What should we make of a recent study that, like earlier ones, says atheists are more intelligent than religious believers? This latest is really a study of 63 individual studies, in which 53 showed less religiosity among the more intelligent participants. Hmmm. Most atheists, myself included, have a skeptical nature and want to delve deeper into such studies—even when they put us in a favorable light.
For instance, how was intelligence defined and measured? Intelligence was defined in this study as the capacity for analytical thought, problem solving, and the understanding of complex ideas. The studies, which included a life-long analysis of the beliefs of 1,500 gifted children with IQs over 135, showed fewer religious believers among the gifted than in the overall population. Additional studies corroborated that religiosity tends to decrease with increased educational level. For example, only 7 percent of the members in the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal god.
You could argue that the studies might be flawed for a variety of reasons, which include ignoring emotional intelligence and other worthwhile qualities that can contribute to a high quality of life. However, religion aside, I think most people believe that scientists (and even mathematicians) are smart. The cliché, “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out,” means you can do it even if you’re not that smart.
But I’d rather let others discuss the relationship between religiosity and intelligence.
I’m more interested in perceived character flaws of atheists, perhaps related to intelligence. Some atheists come across as arrogant and smug when they gratuitously criticize and even mock religious beliefs, occasionally quoting ludicrous biblical passages to those who don’t interpret the Bible literally. Yet I can make a case for ardent atheists being more humble and open to change than religious fundamentalists, illustrated by the T-shirt phrase: “Will Convert for Evidence.” Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, supported a bus ad campaign with the relatively humble slogan, “There’s probably no God.” I’ve yet to see a comparable religious ad that says “There’s probably a God.”
Which of the following sounds more arrogant?
Worldview 1. I know God created the entire universe just for the benefit of humans. He watches me constantly and cares about everything I say and do. I know how He wants me and everyone else to behave and believe. He is perfect and just, which is why we face an eternity of either bliss or torture, depending on whether or not we believe in Him.
Worldview 2. We’re the product of millions of years of evolution. Most species are extinct, as humans will eventually be. I hope to make a positive difference because it’s the right thing to do, not because of future rewards or punishments in an afterlife. When I don’t know something, which is often, I say, “I don’t know.”
As to humility, who’s the most humble person ever? Moses. How do I know? The Bible tells me so. In fact, Moses himself in Numbers 12:3 informs us he is. Some skeptics will question whether bragging about humility is an oxymoron, but here’s a justification for Moses’ claim, beginning with a joke.
A scientist is called to testify as an expert witness. The judge asks him about his credentials, and the scientist says, “I’m the most brilliant, respected, and articulate scientist in the world.” When a friend later asks why he was so boastful, the scientist replies, “After all, I was under oath.” Since Moses was under God’s oath, he was required to tell the biblical truth about his humility. In fact (actually fiction), the Five Books of Moses were supposedly dictated by God to Moses, so Moses had no choice about how to write it all down, including his humility and even a description of his own death.
There’s no credible evidence that Moses existed, let alone a God with whom he conversed. But some preachers and religious leaders also claim a direct link to God, which give them the authority to always “know” the absolute Truth with a capital “T,” as they confidently decree everything that God expects of us. Yes, we might all occasionally need an arrogance check, but such preachers are far from Snow White. Perhaps they should be asking “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the most arrogant one of all?”
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.