Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Intelligence, Religious Faith, and NFP

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 24, 2013 | In On the Good

Natural Family Planning is connected with religious faith, but is raw human intelligence connected with atheism? I only group the two issues here because some interesting statistical studies have been done in both areas. One shows enhanced marriage satisfaction among those who use NFP. The other debunks the popular myth that there is an inverse correlation between intelligence and religious faith.

Both studies are written up in the 2013 volume of The Catholic Social Science Review. The first, “Natural Family Planning as a Family Binding Tool: A Survey Report”, is an analysis of a 2008 study of over a thousand members of the Institute for Natural Regulation of Conception in Austria, Switzerland and Germany.

It will come as no surprise that the vast majority of those who use NFP are not only religious but specifically Catholic. In the INRC study, 74% were Catholics, and only 2% had no religious affiliation. For this reason alone, it should be unsurprising that those who were single, divorced or cohabiting constituted a very small percentage (a total of 8% for all three groups). Interestingly, however, the primary motivation for choosing NFP was religious in only 20 to 25% of the cases, broken down by country. Other reasons were a desire for a truly natural method (30 to 35%), the recommendation of friends (20 to 25%), and a fear of side effects from other methods (8 to 17%).

Of greatest interest is the positive or negative experience associated with the use of NFP in this study. About 85% of respondents combined NFP with periodic abstinence to space the births of their children. Of these, 71% reported that NFP (specifically, the Sympto-Thermal Method) enriched the marriage partnership, and 68% reported that family life become more pleasant. The mean number of children in this group was 3.14.

Perhaps significantly, for the 15% who did not practice periodic abstinence, only 51% reported partnership enrichment, only 50% reported more pleasant family life, and the mean number of children was lower (2.5). In other words, there was actually a positive correlation between periodic abstinence and marital/family satisfaction. This seems counter-intuitive to many today, but the reasons have long been known: Sexual abstinence encourages couples to communicate at other levels, aids in developing a profound respect for the other as “subject” rather than “object”, and (oh, by the way) sharpens sexual desire, which is constructively channeled into what we might call “romance”.

The study also showed that divorce rates, even in this highly counter-cultural group, were definitely inversely proportional to religious practice as measured by the frequency of attendance at religious services. Across the board, the results of this study were consistent with the results obtained by Mercedes Wilson in a similar study in the United States in 1989.

Atheism and Intelligence

Moving to a different sphere: Because some recent research has purported to demonstrate that “high IQ” countries have larger numbers of atheists, there has been a growing chorus in recent years chanting the mantra that intelligent people more easily recognize the absurdity of religious belief. But of course these assertions assume what they intend to prove. Amir Azarvan has published another interesting analysis in the 2013 CSSR under this provocative title: “Are Highly Theistic Countries Dumber? Critiquing the Intelligence-Religiosity Nexus Theory”.

There are several problems with the popularization of an intelligence-religiosity nexus theory which reflects badly on religion. The first is the basic problem of measuring intelligence: Such measurements are undeniably culturally-conditioned, and skew towards those who know the things that mainstream affluent industrial cultures are expected to know. The second (and even more important) problem is the failure of past studies to account for other relevant factors. And the third, is the seeming reluctance to perform correlative studies which might clarify the issue, such as assessing the intelligence not of whole countries but of proper statistical samples of both believers and non-believers living under otherwise similar cultural conditions.

This last, particularly, would presumably tell a very different tale.

Azarvan’s analysis of the existing data both posits alternative explanations for the previous findings and uses regression testing to verify the truth of these alternatives. Leaving raw intelligence completely aside, for example, higher education in modern secular cultures deliberately, and typically uncritically, exposes students to a wide range of alternative worldviews. Inevitably, then, some will choose non-religious viewpoints who would not have chosen them had they never been exposed to them. If we then define high IQ countries as those with high standards of living and massive higher education in what we might call a relativistic cosmopolitan setting, the result is predictable, and it takes no relationship with intelligence to produce it.

Azarvan also points out that the so-called “high IQ” countries have, almost inescapably, more materialist cultures. As a matter of simple spirituality, materialism tends to block access to God and contribute strongly to disbelief, a factor that has been noted (and warned against) by spiritual writers down through history. Once again, no advertence to intelligence is required to produce the expected result.

It is also noteworthy that the increased percentage of atheism in the “high IQ” countries is relatively small. Denominational pluralism also seems to play a role. When the majority of the population in a country is Roman Catholic, for example, the percentage of atheists drops by six percent. Moreover, where the percentage of atheists is as much as ten percent higher, it can be accounted for by a history of Communism, in which religious belief was deliberately suppressed for two or more generations.

Azarvan performed cross-sectional OLS (ordinary least squares) regression studies for five hypotheses dependent on six different variables to test the supposed rise of atheism in “high IQ” nations. (If you know what this means, you are a specialist, as I am not.) The hypotheses posit state Communism, religious freedom, tertiary education, and materialism as positively correlated to disbelief, along with the hypothesis that intelligence and disbelief in God are actually unrelated. The variables cover post-secondary education, religious freedom, household consumption per capita, whether Catholics are a majority of the population, whether a country has lived under Communism for at least 25 years, and national average IQ.

According to Azarvan, as soon as the proper controls for the other variables are added to the model, the correlation between religious disbelief and IQ vanishes completely. In other words, intelligence (insofar as it can be measured at all) is simply not a relevant factor in increasing the rate of atheism. I know you were not worried, but you can still thank the Society of Catholic Social Scientists for publishing these correctives to the prevailing propaganda.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 25, 2013 6:53 AM ET USA

    Fascinating, especially the stats concerning NFP. I wonder if there was ever a study of households who refuse to let TV corrode their family life. I suspect those families, absent the soft-porn barrage of modern television, would not only be more united but much more intelligent. Television is the enemy of morality, intelligence, taste -- in a word, of everything that is decent in life.