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Deprogram with Denyse O'Leary

Brains on Bias

When Atheists Factor In Faith, Guess Who Looks Stupid?

by Denyse O'Leary

Edward B. Larson (1947–2002), an epidemiologist and psychiatrist, noticed a curious fact some years ago: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) used many case examples that characterized religious patients as "psychotic, delusional, incoherent, illogical, and hallucinating," suggesting a general psychopathology that misrepresented clinical experience.

He observed that "the same scientists who were trained to accept or reject a hypothesis based on hard data seem to rely solely on their own opinions and biases when assessing the effect of religion on health."

Call this the "my bias is science" approach to research. It's not new, but it's still here. Recently, we have learned—mostly from current science journals—that religion: (1) makes you sick or crazy; (2) rots your intelligence; (3) rots teens' intelligence; (4) shrinks your brain; and (5) promotes superstition. So why aren't most religious people in North America superstitious morons? Let's deprogram:

(1) Religion makes you sick or crazy. In a detailed 1990s review of 158 medical studies on the effects of religion on health, it was shown that 77 percent of the studies demonstrated that religion has a positive clinical effect. New studies did not alter this result.1

(2) Religion rots your intelligence. In 2008, Richard Lynn, et al., published a study in the journal Intelligence claiming that the higher the proportion of atheists in a country, the higher the average IQ score of its population.2 That was a startling find, and it prompted a closer look at the authors' table, which lists the percentage of atheists and average IQ score for each of 137 countries.

Dozens of the listed countries either enforce or forbid religion. These countries almost all feature low average IQs. Most other "low average IQ" countries lack representative government. What if we reduce the statistical noise from propaganda backed by violence? I trimmed Lynn and company's list to show only the statistics for countries with both representative government and freedom of religion. The result? Well, Lynn's thesis collapsed under data like this:

Conveniently, four nations scored an even 100 for their average IQ. Arranged by level of (author-claimed) atheism, they are:

• The Netherlands: 42 percent
• United Kingdom: 41.5 percent
• Norway: 31 percent
• Austria: 18 percent

In other words, atheism can range from 42 percent down to 18 percent with no demonstrable effect on IQ.

What was Lynn's thesis again? Sadly, atheist bias obscures a much sounder thesis than his: Intelligence correlates strongly with political freedom.

(3) Religion rots teens' intelligence. We learned from Helmuth Nyborg (same journal, same year) that religion correlates with lower IQ among American teenagers.3 Surveying Nyborg's idiosyncratic classification of religious groups, British physicist David Tyler remarked crisply that "the methodology needs more justification than he supplies."

More problematic, Nyborg used demographic data from 985 Roman Catholic teens and 541 Baptist teens (groups he terms "Dogmatic"), but from only 103 agnostics and 39 atheists. The atheists, critical to his thesis, made up a very small proportion of the study. So if only half of the Catholics and Baptist teens were lapsed, which would be no great surprise, religious orthodoxy collapses as a measuring device for IQ.

(4) Religion shrinks your brain. It's true. In "Religious factors and hippocampal atrophy in late life," Duke University researchers reported that, among the 268 subjects they studied, those who had been "born again" showed greater atrophy in the hippocampus (a part of the brain associated with memory) in late life.4 This condition has been linked to depression, dementia, and Alzheimer syndrome.

But wait—this is no poster study for unbelief after all: The atrophy affliction also targeted patients with no religious affiliation, while generally sparing non-born-again Protestants, the majority group in the study. The researchers thus suggested that "potential cumulative stress associated with being a member of a religious minority" might account for their findings, and neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, M.D., concurs in an article in Scientific American.5 But while minority status does often entail greater stress, that factor is independent of the content of one's beliefs. Once again, a study fails to prove its thesis.

(5) Religion promotes superstition. We've been hearing this one since the eighteenth century, literally. But do societies become less superstitious when they become less religious? During National Science Week in 2003, University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman and associates surveyed 2,068 people in Britain about their superstitious beliefs and practices. Given that traditional religion in Britain has been in a long, slow decline for decades, you might expect the findings to show a corresponding decline in superstition.

On the contrary: "The current levels of superstitious behaviour and beliefs in the UK are surprisingly high, even among those with a scientific background," the survey found. Twenty-five percent of the respondents who claimed a science background were "very or somewhat superstitious."6 A Baylor University study (2007–2008) ­reported similar findings for the United States.7

It gets strange, too: A 2008 Scripps-Howard Ohio University poll also showed that born-again Evangelical Protestants are much less likely to have seen UFOs than the non-religious.8 In short, the decline of orthodox Christian religion correlates with a rise in superstition.

If misrepresentations of research best defend atheism, perhaps it is being defended as well as it can be. 


1. In David Larson, Dale Matthews, and Constance Barry, The Faith Factor: An Annotated Bibliography of Clinical Research on Spiritual Subjects, National Institute for Healthcare Research, 1993–1997. Despite his sudden, untimely death in 2002, Larson played a key role in helping to revise the DSM-III. The story is recounted in The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul (Harper, 2007), pp. 235, 236–237.
2. Richard Lynn et al., "Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations," Intelligence (March 2008), (pdf).
3. Helmuth Nyborg, "The intelligence–religiosity nexus: A representative study of white adolescent Americans," Intelligence (16 September 2008),
4. Amy D. Owen et al., "Religious Factors and Hippocampal Atrophy in Late Life," PLoS ONE (March 2011),
5. Andrew Newberg, "Religious Experiences Shrink Part of the Brain: A study links life-changing religious experiences, like being born again," Scientific American (May 31, 2011),
6. Richard Wiseman, "UK Superstition Survey," 2003, (pdf).
7. "Baylor Survey Finds New Perspectives on U.S. Religious Landscape,"; published in Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe (Baylor University Press, 2008).
8. Thomas Hargrove and Guido H. Stempel III, "Poll probes Americans' belief in UFOs, life on other planets," Scripps-Howard News Service (07/15/2008),

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