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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

It's generally accepted It has been demonstrated that as a nation's mean IQ increases their irreligiousity increases too (Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg, 2009). That is, there's a negative correlation between Intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) and religious beliefs (be that belief in (a) God(s), an after-life, or super-beings). The Lynn, Harvey and Nyborg (2009) paper claims the relationship between g and 'Disbelief in God' is .60. America, for whatever reason, is an outlier in this data.

Now there's likely to be 101 explanations as to why this is the case, and arguments and counter-arguments can be put forth to explain it. That particular debate is not what I'm interested in (at this very moment). What I am interested in is if the above statement is true, what else might be true? It's a controversial area of research, and so the information I could find was limited, but interesting.

Could there be some cognitive difference between non-believers and believers? Specifically, could religion influence cognitive style between the two groups. Alternatively, people could be born with a particular cognitive style which influences their religiousity, and this, I think, is an equally interesting question. However, there's data on the former... Colzato et al. (2010) gave a bunch of folk of different religious orientation a task which assessed their global and local attention. It was a simple computer task which flashed up images of squares and rectangles composed of smaller squares and rectangles. Participants were asked to respond to the global (i.e. full compositional shape) or local (i.e. shape of the elements within the whole composition) shapes, and their reaction times were recorded.

It seems all groups responded to Global targets faster, but with significant differences between groups.This graph indicates that non-baptized Atheists show the strongest global precendence preferences.This means that Atheists responded to the 'whole' faster than the 'parts', suggesting that the presence of the 'parts' distracted the other groups. They argue that the focus of the religion (the rules and standards of a given religion) appear to influence the way in which people allocate visual attention and processing powers. This is not as strange as it sounds, as similiar findings have been made in different context:

For instance, Masuda and Nisbett (2001) observed that people growing up in Asian cultures exhibit a more holistic perceptual style (i.e., are more responsive to the global than to local features of visual objects or scenes) than people
growing up in the North-American culture. Westerners seem to focus on salient objects while East Asians attend more to the relationships between objects and background elements or context (Nisbett & Masuda, 2003; Nisbett &Miyamoto, 2005).

I would like to stress that there is no value judgement here. Neither global nor local can be interpretted as 'better', any more than salient objects is 'better' or 'worse' than relationships. It's just different. It also goes to show how powerful the influence is of the culture we grow up in (be it broad, like East and West; or more Micro, like Religion and non-Religion). I suspect, given some clever methodologies, you'd find the same effect between experienced biologists who focus on Cells, and biologists who focus on populations. One's ability to allocate resources is best adapted to suit the demands that are imposed. If this were the case you might expect to see a preference in careers that match these resources - more religious cell biologists than population biologists, for instance. Assuming the influence of the effect is that strong. We are, after all, just talking about squares and rectangles.

However, there are examples of findings which apply more broadly to real life. Berman and co. (2010) looked at a thing called Thought-Action Fusion (TAF). This is a really interesting concept comprised (here) of two parts. Moral TAF and Likelihood TAF. Moral TAF is the perceived equivalence between thinking an immoral thought and performing an immoral thought. This could be well exemplified by highlighting the difference between how you feel about fantisizing about sex with someone other than your partner and how you feel about actually having sex with someone other than your partner. Naturally, people's perceptions of how (im)moral that act is will vary - it's just an example that is probably highly accessible, and relevent given that Jesus claimed there was no difference between looking lustfully and adultery (Matthew 5:27-28). Likelihood TAF is the belief that thinking about an event will cause it to occur. We actually discussed something similar on the most recent Psychobabble Episode on Luck.

To test this participants were asked to think about a close family member (of the opposite sex) and copy out the following sentence while filling in the blank with their full name, followed by a period of imagining the event taking place.


