Religion, instinct and intelligence

Many of the most intelligent people in the world are atheists, so in the hope of understanding the link between intelligence and religion, researchers have created a model based on historical evidence and survey.

The results suggest that religion should be considered an instinct, and intelligence the ability to rise above one’s instincts. This makes perfect sense.

Researchers from the Ulster Institute for Social Research and Rotterdam University were interested in understanding whether religion is something that evolved, or is instinctive. (Maybe religion is an instinct because it evolved to be one. After all, there has never been any empirical scientific proof to confirm the existence of a deity. After so many centuries of religious belief, the idea may well have lodged in the human brain and become an inherited instinct.)

The team created a model, called the Intelligence-Mismatch Association Model, which tries to explain why intelligence seems to be negatively associated with religious belief.

Their model is based on the ideas of evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa’s Savanna-IQ Principle. This principle indicates that human behaviour will always be somehow anchored in the environment in which their ancestors developed. The researchers argue that religion should be seen as a separate evolved domain or instinct.

Rising above instincts is advantageous, because it helps people to solve problems.

Edward Dutton, co-lead author of the study, which is published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, said:

‘If religion is an evolved domain then it is an instinct, and intelligence – in rationally solving problems – can be understood as involving overcoming instinct and being intellectually curious and thus open to non-instinctive possibilities.’

In other words, the idea of an imaginary friend, passed down from generation to generation, becomes redundant with the application of common sense, logic and reason.

The researchers also investigated the link between instinct and stress. They suggest that being intelligent helps people to rise above their instincts in times of stress.

‘If religion is indeed an evolved domain – an instinct – then it will become heightened at times of stress, when people are inclined to act instinctively, and there is clear evidence for this… It also means that intelligence allows us to be able to pause and reason through the situation and the possible consequences of our actions.’

Mr Spock couldn’t have put it better himself.

The researchers believe that people who are attracted to non-instinctive thinking and behaviour are potentially better problem solvers.

Dimitri Van der Linden, another co-author of the study added ‘This is important, because in a changing ecology, the ability to solve problems will become associated with rising above our instincts, rendering us attracted to evolutionary mismatches.’

Intelligent Atheists:

1) Stephen Hawking is known for his work into the basic laws that govern the universe. He has made his disbelief in God very clear, and famously said ‘Science can explain the universe, we don’t need God to explain why there is something rather than nothing.’

2) Alan Turing has been called the ‘founder of computer science and artificial intelligence’ and was famous for his work breaking the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park. He believed in God as a teenager but he let go of his religion when a friend died of tuberculosis and he decided materialism made more sense than religion.

3) Rosalind Franklin’s work was critical in Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double helix structure. In one of her letters, she said ‘I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world.’

4) Neil de Grasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist and science communicator. He describes himself as agnostic, rather than atheist. In a recent interview, he said ‘I remain unconvinced by any claims anyone has ever made about the existence or the power of a divine force operating in the universe.’

5) Thomas Edison has been described as one of the US’s greatest inventors, and is best known for his invention of the light bulb in 1879. He famously said ‘I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious ideas of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God.’ 

6) Andrew Newton – ‘blessed with a thinking brain, I understand how easy it is for religion to be passed from one human being to another, in the same way a virus is passed from person to person, usually from adult authority figures – such as parents, teachers or priests – to infect children. Once an idea has been accepted by the mind, it will lodge there – unopposed and unchanged.’

Further research from the University of Kentucky, led by psychologist Professor Will Gervais and published in Nature magazine (August 2017) found that both religious people and atheists naturally assume that immoral people, for example, thieves, fraudsters and serial killers, are probably atheists.

Even though ‘religiosity’ has reduced in many countries, thousands of years of exposure to religious ideology means that many people still hold onto the belief that morality requires faith. They are also almost twice as likely to view extreme immorality as representative of atheism than of believers. Atheist participants in the study also showed the same prejudice against non-believers.

The researchers tested more than 3,000 people from 13 different countries on five continents to find out if there was a perception of a link between immorality and atheism. These countries ranged from very religious societies, such as the United Arab Emirates and India, to very secular countries such as China and the Netherlands.

The participants tended to assume that violent, sadistic and truly evil villains probably didn’t believe in a god, even though this goes against the current wisdom that morality is complex and stems from many sources and not solely from religious belief.

To measure prejudice against atheists, they provided participants with a description of a thoroughly immoral person who initially tortures animals and eventually kills people for thrills. Half of the participants were then asked whether it was more probable that the perpetrator was either a teacher, or a teacher who is a religious believer. For the other half of participants, the latter option was changed to a teacher who does not believe in god. The researchers then measured how frequently people chose each option in each group.

The results revealed that natural moral suspicion of atheists is culturally widespread, appearing in both secular and religious societies and among both believers and atheists.

Although previous research has shown that moral instincts form independent of religion, most people’s perceptions of a ‘necessary’ link between morality and religion appeared to be very strong.

However, the variability across countries suggests that this perception could change in the future and that this prejudice could change because the effects were much smaller in most of the secular countries. As religiosity declines, entrenched pro-religious and anti-atheistic cultural norms may also decline and intuitive distrust of and bias against atheists would eventually disappear altogether. This would be a good thing because the world would be a better place without religion and the divisions it causes.

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Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.

About Andrew Newton

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Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

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