Pentecostals are stupid? Unitarians are smart?

By Razib Khan | February 21, 2008 1:23 am

A few days ago I noted that smart people believe in evolution. And stupid people do not. Inductivist looked at the IQ scores in the GSS for whites and this is what he found for various religions:

Mean IQ of whites from General Social Survey by religious affiliation
United Methodist101.8
Southern Baptist98.0
Assembly of God94.5

Surprised? I hope you’re not so ignorant that you are! Here are the top 10 religious groups in SAT score from 2002:

Average SAT score by religion for 2002, average ~1000, about 40% of each students take it
Reformed Church of America1097
Evangelical Lutheran Church1094
Presbyterian Church (USA)1092

Arthur Hu has a much more extensive list, skewed toward the top half of the SAT bracket from 1990 and disaggregated by race. I’ve reformatted for ease below the fold, I invite you check it out as my comments will be informed by those data. Unitarians are first in the rankings in 1990 as well.

There are obviously going to be many confounds in these sorts of analyses. For example, Hindus have high SAT scores thanks to the very peculiar nature of American immigration policy in relation to India; Indian Americans are by many measures the most well educated and affluent ethnicity in the United States. But, if you look at the white Hindus in the list below the fold you’ll note they have higher than average SAT scores as well, so perhaps there is something to Hinduism that makes one more studious or intelligent? I doubt that. Let’s focus on one group to illustrate the issues that I think are at work. If you look up the Unitarian-Universalist commentary on their high SAT scores you’ll note that many of them suggest that their religious tradition’s skepticism and intellectual orientation inculcate in their youth skills and tools to do well on tests which emphasize problem solving.

I think that’s crap; Unitarian-Universalists are just as self-selected as American Hindus. I’ve been to a Unitarian-Universalist church or two, and they are usually packed with Prius driving liberal white professionals. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But outside the northeast most of these individuals were not raised in the Unitarian-Universalist denomination, they joined the church often to find community and fellowship (UU churches are now usually called “centers” in many parts of the country). The last I checked around 50% of Unitarian-Universalists don’t even believe in God. The dominant Unitarian lineage of the denomination emerged out of the liberal wing of the Congregationalist movement in New England in the late 18th and early 19th century (only one early Unitarian church was not originally a Congregationalist church). This was also the cultural milieu out of which the Transcendentalists were born; Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian minister whose father was a Unitarian minister. The history of Unitarian-Univeralism, and its close association with the most intellectually focused strand of American Anglo-Protestant culture, has shaped the nature of the folk who are attracted to the religion even today. Within Arthu Hu’s data set even Asians & African Americans who are Unitarian had higher than typical SAT scores for their ethnicity. In fact, while African Americans have substantially lower SAT scores than white Americans, Unitarian African Americans had higher than average white SAT scores! Though the typical Unitarian-Universalist congregation is very white, the non-whites are also Prius driving liberal professionals (Dave Chapelle’s mother is a UU minister).1

The data show that, on average, the more religiously “liberal” a denomination is, the more intelligent the members. I do not think that this is due to fact that fundamentalist religion makes you dumb, rather, dumb people tend to be more attracted to and affiliated with fundamentalist sects (at least in the United States). The sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has collected some data over the past few decades that seems to be explain these trends (which have deep historical precedent in the United States). Individuals who are socioeconomically secure do not tend to want to associate with sectarian groups which are hostile to society and exclusive in their outlook; if you want to network being a member of a small radical Bible-thumping church cramps your style. John Edwards was raised a Baptist, but now he is a United Methodist. As people move up the class ladder there is a tendency to switch churches appropriately. In most parts of the United States the rank order is like so: Episcopalian → Presbyterian → Methodist → Baptist → Pentecostal. Of course the local dominance of Lutheranism or Catholicism might alter the dynamic, but unlike the Anglo-Protestant denominations these two groups have strong ethnic associations so that there is likely a fair amount of diversity of class.

