Many studies have reported a negative correlation between religiousness and intelligence. Now, a new study suggests that social conservatism may explain the link, acting like a glue between the two.
The link between religiosity and lower intelligence is, by now, well established. In 2013, a meta-analysis of 63 studies showed a significant negative association between the two. The authors of the study proposed three possible explanations:
- intelligent people are less likely to conform, and thus are more likely to resist religious dogma;
- they also tend to be more analytical (as opposed to intuitive), a style of thinking that previous research found to undermine religious beliefs;
- several functions of religiosity (self-regulation, secure attachment, compensatory control) are also conferred by intelligence, so intelligent people derive the benefits of religion without having to practice it.
Building on that, in an article for Psychology Today, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains that personality type also shouldn’t be ignored when discussing propensities for religion. He argues that Openness to Experience — a personality dimension that predicts an individual’s propensity to display higher levels of intellectual curiosity, aesthetic sensitivity, and be driven by counter-conformist and rebellious attitudes — is positively correlated with tolerance for ambiguity.
A review found that this type of openness is negatively correlated with religious belief. Since people with higher Openness don’t have a strong urge for closure and are more comfortable with uncertainty, they do not derive psychological benefits from religion — which ultimately strives to eliminate ambiguity and uncertainty. This is an alternative explanation for why religion appeals more to less intelligent individuals — they are generally less open to new things.
All of these explanations can be glued together by the findings of a recent study published this week in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. According to the study, “conservative syndrome” is associated with lower intelligence, with religiosity being just a part of it. So, more broadly, people who are more conservative in their beliefs are likely to be less intelligent, and people who are more conservative tend to be religious. In this context, “syndrome” does not refer to a medical condition or disease but rather it’s a term used to describe a number of traits and dispositions associated with conservatism.
In the study, 8,883 participants from 33 different countries had their fluid intelligence assessed with a standard test, in which, for instance, they had to find the missing numbers in a sequence. Confirming previous research, the authors found that people who scored lower on the test were more likely to be religious. At the same time. the team found that the link between the two was moderated by the endorsement of traditional values, the belief that power should be concentrated in higher levels of government, and conservative political belief.
“Social conservatives, including very religious people, tend to be more restricted in their views of the world,”lead author Lazar Stankov, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Sydney, told PsyPost. “Because of their lower IQ they are more close-minded and afraid of change. They also tend to be more nasty towards those who do not belong to their own group.”
This isn’t the last word, though. Stankov says that while conservative syndrome seems to be associated with lower intelligence, its effect may not be very significant.
“There exist meta-analytic studies that report negative correlations between cognitive abilities and both conservatism and religiosity, and I believe that the link is well documented in the literature,” Stankov said.
“I may add, however, that while negative correlations cannot be questioned, some recent work indicates that the strength of the relationship at least in Western countries is weaker than previously thought.”
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