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September 09, 2003

Intellect & religious belief

"Are atheists smarter"? So asks an NPR commentator-who in my opinion is rather transparent in his attempt to show that his organization isn't the mouth-piece for the PC secular Left that religious conservatives make it out to be (I listen to NPR-doesn't mean I think it's objective).

Update below!

Some quotations:


Listen to these numbers:

  • 55% of people with POST graduate degrees - this is lawyers, doctors, dentists and the like - believe in the Devil
  • 53% believe in hell
  • 72% believe in miracles

Remember these are people with post graduate educations.


  • 78% of them believe in the survival of the soul after death
  • 60% believe in the virgin birth
  • and 64% believe in the resurrection of Christ.

Yes, these percentages were even higher for people with less education, but those gaps were not nearly as interesting as the fact that the most highly educated people also share some of these views.

You can't get a post-graduate degree without being taught rigorous examination of evidence--figuring out which symptoms indicate a particular disease, or what facts could justify a lawsuit. These people are among the most rational of our society and yet they still believe non-rational things.
...
But there is another possibility--that some of these rationally-oriented people have found actual proof for their beliefs. Maybe they've had a personal supernatural experience with prayer that makes them believe in God or an afterlife. Maybe they've found a compelling logic to their view - perhaps they’ve looked at the universe and said something made the Big Bang happen or marveled at human development and concluded that "the development of this blob of cells into a conscious human being cannot be explained just through science."

1) Not all graduate degrees are created equal by the Creator....

Many people with "post-graduate" educations are teachers, social workers and accountants, not the doctors & lawyers who are mentioned above. 9% of Americans have graduate degrees. There are 700,000 doctors, 490,000 lawyers[1] and somewhere north of 500,000 scientists and engineers with doctoral degrees-about 2 million people out of the 16 million with "postgraduate" educations. Fair & balanced? Selection bias? Readers might find it interesting that 87% of doctors believe in a "Supreme Being" as opposed to 40% of scientists (I assume that a lawyer's belief is predicated on God's retainer fee).

2) Most educated believers and non-believers have never examined Aquinas' Five Ways to prove the existence of God[2] nor do they come to their faith or lack of via rational or empirical paths. Granted, some do, but most people of high intellectual capacities have in my experience a tendency to rationalize positions rather than reach their conclusion through reason. Granted, a higher percentage of those of high intellect tend to follow the latter path than the general population, but as the bright writer above notes, the difference between the bright and less so is not particularly large in these matters. Soren Kierkegaard rationalized (OK, philosophized) a pietist Lutheran faith that the common man took for granted, and no doubt received much more comfort from. Who was the smart one on that?

Is the "Bright" movement counter-productive? Though I do not doubt Dennett et al.'s ability to weave and bob through the realms of logic and data, they are obviously lacking in social grace and tact, and confirming the prejudices of believers toward secularists. An NPR commentator should be bright enough to end it at that rather than wandering off in a Maureen Dowdish manner into the territory of trying to figure out why people think what they think....

Addendum: I have been informed by a reliable source that I wasn't very clear in the above post. So let me re-state in a different way: both religious & non-religious people tend to interpret patterns of belief in a way that is overly simplistic. For instance, it is a fact that the most eminent American scientists are far less religious than most scientists-who are themselves far less less religious than the average American.

A secularist, taking this data could make the following conjecture: Since lack of religious belief seems positively correlated in this context with greater intellectual capacities-these individuals are subjecting religious axioms to skepticism and finding it wanting. In contrast, a religious individual could assert that hubris is what is driving this trend away from religious faith, as scientists are men & women filled with arrogance and lack of respect for the work's of God. Both these positions are interesting stories, but certainly not the end of any analysis, though this where popular discussions often end.

For instance-assume you have two newly minted Ph.D.s from a good university. Scientist A is a religious church-goer, while scientist B is a secularist. It seems plausible that scientist A would have less discretionary time to devote to research, church might take up much of his Sundays. Additionally, church is a good way to meet women, so it would be unsurprising if scientist A ends up with a family, while scientist B remains single, or barring that, marries another scientist who shares the same devotion to their craft. Over time, these small differences could result in a great chasm of priorities and accomplishments so that the non-religious scientist is elected to the National Academy of Science while the religious one is not, and rather is happy to be viewed by his fellow parishoners as a good father and citizen.

Of course, this is another "just so" story, but the important point is that there are MANY just-so stories out there, and we tend to pick the ones that are most congenial our own world-views. Additionally, the various factors are probably confounded and contribute to feed-back loops (a slight bias of non-religious NAS members chould increase over generations as scientists that are known to be very religious have diminished chances of being elected simply because they are considered strange or out-of-the-ordinary, and not in a good way). Though I think that some people with postgraduate educations come to their beliefs rationally, seeing as how polls show most people tend to follow the religion of their parents, the answers are probably more conventional and nuanced....

And yes Dick, it doesn't take a smart person to observe any of this ;)

fn1. A non-trivial number of J.D. holders do not go on to practice law-I suspect a far higher number than those who do not practice medicine after medical school.

fn2. Most of the Five Ways are descended from and precede some common variations, cosmological, teleological, ontological, etc. Norman Malcolm and Richard Swinburne are two contemporary authors that have tackled the "Proof of God" question from a theistic perspective.

Posted by razib at 12:02 AM




Another side effect of affirmative action?

Posted by: Ole Eichhorn at September 9, 2003 02:54 AM


1) I would expect the bulk of post grad degrees to be night school MBAs and MEs, and I guarantee you none of those teach any challenge to social norms.

2) Each field has its own version of rigorous eximination of evidence, and when that is applied to, matters of science odd things can happen. For example that lawyer who dissed evolution by applying the reasoning of case law to it.

3) Even within the purlieus of science, there are leading Physicists - people even smarter than you, Razib - who believe in religious teachings. For that matter there is Brian Josephson.

Posted by: Dick Thompson at September 9, 2003 06:44 AM


In any survey I think it would be necessary to distinguish between beliefs in a vengeful anthropomorphic god versus the whimsical watchmaker that Einstein often alluded to. If both are taken for religiosity, that's misleading.

Posted by: eric f at September 9, 2003 08:09 AM


The thing about intelligence and self-delusion is the smarter the person the more potent the deluder.

Posted by: Bob Badour at September 9, 2003 09:10 AM


The lawyer who dissed Darwin is Philip Johnson. Also have a look at William Lane Craig on the conjuncture of physics and metaphysics. And don't assume that heavyweight scientists, as defined by credentials, are ipso facto the smartest group in society. Remember the horrible example of HG Wells and beware of professional deformation, o ye of little faith!

Posted by: WJ Phillips at September 9, 2003 10:01 AM


You mean differential equation smart-or get rich, have beautiful mistresses, and exercise power over peons smart? I do think there's a difference.

Posted by: martin at September 9, 2003 10:40 AM


Even within the purlieus of science, there are leading Physicists - people even smarter than you, Razib - who believe in religious teachings. For that matter there is Brian Josephson.

yeah, so what's your point? dr. john baumgardner believers the world is 10,000 years old and designed a modelling program (TERA) to show the plausibility of the young earth, flood, etc. his program is used by geologists all the time (who don't put in wack parameters). he's certainly smarter than me-but that doesn't mean he's not the crank, and he is quite obviously going about trying to rationalize positions he came to by faith.

Posted by: razib at September 9, 2003 11:49 AM


Many states make all school teachers get graduate degrees, so I'd expect most graduate degrees are in teaching.

And we know that teachers are the least intelligent of all college majors.

Posted by: Gordon Gekko at September 11, 2003 02:43 PM