Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Are You Stupid?

An interesting article in Christianity Today looks at a recent meta-analysis of social science studies which finds a small but significant negative correlation between intelligence and religious belief.

Since it's mostly believers who'll be reading this, I'll translate that. Some university professors took all the studies that have been made of whether religious folks are more stupid than atheists, mixed them together in a pot, and found that, yes, on average, us church-goers are ever-so-slightly dimmer. (That's self-mocking humour, by the way.)

I read through the presentation of the study in Personality and Social Psychology Review (squinting with intense concentration as I did so). I won't quarrel with the methodology, which seems sound enough to me. The writers seem to have allowed for the obvious distorting factors. But I was indignant at these lines, in their discussion of the findings and what they could possibly mean:

As noted hereinbefore, the most common explanation for the inverse relation between intelligence and religiosity is that the intelligent person "knows better" than to accept beliefs that are not subject to empirical tests or logical reasoning...But why would intelligent people know better? It does not take a great deal of cognitive ability to understand that religion does not arise from scientific discourse. One does not generally hear from believers that their faith is based on fact and logic, but they continue to believe anyhow.

Rrrr! It does not take a great deal of cognitive ability to see that the number-crunchers were straying outside their area of authority when they made such airy generalizations.

Never mind that, though, and let's turn to the bigger question. Do you have to be of inferior intelligence to be a religious believer? Obviously not, since so many blindingly brilliant people have been devout Christians (and Jews and Muslims).

But what if religious belief is tilted towards the less clever, as the majority of studies have suggested? Well, this would seem to be in accordance with Christ's own words: "At that time Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children."

There's no reason to assume that intelligence is the key that would unlock the deepest secrets of the universe. It may well be that the universe is deliberately rigged to frustrate that approach.

Of course, many other factors could account for this correlation (as the authors admit)-- the intellectual fashions of the academic elite, for instance. It was the intellectuals who fell en masse for Marxism in the earlier part of this century, and intellectuals who continue to champion avant-garde art and literature.

Society's attitude to intelligence intrigues me. Almost everybody would consider himself or herself of above-average intelligence, even though-- by definition-- that can't be so. We get angry at people for being "stupid", even though there can hadly be any shame in this-- it's not really something that a person can help. (Would you chide somebody for being short or blind?) We praise a person's intelligence in a way that we would be slow to praise their looks, their health, or their social status-- even though intelligence is no less a gift of fortune. The heroes of books and movies may be poor, ugly, vicious, or otherwise deficient or afflicted, but they are almost never slow-witted or dim.

If there is any lesson that Catholics should draw from this finding (such as it is), it is that we should be slower to boast about Aquinas and Augustine and the whole Catholic intellectual tradition. Yes, Catholics (and Christians) have intellectual giants on their side. But so do atheists. The question isn't who's smarter. The question is who's right.


  1. The authors of the article miss an important point - the studies that they're 'mashing up' are temporally limited: that is, they only look at the very recent past. They're leaving out the fact that for most of history the majority of people, whatever their IQ, have been religious. Their assumptions that smart folk know better than to believe in the religions of fools falls flat because if it were true it would always have been true and not just true know. If their study proves anything, and I am far from accepting that it does, it is that the changing social circumstances of recent times have had an impact on religious belief.

    1. That is indeed an important point. As the author of the Christianity Today article points out, the results are also culturally limited, although they seem to have tried to find as wide-ranging research as they can. It's a flaw in the research but I don't think it makes it fall flat-- there does seem to be a slight correlation between higher intelligence and atheism. Of course, that tells us little in itself. There could be so many reasons. I think intelligence (and still more, wisdom) is something very difficult to measure.