It is easy to say that simple stupid religions and simple stupid people go together. I think there’s something to this, but the effect is highly amplified by the correlates of stupidity. As rational actors the wealthy and the poor may need radically different services from their religion of choice. A very wealthy individual may find prosperity theology somewhat ludicrous because their prosperity they will likely attribute to their own hard work, or perhaps admit that their familial connections were the primary determinants of their wealth. In contrast, prosperity theology seems especially popular in lower and working class churches where congregations are striving, even though a substantial number never attain their middle class aspirations. Rather, they receive the assurance they are among the few who are saved, who will reap in the next world what they have not in this world. Additionally, the exclusive and incestuous (sometimes literally!) religious fundamentalist communities offer up a nice bundle of civil society for individuals who might not have so many resources to begin with. Ethnography in the Korean American community suggests that the less assimilated immigrant generation is most attached to ethnic Korean fundamentalist Protestant churches, while subsequent generations tend to drift away because of the perceived closed nature of these church communities (so they may join a non-ethnic mainline church or become activists for a more a liberal orientation within the Korean church). But of course the children of immigrants often are acculturated to the point where they have connections and networks outside their natal religious communities. Young Korean Americans in particular are have elite university educations which may supplement or supersede the church in shaping their outlook.

In any case, going back to the fact that stupid people tend to be Creationists, and stupid people tend to be fundamentalists, it should not really surprise which churches are fundamentalist and Creationist. The various factors are intertwined together.

banj.jpgUpdate: To my critics who accuse me of being a hate-speech spewing bigot, I’m curious. Didn’t you get the memo that mocking southern conservative white Christians isn’t bigotry? In fact, isn’t it a way to buff up your cultural elitist credentials? Or does that only count if you’re white? Anyway, saying someone is stupid isn’t insulting, they’re no less human than you or I. They deserve no less under the eyes of the law. If, for example, Pentecostals tend to be less intelligent than Episcopalians that doesn’t mean I think the former are inferior to the latter. Rather, if all I knew was someone’s religion I’d make sure if I needed a banjo player for my party I’d call the Holy Roller. On the other hand if I needed advice on the money I have in the markets, I’d call up my Episcopalian friend. After all, you know that they have to do something with all those hard-earned dollars which aren’t going into tithes….

Note: “New religious movements” tend to draw from upper socioeconomic strata. Some of these are quite stupid and ridiculous in their beliefs, but I suspect that elites can expend more social capital in being weird and transgressive. If you’re going to outrage your family and burn some social capital I suspect it is more “in” to become a Hare Krishna than a Nazarene.

1 – I’ve attended a few Unitarian-Universalist churches. I know whereof I speak.


SAT Scores by race & religion for 1990
Race/ethnicityReligionNVerbal + Math
All groupsQuaker10091029
All groupsJudaism273741026
All groupsHindu47411012
AsianNo preference179871001
AsianUnited Methodist662998
WhiteChristian Scientist830979
WhiteNo preference99076979
AsianSouthern Baptist332966
African AmericanUnitarian64966
All groupsNo preferene137305963
WhiteMissouri Synod Lutheran8038963
WhiteUnited Church of Christ7066962
All groupsMissouri Synod Luterhan8624959
All groupsEpiscopal22109957
All groupsChristian Scientist989955
All groupsPresbyterian37353955
All groupsUnited Church of Christ7826951
WhiteUnited Methodist23470949
All groupsMormon7594948
AsianChristian Reformed298943
WhiteNo Answer44397942
All groupsUnited Methodist26037939
WhiteAfrican Methodist Episcopal144939
AsianAll religious groups 70739938
WhiteSouthern Baptist14165938
WhiteAll religious groups 688933934
AsianUnited Church of Christ253930
All groupsSouthern Baptist15729929
WhiteChristian Reformed2235924

Comments (33)

  1. BGC

    Good analysis.
    I think there are at least two big causal processes at work – what church you were born into and what church you choose – and in some societies and cultures the second of these processes is not able to function, because you are not allowed to choose your church.
    The US is more of a market in religion than anywhere else – since European counties almost all have established churches, which skews the market.
    Nonetheless, interpreting the data in terms of what different religions offer to different groups seems like a good direction to go.
    A further factor is New Age spirituality. The high IQ churches don’t offer much in the way of spiritual experience (except perhaps through beautiful architecture and music) and adherents need to seek this outside the church – in art and in New age.
    By contrast, Pentecostal churches provide intense spiritual experience.

