Friday, July 2, 2010

On The Odd Apparent Disconnect Between Religiousness and Intelligence

There are a great many odd and peculiar ideas in our world. Recently, I was pondering one of the most odd of all of them. Even just the other day, someone responded to one my posts with the entirely off-topic comment:

You seem so intelligent, Silas, therefore, your religiosity puzzles me.
My initial thought upon reading such a comment was, "How could I possibly be intelligent and not be religious?" Of course, the simple fact is that I couldn't be both intelligent and non-religious. There are a great many people who can be intelligent and yet non-religious, but I most certainly am not one of them. Yet, there, in precisely that paradox, is the simple truth revealed. Intelligence has very little to do with the veracity of one's beliefs. Intelligence may be correlated with the complexity and depth of one's worldview, but never with the correctness thereof. The intelligent mind takes the apparent facts that it is confronted with, and formulates the best possible explanation of those facts. Yet, the conclusions that are actually reached are inextricably dependent on the apparent facts that are observed and pondered.

In many ways, the human mind is like any other tool. If you give a man a hammer, he will be quite puzzled how to use it, unless he is also equipped with and familiar with nails. A screwdriver is quite a useless and perplexing tool to one who hasn't seen a screw. Similarly, intelligence is only a practically useful tool to those who are properly trained in how to use it. There are proper ways of thinking and improper ways of thinking. There are correct applications of the mind and incorrect applications. If one uses thinking only to justify erroneous conclusions, then one may be using one's mind, but the justifications that are made are in opposition to reason. If one uses thinking only to prevent future thinking, then one is using intelligence merely to destroy intelligence. For this reason, it is imperative that a person of intelligence not only be intelligent, but also have the wisdom necessary to properly use such intelligence.

Additionally, even supposing that one does possess the needed skills to properly use their intelligence, it remains that there must be suitable material to ponder and reasonable premises with which sound conclusions may be formed. Much as a hammer isn't especially helpful when one only possesses bent nails, and a screwdriver is of no help when one only possesses sheared screws, so intelligence is of little benefit when one is only equipped with faulty premises. And this is precisely the modern plight!

After all, in any case of inquiry, it is certain that there is only one right explanation of a thing, while there are a vast array of wrong explanations. If we were to inquire into why apples fall off trees towards the earth, there are a near infinite number of possible explanations that could be given. Perhaps apples like to be nearer to tree trunks than to tree leaves. Perhaps, apples are overly warm from being in the sun and are drawn towards the cool of shadier places. Perhaps, apples are migratory creatures who seldom stay near their birthplace. Yet, despite the fact that there are a near infinite number of possible explanations, there is one only possible explanation that is both plausible and true. Hence, whenever explanations are offered, there are always infinitely more possible fallacious explanations than true ones. In practice, there are always more real faulty explanations than true ones.

Due to the rise of advanced civilization and the connecting of the globe, ideas have spread faster than at any time prior in human history. The past three hundred years, in fact, have given rise and voice to a variety of major ideas and have propagated them broadly among minds, both great and small. Unfortunately, as error is more plentiful than rightness and lies are more plentiful than truth, many of the ideas that have been broadly accepted are fallacious. More than just being fallacious, a good many of them have more than a quantum of insanity about them. The explanations of many things are, as far as they go, logical and consistent enough. However, that which some such theories (like materialism) leave unexplained is broad enough in scope to leave the explanatory power of such theories utterly deificient. Alternately, that which other theories (like macroevolution) explain is far more than can possibly be deduced from the evidence. Most popularly held modern ideologies possess one of those two flaws: either they explain far too little, or they explain far too much.