1. I hope to have sex with _____.

2. I hope _____ is in a car accident today.

Measures of anxiety, perceptions of likelihood and moral wrongness were subsequently taken. It was found that there was no difference between measures of anxiety, perceived likelihood, or wrongness between Religious and Irreligious groups for the car accident condition. Similar results were found for the incest condition, too. Except that Religious folks tended to think that it was more morally wrong to think about sex with a family member than did the Irreligious (a small, but significant finding)

The most interesting part, however, followed after this task was completed. Participants, after imagining these things, were told that they may now do whatever they like to relieve whatever anxiety they feel. Examples included crossing out the name in the sentence, throwing out the paper, or genuflecting. It was found that 32.5% of the Religious group performed some action, where only 10% of the other group performed an action (statistically significant). Naturally, mental processes were unrecorded. Personally, that seems pretty meaningful. It definitely seems to imply some kind of thought-action relationship that wasn't captured in the DV's. Was it a matter of cancelling out the content of the thought (as it exists in some kind of potential), or was it simply a way of coping with a particular emotion? These are small results, but interesting nonetheless.

Finally - and this one is pretty great - Toburen and Meier (2010) primed participants (Mostly white, presumably all American) with God related concepts and subjected them to an anagram task. The beauty here is that not all the anagrams are solveable. This is a really reliable way of inducing stress and measuring things like persistence, particularly when participants are told that 1) all anagrams are solveable, and 2) that it's a measure of verbal intelligence. When participants were primed with God-concepts (vs. neutral concepts) ALL participants (including Atheist/Agnostics) spent more time trying to solve the anagrams. Additionally, ALL participants were more anxious after 'completing' the task. They then dived in deeper to the data to find the expected effect of Religiousity, but found nothing. Crazy, huh? Even the non-religious are motivated (for whatever reason) by God. I'm not American, but as I understand it, the Christian God of Americans is typically a fairly personal looking-over-your-shoulder kind of guy. Though the data is not reported they did take a measure of 'Nearness to God' which is supposedly a reliable measure of ... well, one's nearness to God. Presumably the Atheists and Christians did differ significantly, though it's unreported. My thoughts are this particular finding is probably a little more reliable in America than elsewhere, but I would be fascinated to see if the same effect popped up here in Australia, too.

At any rate, it's fascinating to see how (the idea of) God influences the way we think and behave. Particularly since being an Atheist does not render one immune to (the idea of) God's influence. I wonder if the same effect can be found by priming people with thoughts of the Police (a powerful authority figure), or of our Parents (less powerful authority figures).


Note about critical approaches:

1) Squares and rectangles. It's not the forest and the trees, it's squares and rectangles.Neither is better.

2) No real differences kinds of TAF, except that the religious tie their thoughts a little more closely to their actions. Jesus said as much.

3) Christians and Atheists are equally influenced by God primes. A little creepy, but perhaps culturally bound.



A related post on Near Death Experiences


LYNN, R., HARVEY, J., & NYBORG, H. (2009). Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations Intelligence, 37 (1), 11-15 DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2008.03.004

Colzato, L., Beest, I., van den Wildenberg, W., Scorolli, C., Dorchin, S., Meiran, N., Borghi, A., & Hommel, B. (2010). God: Do I have your attention? Cognition, 117 (1), 87-94 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.07.003

Toburen, T., & Meier, B. (2010). Priming God-Related Concepts Increases Anxiety and Task Persistence Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29 (2), 127-143 DOI: 10.1521/jscp.2010.29.2.127

Berman, N., Abramowitz, J., Pardue, C., & Wheaton, M. (2010). The relationship between religion and thought–action fusion: Use of an in vivo paradigm Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48 (7), 670-674 DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2010.03.021

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Interesting.. However, I do believe that "finding" one's religion or path always improves mental processes. A mind that is questioning current beliefs is open to analycal, critical thinking and open-mindedmess. This is not to say those who are religious are narrow-minded.. perhaps just conditioned to think in a certain way. This study, as briefly mentioned, could also significantly vary between the various religious groups being tested.. would love to hear more on this..

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I agree with you Ashwini.

I also think the study is flawed because factors such as life experiences and influence of parental beliefs are not accounted for. These are a huge part of how we come to our decisions about God and life.

I'll add that I found this statement particularly tacky: "the Christian God of Americans is typically a fairly personal looking-over-your-shoulder kind of guy."

