Fundamentalists have a smaller vocabulary

By Razib Khan | May 19, 2010 2:15 pm

In the comments below a question was asked in regards to “fundamentalist” vs. agnostic Jews. I put the quotations around fundamentalist because the term means different things in different religions. As for the idea of an agnostic Jew, remember that Jews are a nation (ethnicity) as well as a religion, and that religious belief has traditionally been less explicitly emphasized than religious practice.

It wasn’t too hard to find some answers in the GSS. I used the somewhat crude “BIBLE” variable again. Remember that BIBLE asks if the respondent believes that the Bible is the literal and inerrant Word of God, the inspired Word of God, or a book of fables. I reclassified these as Fundamentalist, Moderate, and Liberal, respectively. There are two variables I used in the first chart, JEW and RELIG. The former looks just as Jews, and breaks down by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. The latter I combined with BIBLE to bracket out Fundamentalists, Moderates and Liberals of each religious group. The vocabulary test scores are from WORDSUM. Remember that they correlate 0.71 with adult IQ. Because the sample size for Jews was so small I included 95% intervals so you can modulate confidence appropriately. I limited the sample to whites.


Jewish readers can correct me if I’m wrong, but I am to understand that the gap between Conservative and Reform is actually not very large in terms of belief and practice today, as it may have been in earlier decades. In fact the two movements emerge as much from cultural differences between earlier German Jewish immigrants and the later Eastern European migration. And Orthodoxy and a Protestant understanding of “fundamentalism” do not necessarily overlap. It is notable that for the other groups the Fundamentalist segment had smaller vocabularies. This probably aligns with our intuition. But I was curious, is the pattern among Protestants a regional effect? It isn’t. When I controlled for region the same pattern exists. So rather than plotting that chart, I decided to look at the combination of educational attainment and Fundamentalist orientation for white Protestants only (the sample sizes here are large).


To some extent the pattern is as you’d expect. Those with less education have smaller vocabularies. But notice the step-wise pattern. Fundamentalists with a greater level of education than religious liberals do not necessarily have much larger vocabularies. That’s interesting to know.


Comments (18)

  1. Bill

    One problem with the results for Catholics is that the Church is, in fact, not fundamentalist or liberal. Moderate is the right answer for Catholics in a way that it is not the right answer for Protestants. So, the fact that moderate Catholics have the highest IQ probably has something to do with the fact that smart people tend to get factual questions right more often.

  2. i agree that the terms are awkward for non-protestants.

  3. Jewish readers can correct me if I’m wrong, but I am to understand that the gap between Conservative and Reform is actually not very large in terms of belief and practice today, as it may have been in earlier decades.

    That’s probably the case in practice among individuals. Many individuals who self-identify as “conservative” are people who would otherwise be “reform” but prefer the conservative style of services, for example. Then there’s the issue of geography – west coast conservative is more liberal, while east coast conservative is more, well, conservative.

    The official statements and whatnot of the official organizations of the movements are still pretty different.

  4. Regarding educated fundamentalists not necessarily having much larger vocabs than people with less education, I have to wonder how much of this might be due to the parallel education system that Protestant fundamentalists have constructed in this society. Many of their institutions of higher learning are simply wretched. That could be reflected in the individuals not learning many words. (Presumably the other way of interpreting this is that this is part of the general issue that wordsum reflects intelligence and that intelligence is inversely correlated with fundamentalism).

  5. What do you think of Half Sigma’s claim that the number of Jews in the U.S is typically under-estimated?

  6. TGGP, it depends how you are defining Jews. This matters a lot. If you are using an ethnic or racial identification then there are a lot more than those who identify as Jews in a religious sense. I’d actually be very interested in seeing how the different definitions impact overall intelligence levels. It could be very illuminating in regards to the Askenazi high IQ trend.

  7. What do you think of Half Sigma’s claim that the number of Jews in the U.S is typically under-estimated?

    i think his is an overestimate. but he has a point. i don’t think someone who is 1/4 jewish and an evangelical christian, like kathy lee gifford, should count as much as someone who is 100% kosher and is frum.

  8. Ian

    Why the focus on faith groups? Why exclude atheists?

  9. Why the focus on faith groups? Why exclude atheists?

    what kind of retarded atheist believes that the bible is the literal inerrant word of god? there’s no need to look into the empirics, you know that such a creature is a moron a priori.

  10. In my experience fundamentalists tend to see the world in black and white, either things/people/actions are great or they are work of the devil. With that kind of thinking, who needs a big vocabulary.

    btw, I kind of agree with Ian, it doesn’t make sense to have an atheist fundamentalist, but including atheists as a single group would be an interesting comparison. How different is a liberal protestant or jew from an atheist?

  11. This popped into my head: maybe a fundamentalist atheist is one who says “Nothing in the Bible is any good”, a moderate says “There are many good things in the Bible”, and a liberal atheist says, presumably, “Even though nothing in the Bible is literally true, it’s still what I live by”. The last groups would still be pretty dumb, but not as bead as the atheist who believes that every word of the Bible is literally true.

  12. Larry, San Francisco

    Historically there was an ethnic/class component to the reform/conservative split. Originally, Reform Judaism was derived from German immigrants from the 1840’s who often had secular educations and became very successful. Initially Reform Judaism was very liberal protestant (even as a kid in the 1960’s I was surprised how similar the Reformed services were to the services that my liberal protestant friends went to. My father told me that these services were much more conservative than when he was a kid, where the Reform temples did not even use Hebrew). Conservative Jews were generally the children of Eastern European Jews who were not Orthodox but did not feel entirely welcome in the Reform community. By the 21st century the distinction between German and Eastern European Jews is ancient history and is probably the reason Conservative Judaism is in serious decline. What is interesting to me is that Reform Judaism now is much closer to the Conservative Judaism of my youth (for example, much more Hebrew in services).

  13. By the 21st century the distinction between German and Eastern European Jews is ancient history

    Just yesterday a Russian Jew told me that that wasn’t true for him, and I’ve heard it before from another friend.

  14. “An American of Russian Jewish descent”. I totally garbled my point.

  15. nebbish

    John Emerson,
    How old are these friends? The divide between German Jews and East European Jews arguably still possessed some salience through the middle of the 20th century based on some comments my parents (East European Ashkenazim) have made about their youths. Maybe theirs is an old grudge. I can’t say that I’ve noticed much of a difference between my family and the few German Ashkenazim that I’ve met, but I admittedly don’t travel in the circle of Schiffs and Warburgs (many of whose current descendants don’t identify as Jewish).

  16. My friends were born 1946 and ~1960.


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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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