Field of Science

Bible done be the Word of God!

Religious fundamentalists in the US have poor verbal skills. That's not too surprising given that they also tend to be poor and uneducated. What is surprising is that, even taking all this into account (and much more besides), they still come out worse than you'd expect.

Darren Sherkat
(Southern Illinois University), has analysed data from the General Social Survey, which is a regular US survey on a wide variety of topics - including (in some years) a test of verbal skills.

The effect is pretty big - belief that the Bible is the word of God has a negative effect on verbal skills similar to the positive effect of being university educated. The effect of simply being a member of a fundamentalist group was smaller - about half as big - but still significant.

So why should fundamentalism be linked to problems with language? One answer is simply that people who have poor verbal skills are attracted to religious fundamentalists - perhaps because it provides a peer group of similarly impaired individuals.

In fact individuals who join sectarian groups as adults do have language problems, but they're not as bad as lifelong members. On the other hand, people who were born into fundamentalism but left as adults are normal.

An alternative explanation is that fundamentalist groups are insular, and discourage the wider social interactions and learning that might help develop social skills. This might explain why non-fundamentalists improve much more on verbal skills as they get older.

Perhaps the verbal skills help explain why fundamentalists earn less.

Here's some more interesting titbits from the analysis - the other factors associated with poor verbal skills in the good old US of A:
  • Being younger
  • Being male
  • Being non-white,
  • Being an immigrant
  • Being poor
  • Not having a university degree
  • Being married at any time (although getting a divorce helps repair the damage)
  • Having children
  • Living in the countryside
  • Living in the South.

And what about people with no religious affiliation? Well the good news is that, independent of age, gender, race, education, income, marital status, number of children, and location, they have better verbal skills than people who are members of religious groups!

Sherkat, D. (2010). Religion and verbal ability. Social Science Research, 39 (1), 2-13 DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2009.05.007

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Did they/is there a way to control for a (presumed by me) correlation between verbal skills and critical thinking skills?

    I could be wrong that there's even a correlation, I suppose, but I imagine there is...

  2. No, he didn't - and I don't know if the GSS even measured that. But it did measure scientific skills, and Sherkat's analysed that (although not in relation to verbal skills). But that's a topic for another post!

  3. "belief that the Bible is the word of God has a negative effect on verbal skills similar to the positive effect of being university educated"

    Um, correlation is not causation. That biblical literalism is correlated with poor verbal skills does not imply that it *causes* ("has a negative effect on") poor verbal skills. Sheesh. (Of course it *is* reasonable to believe that a university education is not merely correlated with, but actually results in, good verbal skills, because that's what we can infer from obvious causal models).

  4. I wish I had a dime for every time I've been lectured on the difference between correlation and causation! Did you read the post?

  5. I cringed at the irony in your first sentence. Do you see it? "have got poor verbal skills" is the offending phrase for any educated American, but seems to be a quite common construction in the UK. (Not unlike the extra "a" many Brits seem to put in oriented [orientated], permuted [permutated], and other like words.)

    The word "got" is a completely extraneous word in this case, and many say that it a "bastard" word that should never be used in writing.

    Other than that, this is the first time I have seen your blog, and plan to return since it is relevant to my areas of interest.

  6. The word "got" is a completely extraneous word in this case,

    Heh heh good catch - and me a professional writer! In my defence, it's normal conversational English in my neck of the woods, and I try to write the blog in a conversational style.

  7. Lets see verbal skills needed.....
    My god good, my religion is only one correct cuz I says so. Convert! No! Me kill!!!

    The scientist has to use logic, reason, skill and verbal skills to explain even the simple rules.

    Survey says fundies have low verbal skills. I wonder why???

  8. I was more distracted to a tangent thinking about possibilities for the obviously new sniglet, "titbit", as opposed to tidbit.

  9. "Here's some more interesting titbits"

    Here is? Here are.

  10. For those people nitpicking Tom's prose, I don't mind a good grammar nazi troll now and again, but seriously, the fact that he's even using complete sentences and citing data in logically coherent phrases puts him very highly on the "verbal competence" scale. Have y'all read any youtube comments lately? Also, imagine all of the people who aren't even tempted to form language to verbalize their inchoate impressions. I rather guess their verbal scores are abysmal.

    And Tom, I'm not damning by faint praise. It is just that sometimes people really have no idea how low the bottom tail goes.

