People with heterodox opinions are just confused

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanSep 13, 2010 2:11 PM


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I was having a touch of insomnia a few days ago, and wasn't alert enough to do anything intellectually challenging, so I decided to poke around the General Social Survey. I found an interesting variable, POSTLIFE, which asks people if they believed in life after death. I decided to cross-check that against those who were atheists and agnostics, and specifically look at the distribution of WORDSUM scores of those who did, and didn't, believe in life after death. My hunch before I checked was this: those who believe in life after death despite not believing in the existence of God are going to be less intelligent than those who don't. My reasoning was that it was close to philosophically incoherent to reject supernatural agents, but then accept some post-material existence. I know that this is actually not necessarily philosophically incoherent. Asian religious traditions have long had a strand which accepts both immortality of consciousness as well as agnosticism or atheism in relation to supernatural agents, gods. And, there are some secular Western philosophers who make an analytic case for the afterlife despite their lack of belief in the supernatural. But most people are not deeply involved in the philosophical literature on the afterlife, or, Jains.* Rather, I think those who are atheists or agnostics, and, who accept an afterlife, are relying on intuition and not following through deductively on the inferences from their avowed axioms. In other words, I believed they'd be likely to be less intelligent, and habitually make less use of analytic modes of thinking. To double-check on the thesis that the less intelligent are more likely to hold inconsistent views I also looked at self-identified liberals, conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, on specific policy issues and their relationship to intelligence. Before we get to the tables, some methodology. I used WORDSUM, which has a 0.7 correlation with IQ. I recoded WORDSUM so that in terms of intelligence you have the following classes: Low (0-3) - 11% of the sample, 6% non-Hispanic whites Below Average (4-5) - 27%, 25% non-Hispanic whites Average (6) - 22%, 21% non-Hispanic whites Above Average (7-8) - 27%, 34% non-Hispanic whites High (9-10), 13%, 15% non-Hispanic whites For the religion related questions I used the whole GSS data set. For the politics related questions I limited to non-Hispanic whites, which also constrains the data set to the 2000s (politics tends to be racially polarized more than religion, so I wanted to remove the racial variable). The rows in each column below add up to 100%, so what you're seeing are the intelligence distributions within each class. So, if you see 22% in the Low category, that means that the class has twice as many people in that category than the general population. Please note that ~20% of the population rejects an afterlife, a higher proportion than those who are irreligious, or atheists or agnostics. A substantial number of religious people don't believe in an afterlife, just as a substantial proportion of atheists and agnostics do.

A few methodological notes. Atheists & agnostics = GOD(1-2), while those who "Know God Exists" = GOD(6) (there are intermediate categories of certitude excluded from the analysis). For ideology and party identification I exclude leaners and those who were slightly liberal or conservative. So: Liberal = POLVIEWS(r:1-2) Conservative = POLVIEWS(r-6-7) Democrat = PARTYID(r:0-1) Republican = PARTYID(r:5-6) Very few people wanted higher taxes, so I combined those who wanted that, or thought taxes were about right, TAX(r:2-3). For homosexuality I selected the most extreme values, and excluded the leaners. The sample sizes were large. But for government and income inequality, I included leaners to bolster sample size, EQWLTH(r:1-3;5-7). To the results. By visual inspection here are my assessments: Cases where those who believe in the afterlife are more intelligent than those who do not - Know God Exists, Protestants, Catholics, Fundamentalists, Moderates, Bible Word of God, Inspired Word Cases where those who believe in the afterlife are less intelligent than those who do not - Atheists and agnostics, Jews, those with no religion Ambiguous - Liberal Protestants and those who believe that the Bible is a Book of Fables I think I am going to go with my idea that the less intelligent just have inconsistent and/or incoherent beliefs. A less loaded way to couch it is that those who are less systematic in their thinking tend to exhibit these confusions, and, they don't do as well academically in keeping with their lack of systematic thinking proficiency. Not only are atheists and agnostics who believe in the afterlife not as bright, but self-identified Fundamentalists and Biblical Literalists who do not believe in an afterlife are also not too bright. One argue that those theists who reject an afterlife are accepting the interpretation of Christianity whereby one does not go to heaven after death, but rather, must wait until the bodily resurrection. So technically there is no afterlife. I doubt that this is the real issue here though. As for those who reject the supernatural origin of the Bible, why the ambiguity? Note that the set who fall into this class is larger than those who are irreligious, and much larger than atheists and agnostics. So it includes a wide array of people. Second, what about politics? My interest in this topic was piqued years ago by the large raft of stories on how stupid and uniformed true independent voters are. Going through the GSS it is clear that political moderates and independents are less intelligent than ideologues or those with clear views. I tried to select some social and fiscal issues where I thought that the ideologies and parties differed pretty starkly. But the results weren't as cut and dried as with religion. I think there are a few dynamics at work producing the difference. First, social liberalism has a very strong correlation with intelligence. Those conservatives and Republicans with socially liberal views on homosexuality are clearly the most intelligent. Abortion is a more ambiguous issue, as the arc of history is not moving in a clear direction. On the fiscal issues, for liberals and Democrats it seems that not being "on the right page" is correlated with stupidity. For the Right the issue is clearer on income differences, but less so on taxes. But the main problem with taxes is that so few people really want higher taxes that the sample sizes are smaller. One could look deeper, but why might it be that the political issues are a bit more confused than the religious ones? I think that it's partly a product of the fact that political affiliations are coalitional, and that one's opinions tend to come in suites or clusters, and that one aligns oneself with one's "camp" on a host of issues without further thought. In contrast, specific religious beliefs are evaluated more in isolation and personally. In politics one has a few broad values and loyalties, and details emerge from that. In religion orthodoxy in the United States in most situations the dynamic is more personal, and you are quite often revealing more your own attitudes than group consensus (though obviously if you are a Christian who belongs to a church with a creed there is putatively a consensus, but in practice this is not so important in our nation for most congregations). * I should admit that I'm actually skeptical of the coherency of most religious and analytic philosophy in a deep substantive sense. But, I grant that within these domains there are ideas which are said to be consistent or not, and that is what I am alluding to.

Opinion on Afterlife

IntelligenceAtheists and AgnosticsKnows God Exists

AfterlifeNo AfterlifeAfterlifeNo Afterlife


Below Average25142836


Above Average23342819



AfterlifeNo AfterlifeAfterlifeNo Afterlife


Below Average28322320


Above Average26193126


JewishNo Religion

AfterlifeNo AfterlifeAfterlifeNo Afterlife


Below Average1762619


Above Average25382527




AfterlifeNo AfterlifeAfterlifeNo AfterlifeAfterlifeNo Afterlife


Below Average323926302122


Above Average221531233124


Bible Word of GodInspired WordBook of Fables

AfterlifeNo AfterlifeAfterlifeNo AfterlifeAfterlifeNo Afterlife


Below Average344023332822


Above Average221332232827


Abortion on demand




Below Average9243423


Above Average34452733





Below Average20272424


Above Average36333335


Homosexual sex is....


Always wrongNot wrong at allAlways wrongNot wrong at all


Below Average28102716


Above Average28423040



Always wrongNot wrong at allAlways wrongNot wrong at all


Below Average34142917


Above Average23432942


Taxes are....


Too highOK or too lowToo highOK or too low


Below Average15112425


Above Average37383429



Too highOK or too lowToo highOK or too low


Below Average22242521


Above Average35333534


Government should reduce income differences




Below Average14123520


Above Average43412443





Below Average26192921


Above Average35333038


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