Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Myth of the Stupid Believer: The Negative Religiousness–IQ Nexus is Not on General Intelligence (g) and is Likely a Product of the Relations Between IQ and Autism Spectrum

The Myth of the Stupid Believer: The Negative Religiousness–IQ Nexus is Not on General Intelligence (g) and is Likely a Product of the Relations Between IQ and Autism Spectrum. Edward Dutton et al. Journal of Religion and Health, Oct 5 2019.

Numerous studies have found a negative relationship between religiousness and IQ. It is in the region of − 0.2, according to meta-analyses. The reasons for this relationship are, however, unknown. It has been suggested that higher intelligence leads to greater attraction to science, or that it helps to override evolved cognitive dispositions such as for religiousness. Either way, such explanations assume that the religion–IQ nexus is on general intelligence (g), rather than some subset of specialized cognitive abilities. In other words, they assume it is a Jensen effect. Two large datasets comparing groups with different levels of religiousness show that their IQ differences are not on g and must, therefore, be attributed to specialized abilities. An analysis of the specialized abilities on which the religious and non-religious groups differ reveals no clear pattern. We cautiously suggest that this may be explicable in terms of autism spectrum disorder traits among people with high IQ scores, because such traits are negatively associated with religiousness.

Keywords: Intelligence Jensen effect Religion IQ Autism spectrum disorder

Since the 1920s (e.g. Gilkey 1924; Howells 1928), a substantial number of studies have found a weak but consistent negative relationship between religiousness and IQ. Meta-analyses have shown that this relationship is in the region of − 0.2 in the general population, and around − 0.1 among college students (e.g. Zuckerman et al. 2013; Dutton 2014). Similar negative correlations are also found between religiousness and diverse proxies for IQ, such as educational level and income (Meisenberg et al. 2012). The association is greater at the level of countries, with estimates of national average IQ being correlated with national average levels of religiosity at about − 0.6 (Lynn and Vanhanen 2012). The negative religiousness–IQ nexus is found within most countries, with only a small number of exceptions (Meisenberg et al. 2012). The association can be found both among young and elderly samples (Ritchie et al. 2014). The more pronounced in its religiosity a group is, the lower the average IQ its members tend to possess (Lewis et al. 2011; Nyborg 2009), whereas members of high IQ organizations, such as the Royal Society, tend to be overwhelmingly atheist (Larsen and Witham 1998). The evidence for a negative association between religiousness and IQ is thus robust.
The precise causes of this relationship are less clear. Nyborg (2009) argues that people are attracted to different ways of understanding the world based on their ability to deal with complexity. Science is too complex for those with lower intelligence, who therefore resort to the simpler explanations and life-guiding rules that religions typically provide. Dutton (2014) suggests that the elevated reasoning ability entailed by higher intelligence fosters the ability to see through what he regards as the fallacious arguments for the existence of God, and to therefore conclude that there is no God in the absence of supporting evidence. Kanazawa’s (2012) Savanna–IQ Interaction hypothesis rests on the assumption that our ancestors were most strongly adapted to the ecology of the Savannah. Accordingly, this is our ‘evolutionarily familiar’ environment, because, having spent so long in it, this ecology selected certain evolved modules useful for dealing with the recurrent problems found in that ecology. One set of modules that this ancestral environment selected for might have been those associated with the generation of social behaviors undergirding religiousness. As humans left the Savannah, they began to encounter evolutionarily novel problems that these modules could not solve, and developed higher intelligence that could successfully solve these novel problems. Thus, intelligence became associated with ‘evolutionarily novel preferences’, such as atheism. There are several conceptual and empirical problems with this hypothesis, highlighted by Dutton and van der Linden (2017). One is that evolution continued, and maybe even accelerated, during the Holocene (Cochran and Harpending 2009; Woodley of Menie et al. 2017) which the Savanna–IQ Interaction hypothesis assumes is not the case. Dutton and van der Linden (2017) proposed the Intelligence Mismatch Association Model. It suggests that one aspect of intelligence is the ability to rise above our evolved cognitive biases, as this allows us to better solve new cognitive problems by being more open to unusual potential solutions. The difference between the original Savanna–IQ Interaction hypothesis and the Intelligence Mismatch Association model is that the latter applies to any evolved behavioural or cognitive repertoire, thereby avoiding the alleged subjective distinction between ‘evolutionarily novel’ and ‘evolutionarily familiar’ problem content. Dutton and van der Linden’s argument is simply that humans have certain cognitive biases, intelligence is associated with rising above them in order to solve problems more flexibly, and as religious belief is a cognitive bias, intelligence should be negatively associated with it.
However, all these models assume that the negative religion–IQ nexus is predominantly related to general intelligence (g), as they all assume that religious people are less intelligent than atheists. The g factor is likely the construct that best represents the heritable components of intelligence, and hence that which evolution has most strongly acted upon historically in human, and more broadly, primate populations, as indicated by comparative phylogenetic analyses of the evolutionary rates for different cognitive abilities, where there are strong indications that such rates increase in proportion to the loading of these abilities onto a Big-G factor of inter-specific cognitive ability (Fernandes et al. 2014). An IQ test score is typically the sum of several subtests that measure specific cognitive abilities and will therefore include these specific abilities. A proper measure of g should rather ignore the specific abilities, but capture the variance that is common among them. This is achieved by factor analysis, the first unrotated factor of which typically explains 50–60% of the variance among all subtests across a number of individuals. Factor analysis also yields the factor loadings for each subtest, corresponding to the proportion of the common variance between the subtest and g, referred to as its g loading (Jensen 1998). The Jensen effect refers to a situation in which subtest g-loadings positively moderate a given effect size, indicating that g variance is the source of that effect size. Jensen effects manifest as positive correlations between the column vector of the effect sizes associated with each subtest (e.g. the strength of a subtest’s correlation with religiosity) and the column vector of their associated g loadings (Jensen 1998). The present study asks specifically whether the negative religion–IQ nexus is a Jensen effect. Finding that it is not (indeed it is an anti-Jensen effect), it explores possible explanations for the existence of this nexus, leading us to examine the role of autism spectrum traits.