It shows small-mindedness to make such a sweeping generalization. If you don't understand Christianity in America and it's many facets, then perhaps you should not make statements that demonstrate what you don't know.

The authors of the study do not define their test subjects as Americans, as you say, "presumably all American". If you have to presume, then the paper didn't say it, correct? Or does it? If it doesn't why are you presuming it? It would be best to stick to the facts in the paper and not make assumptions that are not relevant. If it was relevant, the authors of the study would have defined it.

Maybe people just like to solve puzzles and it has nothing to do with God?

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@jade - No, it didn't control for life experience. They all controlled for parental education and SES, etc. So they tried.

With regard to the comment about the kind of God that's popular in America, it's hard for me to pull out some truth - the popular media of America portrays God in such a way. There will be HUGE variance in the way people view their God - both personal or doctrinal.....

yes, 'presumably' they were all American. It was an American Researcher, American Paper, and American Instititution. There was no statement issued regarding ethnicity (which would have been required by convention) beyond the fact that x participants were 'Asian'. But even so, that doesn't mean much, because there are many people who identify as 'Asian' but could still also be considered belonging to another culture (enough to be influenced by it more broadly, at any rate). So yes, the presumption of being American - I believe - is appropriate. Also, it's highly relevant. Such papers get read by many different cultures, with many different perspectives on religion.

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I would love to see this study repeated some place like South Korea which higly prioritizes education and has a high proportion of people who are Christians (actually one of the highest per captia in the world).  Or some place like India where education is valued and people are often highly religious, but not Christian.

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Oh, Psycasm...never start an article with "It's generally accepted that X..." It is usually not true, and it usually will put off the people that have read a little bit more about the topic (because reality is usually more complex than that).

The topic seems good, but I am not sure that comparing Christians with Atheists is exactly what you want to do. I would like to see the  comparison of people that were born in Christian background homes versus people that were born in atheist background homes. That would probably tell you more.

I imagine that a large number of atheist become so after a lifetime of being in a religious environment. I doubt that you would find a lot of differences between them and the christian ones, just due to the fact that you have been primed all your life with the cultural stepping stones of christianity. (just like it's really hard to stop saying things like God bless, Godspeed, si Dios lo permite (spanish) even when you are a non believer).

Another thing would be comparing real believer to people who believe that they believe ( THAT would be funny


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@Yannisguerra - first line fixed. I agree that cultural context is paramount. The global/local thing does just that by looking at 'baptized atheists'. Additionally, my comment regarding the relevance of the 'all american' sample was the same.

I agree very much with cricket42 in the different cultural contexts different results should be expected, though I'm not sure the 'more educated nation' would necessarily make a difference - if the samples were religious v. non-religious I'd expect similiar findings with regard to some things if the cultural religious context was comparable. i.e. a highly religious sth Korean sample would be similiar (in TAF, in God-Primes, etc) to an equally religious sample of americans, even if you stratified the groups by education.


But with regard to what I wanted to do: If I could design my own experiment, I'd subject them to these same tests longitudinally, perhaps in a twin paradigm. Perhaps you'd see these cognitive changes over time and vary with immersion in the religious / secular side of things. Perhaps you'd see a spike after significant events, like communions, weddings, or religious holidays. You could really pull a bit more causality out of that; and if one were to use twins, you might also be able to observe one's likelihood to trend on the religious-secular spectrum.

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ok so my curiousity would be, and I have no idea of ther ehave been studies, but what is the difference of people brought up uber religious that stay religious an dthose that turn and become atheist. Could add some interesting data to this topic.

Thomas Joseph
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I'm not American, but as I understand it, the Christian God of Americans is typically a fairly personal looking-over-your-shoulder kind of guy.

Not sure about this. If you look at demographics, the largest single group of Christians in America would be Catholics (especially given increasing Hispanic populations). At least in my upbringing, God wasn't much of a micro-manager. The whole idea of a "personal relationship with God' is more of a Protestant convention.

Brian Krueger, PhD
Duke University
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But TJ, the Catholic Church is all about putting the fear of God into you which I take as "he's watching everything you do so behave."

