the necessity of religion?

"Me? I'm a deist. But religion, well, that's useful for social control."

I’ve read a number of articles and book chapters over the last month or so that have started to change the way I think about religion. After leaving Mormonism and becoming a secular humanist and atheist, I thought the superiority of my new views would be self-evident to anyone who took the time to consider my views. That superiority led me to think that the world would also be a better place without religion – give everyone secular humanism and all superstition and irrationality would disappear, we’d have world peace, etc. Over the last 9 years since I arrived at that position, I have softened my views somewhat. I now have respect for some religions (e.g., Quakers), who seem sincere in their beliefs and don’t make outlandish truth claims that are easily falsifiable by science. Others I continue to disdain for their abuses of power and absurdist claims. Ergo, I no longer think all religion is bad.

But even this position has recently begun to change as a result of a number of recent studies I’ve read. Several of these show a strong correlation between IQ and secularity: the smarter you are, the less religious you are (Nyborg, Helmuth. 2008. The intelligence-religiosity nexus: A representative study of white adolescent Americans. Intelligence 37:81-93.) Other studies have shown that elites have long thought of religion as a tool to keep the masses under control (similar to Marx, yet different at the same time), for example: That religion was a fraud designed to keep lawlessness at bay was a notion which was being openly expressed 2,500 years ago in Athens. (p. 120,Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. 2010. Morality and Immorality among the Irreligious. Pp. 113-148 in Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1 – Issues, Concepts, and Definitions, vol. 1, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.)

The forefathers of the US were not religious, but were believers, and they saw the “social control” element of religion as useful: How could the most influential people of their time and the paragons of elite society reject religion amid a populous of dogmatic believers? The answer, of course, is that they were not anomalies, but representative of their time and status. The principle founders of the constitutional government of the United States were not atheists, but they were not Christians either. They were Deists. Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Madison all tended to understand religion in its pragmatic application in social control and rejected supernaturalism, but held to the notion of a creative force in society. They believed, though some to a greater degree than others, in an unobtrusive supreme being who created the universe, but paid scant attention to earth’s occupants. In their views, this “clock-maker” did not suspend natural law, answer prayers, or magically procreate with virgins. (p. 235,Cady, Daniel. 2010. Freethinkers and Hell Raisers: The Brief History of American Atheism and Secularism. Pp. 229-250 in Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1 – Issues, Concepts, and Definitions, vol. 1, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.).

"I have no need for religion, but I'll pander to the fools."

And, finally, Lincoln also thought of religion as a tool to appease “the fools”, as he calls them:Lincoln never joined a church, did not believe in revealed truth, and saw no reason for prayer in his own life. Biographers have strongly disputed the characterization of Lincoln as a Christian. Soon after Lincoln’s death his long-time friend and personal security guard, Ward Hill Lamon, presented The Life of Abraham Lincoln to an unreceptive American reading public. In it, Lamon asserted that Lincoln was a man of great conviction and spiritual want, but alas, a man of little faith. “Mr. Lincoln” he wrote, “was never a member of any church, nor did he believe in the divinity of Christ, or the inspiration of the Scriptures in the sense understood by evangelical Christians.” Lamon even quotes Mary Todd as stating, “Mr. Lincoln had no hope, and no faith, in the usual acceptance of those words.” In the 1880s, one of Lincoln’s long-term associates opened up to the Louisville Times on the subject of the former president’s beliefs:He went to church a few times with his family while he was President, but so far as I have been able to find he remained an unbeliever. . . . I asked him once about his fervent Thanksgiving Message and twittered him about being an unbeliever in what was published. “Oh,” said he, “that is some of [secretary of state] Seward’s nonsense, and it pleases the fools.”Yet the myth persists as to Lincoln’s religiosity. Due to the myth of the “Great Emancipator” and Lincoln’s status as the country’s most beloved leader, many Americans refuse to accept Lincoln’s ambivalence towards religion.” (p. 240,Cady, Daniel. 2010. Freethinkers and Hell Raisers: The Brief History of American Atheism and Secularism. Pp. 229-250 in Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1 – Issues, Concepts, and Definitions, vol. 1, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.)

Karl Marx obviously thought of religion as an opiate, but in his thinking it was designed to keep the masses from revolting against the bourgeoisie, not to actually provide them with a facile belief system that aligns with their lower-order thinking, which is the implication of Nybor’s article. As a sociologist, I’ve long held that Marx was generally right in his view, but now I’m questioning that position. Maybe religion is, in fact, necessary for “the masses” and not for “the elites” because the masses CAN’T think about the world in any other way. Admittedly, a recent study just came out showing that elites in the US are just as likely to be religious as they are irreligious. Even so, maybe religion is, if not a good thing, a necessity for people who are simply not intelligent enough to think about the world from a more rationalistic perspective.