We tested the assumption inferred from the theories discussed in the introduction that the relationship between IQ differences between religious groups with different average IQs and their g loadings constitutes a Jensen effect, and may therefore indicate a role for g as a source of positive moderation of the group differences. As it clearly does not, when members of the same ethnic group are compared, evolutionary theories that purport to explain the weak, but robust negative religiousness–IQ nexus become somewhat less convincing. We would have expected, therefore, that a specific pattern of specialized cognitive abilities would have driven the negative religious–IQ nexus. However, contrary to our expectations, the analyses of the subtests differences did not reveal a clear pattern with regard to which specific cognitive abilities may drive the IQ differences between the different groups. In Verhage (1964), the largest differences seemed to occur on vocabulary. In the Steppan (2010) study, the subtest effect sizes showed less variation than in the Verhage study, but the largest effect sizes in the expected direction were found on mental rotation and medical–scientific reasoning. In the Steppan (2010) sample, the presumably more religious group did relatively better on mathematical reasoning.

A possible way of making sense of our findings is through the influence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There is a growing body of research on the negative relationship between ASD and religiosity. The evidence indicates, overall, that ASD is negatively associated with religious belief and that empathy is the mediating factor: autism, in part, may actually cause people to be less religious (see the systematic literature review by Dutton et al. 2018). Caldwell-Harris et al. (2011) studied discussions by 192 different contributors on an autism website, from which they were able to discern the views on religion held by the contributors. High-functioning autistic (HFA) individuals significantly demonstrated the highest rates of ‘non-belief identities’: Atheism (26%) and Agnosticism (17%). In the neurotypical (NT) group used as non-autistic controls, 17% were atheists and 10% were agnostics. The same authors conducted a survey with a sample of 61 people who self-identified as autistic. They found that those who regarded themselves as atheists scored significantly higher than those who were believers did on the Autism Quotient Scale, an instrument that quantifies the extent of autism. Barnes and Gibson (2013) found that those who had undergone religious experiences had elevated empathy, contrary to those with ASD. Jack et al. (2016) found that ‘moral concern’, which is also conceivably lower in those with ASD, predicted strength of religious belief and was negatively associated with analytic thinking. This implies that low religiousness is predicted by analytic thinking—which those with ASD are particularly adept at. Norenzayan et al. (2012) showed that autism predicted reduced religious belief, based on Canadian and American samples. Importantly, they found that it was the ability to mentalize that mediated the negative relationship between autism and religious belief. Lowicki and Zajenkowski (2016, 2017) and Vonk and Pitzen (2017) note that aspects of ASD—such as low emotional intelligence—are negatively associated with religious belief. Again, these are the aspects of ASD that relate to the ability to develop a sound theory of mind. The only counter-study of which we are aware is Reddish et al. (2016), which did not find any significant difference in religious behaviour or belief between an HFA group and an NT control group. However, this was based on a very small sample of 21 people.

