Friday, January 13, 2012

Dear God

By chance I came across some articles and debates involving the late Christopher Hitchens on the question of the existence of God, and the reasonableness of religion. Hitchens was vehemently anti religion but many of his pro religion opponents were very able and erudite people. There is no doubt the existence of God is a very controversial question with a great deal at stake. Those who believe invest a great deal of time and resources into their faith. If they are wrong they face the realization that this has been an enormous waste of the limited time they have and will look ridiculous for having an imaginary friend. If they are wrong then if they had put their weight behind secular humanism mankind would be far better off than it is today. If they are right however those who don’t believe may face a much graver fate and may be missing out on a more meaningful life now.

In the US 60% of the adult population are certain of God’s existence. On the other hand atheists are becoming a lot more aggressive and vocal. The divide is being expressed in the struggle over the teaching of evolution or intelligent design at schools. Muslim medical students in the UK recently walked out of class in protest of evolutionary approach taken in the course. I have heard both prominent atheists and a Christian bishop claim, with equal arrogant certainty that the other side privately knows that God doesn’t or does exist. The truth is so obvious to either side that they literally can’t comprehend that someone could genuinely hold a different view. Intellectual argument seems to have very little influence either way. This is one of those issues where there aren’t an infinity of possible answers where you never know if you are right. In this case there are only two options – God exists or does not exist – and one of them has to be right. So which camp is right?

Although the two camps don’t seem to respond to reasoned argument the Smart Vote is still perfect for this sort of question. People usually don’t form opinions on the basis of a carefully reasoned argument but instead use arguments to justify their choice after the fact – explaining why those who have already formed opinions don’t change them in response to the other side’s rationalizations. Intelligence is not however irrelevant to the forming of unreasoned opinions. The smart tend to be more correct even when they can’t tell you why they believe something. So if opinion differs systematically along IQ lines, and it cannot be accounted for by vested interest in the answer, then the option preferred more often by the more intelligent is extremely likely to be the correct option.

Let’s look at what the Smart Vote says about the existence of God. The General Social Survey asks several questions that are relevant to this issue. The first asks about the person’s confidence in the existence of God. Several alternatives were allowed.
1. Confident that God does not exist
2. It is not possible to know whether God exists or not
3. Does not believe in God but believes in some higher power.
4. Basically doesn’t believe in the existence of God but sometimes doubts.
5. Basically believes in the existence of God but sometimes has doubts.
6. Is very confident, if not certain, that God does exist.

I used those responses to form a scale of the degree of confidence in God’s existence. 0 would mean that everyone picked option 1 and 100 that everyone picked option 6. 80 means that the sample has settled on option 5 and 60 that they settled on option 4 etc. Below is graph of the scale over time.

There is a very mild trend toward greater disbelief over time. Below an IQ of 116 there are systematic differences but these are modest. Those who have an IQ above 116 however are considerably and consistently less confident that God exists. While the rest basically believe in God, but have the occasional doubt, the bright tend to hover between belief and disbelief, with a fair amount of doubt either way. Nevertheless it looks like the direction of intelligent opinion, the Smart Vote, points squarely away from theism. I did a linear regression so that I could control for a few possible confounding variables. The results can be seen in the left column in the table below.

Women, those who are older or more conservative are more likely to believe that God exists, while those with more education and who are more intelligent are less likely to believe. The association between IQ and non-theism holds up when these variables are controlled. So the Smart Vote is for atheism then. Actually it isn’t.

When I calculated the Smart Vote for each of the alternatives allowed in the General Social Survey question I found the following.

A value above 100 implies that the intelligent favor the alternative more than do the unintelligent and a value of less than 100 implies the opposite. One can see that while the Stupid Vote is for Belief in God the Smart Vote is for Agnosticism – the view that the existence or non-existence of God cannot be established either way – and not Atheism (the conviction that God does not exist). In fact in the earlier period Atheism wasn’t even the second most intelligent choice, Belief in a Higher Power was. There has however been a shift toward the more disbelieving alternatives being smarter over time. For example the Smart Vote on Atheism increased from 121 to 131, and for Sometimes Believes it increased from 85 to 117. At the same time the Smart Vote dropped from 166 to 120 for Belief in a Higher Power and from 114 to 106 for Sometimes Doubt.

Another way of looking at the question is by seeing who changes their mind. The General Social Survey had some information on that too. Firstly they asked directly about changes of belief in God and allowed four choices.