Thomas Joseph
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Brian, when my parents were school children I heard stories of them being told just how bad they could be and that Hell awaited them (for things as trivial as not having their uniform shirt tucked in properly). I never grew up in such an environment though (perhaps I'm an outlier). A lot of the "fear of God" stuff I read/hear about now is outside of the Catholic Church. Yes, the Catholic Church talks about a "final accounting/reckoning" but with the idea of an omniscient God, not much "watching" really needs to occur, does it? Especially for a being who must live outside of time and space (as per Augustinian theology).

Of course, I think this conversation (while interesting) strays into the realm of off topic so I'll limit myself in this post.

For the most part I find studies like these hard to follow, or care about. There are so many confounding factors, and very little (if any) multivariate analysis performed in studies of these types to look at what the actual influences are.

Brian Krueger, PhD
Duke University
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Point taken.

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My mistake was probably saying 'personal'. I suppose I didn't mean personal like a friend, like a gardian angel... what I meant was a good who knows you personally (even if he doesn't act) but still tallies all your minor misdemeanors (and larger sins) like some giant omnipotent voyour.

@thomas - that fact that the God of your parents youth cared (for some reason) that your shirt was tucked in or not demonstrates my point. He doesn't intervene, but it's marked down in some damning ledger somewhere...

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In addition to TJ's comments, I also think these types of studies are difficult to care about because the goal of the study is to perpetuate a negative sterotype about an entire group of people. To actually try to show that intelligence and religious beliefs are linked is offensive. Would you dare do a study attempting to show a correlation between IQ and race or sexual identity? What about people who live in cities vs. people who live in suburbs? What if we single out specific religions? Could we show which of the religious followers have the smartest people? Sure, why not give people just one more thing to ridicule or hold superiority over another religion or belief system. "Oh, of course he's an idiot. He's ...!" Fill in the blank.

There can only be one outcome of such a study: to make it possible for one group of people to ostracize another. What possible benefit does such a study as this serve?

You say there is no value judgement, but your opening paragraph is stating, as fact, that as IQ increases so does irreligiousness. And then you say "What I am interested in is if the above statement is true, what else might be true?"

So you really can't say "no judgement" when the whole article is starting with a judgement statement.


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I'm happy to concede if you can demonstrate a flaw in their methodology or analysis. Sure, it might have been used to perpetuate a stereotype/prejudice, but until such time that you can back that up with anything other than hand-waving I'm going to accept the peer reviewed literature.

Many people have looked into intelligence and race, and it's a much bigger issue than intelligence and religion. They've also identified ways in which to counter race-based intelligence stereotyping, which is fascinating work in and of itself.

The data do not say that 'religious people are dumb', but say that as the mean intelligence of a population (nation, in this instance) increases, so too does irreligiousity. There's nothing fundamentally unintelligent about religion, but it does correlate with scores of intelligence as rated by intelligence tests.

You may be interested in reading about the Ashkenazi Jews, who are generally measured to be 15 IQ points more intelligent than the population mean. That's a whole standard deviation more intelligent correlated with an ethnic religious group. IQ is highly heritable, but also subject to many environmental factors, including (among many) degree of education and nutrition (early in life). Religiosity, to the best of my knowledge, is not biologically heritable in the same way. Though I can accept the possibility that there may be things which could increase one's religious dispositions (biologically/cognitively speaking) I am unaware of them.

I was also pretty sure I didn't make any judgements, neither global nor local is 'better' or more desirable, high TAF is neither better nor worse (I suspect it may depend on the situation, but in broad terms I can't imagine it making a difference) and putting the God-concepts in participants and observing differences seems to be a cultural statement more than a religious one.

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It's fine Psycasm. I just didn't like this article/topic. I feel these studies serve to divide and separate people, to make some superior and others inferior.

IQ and intelligence can be measured in many ways.

