Religious people who don't believe in god

By Razib Khan | April 15, 2010 5:20 am

In American society the connection between religion and belief in god(s) is very close. This of course is not a universal. In Indian and Chinese religion there isn’t a necessary connection, though as a matter of operational reality most religious adherents in India and China do seem to believe in god. In the Abrahamic tradition the issue seems clear cut, but both Judaism and Islam are strongly orthopraxic, and somewhat less fixed on theological orthodoxy, so there is perhaps more wiggle room than one might think. Additionally, Jews are a nation, an ethnicity, as well as a people, and so those who are not particularly religious observant or believers in the God of Abraham, the God Isaac and the God of Jacob, may still identify with Judaism as their religion. The ‘cultural’ aspect of religion has even crept into Christianity, which was originally rather particular as to the content of one’s beliefs. In much of Europe the proportion of self-identified Christians exceeds the proportion of those who avow Christian theism.

In the comment below Amos Zeeberg guesses that many Jewish scientists are also atheists. This seems plausible, and ERV confirms it thanks to Amazon search, 75% of self-identified eminent Jewish scientists are atheists in Elaine Ecklund’s data set. And this tendency may not be limited to Jewish scientists, consider Freeman Dyson, a self-identified Protestant who admits to not confessing beliefs which one would expect from a Protestant.

I wanted to dig deeper. So again, the GSS. I wanted to look at the variable GOD and see how intelligence and education affected it across various religious categories. God has six responses:

– Don’t believe
– No way to find out
– Some higher power [I omitted this by mistake in an earlier version of the post, it was in the data analysis]
– Believe sometimes
– Believe, but doubts
– Know God exists

I clustered the first three into the category “non-theists,” and the middle two as “theist with doubts.” This is mostly because the sample sizes for religious groups crossed with the GOD variable aren’t that big on the secular end of the range. My question was how response on GOD related to intelligence controlled for religion and denomination. For religion I looked at Protestants, Catholics, Jews and “Nones.” For denominations only the Southern Baptists, United Methodists and Episcopalians had decent sample sizes.

To measure education was easy, and I divided them into two classes, those with at least a college degree and those without; the variable DEGREE. To measure intelligence I used WORDSUM, a vocabulary test. I constructed two categories, “average” and “smart,” the former ranging from 0-7 and the latter 8-10 correct.

I’ve included the results in the whole GSS data set without controlling for religion so you have a reference point. The rows add up to 100%. Additionally, if the numbers are bold that means that that point is outside of the 95% interval of its equivalent in the other category. For example, for the general population there’s a difference in proportion between non-theists between the smart and average whereby the 95% interval still does not overlap. Not so with theists with doubts.

    Non-theist Theist with doubts Know God exists
General Population Average 12.4 20.6 67
  Smart 23.9 23.1 53
  Non-college 12.9 19.8 67.3
  College 24.2 23.8 52
         
Protestants Average 6.2 17.5 76.4
  Smart 12.9 23.3 63.7
  Non-college 7 16.8 76.3
  College 12.7 24 63.3
         
Catholics Average 8.7 26.5 64.8
  Smart 10.2 27 62.8
  Non-college 8.5 25.3 66.1
  College 10.9 29.6 59.5
         
Jews Average 19.7 34.6 45.6
  Smart 44 34.1 21.8
  Non-college 18.8 31.5 49.7
  College 45.6 32.2 23.3
         
None Average 49.5 23.4 27.1
  Smart 72.6 14.9 12.6
  Non-college 50.8 22.5 26.7
  College 75.8 14 10.2
         
Southern Baptist Average 4.2 12.1 83.7
  Smart 5.5 15.9 78.6
  Non-college 3.4 11.8 84.8
  College 3.4 15.5 81.2
         
United Methodist Average 9.5 25.6 64.9
  Smart 13.2 32.6 54.2
  Non-college 10.5 24.1 65.4
  College 13.7 30 56.3
         
Episcopalian Average 7.3 22.9 69.7
  Smart 19.3 34.2 46.3
  Non-college 10 34.1 55.8
  College 18.6 29.5 51.8
         

A few notes. Sorry about the small sample sizes for some groups. That’s why seeing a lot of un-bolded numbers. But I do want to observe that for Jews and United Methodists many of the values came very close to being outside of the 95% intervals, and to a lesser extent with Episcopalians as well. Catholics are surprisingly homogeneous in this data set. One caveat is that there’s been a massive defection from the Catholic church since 1990, and the data goes back to 1972. It seems that the more ‘secular’ the group the bigger effect that intelligence or education has. This goes for comparing Protestant denominations as well, Southern Baptists are relatively uniform, the Episcopalians less so. This makes sense since Southern Baptists are much more stringent in terms of the beliefs one must espouse, so that there’s an automatic filter. By contrast Episcopalians tend to accept a level of privacy in regards to theology or strength of belief. Interestingly, it is among those who have no religious affiliation that intelligence and education seem to be wear away theism the most.

