact. But, during the late 19th and early 20th century Christians were prominent in Japanese society as social progressives (and to some extent, still are). It might be interesting to note that there was also a Unitarian mission to Japan, and that slant toward liberal Christianity remains. Unlike South Korea or Singapore, where more conservative tendencies are dominant among Protestants, in Japan the Protestant churches are generally mainline. This is partially a reflection of the fact that they are part of the established order, an exotic minority religion, but after a century not really all that novel. Some of the same can be said about Christianity in Taiwan, where it has failed to gain traction after growth up until the 1970s, though it remains overrepresented among the elites. The Chiang family were Methodists, even if nominally so, and their sucessor, Lee Teng Hui is a convert to Christianity. Taiwan's current president, Chen Shui-bian is a Buddhist (at least nominally), reflecting that religion's rise to prominence in a manner remiscent of the situation in Singapore (i.e., the growth is at the expense of Chinese folk religion).

So what's the point of this post? It isn't the doctrinal details of religion that really matter in shaping the adherents' social profile, rather, there are often historically contingent factors at work. In the Roman Empire during the 4th century the aristocracy of the western provinces, the military and the Greek intelligentsia of the east were the most prominent defenders of paganism. In contrast, the men promoted up through military or government service directly under imperial patronage were much more likely to be Christian (see The Making of a Christianity Aristocracy). What was the class implication of Christianity in the late classical period? In short, it seems that Christianity was a religion of the middle orders. It was concentrated in the cities, but it seems not to have spread among the most powerful elites. This can be reflected in the complaints by new elite converts as to the vulgarity of the Latin of the priesthood. In an ironic note, the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410 was actually that of a Christian barbarian army upon a city dominated by a substantially pagan elite which retained a conservative affinity for their aristocratic cults. Recall that the barbarians who entered the empire as federates often converted to the religion of the emperors who allowed them to enter (the prevalence of the Arian heresy among the Goths was a function of the fact that that stance was favored by emperors who sponsored missions to these people).

Now if you shift several centuries into the future, you get a very different picture. In The Barbarian Conversion you see that the switch from paganism to Christianity in northern Europe was usually a function of elites defecting to the new religion from their customary cults. Christianity brought literacy and the accouterments of high culture more generally. Whereas in the 4th century pagan philosophers and senators could look down upon the superstitious Christian arrivestas, Christian aristocrats such as Gregory of Tours now recorded the gross superstition of quasi-pagan peasants. Whereas in late antiquity a conservative elite tradition existed which viewed Christianity as a radical social movement bent on undermining the customs and manners of the ancestors (see Zosimus), during the early medieval period Christianity was the ideological handmaid of elites. No longer preachers of vulgar Latin, the heights of the Church were now reserved for aristocrats. The basic nature of the religion was the same in its doctrine, but the most enthusiastic adherents were radically different in their social station.

In this way time and space are interchangeable. Radical Christianity of the ancient world transmuted into the establishmentarian Christianity of the medieval world. Christianity as a religion of the traditional and unwashed masses in the United States becomes a transgressive and progressive ideology which the most forward elements seek out in Asia or Africa. In a society where non-affiliation is normal, such as South Korea, that state is likely to be characterized by mediocre conventiality. In contrast, in some parts of the United States non-affiliation is considered very peculiar (e.g., Provo), and might suggest deviation on a host of parameters. Generalization is certainly still tenable, but there is necessarily a need to qualify and contextualize.


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I would recommend Arthur Smith's "Village Life in China" and other books. He was an XIXc missionary on the Chinese countryside. He spent decades there and became extremely knowledgeable (and literate in Chinese), and his writings area an important resource.

He claimed that if science were taught, Christianity would eventually come along with it. (Both Christianity and science, for example, rejected astrology, divination, spiritism, and such beliefs). For him science was Christian deep down. An arrogant claim, perhaps, but sharply contrastive to present Western Christianity. (There was something a bit self-serving about his claim, since a lot of parents sent their kids to Christian schools primarily for the technical and language education, and for many Chinese conversion was a sort of "willing to be a Christian" transactional agreement, like contracting to display an advertising logo, or like joining a social club.

Missionaries also were a force for sexual liberation, believe it or not. Missionaries opposed arranged marriage and promoted "love marriage", which just meant that the bride and groom would decide for themselves. They were also less puritanical than the Chinese about careers for women, the role of women in public, the appearance of couples together in public, and above all, public displays of affection by married couple (e.g., handholding, which wa taboo for conservative Chinese).