My dad has only a high school education but he is absolutely brilliant when it comes to fixing cars. He could take apart and put back together any car (back in the 70's and 80's before cars became supercomputers). He also is self-taught musician. He can pick up and play any woodwind instrument with the same expertise as any professional musician making music today. He can walk on stage with any band at any time and would be able to play with the other musicians, even without having heard the song before.

I have a PhD and I can do neither of these things or the other dozen things I could list here about him. On an IQ test, would he have a high score? Probably not. But is he a genius. I think he might be.

My uncle grew up in a low income side of Queens, NY- maybe doesn't even have a high school education. After returning from the Vietnam war, he learned a trade. He learned how to lay down carpet. Now he owns a multi-million dollar business in NYC. Is he a smart business man? One of the brightest I've ever known.

So comparing how well people do on an IQ tests is not an exact measure of how smart a person is.

Just because someone is good at passing tests doesn't always mean they have intelligence...or common sense.


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Right. IQ tests are invariable controversial, but they are getting better. My understanding is that one of the key features of IQ tests these days is looking at processes, and a good test that captures one mental processes would likely capture your fathers mechanical and musical aptitude, as well as you're uncle's business savvy - ideally, it would also capture the processes you employ a scientist.

There are also a range of IQ tests that could be used from langauge and cultural dependent ones, to tests that claim to be devoid of both (such as the raven's matrices). IQ is a tricky concept that means different things to differnet people - often in a way no-one can clearly articulate (that includes the scientists studying 'intelligence'). It's very broad, but at the same time, I suspect the aptitudes of your family would be reasonably captured and comparable, despite the differing ways they have employed their abilities.

That's why one can't say that one group is necessarily 'smarter' than another, at best you can claim they do better on a particular (set) of IQ measures. That's why the research into race IQ differences is so fascinating - so many social aspects get in the way of a true measure....

For instance: the stereotype is that women are bad at math. This is frequently reflected in maths scores in class. If you take a bunch of guys are girls and prime the women with the stereotype that women are bad at maths, they do much worse. If you prime with the idea that women can be as good as men, and better, they do better than they would have otherwise. Similiar effects can be observed with race - african-americans do poorly when primed with black-prejudice statements, and do well when primed with more positive themes. Thus, what is their actual ability? Hard to say - but the possibility that cognitive difference do exist between groups (be it inherent groups like race, or groups of 'choice' like religion) is a legitimate question.

Thomas Joseph
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Psycasm said:

My mistake was probably saying 'personal'. I suppose I didn't mean personal like a friend, like a gardian angel... what I meant was a good who knows you personally (even if he doesn't act) but still tallies all your minor misdemeanors (and larger sins) like some giant omnipotent voyour.

@thomas - that fact that the God of your parents youth cared (for some reason) that your shirt was tucked in or not demonstrates my point. He doesn't intervene, but it's marked down in some damning ledger somewhere...

I doubt God gave a shit, despite what those nuns said. And yes, I know that's not the point. 

I haven't looked at these particular papers (Science Direct was down this afternoon), but I'll take a gander when I get back into work tomorrow. I'd like to see what statistics they used, and why they decided to use those in particular. However, like I said before ... did they take into account other variables when doing this study besides the "religiousity" of the individuals.

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Woah, beaten to the punch.


Something I wanted to write about in the near future...


You definitely want to read that

Michael Blume

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Thanks for the post and thoughts. You might be interested in some of the works of Ara Norenzayan et al., who did some fascinating experiments in priming people with God concepts before cooperation games were played.

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Thanks, there will be a follow up post with that info!


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The idea that god inspires deligence because of the suggestion of someone looking over a shoulder suggest to me that the idea of suggeting someone looking over a shouler needs testing. There's no need to think it needs be a god.

I recall a reported test looking to see if religious or none religious people were more generous. It involved planting a stolen bike or lost wallet or some such thing in peoples paths - I forget the details - but it demonstrated by it's measure a statistical support for the religious being more generous.

However observers noted that Scandanvians seem pretty generous while being non-religious, so the conclusion didn't seem to bridge cultures. On inspection the test had used church attendance as a measure of religion. But Scandanvians use churchs for social fuctions without belief in gods or supernatural intervention in their lives.