  11. Since poor grammar causes fundamentalism, the inescapable conclusion is that I must be a closet conservative Christian! Heh. Oh well, on the plus side it's great to see that at least some people are taking the time to read this post more thoroughly than I did :) I suppose the lesson is that I should proof read carefully before I hit the 'publish' button, but frankly life is too short.

    Titbit is correct in the UK, by the way - where we don't have such a phobia about oblique references to sexual body parts.

    Anyway, here's a funny vid about grammar Nazis.

  12. So, I thought I'd better check on the "have got" issue, in case it was keeping anyone awake at night. "Have got" is correct for present simple possession. In fact, either construction is correct in this particular case (at least according to this "authority").


  13. Tom, I sincerely apologize for detracting from the conversation by pointing out the titbit thing. I had just never seen that alternate spelling before; that is interesting in itself for a Canadian married to someone whose education is British.

    I have often found that comments such as mine have sidetracked interesting discussions on interesting topics such as this one; I should have known better!

    Great article and provocative information! Kudos!

  14. Provocative, yes. But I'm being good.

    Gee, how did language develop in the first place? Good thing there wasn't so much criticism. We might have been stuck with ug, and oog. David Mc

  15. Anonymous said:

    The word "got" is a completely extraneous word in this case, and many say that it a "bastard" word that should never be used in writing.

    Did anyone else notice a missing verb in that sentence? There seems to be an "is" missing.

    I don't think you can post a blog entry about verbal skills and think people WON'T look for mistakes.

  16. LOL. I love playing grammar weenie & hearing from same.
    The "have got" probably arose from our propensity to use the "has" form of the verb in contractions. One says "He's got a big nose." Try doing that without the "got."
    (Few people remember that "has" as well as "is" can be signified by "'s.")
    As to 1minionsopinion's post: yep, and there's even a rule for that--Skitt's Law.

  17. Heh, yes - anyway I like a good grammar inquisition. ALways learn something to spring on someone else at a later date.

    Check out the the new Jesus and Mo strip, by the way. Picks up on this study - and is funny, as always.

  18. As I suspected, the Jesus and Mo strip is blocked here. If it is embedded, then I can get it, but if it's a link, I can't.

    I usually have a personal vpn to get around that, but it has expired. PZ usually posts them on Pharyngula.

  19. To get back to the original topic: good verbal skills include things like being able to use and recognise metaphors, irony and other kinds of non-literal language use.
    So the findings become almost a tautology: people who are more likely to take a text (any text) literally do so because they are less able to interpret a text in other than literal ways...

    (Before somebody happens to comment on my verbal skills :-): I'm not a native speaker.)

  20. "good verbal skills include things like being able to use and recognise metaphors, irony and other kinds of non-literal language use."

    Fundamentalists suddenly make more sense to me in that light.

  21. Is the title of this post meant to seriously suggest that if someone judges "Bible done be the Word of God" as acceptable, then this person likely has 'poor verbal skills'? Actual language difficulties generally occur along with other cognitive problems, and I don't know if you really want to suggest that living in the South actually retards your development in that way. In many of these cases there's a pretty straightforward explanation: dialect differences.

    And yes, being poorly educated tends to make people bad at literacy testing, but it doesn't mean they have any kind of interesting 'language problems'.

  22. I'm pretty sure the title of the post was just to try and make the blog more entertaining.

    I suppose you could still object on the grounds that it's not funny to ridicule the grammar of Southern dialects. There's a fine (and non-static!) line between bad grammar/spelling and legitimate dialectic differences...

    Regarding your last sentence, I got the impression that sherkat controlled for level of education...? Otherwise this would be a pretty uninteresting result, because we already knew that higher levels of education are associated with a lower tendency to view the Bible as the word of God, and we already knew that higher levels of education are associated with increased literacy (duh!). The novel point that sherkat's results are making is that even if you factor out the level of education the correlation still holds, i.e. you are comparing people who are equally well-educated, those who scored weaker verbal skills on the GSS were more likely to believe the Bible to be the word of God.

    Tom can correct me if I'm wrong, but like I say, sherkat's results would be yawn-worthy otherwise.

  23. Being married correlates with poor verbal skills, and divorce improves them?

    I'm visualizing marriage equality finally triumphant, and American writing deteriorating overnight.

    And are people gaining linguistic fluency by fighting their way through divorce proceedings, or is it just that smartmouths pay a connubial price for not knowing when to shut up?

  24. It seems quite possible that a lack of verbal skills might well be a requisite to being, or remaining, a fundamentalist. Someone with average or better verbal reasoning would likely recognize the contradictions and logical inconsistencies that such a belief set must entail.


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