One question I had was the independent effect of intelligence vs. education. Education may have a socializing effect. So I decided to look at the differences by intelligence controlling for education.

    Non-theist Theist with doubts Know God exists
Less than HS Average 10.5 17.3 72.2
  Smart 17.7 15.1 67.2
         
High School Average 11.6 20.3 68.1
  Smart 19.1 23.1 57.8
         
Some College Average 9.5 25.9 64.6
  Smart 17.8 24.6 57.6
         
College Average 19 25.3 55.7
  Smart 26.7 22.1 51.2
         
Post-graduate Average 16.8 17.6 65.6
  Smart 32.8 26 41.2
         

I want to note that for college graduates the difference between proportions of non-theists between the smart and average came very close non-overlapping on the 95% interval. It looks that even controlling for education intelligence has an independent effect. I’m shocked by the finding for people with post-graduate education, but perhaps there’s some peculiarity about the who go on to receive advanced degrees of some sort but are not particularly bright.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, GSS
MORE ABOUT: Data, GSS
  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com Joshua Zelinsky

    Regarding, the post-graduates who know that God exists: I wonder how much is the post-graduate matter being distorted by degrees that people generally only get if they have a specific class of religious beliefs. (People rarely get divinity degrees if they don’t believe in God for example). I would suspect that this was a small fraction of the overall set of such degrees but it may be part of what is pushing up that number.

  • http://econstudentlog.files.wordpress.com/ US

    In your list of responses, you forgot to list option 3: ‘Some higher power’. The absense of this option currently makes finding out which are the “middle two” options a bit difficult…

    I have only anecdotal experience to judge from, but in my experience most Danes who identify as ‘Christians’ belong to exactly this category. Maybe that goes for the rest of Scandinavia too. In Denmark there are relatively few people who actually “believe in God” in any way even remotely similar to the one they’re “supposed to”. Until a couple of years ago, we even had a priest here who was quite open about the fact that he did not believe in God (google: “Thorkild Grosbøll”). If they were to move to the US, I think a lot of the members of The Danish National Church would be identified as Atheists – or something very close to that – by the Americans.

  • Bob Carlson

    I’m shocked by the finding for people with post-graduate education, but perhaps there’s some peculiarity about the who go on to receive advanced degrees of some sort but are not particularly bright.

    Why? Isn’t the US Supreme Court comprised of people in this category? I wouldn’t classify them as not particularly bright. When I attended the first communion of the child of Catholic friends, the presiding priest quizzed the children on what they had learned in their catechism classes. At one point in the procedure he raised his right hand and pointed his finger in the hair and waived it at the children as he said DO NOT QUESTION! He then turned to the congregation and repeated the admonition, waving the finger of his raised hand at them as if to drive the point home. If this kind of thinking is drilled into you from childhood and your family is comprised largely or totally of people that wouldn’t think of questioning their religious beliefs, you are surely very much disinclined to rock the boat, whether or not you have above average intelligence.

  • John L

    2 concerns here-
    1-By seperating groups by college education, how well are you controlling the educational aspect of your study? I remember during my college years, it wasn’t my education that made me question my beliefs but the culture and collection of various people that actually made me sit back and reflect.

    2- What is the point of the study? It obviously cannot be to disprove religious ideals because this is simply correlation data (akin to asking Einstein, simply because he is regarded as a genius, about whether Freudian Psychoanalysis is correct). Therefore you must be looking for meaning within the data, but I never see you make a step in any direction.

    From here, do you wish to analyze why education has an effect on religious conviction (which might require refining your study as noted in point 1), or is there some other deeper question behind the study?

    Also, one last remark, while your study may give some insight to the cultural aspects of these faiths, I think that you might want to start out with a more rigorous study of these faiths before making inferences about their cultural and theistic belief correlations.

  • John

    In terms of post-graduate education, this includes people with MBAs, right? Well, anecdotally, at least, it has been my experience that there are plenty of “believers” in MBA programs, and there has been a real surge in the number of MBA holders over the past few decades, so that may influence these findings.

  • mnuez

    When filling out your survey and others my response to the question of religious identity is always somewhat capricious. On the one hand, I wouldn’t say that I believe in what’s called “Judaism” while on the other hand I know that there’s quite an interest in these quarters to know about ethnic “Jews”.