Thus what the study seemed to measure was not belief in gods but social inclusion. And in a culture that appears to exclude the atheist it is no surprise to corrolate it with lack of generosity.

And the studies rpeorted here similarly seem to suggest to me that priming particiapnts with the idea of being observed does not require the observer be supernatural but just be a metaphor for anyone observing inappropriate behaviuor and reinforcing social disciplines.



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Jade said:


I'll add that I found this statement particularly tacky: "the Christian God of Americans is typically a fairly personal looking-over-your-shoulder kind of guy."

It shows small-mindedness to make such a sweeping generalization. If you don't understand Christianity in America and it's many facets, then perhaps you should not make statements that demonstrate what you don't know.



As an Australian living in the U.S. I can vouch for the relative accuracy of that statement.  American versions of the Christian God tend to be rather uniquely in-your-face.  Of course, the concept has been exported to our nations by agressive evangelical missionary activity.  What is interesting is that the Bible Belt Christianity style is most successful among the poorly educated and poor sections of the community, and among undeveloped nations with many people that fit that criteria.


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Hi Rosita,

Your last statement is interesting.  Do you know where the Bible Belt and what that religion is about? Do you have any idea why that might be?

The "bible belt" is a subsection of states in the southeast corner of the US. The religion, predominantly evangelical Protestantism, began in the 16th century by Martin Luther in Germany and Scandinavia. The transition to the Baptist religion in these states occurred slowly over the century after the first Baptist church was established in Amsterdam.

Baptism in the US started in Rhode Island and then spread to the southern US states (bible belt states) in the 18th century when it was brought to African slaves in New England (challenging the authority) and then eventually made its way to the "back country" areas of the original colonies where the first churches for blacks were established in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia.

People didn’t start looking at the west coast to settle down until the 19th century when the gold rush started. Hence, it would appear that the poor majority living and working in the deep south in the 18th and 19th centuries were farmers and freed slaves and probably the ability to farm, support a family, and make a living on low wages allowed for them to survive. And since the religion of this area was predominantly Protestant (Baptism is considered Protestant), that is the what people were born into and became by default.

What do Baptist believe?

Baptists believe that the individual can make their own decisions in regards to faith and God and are not forced to believe anything by any civil body or members.  They also believe that people have religious freedom, meaning they are free to practice their religion, practice another religion, or not practice at all.

This definitely does not sound like a faith of having someone over your shoulder watching your every move. Sounds more like people are pretty free to live and believe as they wish.

Whatever the perception is over in Australia about the south or Christianity, it is up to you to learn for yourself the truth and not believe sterotypes. I understand if you can't be bothered to look these things up. It is easier to take other people's word as truth without looking deeper.

Rosita, I think it is easy for people to sit in judgment of others, mocking their beliefs and making a link to their intelligence. The fact is that people are born into the religion of their parents and then it may change over the course of their life, maybe even many times. Someone may be born into extreme poverty but it doesn’t make them not intelligent. Someone is born into wealth, given every opportunity in life, and it doesn’t mean they are smart. The religion of your parents and your intelligence are not linked.

A person born into poverty will not always have the same opportunity to learn; to learn to question the world, question God, to learn science and social studies, to attend a good school, to be inspired by someone smarter than they, maybe not even have text books. Are they not intelligent? Well, if they don’t get the same education as me, they certainly are not going to seem as smart as me. But it doesn’t make it so.

How smart someone is has nothing to do with their religion. Or sex. Or sexual orientation. Or skin color. Or nationality.

Regarding your last line, the poorest underdeveloped nations in the world are not Christian. And the fact that their countries are poor or underdeveloped has nothing to do with the religion. If I had to guess (I don't have a reference for it), I would say it would be because of thieving governments or mismanagement in government.


Dustin L

Guest Comment

I am writing a contrast paper on this topic. The diffrences between athiest and Christians. Is there any advice you could offer on a simpler plane? I know that this paper is going to be contraversal and I should have chose anther topic, but as a Christian I feel its an area that I can be informative. thanks for your time. D.L.


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