According to once source, Mormons have higher-than-average IQs (and this remains true even if you’re looking only at non-Hispanic whites). Considerably higher, as far as averages go. Of course, the even juicier part for me is that Episcopalians are even higher. Higher than smug agnostics and atheists, even. So now I have a response next time some atheist talks about atheist IQ’s. And I myself can be smug against those people that are spiritual-but-not-religious, who are a few pegs further down than Episcopalians or Atheists. The Jewish are, of course, higher than everybody else.

It’s interesting to contemplate what makes some religions do better than others on these sorts of tests. That’s in large part because there are two ways that religions gain followers. They are born or they are made. So for instance, it could be true that Baptists have lower IQs in the aggregate because it is a theology that is most attractive to people with lower IQs. Or it could be that they have lower IQs because of the population of people born into the faith. The possibility, involving the other two, is that smart Baptists leave the faith. My impression of Baptists is that a disproportionate number of them are made and not born. On the other hand, I know comparatively few former Baptists, so it’s less like say the Church of Christ (The ICC, not the Congregationalists) which by virtue of its inflexibility seems to hemorrhage people that can’t buy into it full freight. While Baptists are often known for being liberal, liberals like my former roommate can still find a place within the church and still be Baptist. The numbers don’t reflect any distinction between the conservative Southern Baptists and the mainline American Baptists. Because of this and its non-centralized leadership, it’s less either-or than say the LDS or Catholic churches. So my former roommate Hubert can still be a Baptist while still being a socially liberal Democrat.

My own Episcopal Church definitely falls into the category of one you are born into. The only converts we really get are disaffected liberal Catholics and they can be really hard to pry loose from that church even if it’s driving them crazy. Meanwhile, Episcopalians are constantly leaving the church for either Catholicism or conservative protestantism depending on whether they are High Church or Low Church sorts of folks. So when it comes to Episcopalians, it comes down to who is left. Apparently it’s a disproportionate number of the smart people that end up hanging around. My guess is that, despite the fact I’m not myself a very good Episcopalian, I am representative of a fair selection of its membership. TEC is liberal enough that it’s almost not worth leaving whatever our theological uncertainties. A lot of those that leave for more conservative protestant churches are often those whose minds cannot handle infirm theology and want to go somewhere where they are simply told how it is. The same is probably true, to a lesser extent, of those that leave for Catholicism. Meanwhile, those that stay behind are disproportionately likely to have the intelligence to contemplate the vagueries of the church and can handle the contradictory views within the church. And given Episcopalianism’s and Anglicanism’s well-heeled history, they were probably starting from a relatively high set-point anyway.

Catholicism, which is relatively middling, is another interesting case. It’s definitely something that most adherents are born into. Those born into the faith include a lot of Italians and Irish who are not known for being particularly intelligent (in the non-Hispanic white population) and those that came here back in the day were not (as far as I know) likely to come from the higher classes out there. I don’t think that former Catholics are as likely to be disproportionately from the more intelligent or less intelligent sectors of the rank and file. They do seem to be getting a lot of high-profile conversions among intelligent conservatives that want religion but don’t want low-brow protestantism, though I do not know how significant it is to the population at large. I know at least one protestant-raised guy that converted to Catholicism and he’s pretty smart. I know a number of Catholic-raised folks that left the church and they’re pretty smart, too. Then again, I think it’s safe to say that I know a disproportionate number of smart people.

I’ve got no good reason for the Mormons to do as well as they do. They don’t have an especially well-heeled history. Theirs is a church that’s hard to leave but also hard for someone with any serious theological doubts to stay into. The former Mormons I know are disproportionately really intelligent. Maybe it goes back to the polygamy wherein men of limited intelligence were simply excluded from breeding. The church I suppose is large enough that inbreeding was not as big an issue as I would expect in the FLDS. Then again, is the LDS church of old that much bigger than the FLDS church of today?

Or maybe the numbers are just goofy and flawed. They’re taken from something called the NLY97 test. It’s possible that for Catholics, for instance, a disproportionate number of test-takers came from superior Catholic schools and so they ended up higher than they should have. Ditto for Episcopalians. So these numbers could all be useless. But what fun would posting on that be?

Category: Church

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18 Responses to Religion & IQ

  1. web says:

    Possibility of sampling bias? Sure.

    Possibility of bias within the religions? I’m certainly willing to give it that. The difference between heavy-proselytizing and not heavy-proselytizing religions is certainly a factor – one could almost certainly determine that the “we’ll take everybody” religions ought to be lower-IQ than the “we’re choosy about who we invite” religions.

  2. Peter says:

    One thing about the Catholic Church is that it is far more rigid in theory than in practice. For example, church doctrine absolutely forbids artificial contraception, so technically speaking anyone that uses it (or even supports the rights of others to use it) should not be a part of the church. Reality is very different, of course, with millions of contraception-users nonetheless considering themselves Catholic.

  3. Abel says:

    The Mormon Church puts a great deal of emphasis on education and learning. Mormon scripture emphasizes the importance of learning not only spiritual things but gaining useful worldly knowledge as well and teaches that “the glory of God is intelligence” As a result there’s a big push for kids go to college, learn a trade, etc. That might explain (in part) the higher IQs.

  4. rob says:

    There’s some reason to think (white) Episcopalians have an average IQ a bit higher than American Jews.* Dunno if it’s true. The Nyborg paper is especially interesting. Since IQ is higher in adolescence, and teens don’t usually convert, the effect isn’t just social climbing. Episcopalians regress to a high mean. The Episcopal Church also lost tends to lose tards over gay bishops. Slacks, who on average are prolly a bit less intelligent than average, drift away since the theology is cold comfort, if it’s there at all. I’d also bet, though I have no numbers, that black Episcopalians are fairly elite.

