Feb 17, 2011
Undoubtedly, educational attainment is closely associated with intelligence. So any link between intelligence and atheism seems persuasive. A majority of Nobel Prize winners in science have been atheists, but they are a small and unrepresentative sample. College faculty members are much more likely to self-identify as atheists than average Americans are. Daniel Dennett calls his followers, many of whom are atheists, “Brights,” and a much publicized 2010 paper by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa also claimed to show that atheists were smarter than believers.
As regards atheism, one mistake often made, even by many experts, is a failure to differentiate atheism from disbelief and indifference to religion. Certainly, higher education since the days of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment has encouraged critical thinking, skepticism, empiricism, and free inquiry, all of which are often seen as inimical to supernaturalism and traditional religious beliefs. But you could argue that these values do not necessarily encourage atheism per se, but rather its closely associated philosophical or theological position: agnosticism.
There’s also a historical or cultural lag explanation as to why people get it wrong about the well-educated in the contemporary United States. Most people still think of higher education in terms of an elite liberal-arts education that stresses Enlightenment values. But in recent decades, the recruitment pattern into higher and post-graduate education has changed in terms of disciplines as an ever greater proportion of the population has received a bachelor’s degree (now approaching one-third of young adults). The newer cohorts of the credentialed are more female and more Southern—traditionally groups with more theistic beliefs—and often received very little exposure to the natural sciences and philosophy. As a result, today’s well-educated Americans are more religiously diverse than in the past. Statistically, these processes inevitably involve a regression to the mean of American religious conviction, which reflects the majority belief in a “personal God” (73 percent according to the American Religious Identification Survey 2008).
Barry Kosmin is a research professor in the Public Policy and Law Program and the director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College.