Now, before the religious readers out there start labeling me “arrogant,” or “bigoted,” or “elitist,” or something else suggesting I’m denigrating religious people and suggesting they are less intelligent, keep in mind that I’m just trying to grapple with data and research that suggests this. And the obvious implication, if the data are to be believed, is that religion is, at some level, necessary for “those” people. I’m not trying to say that I’m: better, superior, more intelligent, etc. I’m simply trying to wrap my head around these findings. What do the rest of you make of them?


I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

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16 Responses

  1. Diana says:

    When you say: “After leaving Mormonism and becoming a secular humanist and atheist, I thought the superiority of my new views would be self-evident to anyone who took the time to consider my views.”

    I’m not religious, but this sounds exactly like something someone religious would say and has said to me many times in the past (I am no longer religious). Perhaps it’s more of a human characteristic to assume our beliefs or non-beliefs are superior and that everyone else would understand if they just paid attention. It’s incredibly condescending and does not lend well to people wanting to know anything else about what you have to say.

    Despite the arguable problematics always inherent in studies (a study of white adolescent Americans? That sounds like a great sample population..), I definitely agree that religion is a wonderful tool for social control. But unfortunately the tone of what you’ve written (and the last sentence you write definitely does not placate that tone) sounds much more like “You just aren’t as intelligent as I am, and if you were working a little harder, you’d stop being so dumb.” You’re marginalizing, which is one of the biggest problems that religious communities have themselves. It just seems very counterproductive to creating an open dialogue.

  2. Diana says:

    And I do realize you say your views softened, but then you say that they’re going back toward that original marginalizing view. And then later you say “Maybe religion is, in fact, necessary for the masses and not for the elites because the masses CANT think about the world in any other way.” and “Even so, maybe religion is, if not a good thing, a necessity for people who are simply not intelligent enough to think about the world from a more rationalistic perspective.”

    Again, so condescending and combative. Why?

  3. profxm says:

    Diana, I don’t think there’s a way to make what I wrote NOT come across as “condescending and combative.” But if you look at the very quotes you used, with different emphasis, you’ll see that I have tried: “MAYBE religion is, in fact, necessary for “the masses” and not for “the elites” because the masses can’t think about the world in any other way.” and “Even so, MAYBE religion is, IF NOT A GOOD THING, a necessity for people who are simply not intelligent enough to think about the world from a more rationalistic perspective.” Everything is couched in tentative phrasing. Everything!

    Also, I repeat my last paragraph, as you seemed to have glossed over it (and it is the last sentence I wrote):

    “Now, before the religious readers out there start labeling me arrogant, or bigoted, or elitist, or something else suggesting Im denigrating religious people and suggesting they are less intelligent, keep in mind that Im just trying to grapple with data and research that suggests this. And the obvious implication, if the data are to be believed, is that religion is, at some level, necessary for those people. Im not trying to say that Im: better, superior, more intelligent, etc. Im simply trying to wrap my head around these findings. What do the rest of you make of them?”

    Finally, this position is not particularly radical or condescending if you start with the quite valid assumption that there are, in fact, differences in intelligence among humans. For some reason many people seem to want to believe that we are “all equal” and that includes, equal in intelligence. I’m all for equal rights, in every sense of what that means. But are we all “equal” in the sense of all having the same cognitive or physical abilities? The answer is: NO. People don’t seem to think it’s a problem to note this when it comes to physical abilities, because those differences are very obvious and undeniable. But when you say some people are smarter than others, people cringe. FYI, SOME PEOPLE ARE SMARTER THAN OTHERS. Else, there would be no point in measuring IQs and there would be no deviation around the mean. If you take that as your starting assumption, then the question becomes: Is there a relationship between intelligence, which varies, and religion, which also varies? That is a perfectly valid question. And the little research out there on this suggests that the answer is: Yes, there is: smarter people are less religious. Do I simply reject that research because it is not politically correct to mention it? Can I not write about it and discuss it because it is not politically correct to do so? Frankly, I think it’s a fascinating relationship that is worth discussing.

    And, FYI, I’m not saying I am smarter than others. I’ve never had my IQ tested, but I doubt I’d fall much above average (and my emotional IQ is probably well below average). Granted, I do have a PhD, which puts me into a small percentage of the world’s population, but getting a PhD doesn’t necessarily require a high IQ.

