Intelligence and Religion

Molecular ThoughtsI got into an argument recently on Twitter when I disagreed with someone who claimed to know intelligent young theists.  I asked where they were because, as far as I’m concerned, anyone who believes in an imaginary friend past the age of puberty really doesn’t qualify as intelligent. Now I don’t want anyone to think this is a post about the negative correlation between intelligence and religiousity.  Certainly, I could since studies have consistently shown that the more religious a person is, the less intelligent they tend to be, but that’s not my purpose here.  This is something that I’m sure atheists run into all the time, theists who seem to identify a label as applying to everything about an individual.  It’s unfortunate that there are a lot of atheists who think the same way, they will identify a person as “intelligent”, even if many of the things that they do are anything but.  They may identify someone as “rational”, even when it’s pointed out that they believe in very irrational things.  This is a failing of humans who want to hold a person to specific characteristics even when they clearly do not apply in all instances.

So are theists intelligent?  I don’t think so.  That doesn’t mean there may not be many instances where they can be quite brilliant, but taken as a general descriptor, I don’t think it can be universally applied.  Intelligent with regard to what, exactly?  Certainly not with regard to their religious beliefs, we know that such beliefs are based on emotions, not intellect.  Since no theist on the planet, at least that I’ve encountered, has been able to demonstrate the veracity of their beliefs, how, then can we consider them intelligent with regard to their faith?  Faith is a wholly emotional and ego-centric position, not arrived at by rational thinking, critical evaluation or evidence.  I don’t care how intelligent a person might be about topics outside of their faith, when considering the whole person, I simply  cannot consider them universally intelligent.  They’ve proven, by holding these ridiculous beliefs, that they are simply not so.

That means that Dr. Frances Collins, who I consider a genius in his scientific work, is anything but when it comes to his religious practices. There is nothing intelligent about walking into the woods, seeing a waterfall frozen into three parts, and suddenly believing in an imaginary friend in the sky.    I don’t limit these things to religion either, but to any woo belief.  If you believe in Bigfoot, you’ve lost in the intelligence race.  If you believe in alien abductions, you’re proving to the world that you’re not a rational individual.  If you’re an anti-vaccer, forget it,  you’re just not a smart person.  The same goes for purveyors of astrology, dowsing, faith healing, homeopathy and near death experiences, among many, many more.  Once you allow this kind of irrational nonsense into your head, you only prove that you haven’t evaluated it intellectually and therefore, you’re just not intelligent as a universal term.

I’d be fine if people were more careful in their usage of the term, such as “so and so is intelligent in regards to their belief in x”, but hardly anyone ever does that.  Unfortunately, pointing out this need for strict accuracy tends to make people mad.  In the above discussion where I was doubtful of the intelligence of people who believe in god(s), I got several very distinctly angry responses because these were supposedly young theists and they simply had not had their fair chance to grow out of the ridiculous beliefs imposed on them by their parents.  Certainly, I can identify with that, I too had religious  beliefs pushed on me by my parents and by society in general and for a long time, I bought into them. However, I am honest, and I would not now consider my younger self to be universally intelligent, simply because I held those woo beliefs.  I am nothing if not consistent.

For anyone who wants to present an individual by a universal descriptor, consider whether they’ve really earned it or if you’re just doing so out of an emotional desire to build the individual up, even if they don’t deserve it.  Be accurate in your characterization.  Do these people deserve your praise for everything they do?  Are they intelligent in every aspect of their lives?  Do they demonstrate their commitment to rationality throughout every part of their being?  Or is it wishful thinking on your part that someday, maybe, hopefully, they may attain the intellect and wisdom that you are bestowing upon them today.  I, for one, would rather wait and see if they turn out to be intelligent, rather than cross my fingers, in a non-woo manner, and hope that they actually do.

7 thoughts on “Intelligence and Religion

  1. "Did you really just do that? Did you start talking about the "failing of humans who want to hold a person to specific characteristics even when they clearly do not apply in all instances.", and in the next sentence say "So are theists intelligent? I don’t think so. ".

    I'm a bit confused about what you are trying to address. Are you suggesting that we can pick a random person and generalize their overall intelligence based on their belief in a god? In fact, I would argue that the most intelligent person of all time, Sir Isaac Newton, was extremely rational, extremely intelligent, and extremely christian.

    Our brains are wired for belief. We are wired to find agency in everything. Our brains are wired to perceive the mind as separate from the body. The brain has build in defenses that enable to hold on to beliefs despite evidence, like confirmation bias. The defenses are not limited to ignorant people, we all have them. A brain will fight to hold to a belief against evidence, because it is part of what a brain does.

