Rising IQs and the Decline of Faith

For a little more than 100 years we’ve had standardized IQ tests, and over those 100 years there has been a consistent, linear increase in IQ scores, on the order of 3 points per decade. According to IQ tests, we are getting smarter. Also over the last 100 years, rates of belief in God and religious participation have been decreasing. The decrease in religiosity has been less linear than the rise in IQ, but discounting periods of increased religiosity corresponding to major crises like WWI, the Great Depression and WWII, overall there has been a roughly corresponding decrease in religiosity. Correlation does not mean causation but the increase in IQ and the decrease in faith might be linked, if not as cause and effect then possibly as two simultaneous effects traceable to a common cause.

The Flynn Effect, named after Professor James R. Flynn, is the discovery that IQ around the world—as measured by standardized tests—has been rising at a rate of 3 points per decade for as long as the tests have been conducted.

When IQ tests are standardized using a sample of test-takers, the average is set at 100. When IQ tests are revised every few years, they are again standardized using a new sample of test-takers. Again the average result is set for 100. However when the new test subjects take the older tests, in almost every case their average scores are significantly above 100. This trend continues all the way back to the beginning of standardized IQ tests and has dramatic implications for relative intelligence in 1900 as compared to today. In a New Yorker article titled None of the Above, Malcolm Gladwell extrapolates the staggering implications:

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If an American born in the nineteen-thirties has an IQ of 100, the Flynn Effect says that his children will have IQs of 108, and his grandchildren IQs of close to 120—more than a standard deviation higher. If we work in the opposite direction, the typical teenager of today, with an IQ of 100, would have had grandparents with average IQs of 82—seemingly below the threshold necessary to graduate from high school. And, if we go back even farther, the Flynn Effect puts the average IQs of the school children of 1900 at around 70, which is to suggest, bizarrely, that a century ago the United States was populated largely by people who today would be considered mentally retarded….

It is important to note that James Flynn and virtually everyone studying IQ categorically rejects this conclusion. IQ tests consist of 7 types of questions: Verbal Intelligence, Mathematical Intelligence, Spatial Reasoning Skills, Visual/Perceptual Skills, Classification Skills, Logical Reasoning Skills and Pattern Recognition Skills. As Flynn points out in an interview in Scientific American, some of these skill areas have increased dramatically, but not all aspects of intelligence have increased.

“[T]here have been massive gains on these tests that require using logic on abstractions, like block design, [and] picture arrangement. Block designs are, sort of, a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. And there have been very small gains on vocabulary, general information and arithmetical reasoning.” The big category gains in intelligence have been in abstract, categorical and hypothetical thinking, neatly summarized as ACH.

When asked why there have been these gains in IQ, Flynn says: “Well, I think it’s highly visual. I find my students—and I think every professor finds it—you ask them to name their favorite author today: No favorite author, or Wilbur Smith or Tolkien. Fifty years ago they would say Huxley, Steinbeck, Faulkner.”

We have become more visual and less literary, more abstract, categorical and hypothetical and less narrative, more logical-sequential and less relational. But the change which Flynn cites dates back much more than 50 years.

For intellectuals the change came with Enlightenment Evidentialism, the scientific method and the demystification of the universe, but for the rest of us who had lived within our bodies as well as in our heads, the change came with the Industrial Revolution.

My grandfather was not an engineer, steeped in the pure abstraction of mathematics, but he invented and patented the dipstick. Albert Einstein famously worked in a patent office and the explosion in patents after the Industrial Revolution was less about the legal registration of intellectual property than the popular explosion in abstract thinking and hypothesizing. The transformation of the architecture symbolizes this change as clearly as anything else. New buildings were not ornate and grandiose, rather they wore their guts on the outside, unornamented i-beams and gears proudly displaying the way they were made and how they worked.

Since the Industrial Revolution we see differently and we live within the world differently. As we have become more abstract and categorical we have become psychologically detached from our environment; we see it as if from the outside, rather than inhabit it. Through the rise of the mechanical imagination, then the electric imagination, then the electronic imagination and now the internet imagination, the stuff of the world no longer has essence, it is merely plastic to be manipulated in whatever way we see fit. We’ve moved away from oral and literary narrative imaginations in which there was nature, of which we were a part.

