Why are Atheists Generally Smarter Than Religious People?

Because smart people believe dumb things.

By William M Briggs Published on June 7, 2017

A couple of academics just asked the question, “Why is Intelligence Negatively Associated with Religiousness?”

“The answer,” one report says, “is that religion is an instinct, and it takes intelligence to overcome an instinct.”

That’s odd, because it was just three weeks ago we read that brain damage caused religious fundamentalism. So which is it? Instinct or brain damage?

It’s Science!

The authors of the new study, Edward Dutton and Dimitri Van der Linden, are pleased to start their work by saying, “It was widely remarked upon in Classical Greece and Rome that ‘fools’ tended to be religious while the ‘wise’ were skeptics.” But they unwisely forget that Rome’s greatest poet Virgil in Georgics wrote, “Above all, worship the gods.” And Plato had Timaeus say, “All men, Socrates, who have any degree of right feeling, at the beginning of every enterprise, whether small or great, always call upon God.” Let us do the same.

Dutton and Dimitri Van der Linden think “a solution to understanding the negative religion-intelligence nexus” lies in evolutionary theory.

If religion is an evolved domain, then it is an instinct and intelligence — in rationally solving problems — can be understood as involving overcoming instinct and being intellectually curious and thus open to non-instinctive possibilities.

Now Dutton and Van der Linden have no proof of this. It is just a hypothesis, full of ifs, supposeds, conjectures, maybes. Worse, it commits the Religion Research Fallacy. As I wrote three weeks back:

It is an old argument, but a good one: If the brain [through evolution] causes our thoughts, then it cannot be trusted. For what guarantee is there that if it misleads us in one area it’s not misleading us in another? There is none. If the brain causes false religious beliefs, it could also cause false science beliefs. And there’s no way to tell the difference.

Dutton and Van der Linden call their theory the “Intelligence-Mismatch Association Model.” But they didn’t consider an even simpler theory about religion and intelligence. I call it the Smart People Believe Dumb Things theory. It goes like this.

Some Smart Guys

Know who was a smart guy? Jean Jacques Rousseau. Dude really had a wigged head on his shoulders. Everybody said, “That Jolly Jean Jacques is sharp as the blade of a guillotine.”

Know what he said? “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

Tumultuous applause still greets that line every time it’s heard, even though it’s preposterously false. Set a baby down and leave it be. See how “free” it is. Rousseau’s claim along with many of his other sayings are so contrary to common observation that they could only be the product of a brilliant mind.

Know how intelligent Mao Zedong was? Boy, was that man’s mind keen! Every Western visitor remarked on the number of books Mao possessed. And he read them! He used to make notes in the margins to have “arguments” with the authors.

All that reading swelled to magnificent proportion his little gray cells. One intelligent man. And, let’s face it, it takes a genius to slaughter tens of millions and still come out smelling sweet.

Mao did not love God. Rousseau wasn’t too enamored, either. Neither Stalin. Nor Marx.

None of these guys were dumb. But each of them, like many others of high intellect, rejected the simplest and truest and plainest argument there is. That God exists.

Some Really Smart Guys

On the other hand, the biggest, brawniest brains of all time — stuffed in the craniums of men like Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Newton, Mozart, Shakespeare — all knew on which side of the Great Metaphysical Question to bet.

Go to any Western university. What will you find? People of above-average intelligence. Compare their IQs with folks in ordinary professions like cleaners, farmers, delivery men, Stream authors. There will be many individual exceptions, but, on average, it won’t even be a contest.

Some Smart-Dumb folks

Besides folks of above-average intelligence, know what you’ll also find? Idiots. And lots of them. Intelligent people who believe some of the dumbest, most ridiculous theories ever concocted. So outrageously crackpot are these ideas that any inmate in any medieval lunatic asylum would have been too embarrassed to even whisper them.

I don’t just mean preposterosities (you heard me: preposterosities) like intersectionality and gender theory, but all manner of sour thinking about the nature of man, truth and God. There is no need to rehearse the list of insanities. You already know many of them. And of those you have not heard, you’re better off not knowing.

Now take a simple man unburdened by a great intellect, but possessed of a simple faith. He might also believe what is false, especially on matters with little bearing on him, or where he has no influence. That this man holds his faith is often not because he was convinced by argument, but because it was taught to him. It was part of his culture. Believing was the default thing for him to do.

That doesn’t make it wrong. Indeed, it makes it right when the object of that faith is true. And this man, though not as intelligent as, say, a tenured academic atheist feminist philosopher, has a better chance of living a decent life and meeting a better ultimate fate.

The Best Theory

These are only two simple examples, but they have well known analogues all throughout human history. It’s only because atheism is now fashionable, and just as much a matter of culture as Christianity used to be, that we have people searching for theories to explain what is plain.

What conclusion, then, can we draw? This: It generally takes somebody smart to believe something really dumb.

And since “the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” — it is clear it takes little effort to believe what is true.

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