So, all available studies with reasonable sample sizes are consistent with the notion that theory of mind is an important factor in the association between ASD and religious belief. Autistics tend to perceive the world in a mechanistic fashion, as a system. Accordingly, they should not perceive the complexity of the world as the workings of a sentient being, because they are unable to think about or even notice mental states. In this regard, they stand in stark contrast with schizotypal personality. Schizophrenia (a particularly pronounced manifestation of schizotypal personality) is associated with being extremely religious, as well as with belief in the paranormal and in conspiracy theories (see Dutton et al. 2018). This is because schizophrenics are so highly attuned to inferring mental states from external markers that they perceive evidence of mental states even in the world itself; it is as if the world has feelings and meaning; thus, schizophrenics routinely experience the presence of God. There are a variety of models which have attempted to make sense of religious experiences or the feeling that there is a god. Azari et al. (2005) used brain scans to conclude that religious experience is primarily a cognitive phenomenon rather than an emotional one. Religious experience, they concluded, relates to neural processes involved in ‘relational cognitivity’—thinking about relationships. Schjoedt et al. (2009) assessed which areas of the brain were active when participants engaged in informal prayer compared to when wishing to Santa Claus. They found that brain activity during prayer more closely resembled that which occurred while talking to a real person than to an imaginary figure. Religious experience appears to involve the ability to empathize with somebody else. Although it is currently small, the extant brain imaging evidence indicates that religious experience involves brain areas that are associated with mentalizing and relating to other people.

This raises the question of how people with ASD perform in IQ tests. There is no clear direction to these results. A literature review by Ghaziuddin and Mountain-Kimchi (2004) reported that some studies have found that those with Asperger’s syndrome—a middle-level ASD—have high-level verbal IQ and but can be deficient on performance IQ. Other studies have revealed that those with pronounced ASD, such as high-functioning autism, show a reversal in this pattern: poor verbal IQ and high mathematical IQ. Consistent with this, Karpinski et al. (2018) have recently presented evidence that highly intelligent people seem to manifest autism traits, in terms of an enhanced tendency to systematize and a diminished ability to empathize (see also Baron-Cohen 2002 and Crespi 2016). Tests of the IQ of HFA persons have found that their scores are high in fluid intelligence, in other words on matrix and similarities reasoning subtests (e.g. Hayashi et al. 2008). Dawson et al. (2007) have shown that HFA persons score strongly on Raven’s (a matrix test) relative to broader IQ test batteries, on average 30 percentile points, and in some cases 70 percentile points higher than they score on the WISC. However, it is not high-functioning autism (HFA) which predicts low religiosity but rather ASD more broadly, and here the IQ profile pattern is much less clear cut. In this regard, a recent study found that possessing genetic risk factors for ASD was associated with logical memory, verbal intelligence and g, meaning it would confer a small advantage in IQ tests even in the absence of greater g (Clarke et al. 2016). So, such an explanation would potentially make sense of the otherwise difficult to explain results which we find. However, more research must be conducted to discover why we did not find any positive moderating effect of g. Our finding that the more religious scored better on Mathematics would seem to be consistent with the results of some studies which have found deficiencies on performance IQ among those with ASD.

It should be cautioned that it is likely that the findings of our analysis only hold for within-population comparisons, where the differences in g might be expected to be relatively small. If we were to make comparisons between populations, such as between Middle Eastern Muslims and European Catholics, it is probable that, in line with Spearman’s hypothesis, the differences would indeed be on g. Moreover, insofar as the groups that are being compared in the present study may not be precisely equal in terms of g, there is room for small group differences in g to attenuate the anti-Jensen effect which we have found. But, naturally, it would be very difficult to find two groups that were precisely equal in terms of g. A second limitation is that our results are not comprehensive. However, there are two substantial datasets and, for this reason, our results are likely to generalize to religious differences in other countries. A third limitation is that the Steppan dataset makes comparisons between regions rather than individuals or groups, which leaves room for anomalies. Finally, it is worth cautioning that our ASD explanation for apparent oddities in our results is paralleled by similar anomalies in terms of the IQ profile of those with normal range IQ who have an ASD ranging all the way up to HFA. This may lead us to question the conceptual validity of ASD, or how accurately we can measure it, something which others have already done (e.g. Lundqvist and Lindner 2017; Ghaziuddin and Mountain-Kimchi 2004).

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