    If I recall correctly, I actually responded to the question differently on sec right and on GNXP on account of some slightly different phraseology but i could be wrong about that.

    Anyway, the take-away lesson is that a larger than representative sample of those who say they have “no religion” (when options such as Catholic, Hindu and Jewish are offered) are likely to be Jewish. This might seem counterintuitive based on the well-known excitement that some of the gabbier sons of Abraham have about notable and intelligent Jews (such as the sort who read GNXP) so one might imagine that ethnic Jews would happily mark themselves within the category but, speaking from the inside, I can attest that MANY ethnic Jews are uncomfortable both with the over-representation as well as with the implication of similar belief to their tribal and religious relatives and are decidedly pronounced in their rejection of Jewish identification. (Richard Feynman in fact made himself out to be quite a nuisance on the subject and refused to be included in any list of successful/scientific Jews if he could help it. You should read his atypically ahumorous response letter to some poor shmuck putting together a book on Jewish Nobel Prize winners.)

    On a different subject, are you aware of any races of homo sapiens sapiens who went extinct in Africa? I realize that the subject of defining “races” is a difficult one but I vaguely understand that there are four or five major family groups of man alive today, the “out of Africa” family, the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest, the rest of the African Black population, the Bushmen and perhaps one of the other Pygmy peoples (or perhaps the Bushmen are properly divided into more than one family group).

    I realize that these are very broad and unclear groups, but working grossly, do I have it more or less correct? And do we know of any other family groups of man who went extinct in Africa, perhaps recently on account of the Bantu expansion?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Why? Isn’t the US Supreme Court comprised of people in this category?

    did you bother reading the post, or do you just pretend and hope i’ll overlook that you didn’t? we don’t know what the supreme court justices all think about god. we just know they have a religious affiliation. don’t be a ‘tard in the comments. address what i post, not your interpretation of it.

    What is the point of the study

    i stated clearly in the post: My question was how response on GOD related to intelligence controlled for religion and denomination.

    a word to commenters: don’t try to read my mind. also, please read the post and respond to the content in the post. otherwise your comment is worthless and takes up space.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    On a different subject, are you aware of any races of homo sapiens sapiens who went extinct in Africa? I realize that the subject of defining “races” is a difficult one but I vaguely understand that there are four or five major family groups of man alive today, the “out of Africa” family, the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest, the rest of the African Black population, the Bushmen and perhaps one of the other Pygmy peoples (or perhaps the Bushmen are properly divided into more than one family group).

    1) it is hard to get fossils in much of africa because the ecology isn’t ideal from preservation.

    2) this is an area of active research in genetics. if some african populations admixed with other groups it should leave a genetic signature.

    feel free to email me if you have questions in the future :-)

  • Zora

    I’m puzzled by the omission of Buddhism. Most of the Western Buddhists I know are atheists.
    When I’m asked if I believe in God, I have to respond, “It depends on what you mean by God.” What most people mean, I wouldn’t accept. I can believe in “something that’s more vast than I can understand” but then, most scientists would admit that “reality” far outstrips our so-far-feeble grasp on it.

    Early Buddhism believed in gods, but accepted them as contingent beings with limited powers. Later Buddhist sects exalted some Boddhisatvas to god-like status, but if pressed, would admit that Amida or Kannon aren’t exactly like the god of monotheism.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    the sample size for buddhists was small. n=48.

    22% know god exists
    10% believe, but with doubts
    3% believe sometimes
    51% believe in a higher power
    9% agnostic
    5% atheist

    50% of american buddhists are theists according to the religious identification survey. a higher percentage in asia are theists.

  • Ed

    If there are religious people who do not believe in God, it should not be a strange question to ask about those atheists who do believe in God.

    How do the atheists who believe in God differ from the atheists who don’t?

    Smart, well-educated people within a group may position themselves away from the centre in order to attract attention, be perceived as original. If that is true you could predict within atheism those who believe in God would tend to be smarter and have more credentials than atheists who don’t believe in God.

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    There’s an interesting question here that needs teased out. Of course, as you note, there are lots of religious people who don’t believe most of the narrative of religion. Yet among atheism you had movements that created quasi-religious movements minus the ritual. Obviously formal secular humanism had some uncanny resemblances to low church Protestantism. I wonder if the main difference here is ritual or if that is the key factor differentiating the two moves. (Although I know lots of explicit atheists who like the community at Unitarian services)

    I suppose one might characterize the difference as over whether God is a useful fiction. Dawkins and the New Atheists clearly think him a bad fiction whereas clearly many follow Voltaire and see it as useful.

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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 http://www.razib.com

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