  2. I think there are at least two big causal processes at work – what church you were born into and what church you choose – and in some societies and cultures the second of these processes is not able to function, because you are not allowed to choose your church.
    right, but even with ‘catchall’ religions like roman catholicism, islam or hinduism which in many societies operate as monopolies, or at least as part of oligopolies where you brand affiliation is something you are born into, there is differentiation by class. e.g., i would bet that catholic charismatics are lower SES than liberal catholics. in hinduism there are extreme metaphysical & philosophical sects, as well as devotionalist movements which blend into charismatic christianity in terms of their orthopraxy (i.e., christian and hindu revivalists cater to similar social groups in parts of india).
    the main counter-trend where the USA is a bit different is that in countries like indonesia there might be some correlation with fundamentalist religion and higher SES. i know during the 1960s the landowners in parts of java tended to be more orthodox muslims than their peasants, and this cleavage broke out during the violence where the former hired out islamic radical gangs to kill the latter, who were assumed to be communist sympathizers. but to some extent these are situations where local ‘pagan’ religious traditionists are still vibrant and have not given away to a universalist world tradition. once that transition occurs i think the tendency for the ‘worldly’ successful and elite to be less fundamentalist still kicks in (within the ‘santri’ movement many of the elite clerics, like the gus dur, were actually very liberal in comparison to their followers).

  3. Danny

    George HW Bush is Episcopalian. His son W turned Methodist. It fits somehow.
    I wonder how the Jewish group is subdivided between Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed and Unaffiliated.

  4. also danny, remember the conflict between the mitnagdim & the hasidic movement? to some extent that was class based from what i can recall. even today the non-hasidic haredi look down on some of the hasids from what i hear….

  5. Craig Pennington

    I am very surprised by the low SAT ranking of the Asian followers of Islam. My personal experience is quite contrary to that, but perhaps skewed by being mostly exposed to grad students. My subjective opinion was that they had by far better verbal skills and slighter better math skills than the average grad student. Small sample size that I knew well enough to form an opinion, though.

  6. randy

    this has to be one of the worst analyses of correlations I have ever seen (barring the whimsical storks bring babies)
    its amazing how one can find data to support prejudices

  7. BGC

    There is some very interesting analysis of historical and recent contemporary Islam by the late Ernest Gellner, in which he describes the alternation between high culture literate Islam, in which the society is substantially run by priests; and a kind of popular Islam of local and perhaps illiterate charismatics.
    He says that neither group can maintain control over the long term so these societies (which depend for cohesion on their religion – in a way that modernizing societies do not) oscillate between the two forms.
    Clearly, ruling elites tend to eschew highly emotional and charismatic forms of religion – presumably because they are intrinsically unstable. On the other hand, the ruling elites are endemically plagued by alienation and a sense of meaninglessness in life – which is an outcome of exactly this phenomenon.
    You can’t win!

  8. its amazing how one can find data to support prejudices
    LOL. well, i probably am prejudiced against pentecostals. but mostly cuz they’re tards (on average!).

  9. andcientTechie

    I recall encountering the Episcopalian → Presbyterian → Methodist → Baptist → Pentecostal / social class continuum concept in a Sociology class in the late 1960’s. The first study that revealed this relationship was, I think, Cantril’s, (H. Cantril, “Educational and Economic Composition of Religious Groups,” American Journal of Sociology 47 (1943): 574-579.) Other studies up to the time of my Sociology class had revealed only subtle changes in social mobility’s influence on religious choices in the interim. The fact that modern studies reveal perpetuation of the relationship would seem to indicate that the underlying social factors have remained fairly consistent. Not surprising, I suppose, but certainly interesting!