By John Emerson (not verified) on 23 Feb 2008 #permalink

We are better critics than synthesists. Religions, philosophies, worldviews - all have flaws; when one introduces an exceptionally intelligent youth into a rigid structure, he or she will see those flaws and be encompassed by them. I think this creates a kind of ideological tunnel vision that engenders conversion to another ideology that addresses the particular flaws in the traditional.

In the U.S., it's common for the intelligentsia to point out the negative correlation between intellect and Christianity - I am guilty, as well - but it's really an ideological opposition to the damage that Fundamentalism does to our society. I think that if one were to repeat the studies that show that negative correlation and exclude fundamentalists/literalists ( via some question similar to "Do you believe the Bible is the inerrant and absolute word of God?" ), you would find that the correlation of intellect and religion would be far less statistically significant.

Regarding Korea, I assume that when we talk about "unaffiliated" members of the rural working class, we're not talking about some kind of enlightened, freethinking peasant-philosophers, but rather for the most part a "whatever works" mish-mash of folk beliefs, ancestor worship, animism, divination, and magic, tempered by day-to-day pragmatism. In other words, "Old Age" rather than New Age mysticism.

Would that be correct?

What's the role of Taoism in Korea? After all, their flag is practically a Taoist talisman.

Missionaries also were a force for sexual liberation, believe it or not. Missionaries opposed arranged marriage and promoted "love marriage", which just meant that the bride and groom would decide for themselves.

some of the same tendencies can be seen with christianity in medieval europe. in parts of northern europe the reformation actually brough a reimposition of parental control. much of this is explicable via the interests of roman catholic church which were at tension with powerful lineages (example: the church would often accrue property from bequests, and these bequests from wealthy individuals might be at the expense of their family members).

I think that if one were to repeat the studies that show that negative correlation and exclude fundamentalists/literalists ( via some question similar to "Do you believe the Bible is the inerrant and absolute word of God?" ), you would find that the correlation of intellect and religion would be far less statistically significant.

don't know if it would be monotonic in south korea. catholics and buddhists would probably not be fundamentalist, on average, but protestants often tend to be.

Just to thicken the pot, in the early Reformation period "evangelism" just meant reading and preaching the newly-translated Bible, rather than listening to it being read aloud in Latin and interpreted by the Church according to scholastic philosophy and canon law.

Many of the early evangelists were enlightened thinkers like Rabelais, Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Montaigne, et al. They developed a reading of the Bible somewhat like the freethinker version of, e.g., Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine. Jefferson produced an edited version of the Bible, and we tend to think of that as opportunism or a joke, but he believed that he had found the true original (or primitive) meaning of the Bible.

American fundamentalism is a different way of finding the original, primitive meaning of Christianity -- in opposition to the Deist / Unitarian way. They go directly to the complete (unedited) King James text and only allow literal interpretation.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 23 Feb 2008 #permalink

You know, you could probably get something like this published in the Journal of New Religions or Nova Religio if you tightened up the flow a bit. It's on par with the material religion scholars are putting out on the subject. Very enlightening synthesis of data. Plug in some more low level data points and it would be AAR paper presentable.

By Spike Gomes (not verified) on 23 Feb 2008 #permalink

A lot of the schools were founded/are run by religious organisations. The Catholics have a lot more money than the Buddhists and tend to run better schools, in terms of educational standards, quality of teachers, facilities, etc. Success breeds success - a lot of the brighter, higher SES kids get enrolled in Catholic schools because they are regarded as being the better schools, because their students get better results, yada yada - it's circular. So to give your kid a better chance to get into a good Catholic school you have him baptised as a Catholic and send him to a Catholic kindergarten.

So religion is clearly linked to educational achievement and SES, for very earthly reasons.

By Sandgroper (not verified) on 24 Feb 2008 #permalink

Obviously, there's an education/initiative filter associated with people (from whatever original culture) discovering forms of belief (or non-belief) other than what they were born with and adopting some sort of non-native religion.

I wonder if, however, there's any kind of correlation between belief system conversion in general and intelligence/education. Clearly, some belief changes would seem to most outside observers to be "trading down". For instance, if one member of a fairly intellectual family goes off and becomes a Jehovah's Witness, you might assume that one was not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

But on average, I wonder if it's more educated/intelligent people who think about their beliefs enough to make any sort of change in them.