Are atheists smarter? Lisa Miller talks religion

Oct 07, 2011

"Are atheists smarter?," religion columnist Lisa Miller asks in her column this week. A recent Harvard study found that people who believed in God were more likely to use intuition to try to solve problems -- and more likely to get answers wrong. Atheists were more likely to use reason and got more answers right.

"Immediately, the faith-reason debate erupted again -- this time framed narrowly and childishly as: Believers Are Stupid Because They Failed a Math Test.," Miller writes. "According to this way of thinking, evident wherever the chattering classes gather, reasonable people are smart, and smart people are atheists. By this same logic, unreasonable people (those who rely disproportionately on intuition) are stupid, and stupid people believe in God."

What do you think? Is the faith vs. reason debate relevant or just plain dumb?

Note to readers: Lisa usually chats on Thursdays, but this week's chat will be on Friday, October 7 at noon. Join the discussion Friday October 7 at 12 p.m. ET to share your thoughts and ask questions about this week's column and other religion news.

Read last week's column, Loving Judaism, but questioning Israel and submit your questions and comments to this chat.

In a largely theo-believing society like ours, an atheist is usually someone who questioned the general wisdom and reasoned out their own answer. But it's possible that in a place like North Korea, the religious are smarter because they rejected the received societal dogma. But there's also no question that one has to be smarter to accept evolution than magic as the best explanation for human existence.

I agree that when "intuition" or "hunches" lead people to regard evolution and other scientific realities as fiction, that represents the triumph of magical thinking. I do not endorse that at all. I only think there's a smart smugness to the atheist conversation in America that's off-putting and narrow minded. In a country where 90 percent of people say they believe in God.

God supports American dominance in world affairs, it's easy to get the impression that believers are not only stupid, but incredibly self-serving and arrogant.  Most of the people who make their gazillions by telling people what to believe and what to think (nursing all sorts of imagined wrongs and conspiracies) spend practically zero time problem-solving or making the world a better place.

But this is exactly the kind of generalization I'm trying to unpack/resolve in this column. Who are "most of the people"? I wrote a book called "Heaven" a couple years ago:

{{shameless flogging here}}

in which I say that just a third of Americans believe in a God who controls human events. We like to think that because political candidates are spouting a certain kind of narrow Christian rhetoric, that rhetoric reflects the real beliefs of a vast majority of people. But I think if you scratch the surface of most believers' rhetoric, you'll find a system and thoughts that are much more nuanced.


Why this criticism of the smugness of atheists when the religious have been smugly condemning atheists to eternal damnation for millennia?

I don't think narrow minded judgmentalism should be fought with narrow minded judgmentalism. In kindergarten, kids are taught  not to make snap decisions about who's smart and who's stupid. Why is it ok in our public discourse?


Believers don't accept logic because, if applied to their beliefs, would show the lack of evidence. Do you really want someone who resorts to magic when they cannot find a reasonable explanation? How is religious belief any different than a five year old's imaginary friend? It may help them cope with the world, but it is not reality.

I think religion gives us a vocabulary and a way to think about the places of in the universe and the aspects of human existence that reason can't reach. that doesn't mean religion is stupid.  only that it acknowledges the limits of reason. further, as the daughter of a scientist, I firmly believe that science/reason should attempt to discover as much as it can about those aspects of the universe that we don't know. But it requires humility and grace to say "I don't know" or "this is beyond me" -- and religion fills that gap.

In this silly conflation of smarts with wisdom, I am reminded of the great F.E. Smith, the British lawyer who became Lord Birkenhead. After a long explanation, a judge told him, "I am sorry, Mr. Smith, but I am no wiser." Smith replied, "No, my lord, but you are better informed."

love this. am not arguing for ignorance. information is good. including information about religion.

None of them would believe the Cubs will win the World Series. As an atheist with atheists friends whom I know to actually believe this is possible--and soon, like some Christians believe in the imminent Second Coming--I think I can put to rest this claim.

unlikely things do happen sometimes.

I think every atheist could be convinced of theism if any number of possible evidentiary events came true -- like if a voice from heaven described the exact geographic coordinants where the Arc of the Covenant is buried. What evidence would theists accept that there ISN'T a god?

I don't think faith is a subject for proofs at all. I don't think any believer has been convinced to renounce his belief through rational (or even heated, emotional) argument, and likewise, I don't think any non-believer has ever been talked into believing in God. This is why applying the "rationality" yardstick to religious belief irritates me so. It's a false framework that obscures the real problems in religion (and, indeed, in any kind of zealotry), which are small-mindedness and inflexible thinking. 

