Monday, November 8, 2010

Religion and Intelligence

Studies have shown repeatedly that the more intelligent a person is, the less likely he is to be religious.  See this list of studies.  The correlation, however, is usually shown to be a difference of only a few IQ points.

Does this mean that only atheists are smart enough to see that religion is nonsense?  No.

The cognitive hurdle to becoming an atheist is very low given how objectively ridiculous religion is--if one can only be objective about it.  In fact, many of the religious have done so--for a time--before emotional need overcame their rationality and they retreated back into delusion.

The majority of people possess sufficient intelligence to see through religion.  Most people can see through other specious claims of special knowledge of the supernatural.  With their own supernatural beliefs, however, they, and their peer/pressure groups, simply don't let themselves see through it. 

I am also quite sure that many religious people, especially those who spend a great deal of time studying religion, come to the conclusion that it is all nonsense, but continue the pretense because they would lose too much by facing their conclusions and admitting them to the world.  Usually in such circumstances, they rationalize that religion is useful.  I know this because I have met some of them and because I have read of even more.

I think this rationalization usually takes the form of believing that religion is necessary for the "common man" to have morals.  But, these secret atheists usually manage to behave no worse than true believers, so they have in their own lives evidence that morality does not always come from a belief in god.

What actually keeps these secret atheists in the closet is simply fear of the disapproval of others--pressure from the mob, an implicit knowledge of the bullying they will face if they admit what they know.  Their rationalization tells you what they are afraid of:  They are afraid of being labeled as immoral and rejected as a "bad" person.

Why do some admit their atheism?  I have already mentioned the role of honesty in making an atheist what he is.  (It's the honesty factor that I can't emphasize enough.  Read "Atheists, A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers", Hunsberger and Altemeyer.)

But, I also think that intelligence plays a role.  The more intelligent a person is, the harder it is for him to ignore the voice of reason in his head--because it is louder--and therefore the more likely he is to be a nonbeliever.  And, true enough, the studies show the incidence of atheism rises as the level of intelligence and education rises.

From the time I first realized it was all a bunch of nonsense, I have suspected that to the highly intelligent the nonsense that is religion must be just as grating as an out of tune piano is to someone born with perfect pitch.  I have noticed, too, that the more intelligent believers have much more narrow beliefs.  They tend to be deists who cling to the "god of the gaps" to explain what cannot otherwise be explained.

I think that the exceptions to the correlation between intelligence and non-belief--the intelligent educated few who insist on believing--can be explained by emotional need, the power of childhood brainwashing, and the effects of education.

Even intelligent people are capable of being overwhelmed by emotional need.  Especially if they were taught to believe as children and if their emotional support group consists largely of people who believe the same thing they were taught.

The religious often get quite angry when they think that an atheist is contemptuous of the intellect of believers.  I am afraid, however, that this is inevitable.  It is difficult to respect the intellect of someone who thinks that "an invisible magic man in the sky did it" is a serious theory of cosmology.  Likewise regarding those who can't discern that the origins of the universe and the existence of god are two separate questions and who can't see that confusing the two and thinking that the existence of the universe proves god's existence is a clear example of circular thinking.

How can they expect us to respect their intelligence when they do things like this:

Not to mention saying things like:  "I've never seen an atheist.  I don't know what one looks like" as if atheism were a race.  (There is that link between religion and racism again.  It's almost as if religion is just a form of group identity, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.  Hold that thought.  I will return to it in a later post.)

Thinking rationally and seeing where questions need to be answered is an essential part of intelligence.  Some people by nature or training don't do that very well, but an intelligent person will have a much harder time preventing himself from thinking rationally or asking questions.  Many people can memorize very well, but if they can't think rationally and see where there are unanswered questions they are more like savants--one trick ponies.

I have had other atheists tell me that I am wrong and that there are intelligent believers, but in my experience this is rarely, if ever, true.  I have met well educated believers by the score but every "intelligent believer" I met turned out to be someone who merely believed in belief or otherwise admitted that he knew it was all just a delusion.

