By now, everyone has heard of the recent religion survey. It contains 32 questions and the results, with a sample size of about 3,400, found that Atheists and Agnostics fared better than religious people did, a fact that many Atheists and Agnostics are crowing over and many religious folks are upset about. If you dig deeper into the data, however, you find that the biggest predictor of performance on this survey is education level. I would argue (with no data to back me up so this is just my opinion) that Atheists and Agnostics tend to be more highly educated than the general population. Now, before people get all mad at me let me be perfectly clear: I am not saying that religious people are not educated. I am not saying that being an Atheist makes you smart. I am being far more nuanced than that.
First, I would argue that people with less education don’t think about these issues anywhere near as much as highly educated people do. Maybe it’s a time thing, maybe it’s simply the fact that less educated people aren’t into the whole what-makes-the-world-tick type of thinking.
Second, Adding weight to the educated vs. uneducated dichotomy, much of the survey is about knowledge of history, world demographics, current events, cultural literacy, and such. More educated people are going to do better on surveys that cover those areas than less educated people.
Third, I would argue that the kind of person who stands up and says that they are an Atheist is someone who is not afraid of the controversy such a statement causes. They have thought about this a lot, they have spent a lot of time arguing and debating with their friends and others, and they have researched their position because they expect to get called on it. By virtue of that, they too also have a greater depth of knowledge.
Fourth, and finally, If you look at education levels across the ways people self-identify, because the people who self-identify as Atheist or Agnostic tend to be more on the educated side, it skews their results. People who identify themselves as, say, Catholic, or Methodist, or Buddhist, or Muslim will run the gamut from highly educated people who highly un-educated people and thus even the spread. 50% of Catholics did well on the survey? Then you are seeing the result of a statistical averaging of the highly educated who did very well mixed with the uneducated who did not do well. But a higher percentage of Atheists did well? You are seeing the fact that that demographic comes from the more educated sector of society with fewer uneducated folks to skew the results downwards.
In short, self-identified Atheists are not smarter about religion than the religious. Because they skew towards the more educated and education is the biggest predictor of performance, they fall on the higher end of the spectrum.
To be perfectly clear (so as to not offend anyone) I know incredibly intelligent people who believe in God in some form or other. These are people I respect and people I enjoy discussing religion with. So I am not saying Atheists are smarter than non-Atheists. If you think I am, then I wrote this badly or you misinterpreted my words above.