Do you think there's a positive correlation between religion-leaving and increased education? The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows a dramatic increase in Americans abandoning religious faith in recent years. I wonder if this is due in part to increased education, and greater exposure to scientific ideas in particular.

this is an excellent question. My hunch (see? I use them sometimes) is that people are abandoning religious faith not because they're more educated but because the traditional religious institutions and denominations have ceased to be satisfying for people, because people have tons of other stuff to do on Sundays (soccer, grocery shopping, wii), and in the marketplace of faith, it's become acceptable to "blend" religious practices and do them on your own time.

I do worry, though, about the evolution question. Because a shocking percentage of Americans don't believe evolution is real (about half), and that's a problem for educators, not religionists.

I feel that reason vs. faith is not only stupid it's dangerous for society. It makes people choose between being intellectual and being spiritual. Putting people on the defensive, it makes people even more extremist. It's bad for religion and bad for science. Most of all, it's bad for society.

Agree completely. We use religion as code for "scary things other people think." In /most/ cases -- certainly not all -- whatever people think about God (or not God) is not that scary.

In all seriousness, the smugness comes from both sides. Each one believes they have THE TRUTH, and don't need to keep inspecting it. This comes off as smug. I mean, any religion that tells you that you are going to heaven and all of the others are going to hell sort of encourages smugness. A more honest approach is to always seek the truth, not believe you already know it all.

What I love about religion, actually, is that it creates room for doubt. Mother Teresa famously wrote in her journals that she struggled with her faith and doubted it every day.  The news stories translated this as a gotcha:  "Mother Teresa didn't believe in God." But in my mind, the doubt is essential to true faith. Without doubt, it's just shallow certainty.

What about levels of happiness? I am interested in seeing if any studies have compared relative "happiness levels" in both religious and atheist populations and if this has any bearing on how "smart" an individual is?

Studies show that religious people are happier. Dr. Harold Koenig at Duke did some research on this a few years ago. He attributed it to a more positive outlook, but there's something else going on here as well. Religious people tend to be connected to a community. There are people around who share their views (mostly) and who help them when they're sick and who pray for their health, etc. All kinds of research shows that connectedness leads to good mental health and also longevity.

There are many things that I don't know or don't understand, but I don't run around saying a magical sky fairy is responsible for them. I just say, "I don't know, I hope we figure it out some day." How does religion fill the gap between what we know and what we don't? It doesn't - it just allows people to pretend that the gap isn't there. How is that kind of denial helpful?

It's not denial -- at all. I can be personal here. I go every Saturday to synagogue, and during services we talk about what we're grateful for, and how we could do better helping other people. We mourn people who have died. We literally count our blessings. There is no other time or place in my life when I talk out loud, together with others, about the things we don't know or don't understand. This is the opposite of denial.

At what age should religion and the god-hypothesis be taught to children? It is said that any child under eight lacks the critical abilities to question such teachings. But if we wait until they're twelve or thirteen to teach them - they'll reject it, not having previously been indoctrinated.

I am by no means a parenting expert, but I think you teach your children what you believe. And let them sort it for themselves when they're old enough to do so. I have found though -- and this is interesting -- that even many atheists I know find themselves talking about heaven when a grandparent dies.

Doesn't atheism, too? Just because some atheists are smug doesn't mean they all are. ;-)

I totally agree. I don't like the smugness of the public debate. But as I say in the column, in our personal lives, the conversation is conducted much differently.

"Because a shocking percentage of Americans don't believe evolution is real (about half), and that's a problem for educators, not religionists." Yes, let's totally ignore that it's religionists that keep challenging the teaching of evolution, protesting textbooks that mention evolution and the evidence for it, writing their own textbooks and getting other religionists on schoolboards to approve the propaganists text. That's all a red herring. Let's blame educators instead.

No. My intention was not to relieve the religionists of responsiblity here. I understand the parameters of the debate. But the previous question -- the question I was answering -- was about whether we as a culture were getting educated out of religious belief. The stats on evolution argue that, in the realm of evolution at least, this is certainly not the case. 

While not atheism, Buddhism does not have a god-based religion but one based on compassion, reason, and a desire to "do the right thing" from an inner position of intelligence and empathy rather than the fear of punishment by a petulant deity. Steve Jobs became a Buddhist after a trip to India and numerous "trips" on LSD, the use of which Jobs stated was "one of the two or three most important things he had ever done". It would seem that the "Zen of Steve" was based on his intellect and psychedelic insight, and it served him quite well, no gods needed. Your thoughts?

here's a story I wrote for Newsweek called "Sam Harris Believes in God." In it, I say that even atheists believe in a lot of the things that other people would call God. As you say, morality, compassion, connectedness, also transcendence, a sense of the mystical and mystery, a sense of gratitude and blessing.