    In short, can we focus on the research and the claims it is making rather than on my presentation of it? I did my best to not be condescending in my presentation, but the research itself, and the claims being made, are inherently condescending. Let’s focus on that, rather than my presentation of it.

  4. ff42 says:

    “and twittered him”??? Forcing me to look up the old definition of the word.

  5. Palom says:

    Remember too that even if less intelligent people are more religious, that doesn’t mean that being less intelligent caused them to be religious. To reconcile religion with reality, some level of ignorance is required and therefore taught. That institutionalized ignorance is what makes people stupid, IMHO. I don’t think they necessarily showed up to church that way.

  6. Diana says:

    We can agree to disagree about whether you could have created your post in a less condescending way, despite the inherent intelligence-gap problems the data suggests.

    The data certainly is interesting. For the Intelligence-Religiosity Nexus, it appears as though Jewish and Episcopal/Anglican subjects scored higher than Atheists, with everyone else lower than the Atheists, but I don’t see too much analysis of this in the study.

    As it relates to your post more closely, I also like this part of their results: “The fear-reducing qualities of religious behavior would go some way to explain why so many continue to seek out religion in times where apparently far too optimistic atheists undoubtedly would have assumed that rationality will soon take over as the preferred tool to reduce uncertainty. Thus, rather than solving, the present study raises a number of hard questions about why religiosity prevails, and it suggests that future research better concentrate on the molecular brain basis of faith, preferably along the lines already laid down long time ago.”

    I would normally argue that religions (especially extremist/fundamentalist religious) actually incite more fear than they prevent (apocalyptic religions coming first to mind, then guilt-inflected religions following). Sounds like it needs more research, which would be very interesting to follow.

    It’s also interesting to think about those who do have a higher IQ distribution (particularly the Episcopalians and Jews the study mentions) and question why those people are in religion, or whether this shows a problem with IQ testing, or whether these are the necessary exceptions to some sort of rule in which the study is resulting.

  7. Seth R. says:

    There’s a lot of correlation = causation stuff going on in the New Atheist critiques these days.

    Education tends to be a function of wealth in the US – even today. So all profxm’s statement says to me is that atheism is possibly a luxury good. It doesn’t tell me anything about whether the religion actually caused the lack of education, or whether they simply happen to be rooming in the same apartment for the time being.

    Also, the article leaves the terms “religious” and “secular” in an incredibly vague kind of place. What counts as “religious” to you? What about “secular?”

    And for that matter, what counts as “educated” to you?

    Having lived in Japan for a while, I’ll tell you that their third year high school students are dealing with harder math problems than your average college graduate in the United States. They’re learning facts about history, foreign language and science that most of our college grads don’t even approach.

    Actually, I would argue that the only advance American public education has made since the 1950s has been that it’s accessible to more people now. The quality of learned content has steeply declined. High school students in the 1950s used to learn stuff that our kids today only start to touch in their junior year of college. In fact, the entire 100 level curriculum at American colleges is nothing more or less than makeup work for stuff kids should have already learned in high school. The entire freshman year is nothing more than remedial education – a do-over.

    So if American atheists want to celebrate being statistically higher in such a broken education pool, I’d have to say their bar for celebration is waaaay too low. It’s like bragging that you’re the top athletic team in the Mountain West Athletic Conference.

    Sorry, no one gives a fig. It’s like being the top Ice Hockey team in Bangladesh.

    This also doesn’t really say anything about what the education was about, and why it qualifies people specifically to determine whether God and beliefs about him are good or bad, false or true. How many mouthy atheists online ever studied theology seriously to begin with? So what makes them particularly qualified to have an opinion on the subject?

    And when you tend to nail down an atheist and ask them what they consider to be “scientifically falsifiable” items in religion, the answers are always revealing, but rarely all that compelling.

    But most important of all, you’ve simply left the terms “religious”, “secular” and “educated” too vague to be of any use here.

  8. If your hypothesis is true that some people are intellectually incapable of thinking of the world without superstition, I wonder how to account for countries that are highly irreligious and non-believing. Obviously there is more at play than just intelligence.

    Let’s hypothesize a person of low intellectual capability born into a completely atheistic society. How would they relate to their world? Would they spontaneously create a form of religion for themselves? Or would they accept (perhaps without a good understanding) the naturalistic explanations of the culture around them?