Occasionally one meets or hears of very intelligent believers but they always seem to be quite insane, and by that I mean they can be classified along the bi-polar or schizophrenic spectra where the person's brain chemistry is simply not working properly and produces hallucinations without the aid of hallucinogenic drugs or otherwise undermines his ability to perceive the world accurately.

For the most part, however, I find that whenever I meet someone who might be an intelligent true believer I find out that he or she is well-educated, nothing more.  Education by itself can make a person seem intelligent and actually will increase a person's true general intelligence to a small degree.  A good education, however, is proof only that the person was a good student.  Being a good student is not the same thing as being an intelligent person.

There are many things that make a person a good student and intelligence is only one of them.  In fact, the education system used throughout most of the world is designed not for the highly intelligent but for the average and slightly above average because of its emphasis on rote learning.  Even more important, I think, is that it is designed to fit the student with an authoritarian personality.

This is not surprising given that it grew out of the medieval lecture model designed by and for authoritarian religious universities.  In this model a large group of students sits quietly and writes down what the authority figure says while he lectures or even simply reads out loud. This model and those who devised it are the antithesis of intellectual inquiry.  The process, whether by design or not, is guaranteed to have the effect of training the students to stifle any natural curiosity. The need to take notes will usually outweigh the desire to ask questions and the social situation puts most students in fear of looking foolish or annoying to his peers and teacher.

Obviously, the student whose mind generates a lot of questions either because of a great deal of native intelligence or because of a streak of rebelliousness (or both) will not do well in this system and may even be asked or pressured to leave the school.  (For example, English poet Percy Bysse Shelley and his friend were expelled from Oxford after publishing "On the Necessity of Atheism" in 1811.) 

Other factors besides intelligence have a far greater effect on educational performance.  The student's competitiveness and that of his family are far more important in determining his or her success in our education system.  This factor, too, favors the religious.  Religion is just a form of competitiveness--between groups and between individuals in the group--all involved in seeking greater social status and trying to make sure they are "holier than thou" with regard to everyone else so as not to lose status or reputation.

Educational performance is also effected by the student's resources, which can be effected by the economic discrimination practiced habitually by the religious. The result being a disproportionate percentage of religious people receiving the benefit of education.

Religion actually makes some people better students in some ways.  At least, they try harder and spend less time having fun, which leaves more time for study.  Not to mention the prevalence of abstinence from drugs or alcohol amongst the religious.  When attempting to perform relatively prodigious tasks of memorization, alcohol and some drugs are quite detrimental.

But as religious people proceed through the education process without questioning their beliefs, their failure becomes more and more glaring as they memorize more and more--even learning where others see unanswered question and how others reasoned that the unanswered questions existed--yet fail to think for themselves.

At some point in a person's education, when that person shows an inability to apply what he or she has learned, I think one must conclude that the person has a very limited range of intelligence, i.e., mere memory.  Either that or the person has an emotional block that prevents that person from using the critical thinking skills that he or she should have acquired to examine his or her own religion.  (An inability to overcome such a glaring emotional block and critically examine one's own superstitions must also sooner or later also be taken as an indictment of an educated person's intelligence.  Or honesty.  Or both.)

A recent study confirmed, however, that one of the best predictors of whether a person was religious or not was his or her ability to absorb new information.  Frankly, this may also be a better indicator of intelligence in general.  Most I.Q. tests are flawed.  The designers of the tests were forced to use knowledge, at least in part, as an approximation of intelligence.  Knowledge is not an accurate measure of intelligence, however, because it is gained by education and thus is not dependent entirely on intelligence.  Thus, the educated believer will score much better on an I.Q. test than a person with equal intelligence who did not receive an adequate education.

There are many reasons for the apparent inability of seemingly intelligent people to see that religion is nonsense.  Fear of death, childhood training, emotional discomfort at the thought of not conforming or disagreeing, etc.  Sometimes, the person simply has a very good education.  (We have to remember that our education system rewards those who are obedient, competitive, well-funded, and who have the ability to memorize well.  Education can make a person seem more intelligent than he or she really is, but it is not necessarily an indicator of intelligence.)  The most important thing to remember is that intelligence alone isn't enough--there has to be an honest endeavor to use that intelligence to find the truth.

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