    People believe things because they are human, not because they are stupid.

    1. There's an unfortunate problem that we talk about in our latest podcast that people have an ability to compartmentalize their beliefs, such that someone who is intelligent and rational in most things in their lives, may have a deep, dark hole where their religious beliefs live where they are neither intelligent nor rational. It's not limited to Newton, we even talked extensively about people like Francis Collins who, while he may be a genius, former head of the Human Genome Project and current head of the NIH, he still thinks that there's a god because he saw a frozen waterfall in the woods. Intelligence in one thing does not guarantee intelligence in all things. I think people like Collins and Newton were geniuses in spite of their religious beliefs, not because of them. And no, I don't think people believe things because they are human, I think it's because they are not careful to apply rational thinking to every part of their lives. Once they have walled off religion from the parts of the brain that handle critical thinking and evidence, they can believe whatever absurd nonsense that appeals to them on an emotional level.

      They ought to be better.

      1. This idea of universal intelligence is a rather bizarre concoction. You apparently think that a person who compartmentalizes about anything is not an intelligent person overall. However, since I doubt there is a human on the planet, or one who existed at any time in the past, who has not fallen prey to one or more cognitive biases and/or some superstitious, supernatural, or irrational belief of some type, I am skeptical that any human has ever demonstrated this universal intelligence you appear to have invented. And that includes you. Or perhaps, if you think yourself intelligent by the standard you have described here, you'll honor us with a full reporting of the evidence to support the proposition that you are universally intelligent.

  2. So, I used to believe the woo of Mormonism. I am now a full-fledged atheist. Am I still unintelligent as far as theism goes? I did a lot of research about Mormonism, thanks to the advent of the Internet. I also read some books, including "The Mormon Hierarchy, Extensions of Power" by D. Michael Quinn, and it took me about a year to go from Mormon, briefly to Christian, then to a very brief stint with being agnostic to finally atheist. Amusingly, my first Internet search ever was about Mormonism. I thought it would bolster my faith in any god. Rather, my research destroyed my Mormon faith.

    My brother and I and two women (one of whom I met a month later and one who was not with my brother and I) saw a fantastic UFO in 1977. I see no conflict with the existent of UFOs (at least one because I saw it, LOL) and atheism. I'm not convinced at all of alien contact or implants, etc., but after I saw the UFO I have a smidgeon of doubt that there are no personal alien contacts. Sorry, I can't explain the UFOs origin, but it was a sphere that was hovering completely still, yet it took off with instant acceleration. It was a rather large appearing sphere sphere and it took off so quickly that I initially thought it popped like a balloon, but instead it appeared to accelerate for about 5 feet to full warp speed and sped off into space in a red streak.

    1. A UFO is simply something in the sky that was unidentified. I've seen UFOs. I have no idea what they were. I don't pretend to know that they came from other planets and it seems highly unlikely, it's just something I couldn't identify. Neither can you. The same goes for religion, people take experiences they cannot identify and attribute them to the supernatural without ever being able to demonstrate that the supernatural actually exists. It's not even a guess, it's a blind assertion. It's when one becomes rational and understands the difference between what they think exists or what they want to exist and what actually does exist and how one tells the difference between all of those that one becomes intelligent and deals with things intellectually. Belief and knowledge are two entirely different things. In order to get to knowledge, you need to understand how you actually know something. Neither gods nor UFOs satisfy the requirements for knowledge. They are unknown and as such, beyond the realm of knowledge. That makes some people uncomfortable.

      1. So according to you a person is not intelligent until they can demonstrate rationality in all matters? A person is not actually intelligent unless they have freed themselves of all irrational beliefs? This is a standard that I doubt any human has ever met. And if you know of any such persons please identify them to us. I am very dubious of the unspoken but underlying implication of your remarks: that you are intelligent, that is universally speaking or otherwise.

  3. "…anyone who believes in an imaginary friend past the age of puberty really doesn’t qualify as intelligent."

    You are just so full of shit. I don't believe in any gods or supernatural nonsense. But I would never stoop to the stupidity of saying that all believers are unintelligent. There are some very intelligent believers out there. Two well-known examples are Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller. And while 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences are atheists there are 7% who are believers. And I have no doubt that every one of them has more intelligence than you or I. So stop with the uninformed remarks. Religion deserves a lot of criticism. But let's not cheapen that criticism with false facts and false information, with mischaracterizations and misrepresentations. It makes you no better than the very people whom you are criticizing.

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