19 November 2006 by Published in: in my life No comments yet

Disclaimer: I’ve not read any of Dawkin’s work fully. I couldn’t get through The Selfish Gene, though I tried at least two times (sorry, David W.). I’ve read this review of his new book, and of course the Wired magazine article that I’m basing most of my ruminations here on. You can see the flaw in taking just one source to base an essay on, so feel free to add your grains of salt. It just made me think, is all, and at least one person requested my thoughts.

A very bright, atheist person pointed something out to me a few years ago: that smart people can say (and do) dumb things. Intelligence does not provide immunity against behaving or speaking stupidly, and furthermore, the nonsensical behavior of someone believed to be of great intelligence is often not going to get pointed out, because it will often be assumed that said really brilliant person knows what they’re doing and has good reasons for doing it. My friend’s insight is both refreshing and a cautionary reminder that people’s behavior is determined by much more than their ability to think. In the Wired article I linked above, Dawkins states: “Highly intelligent people are mostly atheists. Not a single member of either house of Congress admits to being an atheist. It just doesn’t add up. Either they’re stupid, or they’re lying. And have they got a motive for lying? Of course they’ve got a motive! Everybody knows that an atheist can’t get elected.” Two things leap out at me about this statement. The first is that I find it amusing that he thinks many politicians in this country would be highly intelligent. Many Americans do not feel the most salient characteristic of their politicians is vast intelligence. The second is that his opening axiom “Highly intelligent people are mostly atheists” is a completely baseless and unprovable statement made by someone who prides themselves on rigorously applying the scientific method. It’s a step above rumormongering, and not a very big step, at that. What’s his purpose in it? Clearly he wants to generate the impression that religion and religious people are stupid. Is this an awkward attempt to apply peer pressure, a backhanded way of propagating a meme? Oh, you can’t be that smart if you aren’t atheist. All the cool kids are atheists. Is it really his contention that Jesus and Gautama Buddha were morons? What about the writers of the Upanishads? Idiots, right? Tolstoy and Tolkien must be literary savants, perhaps, with no intellect to speak of? Bach appears as a weirdly gifted village dolt? Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Kant, Boenhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr….all credulous and dumb as posts, no doubt. Or wait, is it perhaps his contention that it was acceptable for ancient philosophers – those predecessors of science – to think and talk about God(s) because back then we didn’t know any better, but today anyone of any intellectual capacity would be a fool to be stuck back in the dark old ages of religious belief? So Buddha and Jesus maybe couldn’t help themselves, but Martin Luther King Jr. probably should have known better. I don’t know, perhaps that’s his point. If so, it’s not a scientific point because he hasn’t used the scientific method to get there. It’s also a pretty arrogant position, and a position that assumes the progress of human knowledge is always incremental, forever building on what came before. History, I think, would say otherwise (even the history of science), but I suppose Dawkins doesn’t credit history with too much importance, since we have trouble duplicating it in the lab.

I suspect part of Dawkin’s misconception of the intellectual capacity of religious people probably has to do with the number of religious people he has met. I imagine he doesn’t hang out with the great religious thinkers, probably not even in books. Why should he? He doesn’t think they have anything to tell him. So, having little direct experience, I imagine his main contact with religious people is the PR machine of televangelism. Those charismatic folks he occasionally makes look foolish and confused in formal debates. You know the ones I mean. Despite its pre-eminence, I don’t think TV religion approximates real religious intellectualism (or real religious experience, for that matter) any more than I think headline news has depth, or sitcoms represent real life, or that the nature channel is the essence of science.

My own experience can only be anecdotal, at best, and proves nothing, but I contend Dawkins’ premise that dumb people are religious and smart people are atheist isn’t exactly a provable point anyhow. That won’t stop me from inflicting my own personal experience on you anyway, because it’s my little space here, and I can. As you know, I was raised in a Christian religious environment, and have had a lot of contact with a variety of preachers, theologians and believers. That’s exactly the opposite of what I imagine Dawkins’ experience has been. I also happen to know a lot of smart people. I’m interested in intelligence and attracted to it. I cultivate smart friends and acquaintances because they make me think, and I like that. If I think about the top five smartest people I know personally, probably three of them are atheist and two of them are religious. All five are male, all five are white. I’m not, of course, going to presume that highly intelligent people are mostly white and male from that insignificant statistical sample. And while three out of five atheists is a majority, strictly speaking, it could pretty easily have gone the other way too. When I expand this number to ten, however, my data gets more interesting : I suddenly get women, and people who are not only religiously devout, but who are even theologians. I also suddenly get different types of intelligence, perhaps not as easily IQ measurable. I get some more Phds as well (only one in my top five). So now I’m at about six of ten for religion, four atheists. Still nothing to go to the bank with, if you know what I mean. If I widen the net to fifteen or twenty, I start to get an even greater variety of educational levels and life experiences and intelligence types. The exercise becomes moot at that point, though, because I am not certain of all those people’s stances regarding religion. I can guess, but I don’t actually have statistics, which would be necessary to support or defeat my case that there are (and have been) plenty of smart religious people around. Unlike what I sometimes hear assumed by atheists, I’m not in the business of quizzing people and/or persecuting (or not voting for) people on the basis of their beliefs (for examples of what I mean by atheist assumptions, you can read the comment thread of Scalzi’s review of The God Delusion, linked above).

There’s something more distressing about Dawkins’ statement about basic intelligence, though, when it’s taken together with his evangelistic atheistic zeal. If atheism is largely only for brainiacs, what happens to the rest of us? You can convert people to atheism, I suppose, but you can’t convert people to higher IQs. This reminds me of Seventh Day Adventists and the 144,000, a problem I’ve mulled over since mid-adolescence. There are only 144,000 saved slots, and there are more than 144,000 Seventh Day Adventists. So…some of them are destined for hellfire and brimstone. Right? So what’s the use, then, of seeking converts? There are now and will always be stupid human beings. There are now and will always be religious human beings. There are now and will always be geniuses who say and do dumb things. If the brights run things, what happens to the religious and/or the merely dumb? In Dawkins’ view the religious, at least, cannot be tolerated. They are a malignant menace to children and to society. Are we discarded as evolutionary dead ends, impediments to the progress of humanity as a whole? That’s some uneasy territory, there, territory that many have defined as one of religion’s greatest failings.


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