Fundamentalists are not as "intelligent"

By Razib Khan | September 9, 2010 3:09 am

Inherit_the_wind_trailer_(1)_Spencer_Tracy_Fredric_MarchYesterday I pointed to an OKCupid study on personals ads on their network. I didn’t highlight the fact that the analysis of the ads seem to suggest that secular people have more sophisticated prose, and that of those who claim a religious affiliation the less strongly committed tend to be more sophisticated. The blog Political Math is skeptical of the findings, and points to some evidence that the analytic technique might be biased against the type of things religious people are prone to say.

That’s fine, but there are two major issues with this sort of objection. First, there are clear confounds here which could be responsible for this correlation. Both blacks and Latinos seem less sophisticated, while Asians and Indians seem more so. The overwhelming majority of blacks are Protestants, and a majority of Latinos are Roman Catholic, and both of these religious groups rank low on sophistication according to OKCupid. Conversely, Hindus and Buddhists rank high. Though most Asian Americans are not Buddhists, around half of American Buddhists are Asian American. And the vast majority of American Hindus are Indian. As I noted yesterday the results correlate rather well with educational attainment by group in the USA.

But there’s a bigger issue: these sorts of data need to be interpreted in the framework of prior expectations, and the fact is there’s plenty of robust data to show that religious people in the United States are, on average, not as intelligent. More specifically, people with what we might term “fundamentalist” views are not as intelligent as those without. In the title I put intelligence in quotes because I know some readers may object to the term. That is fine. By intelligence I’m talking about the set of skills which translate into academic success. For example, aptitude tests, or realized educational attainment. So just substitute those words into the term “intelligence” from now on if you think it’s not a useful definition, since I assume you will accept that there are real skills which people who do well academically have (in other words, academic success is not just arbitrary). Using the WORDSUM GSS variable it is rather clear that even when controlling for educational attainment those with fundamentalist religious views are not as intelligent. WORDSUM is a 10-word vocab test which has a correlation of 0.70 with IQ. I’ve limited the sample below to non-Hispanic whites in the 2000s (for what it’s worth, blacks show the same pattern as whites do, but since their WORDSUM scores are considerably lower, and, they’re more fundamentalist, it exaggerates the effect if I leave them in the sample). Let’s focus on the BIBLE variable, which basically asks respondents whether their view of the Bible is literal, inspired, or that it is a book of fables. I’ve also taken DEGREE, and combined those with university degrees and higher into one class, and those without university degrees into another. The bar chart below shows the proportions within each respective class which are in the “low”, “middle”, or “high” brackets in WORDSUM (scores 0-4, 5-7 and 8-10, which come out to 14, 58, and 28 percent in the total non-Hispanic white population in the 2000s).


If you go into the GSS and poke around the regression features, and try and predict WORDSUM with other variables, you see that both DEGREE and BIBLE seem to have similar equal independent effects. In contrast, the strength of belief in God and socioeconomic factors don’t seem to matter much. In other words, you can argue that atheists and high SES people have higher WORDSUM values because these groups are more educated and such. But even when you hold education and socioeconomic status equal between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists, the former seem to score lower than the latter on WORDSUM.

To replicate, go to Enter:

row: WORDSUM(r:0-4″Low”;5-7″Middle”;8-10″High”)
column: BIBLE(r:1″Literal”;2″Inspired”;3″Fables”)
control: DEGREE(r:0-2″No College Degree”;3-4″College Degree”)
select: race(1) hispanic(1)

Addendum: Readers may be curious to know that when it comes to a variable like EVOLVED, whether someone is a Creationist or not seems to be driven more by ideological characteristics, not attributes like intelligence or educational attainment. Once you control for someone being a fundamentalist or not, WORDSUM and DEGREE are not very important.

Image Credit: Wikimedia, Inherit the Wind 1960

MORE ABOUT: Data Analysis, GSS

Comments (19)

  1. Nemesis

    I live in Texas, where even educated people believe the bible is proof that god is real.

    Where can I find an online Word Sum Puzzle?

  2. This article supposes a relationship between intelligence and biblical faith, which relationship is rather arguable. It also could be supposed that intelligence obstructs faith. A intelligent person as Paul is, write: “Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? etc.

    Anco van Moolenbroek
    PhD student, The Netherlands

  3. It also could be supposed that intelligence obstructs faith.

    this may be. if so, if i was a believer, i’d think the variance in in intelligence would be something to explain. i.e., what is god’s plan?

  4. Sean

    Although I understand the basis of the knee-jerk reaction that many fundamentalists will have to reading a post like this, the correlations should not surprise anyone.