Logic dictates that when proper syllogisms are used in conjunction with valid premises, the conclusions that follow are similarly valid. However, logic also dictates that even when using proper syllogisms, if the premises are invalid, the conclusions that logically follow are also invalid. The problem with modern thought is that much of our collective body of conclusions rest upon foundational conclusions and premises that are faulty, and provably so. Once a few faulty conclusions were reached and accepted as valid, they then began to be utilized as foundational premises for the derivation of further conclusions. Now, we find ourselves with an entire cathedral of thought, marvelously constructed, with remarkable ornamention. Yet, the cathedral is built upon a foundation of sand. Nearly a century has passed since we passed beyond what Francis Schaeffer termed the Line of Despair, where the abandonment of reason began in earnest, and hopelessness in any quest for truth became prevalent. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, published in 1920, he brilliantly captures the essence of his generation with this memorable quote:

Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken...
That philosophical foundation, which we now call modern thought or existentialism, is founded on precisely those tenets. All Gods are dead, all wars have been fought, all faiths in man have been shaken. There is no ultimate answer to anything. Instead, there exist only disconnected fragments to be discovered. So it has come to pass that the intelligent minds of our day have fed and feasted upon such tenets and the ideological developments that have been built upon those tenets. Yet, we have not stopped long enough to consider whether our presuppositions are true. For this reason, the apparent disconnect between religiousness and intelligence now exists. No one can be intelligent, accept the modern premises, and be religious. Simply stated, if the premises accepted by modern society are valid, then it is thoroughly irrational and unintelligent to be religious. The problem, however, is not one of religion or intelligence, but rather of the premises accepted by modern society. G.K. Chesteron aptly describes such a modern tendency towards blind acceptance of highly debatable tenets, in his book, The Everlasting Man:

...but this habit of a rapid hardening of a hypothesis into a theory and of a theory into an assumption has hardly yet gone out of fashion.

Statements are made so plainly and positively that men have hardly the moral courage to pause upon them and find that they are without support.
With each passing year, as those questionable inferences continue to be taken for granted, the pathways of intelligence and religiousness appear to grow even further apart. Yet, the conflict was never between religiousness and intelligence. The wedge that divdes the two is the great body of faulty assumptions that underlie the entire worldview of contemporary Western society. The intelligent but gullible mind of today is logical and rational enough, but since such a mind has a great many misconceptions which are perceived as facts, such a mind is also one that rejects religion prima facie. The intelligent but skeptical mind has either reached the conclusion that religion and mysticism are a necessary part of sane human existence, or yet remains in a state of intellectual limbo. There is no true disconnect between intelligence and religiousness. The apparent division between the two is merely an illusion, widely propagated by misplaced faith in tenets and principles which are highly debatable, at best, or provably false, at worst.


  1. One time in undergrad I was hanging out at some cheap Campus Crusade ripoff. This girl asks me what I'm majoring in, I tell her mathematics. Her eyes get all big, "You can study mathematics and be Christian??" Like I'd said I was majoring in Satanism.

    You've got a lot of mind-changing to do, my friend. Jesus was swell but the modern Christian "community" is hugely anti-intellectual.

  2. @Xamuel: Intellectualism, of course, is not my primary concern. As I stated in my post, intelligence is of little use unless used properly.

    The modern Christian community may be anti-intellectual, but a true Christ follower is more concerned with righteous living than with social percpetions or the idol-worship of intellectualism. That modern Christians are a poor reflection of Christ does not invalidate the example set by Christ and the calling that He has given, to emulate Him in word, deed and attitude.

    I know that you have quite a lot of personal objections to hypocrisy in the modern church and to unbiblical contemporary fundamentalism.

    I am genuinely curious. Do you have any objections to the way Jesus lived and commanded us to live? Precisely what mind-changing are you suggesting I do?

  3. No objections to the way Jesus lived: guy was a hero. He hung out with the lowest dregs of society and loved them. He physically attacked the money-changers (!!!). Forgave a thief on the cross.

    He didn't really command us to live in any particular way-- the entire point is that his crucifixion liberates us from all that! Strictly speaking, you could go on a murderous rampage, and if you accept Him as your savior, you're A-OK. Of course, a good Christian (in the real sense, not the institutional sense) ought to emulate Jesus to whatever extent is possible. Unfortunately, a lot of "Christians" today do a terrible job of that (cf. Republicans)

    What I meant about mind-changing is, you have a lot of minds to change before "Christians" will accept you as an intelligent Christian.