    The former Mormons I know are disproportionately really intelligent.

    Disproportionate to whom? Really smart compared to Mormons or to everyone? If it’s to everyone, that could be because they’re from a smart population. The Mormons might have gone through the demographic transition (where dumb women have more babies than smart women) later than other groups, or not at all. A community-based religion will also keep people who otherwise would drift away or drop out. A dude in Utah who wants to be influential in his town has to stay Mormon.

    Link 1

    Link 2

  5. trumwill says:

    Abel, theoretically IQ is innate and so the nurturing of Mormon households shouldn’t make much difference. However, as I mention in the last paragraph, this test may be particularly susceptible to education bias.

  6. trumwill says:

    Rob, thanks a lot for the links. Oddly, despite using the same source the first one comes up with results that you would not expect from the source I cited. I assume they consider Presbyterians to be of the “liberal persuasion” and they vastly outnumber Episcopalians (and Lutherans) among those sampled.

    That second link is also interesting, looking only at religions which one was raised in. Of course, rather than commenting on correlation between intelligence of young people and their chosen faith, that only shifts it to young people’s parents’ choice of faith, which given the heritability of IQ is probably not all that different.

    The former Mormons I knew in Deseret were intelligent compared both to Mormons I knew and non-Mormons. It’s probably the latter that they really excelled against. Being a non-Mormon in a Mormon culture really seems to lead to adverse outcomes. There’s probably some bias on my part in underestimating the intelligence of the practicing Mormons (many, like Willard, very much excepted).

  7. ecco says:

    The innateness of IQ has come into question in recent years. There is a community of researchers that believes that IQ is malleable and trainable. If you follow the Dweck camp, then you could say that belief in the fixed or innate nature of IQ has caused it to become fixed in a large number of people.

  8. Abel says:

    Some would argue that I.Q. measures not just the quality of a person’s mind but the quality of the world that person lives in.

    Facinating article here.

  9. trumwill says:


    Frankly, as a useful and measurable metric, I have difficulty with the concept that IQ is absolutely oblivious to environment. The notion of a set point or an immutable range makes sense, but not a set point. On the other hand, people who have been studying the subject for a lot longer than I have disagree.

  10. trumwill says:

    The subject of race and IQ (which Gladwell touches on) is a tricky and typically forbidden one here, so while readers are invited to follow Abel’s link (and for fairness, I will link to Half Sigma’s disputation of the Flynn Effect), no comments on race and IQ. On the subject of heritability and innateness of IQ, imagine comparisons being made in a state or region almost uniformly of the same race. Or don’t comment.

  11. rob says:

    HS’s “debunking” of the Flynn effect? At least make Gladwell play Notre Dame. I’m not convinced the Flynn effect isn’t real. People were shorter 200 years ago. If you extrapolate that back linearly…Aristotle was negative X feet tall!

    and their chosen faith, that only shifts it to young people’s parents’ choice of faith, which given the heritability of IQ is probably not all that different… and theoretically IQ is innate and so the nurturing of Mormon households shouldn’t make much difference.

    On the first, heritability of IQ ranges from something like .4 to .7 from childhood to adulthood. Taking .5 to make math easy, children should regress to a mean halfway between the population mean and the parents’ IQ. What’s a population? That’s the interesting question for religions. Do Episcopalian couples with 110 IQ (each) have kids who average 105 or 110? If it’s 105, then Episcopalians aren’t really a breeding population. But if there’s no regression at all, that implies something beyond single-generation selection effects.

    As to IQ being innate, that’s not a necessity. All variation could be environmental, it just so happens that it isn’t. There are other traits where most/a ton of variation is environmental, but the trait is pretty much fixed. In 20 year olds, a fair chunk of variation in paraplegia is environmental. If you tell that to a dude in wheelchair, it probably won’t make him either feel better or get up and strangle you.

  12. trumwill says:

    One weakness of HS’s argument that struck me was SAT scores. Do we know it’s the case that SAT scores would be rising if the same portion of the population was taking the test now as X-number years ago?

    Could you elaborate or rephrase on that second-to-last paragraph? I’m afraid I’m not entirely following.

  13. rob says:

    Sure, take 2 possible Episcopalian scenarios

    1) Episcopalians are selected from a population with a mean IQ of 100. The Epis have a mean 110 IQ. We’d expect the children to regress towards to population mean: they’d average at 105.

    2) Episcopalians are a population with a mean IQ of 110. We’d expect their children to regress to a mean of 110.

    That the population’s genetics matter seems a bit a odd. Even so, if 2 tall pygmies have a kid, and 2 short Masai have a kid, the pygmy kid will be shorter than his parents (usually, and adjusted for mean heights of men and women) and the Masai kid will be taller than his parents(same caveats).

    The study of adolescent IQ makes scenario 2 more likely. To get kids with a mean of 110 would require that the parental average is about 120. That seems a bit high, even for us Anglican supermen.

  14. Maria says:

    I associate the Episcopalian Church with old money, so maybe there’s more money for education and more incidences of high IQ people meeting and marrying each other. I’ve never met a poor Episcopalian; even the black ones I’ve met are very affluent.

  15. rob says:

    How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?

    Two. One to mix the martinis, and another to call the electrician.

  16. Maria says:

    Three. One to mix the martinis, one to call the electrician, and one to drive to the country club to avoid having to associate with the electrician.

  17. rob says:

    I dunno Maria. Who would trust the electrician in the house unsupervised? He could be a papist. Or even a baptist.

  18. Maria says:

    Lol, rob. Good point.

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