Belief vs non-belief is not a competition. Faith is not quantifiable, in my view. You either believe in a deity, or deities, or you do not. It isn't a matter of intelligence. Let's not pit us against each other any more than we already do! Live and let live.


It's really more a matter of being someone who gives the question of who we are and where we came from a deeper consideration. You can find this characteristic in people of all faiths among people who really deliberate the cosmic questions instead of just taking someone else's thoughts at face value.

Or, I would add, buying into what amounts to anti-religious or anti-atheist propoganda. One of the questions I hate most in these debates is this one (which always comes up): Can atheists be moral people? How ludicrous is that? To which the obvious response is: Can Christians be immoral people?

So does science, actually - Both religion and science actually are underpinned by the idea that human beings don't currently know it all. However, many religions place the knowledge outside of human reach (we don't know, but God knows, and God said....). Whereas science puts knowledge within human reach - even if it is not known now by people it can be known with discovery. The ultimate danger is in claiming to know something you do not (e.g. the mind of God, IMO) and then acting on that belief in a harmful way.

There's a word that's used in academic circles called "scientism." It means looking at everything, all the world in all its complexity, through a scientific lens to the exclusion of other lenses. This is like Islamism or any other ism. Scientism, a world view of which many of the new generation of atheists are culpable, is as narrow as any other ism.

I take it you have not spent a lifetime in the south among fundamentalist and evangelical churches which excoriate people for expressing doubt beyond a nanosecond. If you doubt, you are a bad person in this world of intolerance and closed-mindedness. Judaism has very different traditions about intellectual development and curiosity than the southern church culture I grew up in (and have recently had to move back into to after 30 years of being away from it). I can tell you that time really does stand still in some places. Also: There is a difference between religion and spirituality. Old saying: religion is for people afraid of hell, spirituality is for people who've already been there.

I have, actually, spent a fair amount of time in those churches in the south (and other parts of the country). And while I agree that their theologies are hard and limiting and exclusionary and in many ways destructive, I have also heard individual members of those churches express profound doubts ("How can my husband be happy in heaven when he sees that I'm so miserable down here?") and live out a kind of generosity that's just extraordinary. The world is a complicated place.

I find that most atheists or agnostics are more educated on religion than believers. Most have gone through a period of searching, reading, and thinking about divine beings and then made decisions based on those arguments. Many religious, on the other hand, believe because that is what they have been told. God is their default. People who are educated, intelligent, and religious need to speak up and show they exist. For example as Jon Huntsman twittered - "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me Crazy."

Agree. This is fascinating, actually. A recent study actually showed that atheists know more about religion than other people.

I've always found the "religious people are happier" thing troubling. It seems to smack of denialism. Religion aside, people often choose to believe/disbelieve things in order to be happy (my daughter is lying about my new husband making a pass/poor people have only themselves to blame and that could never happen to me/I don't have to see a doctor that thing will go away on its own). The "it makes people happier therefore it's ok" line of reasoning seems, to be saying, yeah, it's false, but it offers false comfort so that's just fine.

But I don't see religion necessarily as a panacea. I see it as a place where people struggle together with what's troubling and awesome. So not denial, but connectedness. In its best iterations.

I really don't see why these things have to be associated with religion. I'm with John Adams, brought up a strict Presbyterian, who wrote in his later years, "my creed is simply Be Just And Good." And with Christopher Hitchens -- wait, don't click away! whose challenge to religionists is to name a moral, ethical, altruistic, generous etc. act that any atheist could perform while not associating it with God.

But who is Christopher Hitchens to give us a definition of God?  People have defined God all different ways throughout history, and to settle, in 2011 on the default atheist definition -- mean old white guy in the sky who has an incomprehensible moral compass and intervenes in human history -- seems unuanced at best.

Ok, that's it for this week. Next week I'm back at my regular time, Thursday at 12, and looking forward to chatting. Find me on Facebook at:!/pages/Lisa-Miller/115953095087877.



In This Chat
Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of "Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife." She was a senior editor at Newsweek, overseeing the magazine's religion coverage, writing the weekly "Belief Watch" column and editing Newsweek's prominent "Spirituality in America" double issue.

Before joining Newsweek, Miller covered religion for The Wall Street Journal. She has also worked with The New Yorker, Self magazine and Harvard Business Review.

An award-winning journalist, she is the recipient of the 2010 Wilbur Award for outstanding magazine column. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, including the Colbert Report, the O'Reilly Factor, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR and others.
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