  4. The modern Christian community may be anti-intellectual, but a true Christ follower is more concerned with righteous living than with social perceptions or the idol-worship of intellectualism.
    The study of intellectual pursuits does not necessarily mean an individual is worshiping the idol of intellectualism. There exist numerous topics of study that would be meat to an intelligent Christian, providing them with profound insight about their faith and greater understanding of how Christianity has influenced the world. By this I mean deeper theological study, church history, etymological studies, and the other more 'academic' topics seldom discussed in church or spoken off in the typical lifestyle manuals marketed at believers. As atheists often bemoan, the United States is the most religious nation in the West but the most woefully uneducated when it comes to knowledge about Christianity. This shouldn't be so.

    I also firmly believe there is great misunderstandings in certain pockets of the Christian community when it comes to science. I was a chemistry major and had similar experiences to Xamuel when sharing my major with Christians. My young sister has experienced even worse as a biology undergrad and now a grad student. My husband was okay seeing as physics is out of the scope of most public debate, but many Christians have no idea the wonders and beauty of the cosmos and are missing out on the enjoyment that can be found in understand physics. Somebody with better credentials that Ray Comfort ought to be education Christians about scientific concepts. The amount of Christian scientists may be far and few between, but they do exist.

    Before I end this comment, I do hope you take comments about your intelligence to heart and see the truth in them. Your blog is one of the best I've seen from a homeschool grad and you really do break the mold of what the stereotypical Christian homeschooler might seem to be. I am not at all anti-homeschool but have personally known people who've left me frightened of homeschooling and not too impressed if you catch my drift. You're a fine example of homeschooling gone right. :)

  5. @Xamuel:

    I feel like I say this to folks online far too often, but have you ever met any evangelicals from other countries? Because when you give anecdotes like this:

    Her eyes get all big, "You can study mathematics and be Christian??"

    I wonder whether we live on the same planet. I've never met anyone like this. My Campus Crusade group way back when included a whole crew of science majors, including myself. As far as I've ever experienced – in real life, not in the media or wherever else - Christians have held exactly the view that Hestia expresses below: that learning about the natural world is a wonderful way of exploring God's creation, and by extension, God himself.

    Unfortunately, a lot of "Christians" today do a terrible job of that (cf. Republicans)

    Well, again, up here in Canada, the conflation of faith and conservative politics isn't nearly so entrenched as it is in the US. My wife worked in a US state for a period of time before I knew her (in the biblical sense or otherwise...), and she recollects not infrequently feeling a bit distant, or at least cautious, around Christians she met there. Why? Because of exactly the sort of thing you imply – that American Christians are often too wedded to the Republican party. In contrast, up here a lot of us looked askance at Bush even if we held conservative positions in general.

    Perhaps none of this is news to you; I don't know.


    I also firmly believe there is great misunderstandings in certain pockets of the Christian community when it comes to science. I was a chemistry major and had similar experiences to Xamuel when sharing my major with Christians.

    Again – that is simply bizarre to me. Before I had read the comments, I wasn't planning to bother replying to Silas' post because the "you seem so smart - how could you POSSIBLY be religious?" trope is generally a yawner. But if anti-intellectualism is really as rampant in certain circles as you guys make out, maybe it's more forgivable.

  6. Not a religious person myself, but....

    I observe that "intellectualism" as it operates today is much more of a claim to social status than anything about actual knowledge and intellectual interests. There are many people with advanced degrees from "elite" institutions who have amazing gaps in their knowledge and amazingly little interest in filling them.

    I also observe that those who assert hostility to religion on grounds of their superior intelligence are more likely to have degrees in soft & squishy subjects than in anything really rigorous. You're more likely to get sociology majors (of the non-mathematical sociology variant) falling into this category than physics majors or electrical engineering majors.

  7. Samson, heartily agree with you about Canada. I've seen the same thing (I'm in BC). Refreshing really.

    On my last visit,I told some American Christians (at their asking), I was a geology major. The responses ranged from total ignorance (uhhh, what's that?) to abject derision (as it's a salvation issue whether one is an old or young earth creationist). Being Canadian was even a salvation issue for some, no joke. Something to do with taxpayer funded abortions.

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