  10. Fortunately for the profession of psychology, this type of diatribe seldom, if ever reaches an informal, much less a formal peer review. Never would it be permitted a review by an IRB. The improper use of statistics alone would disqualify the post from being considered as credible by any reputable social scientist. Then the openly admitted bigotry (“mostly cuz they’re tards”) tranforms the post into what could be classified as hate speech.
    If there were an ethics committee on ScienceBlogs or at SEED magazine, this post would surely qualify for serious review.

  11. randy

    “tards” Nice word razib, good to see how your thoughts process.

  12. Then the openly admitted bigotry (“mostly cuz they’re tards”) tranforms the post into what could be classified as hate speech.
    LOL. hate speech. nice. luckily we don’t have cyber-commissars around here to enforce Right Thought 😉

  13. Sam

    I find that this is only generally true, but especially at the extremes. Unitarians are among the brightest people I know. Baptists, by contrast, tend to be somewhat lacking.
    For the record, Pentecostals are not “tards,” on average. But they are close.

  14. For the record, Pentecostals are not “tards,” on average. But they are close.
    retardation is defined as those with an IQ below 70. but i’m not talking about that. tards encompass many things besides general intelligence, including ignorance and blatant pig-headed malevolence. that being said, i find most people with an IQ below 100 are conversationally tardish. and i’m being very generous by putting the threshold at 100, and pentecostals still on average seem to fall below this….

  15. jim

    Good, thought-provoking post. I do admire your willingness to brave the inevitable insults for broaching any subject relating to IQ.
    It is fascinating. I grew up in a midwestern Irish Catholic family, so I never understood the Protestant class issues involved. I always got confused which religions my Protestant friends were (and, yes, they’d get offended if I guess the lower class sect.)
    My family tends to be big and when we have family reunions we get our own service on my great-uncle’s property — the priests know where their bread is buttered! My Mom’s family was poor, drunk, and stupid (and, mostly, still is) while my Dad’s side was educated and middle class (and now is educate dand upper middle class) — if we were Protestants I guess they would have been in different sects and never met.
    (I had cousin who got super-religious and spent a couple years at a monastery. He grew out of it. A friend’s Mom was an ex-nun. Within Catholicism there are groups and orders that provide super-intense experiences so you don’t have to leave the church.)
    One issue that immediately pops to mind is how geographically bound the lower IQ white religions appear. The more southern, the lower the IQ. Perhaps southern Whites are simply less White? There’s been a couple hundred years of mixing between whites and blacks in the South. Most resulting kids probably identify as black, but enough could plausibly identify as white to lower the overall white iq.
    Do southern whites have, overall, lower IQs than northeast or upper midwest whites? I’d guess yes. Most likely due to wealth and childhood health effects …but ethnic differences, both white/black and intra-white (Scotch-Irish vs Scandinavian vs Jewish vs English, etc), seem likely to play a role.
    Anyway, fun topic, and ignore the free speech nazis! 🙂

  16. One issue that immediately pops to mind is how geographically bound the lower IQ white religions appear. The more southern, the lower the IQ. Perhaps southern Whites are simply less White? There’s been a couple hundred years of mixing between whites and blacks in the South. Most resulting kids probably identify as black, but enough could plausibly identify as white to lower the overall white iq.
    no, black ancestry can’t explain it. there isn’t enough. genomic analysis can’t even detect black ancestry in the vast majority of white americans (no doubt if you are old stock anglo-protestant and work back in the genealogy hundreds of years there will be blacks & native americans, but the quanta of ancestry can be so trivial that it makes no genetic difference).
    Do southern whites have, overall, lower IQs than northeast or upper midwest whites? I’d guess yes. Most likely due to wealth and childhood health effects …but ethnic differences, both white/black and intra-white (Scotch-Irish vs Scandinavian vs Jewish vs English, etc), seem likely to play a role.
    yes. new england is the smartest, upper midwest right behind, and the deep south WAY behind.
    inductivist has more on the regional differences in religion:
    and lower southern IQ:

  17. Jim — the South has the worst climate in the US. Humid sub-tropical. Pathogen load decreases with latitude, and probably with altitude. It’s probably this burden that lowers IQ, since “the South” is basically wherever the awful climate holds. In turn, the lower IQ makes people more susceptible to whatever features dummy religions have that smarty religions don’t.

