Smarter than thou

A recent story that suggested that atheists are more intelligent than religious people has blown up in social media. I imagine some people will want to examine some of the methodology and assumptions behind the study. I’m not going to attempt evaluating the study or its results other than to say that there are several points that could be made about the danger of correlation and causation, and that even if valid the results are not really surprising. The rest of this post will assume the results are valid for argument’s sake.

Several people have now noticed the “gotcha” game being played by this match’s purported victors–with no sportsmanship in sight.  I suppose the idea is that whatever is believed by intelligent people is likelier to be true, perhaps because intelligent people are likelier to discover and know what’s true, and less intelligent people are apt to obliviously embrace nonsense. Statistically speaking maybe this is so, but pushing that point very far is also tantamount to an argument from authority, which actually isn’t all that bright. Ostensibly, the individuals who are the ones pushing the average up on the atheist side are not the ones acting so triumphalistic, but maybe that expectation leans too heavily on a correlation of intelligence with common decency. Which leads me to the point I most want to make.

It’s a sad indictment that the results of this study have been pushed so hard and triumphantly by atheists, with no regard for etiquette, humility, or other forms of thoughtfulness. When you performed well on a test in school, did you rub the nose of a friend or classmate who didn’t perform as well in your superior test score? If that classmate had ignored your advice and followed a study regimen that you had warned them against, would that justify smugly seeking them out to notify them of your results? But even that scenario depends on the idea that the poor performer could have done something different: this scenario suggests that people are religious because they’re mentally less capable of being atheists. That’s like rubbing it in when you perform better than a kid with severe dyslexia or other encumbrance. Saying, “We’re smarter than you” can only be intended to belittle or shame someone into agreeing with you and, as mentioned above, act as an argument from authority. Why else even bring it up?

A Christian friend at work, who’s quiet by nature and not at all argumentative or confrontational, was disheartened and hurt when an atheist friend thought it a great idea to send her that study. She reached out to me for advice on how to respond. I gave her a couple pointers and mentioned the limitations of this particular study. But probably most importantly, I noted that showing love and compassion for others was a much higher virtue than flaunting one’s own intelligence to demean someone else.

It bears mentioning that some of the most atrocious humans in history have been among the most intelligent. Some of the most intelligent people in history have been among the most deluded.

As Arni wrote,

There’s something about our culture that instinctively sees intelligence as a good thing. But upon reflection, in and of itself, intelligence is neither good nor bad. It can serve the good immensely, yes. But likewise it can enable the bad in absolutely horrifying ways. It’s not a virtue. It can be helpful, but only to the extent that its use is shaped by the virtues.

I’ll put this out there as well. I don’t have stats, and it’s a pure hypothetical, but as someone who often has more in common with my unbelieving friends than I do with my fellow theists, I still feel safe in asserting that if this study had concluded the opposite, I can hardly imagine the same sort of reaction from believers. Most Christians I know would of course feel encouraged and more confident about their faith, and they’d no doubt pass the study around to their fellow believers, and I imagine many would even succumb to the temptation of feeling puffed up and superior. Still, I’m confident that only a small minority would even acknowledge the study’s results to their atheist friends, except perhaps to those atheist friends intent on arguing the opposite. Because it’s just wrong to act that way. We poor, dumb religious folk think “pride” is a sin.

I affirm the ability of atheists to be moral and ethical–this isn’t about that. Still, this can hardly help but suggest to me a marked difference in the effect of the respective beliefs and ethics systems of the theist and the atheist. “Holier than thou” is an awful attitude that bespeaks pride, which paradoxically makes those with that attitude less holy in an important way; those with that attitude are thus being self-contradictory, and are admonished by their own belief system. Someone who is focused on being “holy” is focusing on virtues that will improve human relationships. But as the above case suggests, the “smarter than thou” attitude stands to have more adverse affects in that it doesn’t entail any moral obligations. If you’re smarter, you can act like a jerk, and unless you’ve come up with a clever rational reason not to make theists feel stupid and inferior, there is nothing in the world that should keep you from reacting just as so many have to a study like this one.

Given the choice, give me dumb, good-hearted people any day of the week. Of course, what do I know? I’m “religious”.

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