2.6 Intelligence And The Religious

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2.6.1 Among nonreligious circles, one will commonly experience manners of speech which suggest that believers are less than intelligent, or even dumb. One can find similar attitudes among the liberal religious about conservative religious people. In fact, one finds the exact attitude about atheists among believers. However, I will focus here on the behavior of nonbelievers.

2.6.2 As suggested above, the tendency to ridicule or to suggest in tone that religious people are not intelligent is most likely due simply to the general human tendency of people to think of those they disagree with as dumb. This is perhaps a psychological defense mechanism. It allows people the emotional comfort of feeling they are superior in some way, while relieving them of the need to listen to what the "less intelligent" have to say. It might also be a way to emotionally discourage an opponent in debate, making it a debating tactic (albeit an unethical one of poor taste). However, an explanation does not constitute an excuse. Regardless of the reason, this sort of behavior is inconsiderate and, more importantly, inaccurate.

2.6.3 Regardless of "political correctness," the ultimate concern for the skeptical freethinker regarding intelligence and religious belief should be, "Is it true?" and, if so, is it relevant? First and foremost, I should differentiate between some concepts and definitions of the intellect, as I will use them. Wisdom refers to general life experience and the higher tendency to make effective decisions and have the discipline to see them through as a result. Knowledge refers to the raw information that a person may know about things in general. Intelligence refers to the ability to handle and process that information. It may also contain elements of memory retention and creativity but, in any case, this makes knowledge a very different thing from intelligence. A person could grow up alone on a deserted island and know very little but, nevertheless, be very intelligent. Likewise, a person might be very well educated and know an great deal, but not be very good at thinking of new ideas or coming up with solution based on that information.

2.6.4 Closely related to intelligence is the learned skill of critical thinking. Critical thinking skills are the basis of the way we think and begin forming at a very early age. Thus, it is often very difficult to distinguish between the skill of critical thinking and intelligence. Although intelligence has not really been specifically defined with a great consensus among psychologists, biologists and philosophers, I refer to it as something very basic, such as neuron connection and firing rates, processing speed and efficiency of the brain, and so on.

2.6.5 When we look at various surveys and studies, there doesn’t seem to be any definitive data that is widely accepted or interpreted the same. Furthermore, intelligence is extremely difficult to objectively measure. The accuracy and specificity of IQ tests are dubious at best. It seems that we cannot get at the intelligence without a mode of communication, which is reflective of education. In any case, we would not be able to deduce that believers are less intelligent on average unless...

a) A truly accurate and reliable means of measuring intelligence were discovered and widely accepted.
b) An objective means of measuring degree of belief in the supernatural was created and widely accepted.
c) An unbiased study was performed that drew an inverse correlation between intelligence and belief and its methodology and results were widely examined and accepted as valid.
d) A number of similar studies had been performed which verified the results of the first and accounted for any other possible variable.

2.6.6 If these four points had occurred, then we would be on fairly safe grounds in making such a statement (although it, like any statement, would be tentative). However, we currently fall far short of these four points. In addition, common anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that there are many very intelligent people who are believers.

2.6.7 There does seem to be an inverse correlation between education and belief. Although conservative religious people claim this is because the academic left has an agenda of making everyone into atheists, I can say from my own experience that nothing of this sort was the case. To the educated nonbeliever, including myself, the loss of faith seems to be merely the natural result of learning more about the world and learning critical thinking skills. In any case, this speaks only to learned skills and information, not to intelligence.

2.6.8 What seems far more likely to me is that intelligence has little or no bearing on degree of belief or faith. More information about our world, along with solid critical thinking skills, along with a willingness to look at religious matters without bias has a great effect of belief. But, in addition to this, our attitudes and beliefs can be affected in an infinite variety of ways, not all of which are conscious to us. Something as simple as a comment from a person in passing may drastically effect our outlooks on things. All of the random and chance events of our lives go together to give us various ideas, which lead to various attitudes. It seems that belief may be determined as much by luck as by education. Who can say what my beliefs would be today if I had been born in another city or another time? A tragic event at an early age or a book I happen to run across that makes a certain point may have profound effects.

2.6.9 In light of this, I would disagree strongly with anyone claiming that religious people are somehow less intelligent than nonbelievers. In addition, this attitude doesn’t accomplish anything. Even if a general average intelligence for believers was deduced, this would not mean much because each individual is entitled to be treated on his or her own merits, regardless of the statistics of any group they may be associated with (see 3.3).

2.6.10 As a side note, it is interesting to observe that Christianity often includes an admonition against reading or viewing certain materials which may be considered sacrilegious. This is a very important component of the belief system. If not for this "safety trap" then the church would be losing worshipers left and right. The more people learned about other opposing viewpoints, and not the church’s distorted version of them, the harder it is to assume that their church’s views are somehow the one and only correct ones. My question was always, "If god is more powerful than the devil, then why do Christians need to shield their eyes? Shouldn’t the truth be able to hold up under any assault?"

2.6.11 Back to the subject at hand, the attitude of the nonbeliever to the believer should be one of respect, pity, and helpfulness, rather than ridicule or condemnation. These attitudes are not only more of an accurate response, they are more helpful and productive. I would suggest an exception to this only in cases where a religious person is being disrespectful, seeking to threaten our liberties, or otherwise assaulting us, in which case all bets are off.

Continue to 2.7 Dogma vs. Moral Reasoning