  18. jim

    Interesting idea about pathogen load. That would seem easy to study. Have there been studies that show high IQ families moving to the South and getting lower (than would be expected) IQ children?
    Is there any map of pathogen load? How does Virginia compare to Florida or Alabama? I’m assuming the deeper south you go the worse the pathogen load.
    Seems like we’ve had many natural experiments. All the high IQ NASA engineers who moved to Alabama and Florida and Houston in the 60s. Have they had dumber kids (and grandkids now) than would be expected?
    I’ve spent time in a # of southern college towns. The local schools always have way more smart kids than surrounding areas. Of course, the kids could be dumber than their elite IQ professorial parents and still be much smarter than the average.
    Have there been studies that have teased out white American IQ differences and tried to determine relative causation among factors like pathogen load, ethnicity, and cultural norms? Does being born in say, Alabama, reduce white IQ by 5-10 points or something quantifiable?
    Lastly, do blacks and other groups suffer a similar IQ hit in the South? Harder to study since blacks that moved North were probably self-selected for higher IQ. But the self-selected high IQ whites who moved South for R&D tech jobs would, I’d imagine, be a goldmine to study.

  19. The Mennonites seem like an exception. They’re pretty fundamentalist and shut-off from broader society.

  20. It is interesting that Arthur Hu’s statistics are being used in this post to proffer a hypothesis that a person’s ‘level of intellectual functioning’, as determined by their reported religious affiliation, may account for their rejection or acceptance of the science of evolution.
    Let’s take a look at what Mr. Hu has actually written [in 1997] regarding a related area, the educational performance of racial minority students (
    “Last year, with little fanfare, Lawrence Steinberg, B. Bradford Brown, and Sanford Dornbusch released a new book, Beyond the Classroom [Simon & Schuster (June 4, 1996)] that offered a very different explanation from the standard “racism and poverty” for why different groups perform differently in school. “Of all the demographic factors we studied in relation to school performance, ethnicity is the most important . . . In terms of school achievement, it is more advantageous to be Asian than to be wealthy, to have non-divorced parents, or to have a mother who is able to stay at home full time.” They found that no matter which school they looked at, Asians got the best grades and test scores, and blacks and Hispanics the worst. The problem was not the schools, but the attitudes and habits of the students themselves. The underachievers didn’t fear failure, didn’t study as hard, skipped class more often, and blamed their failures on racism. The overachievers didn’t tolerate failure, hung out with overachievers, spent the most time studying, and attributed their success to individual effort.

    Economic and race-based interventions have never been shown to achieve the equality that was set as their justification in the first place. After all, the numbers that matter are not the percentage of blacks on the staff or in the classroom, but grade point average, reading and math test scores, and hours spent on homework and attendance. As Thomas Sowell and Lawrence Steinberg observe, if students of all races worked equally hard, their disparate rates of success and failure would plausibly lead to explanations based on, on the one hand, racism and poverty, or, on the other hand, innate superiority or inferiority. When they differ on every measure of effort, what else would you expect?”
    I suggest, as I suspect that Mr. Hu would, that it is possible that the controlling factor(s) in the observed disparities between the various religious denominations and performance on the SAT are the result of cultural variables, not innate intelligence. I also suggest that the same could be said regarding the geographic location of one’s early education. Could it possibly be that the behaviors people are taught in early life could affect their performance in a variety of ‘test’ situations?

  21. BGC

    Thomas Sowell’s recent book Black Rednecks and White Liberals makes it clear that the Southern United States were mostly settled by British people from the least civilized and most violent parts of the country.
    Sowell traces this ‘redneck’ culture through up to nowadays, with lower educational attainment and higher violence etc in the Southern compared with Northern states.
    An alternative interpretation of this data is that the founder populations in the Southern states very probably has lower IQ, and this has been transmitted genetically.
    Richard Lynn has arged that for several hundreds of years, British IQ is highest around London and declines with distance from London – probably due to selective migration among other factors. New England was mostly settled by people from relatively near London (eg. East Anglia), I understand.