1. Don’t believe in God and never did (Smart Vote 178).
2. Don’t believe in God but used to (Smart Vote 241).
3. Believe in God now but didn’t before (Smart Vote 122).
4. Believe in God and always did (Smart Vote 66).

Firstly, whether one ends up a believer or a non-believer, it is smarter to have started from the opposite view.

Secondly, for those that didn’t change their mind about God, non-belief is smarter than belief.

Thirdly, for those who did change their minds, going from a belief to non-belief is smarter than going from non-belief to belief.

Fourthly, if one started with non-belief, it is smarter to stay there than become a believer.

Finally, if one started as a believer then it is far smarter to lose the belief than keep it.

In short, everything points towards the intelligence of changing from believing in God to not believing in God, and that whatever one believes, having to change one’s view to get there takes more intelligence than staying in one’s comfort zone.

A final way the General Social Survey allows us to look at the question is via shifts among those that believe in God i.e. between fundamentalist, moderate and liberal religious beliefs from what they were at 16 to what they became as an adult. The right hand column of the regression table above shows the results of a regression on the degree of change from fundamentalist to liberal. The scale went from -2 for a change from liberal to fundamentalist to +2 for change from fundamentalist to liberal. As can be seen, IQ is independently and significantly associated with the degree of shift towards the liberal side, and away from the fundamentalist side. What that means is that smarter people are more inclined to cease believing in some of the more literal religious beliefs or alternatively less intelligent people are more likely to seek more literal and less contingent religious views. Younger, more liberal people and males are more likely to change from a fundamentalist to a liberal religious view. There is also a significant trend over time towards a more liberal religious outlook.

So even among those that believe, it is smarter not to take religious stories and claims literally and maybe not to believe many of them at all.

I have seen a study that looks at belief in groups with much higher IQs than are represented in the General Social Survey and the trend toward less belief with higher IQ shows no sign of tapering off at even the highest IQs. As we saw though, the effect only seems to start in earnest at an IQ of 116. For 85% of the population IQ has less effect. Disbelief in God seems to be quite a difficult problem to think about.

At every point along the continuum of belief in God, from absolutely certain literal belief to atheism, the intelligent response is always to move further away from belief in God. The only position more intelligent than atheism is agnosticism.


  1. "So if opinion differs systematically along IQ lines, and it cannot be accounted for by vested interest in the answer, then the option preferred more often by the more intelligent is extremely likely to be the correct option."

    That someone with a high IQ could believe any epistemological principle this stupid pretty much demonstrates the falsity of the principle all by itself.

    1. No it doesn't. The alleged stupidity of the epistemological principle is far from self evident. You need to spell out your reasons for your opinion. I personally would value a proper 'stress testing' of the Smart Vote concept. If its wrong I want to why.

      I deal with the need to control for interests, and probably could answer your other objections.

    2. Gene,

      Presented with two mutually exclusive answers to a question, answer A and answer B, and given no information about the question or answer except that increase in the IQ of a person positively correlates with increased belief in answer B, which answer would you think more likely to be correct?

      If you honestly claim you would be 50/50 on the probability of A vs. B, I will gladly put money against you in any real world situation in this regard to which we apply it. If you agree that a sane, rational, intelligent person should put more weight on answer B, then you basically agree with Garth's suggestion, although you may feel he worded it too strongly with the "extremely likely" (what P value corresponds to does "extremely likely", Garth?).

    3. I've tried to put numbers to this.

      For example if 35% of the high IQ group pick B but only 10% of the dull group do then then probability of the high IQ group being correct should be 82.9%, or a difference of 274 ELO rating points. I'm not sure that qualifies as "extremely likely" but it is way over 50%. Note that this is in spite of the "wisdom of the crowds" - even the wisdom of the smart crowd - being for A.

  2. I tend to agree that it is a fallacious epistemic method, especially when applied to specific questions. I can get into that later... but first a few questions. First, what does "systematic" mean? Does it mean that support for an option has to be strictly increasing as IQ increases? Or can more complex relationships be observed as long as Second, out of curiosity, what method do you use to evaluate the validity of the SmartVote method? A self-evaluation (meaning using the SmartVote to evaluate SmartVote validity) doesn't hold due to the "vested interest in the answer." (Sorry if I have asked something you have already covered; I haven't read all your posts.)

    1. I realized part of my comment was inadvertently omitted. It should read, "...can more complex relationships be observed, as long as the proportion of believers in highest IQ group is larger than any other?..."

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