    If someone is intelligent (in the academic sense), he tends to ask more questions of the world. In asking more questions of the world, he will invariably ask questions of his religion. By the very act of examining his own religion, he introduces the possibility that he will find it lacking and forsake it.

    An unexamined religion is much less likely to be forsaken, since there is no impetus to change.

    So, if one group has a greater opportunity to leave its religion than another, it should be of no surprise that fewer members of that group remain religious.

    On a personal note, I have been successful academically and would also fall into the fundamentalist category. I have examined my religion, found fault with the interpretations I had been taught, re-examined the source texts, and discovered new ways of understanding my religion. My faith is the richer for these experiences. While it would be easier to be unquestioning of my religion, my faith would be much poorer as a result.

  5. Katharine

    A intelligent person as Paul is, write: “Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world?

    This sentence alone and the following one make it quite clear that this Paul you speak of is probably not so intelligent.

  6. Escuerd

    Nemesis @ 2:

    WORDSUM is just a 10 word vocabulary test. Pretty much any decent vocabulary test will be about as informative, but not exactly commensurable with the GSS’s wordsum. I would guess they don’t publish the one they use, since that could introduce a bias if they used it after the publication (and they probably want to keep the words the same from year to year).

    If you just wanted to gauge what the scores mean, then it might help to know that the overall mean is 6.00 with a standard deviation of 2.15, and that the mean for non-Hispanic whites is 6.41 with SD=1.90.

    Also, Razib posted earlier on its correlation with full-scale IQ tests.

  7. Tests of intelligence always give racist results, e.g., The Bell Curve. The annual California Academic Performance Index administered to the Los Angeles Unified School District, some 700,000 students, has its local scores reported by race (diversity!) in the Los Angeles Times, e.g., “California section” page B3, 05 September 2008.

    Race Score
    Yellow 866
    White 816
    Brown 683
    Black 658
    (State) (742)

    One need only divide each score by 816 to obtain classical Stanford-Binet IQ,

    Race IQ
    Yellow 106
    White 100
    Brown 84
    Black 81
    (State) (91)

    That carefully racially unbiased CAPI results are remarkably heinously identically as racist as The Bell Curve is indisputable evidence of historic patriarchal White Protestant European oppression of Peoples of Colour. After all… nobody could be that stupid, certainly not as a group, not sustainedly, not consistently across all industrial, military, and educational testing. It must be a conspiracy to oppress.

  8. miko

    Razib, How long you are you going to keep Uncle Al around? His name links to animated gifs of American flags for fuck’s sake. I think my grandmother did his site design.

  9. lol. perhaps people should list commenters to expel from the circle of approval in the ‘open thread.’

  10. Brian Too

    Plaudits for the Inherit the Wind pic. I saw a rebroadcast of it a few months ago. The picture retains much power despite dated technology (lots of youngsters would avoid it due to the B&W presentation).

  11. Maurits, The Netherlands

    If you believe something it is not proven. Else you would ‘know’. You cannot know, for example, that a god exists. You believe it.

    To hold true something which is unproven to me clearly is a sign of lesser intelligence.

  12. Greg, The Ninja

    Maurits, that’s cute. By your logic… and please before you make a statement of ridiculous proportions…

    You CAN NOT KNOW, for example, that god does NOT exist. You believe it. Therefore, to believe without KNOWING is obviously a clear sign of lesser intelligence.

    What a ridiculous argument…

  13. Katharine

    Semantics are a b***h!

  14. ‘Fundamentalism’ as defined by ‘the bible is literally true’ is a strange measure of faith. The catholic church and the vast majority of protestant churches explicitly reject this in their theology. By this measure the Pope himself is not a fundamentalist christian.

  15. over half of american protestants are fundamentalist by that definition. and yes, the pope is not a fundamentalist by that definition.

  16. Nemesis


    I ask: “Where can I find an online Word Sum Puzzle?”, and I get a technical explanation of it.

    You didn’t even try to link me to one.

    If I ask what time it is, I don’t expect an explanation of how a clock works.

  17. Escuerd

    Nemesis @ 18:

    You didn’t even try to link me to one.

    Because, as I said, it’s not online.

    But there are plenty of really similar tests that are as good or better. Since these are so easy to find online, I didn’t really think you’d need a link to one. If you ask for the time when you’re sitting at a computer, you’re lucky if you get a response at all.

    Or maybe you meant these things, which have no relation to the WORDSUM variable referred to here. I don’t know if or where you can find those online.


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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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