  22. It is interesting that Arthur Hu’s statistics are being used in this post to proffer a hypothesis that a person’s ‘level of intellectual functioning’, as determined by their reported religious affiliation, may account for their rejection or acceptance of the science of evolution.
    they’re not hu’s statistics. you can find these numbers in books like one nation under by b. kosmin. hu only placed them on the web.

  23. randy

    gee, you just keep burying yourself. Thanks for proving your self-righteous bigotry.

  24. Caledonian

    razib, might I suggest that trying to communicate with people whose only purpose here is to condemn you is kind of pointless?
    Additionally, I get the feeling that these are people from the Pentecostal side of the range. They’re likely to not only lack native intellectual power, but the motivation to use and develop what brains they do possess.
    Do not feed the tards.

  25. randy

    nope, no pentecostalist here, just a nice american pluralist.
    maybe someone should check the IQ of the animal rights groups in LA.

  26. maybe someone should check the IQ of the animal rights groups in LA.
    would bet low mathematical or VSP IQ.

  27. zy

    TGGP, you might be confusing Mennonite with Amish. The Amish are only one group, and most Menonnites are very accepting of technology and science. Mennonites have also been at the cutting edge of the kinds of social justice movements found among the liberal and higher economic brackets. Examples: protecting the environment, assistance for the poor, the sanctuary movement for immigrants, funding AIDS research, access to health care, and of course opposing U.S. military intervention abroad.
    The irony is, conservative commentators sometimes use just that support for social justice to disparage their intelligence! Gee, maybe numbers do lie?

  28. Sheesh. I’m feeling left out with no spot for Catholics on the list. And here I was so proud of my SAT scores…
    I think you’re got a solid point about the high scores skewing towards chosen religions, with the lowest scores going to religions with a long-standing following — amplified at points by being long-standing in areas with low economic/academic achievement.
    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.
    For instance, I wonder if the average test scores/IQ of Japanese Baptists (doubtless a very tiny group) is well above that of the population as a whole.

  29. There is an interesting webpage below.
    The creator plotted the average reader SAT scores (with standard error) for the 100 most popular books on facebook. Unsurprisngly people who had an SAT score of 800-950 liked to read the holy bible. That’s on the low end of the SAT score range. People with an SAT score of 1050-1100 liked to read the book of Mormon, which is interesting. So this chart indicates that people who like to read the Bible have a lower IQ level on average. Unfortunately those are the only two holy books on the chart, so you can’t see where other religions would fall. Students in the schools with average SAT scores above 1250 like to read 100 Years of Solitude, Crime and Punishment and Freakonomics.
    There are two other things that I would really like to know. One is, what is the average SAT/IQ of atheists as a group. I’m not sure if that has been studied yet, but I would assume it would be fairly high. I bet it would be the highest out of all the religions. Another “religion” I would be interested in, is scientology. Does anyone know what the average IQ/SAT score of a scientologist is? Now you might say it must be really low. However, I’ve know some really smart people who were scientologists. For some reason it appeals to certain people with a high IQ, especially if they have mental problems.

  30. John J Emerson

    The 150-point difference between Missouri Synod Lutherans and Evangelical Lutherans is probably a north-south split.

  31. ecla
    looks too strong. i think it might be more social selection since the synod is far more fundy than ecla.

  32. nyexpat

    If Unitarians are so smart, then why do they drive priuses? Hybrids do not make any real sense. In 1986 I bought a new chevy sprint,$6k. I drove it for 6 years at 22k miles/year. minimal maintenance, 40mpg. That car made sense. Buying a car for $22k that, other than the gas mileage, is equivalent to cars which sell for 9k less does not. Over the service life of the vehicle, you are not going to save that much in fuel economy, and the maintenance costs have to be higher on a far more complex system. Carbon offsets? how about balancing that against the costs involved in recycling the components (including batteries). The car is more about status, a proof in and of itself that Prius owners are less intelligent than the population at large.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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