Lightning Rod

For most religious devotees, their particular faith tradition is inherited and reinforced by their immediate culture, i.e. legacy. Rarely are they challenged to seriously consider another viewpoint. And if they are, it’s generally opposed with extreme bias, lacking in fact and objectivity, i.e. cult, false religion, idolatry, perverts and satan worshipers.

Certainly, this was true for me as an evangelical in the American Midwest. To say the least, my general knowledge was firmly rooted in cliquey, sheltering group-think. It’s taken me years, but I’ve since remedied my deficiencies.

Atheists Know More?

In 2010, the Pew Forum Research Center conducted a Religious Knowledge Survey involving 3,412 participates. Out of the thirty-two general religious knowledge questions, the average participant answered only sixteen correctly.

Recently, I reviewed the sample questions and got a perfect score. The questions were so basic, I was saddened by how poorly participants performed. However, I wasn’t surprised. Ironically, atheists and agnostics got the most questions correct with Christians coming in dead last.


In 2013, sixty-three related studies were reviewed and the results showed a “significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity.” Experts theorized as to why this was so, offering a hypothesis summed up as such: more knowledge = less belief in God.

Open to Experience?

In my opinion, the focus on intelligence versus belief has merit but is narrow. It doesn’t fully capture an understanding as to why people choose to believe in the supernatural. I personally know a number of very intelligent persons who practice their faith with great commitment. For me, offering clearer insight is a Harvard study done by Shenhav, Rand & Greene. Rather than focusing on IQ levels, their research honed in on personality traits.

Their findings suggested that the deciding personality trait is being open to experience. This type of person displays a willingness to re-examine social, political and religious values. If he/she is an intuitive thinker, cultural influencers often steer them in the direction of spirituality. If he/she is an analytical thinker, the same often motivates them to be a skeptic. Clearly, for either type there is more common ground than most are willing to acknowledge.

On a personal level, this explains why my closest friends are either humanists or spiritualists, and why my marriage works so well–me, an amiable skeptic and she a delightful mystic. In contrast, it sheds light on why I, and my spouse, have always been lightning rods for closed-minded fundamentalists.