  9. Christopher Smith says:


    The correspondence of godlessness (atheism/agnosticism) with high-school level education is very low. The correlation gets stronger in college, and much stronger in graduate school. I’m not aware of any evidence that it correlates with income or assets to the same degree as education. But even if it did, that would not preclude education being the cause of godlessness. Higher income means more disposable time and resources to get educated. Frankly, I don’t see any problem with the causation assumption in this case. Education was certainly a cause of my loss of faith. And I think even a postmodern thinker such as yourself would have to admit that faith coexists only uncomfortably with the rationalistic epistemology on which most post-secondary education in this country is founded. I mean, come on. Blood sacrifice to purify us of our sins? You don’t have to inquire very far into that one to realize that it’s problematic.

    I’ve seen a lot of research suggesting that we are biologically biased toward religion. For example, we are naturally, biologically wired to believe that the world is “just” and fair. When bad things happen to people, we assume that they are bad people. Religion provides mythology to justify this assumption. We are also biologically programmed to establish and recognize social hierarchies. Again, religion justifies (and strengthens) this tendency. Such biological hardwiring can be partly overcome, but only with considerable effort. Education challenges people to think outside the biological box, so to speak. Academics are expected to sympathize with those who suffer (rather than blame them) and to challenge social hierarchies (rather than accept them).


    Be careful with your presidential history. The characterization of God as a “clockmaker” exaggerates the deism the Founders. The deist Founders seem to have believed in the continuing guidance of history by divine providence (albeit without violating natural law), and also in a judgment and an afterlife. Furthermore, Jefferson and Franklin are unusual for their irreverence. Adams was more conventionally religious (Unitarian), and Madison’s views are difficult to pin down with any certainty. As for the other Founders, many of them (such as Patrick Henry) were fully orthodox.

    With respect to Lincoln, it’s true that some who knew him characterized him as irreligious, but others painted a very different portrait. In fact, he seems to have been a skeptic when he was young, but become gradually more religious over the course of his life. We know for a fact that his religious views did play a major role in the Emancipation Proclamation. This is well documented.

    And finally, on to the question of religion as a form of “social control”. I don’t think hardly anyone who understands it this way would use that phrase. Rather, they would talk about religion inculcating virtue, thereby making people good citizens. I think even the “dumb” masses recognize that religion serves this function, for they increase their church attendance when they get married and have kids– presumably as a way of domesticating their spouses and children. (In addition to lack of education, religion also correlates with being married and having children.)



  10. profxm says:

    A few responses:

    Palom #5:
    I’m not going to claim causality, but I could see a couple of possible causal relationships (and both may exist).
    Causal relationship #1: lower intelligence -> religiosity
    This is what Nyborg suggests, though, of course, he can’t assert it outright. His argument is basically something along the lines of – less intelligent people can’t overcome their innate tendency to think irrationally and turn to gods, so they turn to religion. That’s possible.

    Causal relationship #2: religiosity -> lower intelligence
    This isn’t suggested in the Nyborg study, but could also be true, as some religions do very much discourage higher education. Darren Sherkat found this for conservative Protestantism in the US. So, it may be the case that this relationship is non-recursive – i.e., self-reinforcing.

    Diana #6:
    I agree that the glossing over of the Jewish and Episcopal/Anglican subjects is problematic. I also wouldn’t consider this research definitive. But it seems like a reasonable acceptable first step.

    Seth #7:
    Don’t get fixated on the “education and religion” connection. That is part of what the research says, but the Nyborg piece, in particular, doesn’t relate education with religion but rather intelligence (measured using IQ). While not completely unrelated, they are two separate phenomena. Yes, education is better predicted by income in the US (less so in some other developed countries), so that complicates things. And, frankly, so is IQ, but IQ is not exclusively predicated by income, and that is the measure used in Nyborg. Sure, you can argue away the education portion (though, as I pointed out above, there are religious groups that discourage higher education and, as a result, have lower educational attainment – conservative Protestants and JWs are the leaders in this regard), but what about the IQ/religion relationship?

    Jonathan #8:
    Agreed, even if this is a robust relationship, there are obviously better predictors of religiosity, like parental religiosity (and later significant other’s religiosity). I didn’t mean to suggest that education/intelligence were more important than these others, only that they may be influential.

    Chris #9:
    If there is anything I don’t consider myself, it’s a historian. I was quoting precisely because I know so little about history and historical characters. Even so, I do find it interesting that so many relatively non-religious, prominent individuals thought of religion as leading to “good citizens.”

