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Religious people who don't believe in god

Gene Expression
By Razib Khan
Apr 15, 2010 2:20 PMNov 19, 2019 10:03 PM


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In American society the connection between religion and belief in god(s) is very close. This of course is not a universal. In Indian and Chinese religion there isn't a necessary connection, though as a matter of operational reality most religious adherents in India and China do seem to believe in god. In the Abrahamic tradition the issue seems clear cut, but both Judaism and Islam are strongly orthopraxic, and somewhat less fixed on theological orthodoxy, so there is perhaps more wiggle room than one might think. Additionally, Jews are a nation, an ethnicity, as well as a people, and so those who are not particularly religious observant or believers in the God of Abraham, the God Isaac and the God of Jacob, may still identify with Judaism as their religion. The 'cultural' aspect of religion has even crept into Christianity, which was originally rather particular as to the content of one's beliefs. In much of Europe the proportion of self-identified Christians exceeds the proportion of those who avow Christian theism. In the comment belowAmos Zeeberg guesses that many Jewish scientists are also atheists. This seems plausible, and ERV confirms it thanks to Amazon search, 75% of self-identified eminent Jewish scientists are atheists in Elaine Ecklund's data set. And this tendency may not be limited to Jewish scientists, consider Freeman Dyson, a self-identified Protestant who admits to not confessing beliefs which one would expect from a Protestant. I wanted to dig deeper. So again, the GSS. I wanted to look at the variable GOD and see how intelligence and education affected it across various religious categories. God has six responses: - Don't believe - No way to find out - Some higher power [I omitted this by mistake in an earlier version of the post, it was in the data analysis] - Believe sometimes - Believe, but doubts - Know God exists I clustered the first three into the category "non-theists," and the middle two as "theist with doubts." This is mostly because the sample sizes for religious groups crossed with the GOD variable aren't that big on the secular end of the range. My question was how response on GOD related to intelligence controlled for religion and denomination. For religion I looked at Protestants, Catholics, Jews and "Nones." For denominations only the Southern Baptists, United Methodists and Episcopalians had decent sample sizes. To measure education was easy, and I divided them into two classes, those with at least a college degree and those without; the variable DEGREE. To measure intelligence I used WORDSUM, a vocabulary test. I constructed two categories, "average" and "smart," the former ranging from 0-7 and the latter 8-10 correct. I've included the results in the whole GSS data set without controlling for religion so you have a reference point. The rows add up to 100%. Additionally, if the numbers are bold that means that that point is outside of the 95% interval of its equivalent in the other category. For example, for the general population there's a difference in proportion between non-theists between the smart and average whereby the 95% interval still does not overlap. Not so with theists with doubts.

A few notes. Sorry about the small sample sizes for some groups. That's why seeing a lot of un-bolded numbers. But I do want to observe that for Jews and United Methodists many of the values came very close to being outside of the 95% intervals, and to a lesser extent with Episcopalians as well. Catholics are surprisingly homogeneous in this data set. One caveat is that there's been a massive defection from the Catholic church since 1990, and the data goes back to 1972. It seems that the more 'secular' the group the bigger effect that intelligence or education has. This goes for comparing Protestant denominations as well, Southern Baptists are relatively uniform, the Episcopalians less so. This makes sense since Southern Baptists are much more stringent in terms of the beliefs one must espouse, so that there's an automatic filter. By contrast Episcopalians tend to accept a level of privacy in regards to theology or strength of belief. Interestingly, it is among those who have no religious affiliation that intelligence and education seem to be wear away theism the most. One question I had was the independent effect of intelligence vs. education. Education may have a socializing effect. So I decided to look at the differences by intelligence controlling for education.

Non-theistTheist with doubts Know God exists

General Population Average12.420.667




















Southern Baptist Average4.212.183.7




United Methodist Average9.525.664.9








I want to note that for college graduates the difference between proportions of non-theists between the smart and average came very close non-overlapping on the 95% interval. It looks that even controlling for education intelligence has an independent effect. I'm shocked by the finding for people with post-graduate education, but perhaps there's some peculiarity about the who go on to receive advanced degrees of some sort but are not particularly bright.

Non-theistTheist with doubts Know God exists

Less than HS Average10.517.372.2


High School Average11.620.368.1


Some College Average9.525.964.6






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