This has made us less receptive to God revealed in nature and in scripture. And this is a fact not just about “them,” as if each of us, reading now in 2015, is outside of this broad cultural transformation. For all of us up to this point, and more so for each successive generation, our manner of thinking has changed. The changes in our worldviews, and the big gains in IQ, have taken place in the abstract, categorical and hypothetical realms of thinking, and Flynn cites interesting case studies to illustrate this.

Alexander Luria … interviewed people in Russia in the 1920s who had not yet entered modernity. There were the headmen of villages; they were very intelligent. And he said to them, “Where there is always snow, bears are white. At the North Pole, there is always snow. What color are the bears there?” And they said, “I’ve never been there. The only bears I’ve seen are brown bears.” And he said, “What do my words convey?” and they said, “Such a thing is not to be settled by words, but by testimony. If a wise man came to us from the North Pole and testified that bears were white we might believe him.” He said, “There are no camels in Germany. Hamburg is a city in Germany; are there camels there?” and they said again, “I’ve never been to Hamburg.” And he said, “But what do you think?” and they said, “Well, maybe Hamburg is a village and too small to accommodate camels.” They were not willing to take the hypothesis seriously. They had a utilitarian framework, the same as Americans did in 1900. You ask an American kid in 1900 what do dogs and rabbits have in common, and they say, “You use dogs to hunt rabbits.” The right answer is they are both mammals. Today, that answer would be coming automatically. We have no idea of the gulf that separates our mind from people a hundred years ago in America. We’ve put on scientific spectacles and they had on utilitarian spectacles … they were splitters. If you’re making use of the environment for advantage, you distinguish things. This animal leaves this track. This dog is good for hunting and that one isn’t. We’re lumpers; we’re used to thinking that you classify the world as a prerequisite to understanding it, and we’re highly willing to use logic on the abstract.

The world is different for us; more abstract and theoretical, and it is becoming more so all the time as we live less amid things and more among pixelated representations of things. In the increasingly abstract anything is possible, the source of light is within and the horizon is boundless. We are becoming disembodied and therefore less receptive to a God who created the world and then entered into that world as flesh and blood. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Discarded Image (1964), the medieval person who found himself “looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music” becomes the modern person who perceives only emptiness and silence.

In his 2013 homily Wisdom, Christian Witness, and the Year of Faith Archbishop Charles Chaput writes: “We stopped believing in God and began believing in ourselves. Now we’re losing our faith in ourselves and putting our faith in our tools. We’re becoming the objects and victims of our own knowledge … to put it even more bluntly: We’re fooling ourselves if we think our love affair with science is intellectually chaste, a kind of high-minded romance with knowledge. Chaste it is not….”

The world of actual things and flesh and blood persons contained its own logic of being, where a child grew up seeing his dog which may or may not have been a good hunter, but regardless, in its particularity it was related to rabbits, which were not just representations of an abstract species, but actual fury beings and objects of primal wonder and excitement. We have lost this, and with it, our capacity for the one great relationship for which we were made.

In conclusion, it is clear that IQ scores have been going up and that this is a reflection of a more developed capacity for abstract reasoning. It is also clear that as IQ has increased, there has been a rough correspondence in decreased belief in God and participation in religion, but these coincident events are less cause and effect than two effects of a shared cause. The relationship between rising IQ and decreased religiosity is not causal in the way “Brights” and other arrogant atheists assume it is. They think our more developed capacity for abstraction has brought us forth out of the mythological, but what a cold, bloodless fantasy they occupy. It is more true to say that our increased capacity for the abstract has deadened our senses of smell and taste and touch and estranged us from the world we inhabit and are a part of, and this has deafened our ears to The Lord. Increasingly we live on virtual islands, imploding upon our own emptiness.

This critique is not anti-intellectual, but rather a call for a re-awakening to ourselves as whole, essentially enfleshed persons. Our physical natures are not a philosophical “accident,” they are an essential dimension of the person. Our bodies are not merely transport systems for our brains, they are the stuff of our selves. And our selves were not hatched as pixelated avatars but born of flesh and blood which is much more than a blind, evolutionary accident. We come from other persons and move toward other persons, and looking both backwards and forwards beyond particular persons is the particular God. It is all written in the stuff of life.


  • Joe Bissonnette

    Joe Bissonnette teaches religion and philosophy at Assumption College School in Brantford, Ontario where he lives with his wife and their seven children. He has written for Catholic Insight, The Human Life Review, The Interim, The Catholic Register and The Toronto Star.

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