    On a slightly different point… Yes, there is a relationship between marriage, kids, and religion. But it’s a bit more complicated than you’ve described. Yes, when some non-religious couples have kids, they go back to religion for the kids (not all do). But the bigger relationship is actually for those who are religious, then get married, then have kids. Religion is very much a social activity. If it’s just one person attending, you have basically dyadic relationships with other members of the congregation. Those are relatively easy to break. You might have triadic or more complicated networks if you have friends in the congregation, but if you don’t, leaving isn’t very hard. But if you marry someone and they are a part of the congregation, you now have triadic relationships at many levels, and adding kids make these relationships quadratic and so on. Given the social nature of religion, it actually makes it harder to leave once you have more connections into the religion. This relates to religions’ encouragement of marriage at young ages. First, there is the prohibition of extra-marital sex, which is solved with marriage. Second, there is the higher retention of married couples, because of their connections into the group. In short, yes, some parents turn to religion to turn their kids into “good citizens,” but most of the religion/marriage/children connection is for people who are already religious, I believe.

  11. Seth R. says:

    IQ and people’s IQ has always struck me as more the stuff of fun parlor talk than of serious science.

    Seriously, you really think you can judge a person’s innate intelligence with a number?


    Well, if you can believe that kind of stuff, then believing in a guy dying to take away your sins isn’t that much of a stretch after all.

  12. Christopher Smith says:

    Seth, IQ measurement may not be an exact science, particularly in individual cases. But surely you’re not suggesting that, in the aggregate, IQ is completely meaningless?

  13. Seth R. says:

    It pretty much is for these kinds of discussions.

    And studies using IQ have this tendency of being highly politicized (think Bell Curve) as the American Psychological Association has admitted.

  14. profxm says:

    Seth, I understand that they can be politicized, but that doesn’t mean we throw out the idea of IQ. I’m just not even sure how to respond to your comment. It almost seems like “sour grapes”:
    -You claim education in the US is meaningless (an assertion I do not find compelling).
    -When I try to allow you some leeway, you then reject an entire body of research measuring innate differences in intelligence, which absolutely do exist. Yes, the APA has warned about politicization, but here’s a summary of their 1995 report on this from Wikipedia:

    “The view of the American Psychological Association
    In response to the controversy surrounding The Bell Curve, the American Psychological Association’s Board of Scientific Affairs established a task force in 1995 to write a report on the state of intelligence research which could be used by all sides as a basis for discussion. The full text of the report is available through several websites.
    In this paper the representatives of the association regret that IQ-related works are frequently written with a view to their political consequences: “research findings were often assessed not so much on their merits or their scientific standing as on their supposed political implications”.
    The task force concluded that IQ scores do have high predictive validity for individual differences in school achievement. They confirm the predictive validity of IQ for adult occupational status, even when variables such as education and family background have been statistically controlled. They found that individual differences in intelligence are substantially influenced by genetics and that both genes and environment, in complex interplay, are essential to the development of intellectual competence.
    The report stated that a number of biological factors, including malnutrition, exposure to toxic substances, and various prenatal and perinatal stressors, result in lowered psychometric intelligence under at least some conditions. The task force agrees that large differences do exist between the average IQ scores of blacks and whites, and that these differences cannot be attributed to biases in test construction. The task force suggests that explanations based on social status and cultural differences are possible, and that environmental factors have raised mean test scores in many populations. Regarding genetic causes, they noted that there is not much direct evidence on this point, but what little there is fails to support the genetic hypothesis.
    The APA journal that published the statement, American Psychologist, subsequently published eleven critical responses in January 1997, several of them arguing that the report failed to examine adequately the evidence for partly-genetic explanations.”

    I don’t think you can reject IQ, Seth, based on the evidence.

  15. Seth R. says:

    I don’t reject it.

    I just don’t take it particularly seriously.

    Especially not for the uses to which you are trying to employ it.

    And I didn’t say education is meaningless. Just that having more of it these days does not give me any particular confidence in a person’s ability to competently deductively reject the realm of the spiritual.

    After all, it didn’t help Daniel Dennett much in ruling out religion. And my Internet travels haven’t provided me with a lot of examples otherwise.

    Like “religion”, “education” is a very vague and abstract concept which can mean an awful lot of things. And to say “education killed religion” is such a vague statement as to be essentially meaningless. Rather like saying “love killed politics.”

    It really just doesn’t mean anything of significance. And as such can be relegated to the overstuffed folder titled “useless platitudes.”

  16. Dan N says:

    Have you read the study mentioned by this blog post:

    The authors propose that “The historically unprecedented socioeconomic security that results from low levels of progressive government policies appear to suppress popular religiosity and creationist opinion”

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