Does God make us ignorant?
One of the most interesting and perplexing things I have ever come across in life is the notion of religion. Those groups of people who seem to vie for control as to one monotheistic belief. Who says belief is intrinsically valuable anyway? The advocates of it, that’s who those who pick and choose to highlight only those parts of their religious laws that are positive in the light of the general populace and gloss over all the horrendous parts. Now I’m not saying all kinds of belief are a bad thing, quite the opposite actually. Belief in oneself is valuable as it motivates us to strive to better ourselves and belief in a tangible just cause may also have merit. The type of belief I think harms us as a species is the one where people choose to believe something just because they believe in the face of evidence, claim that they are the victims of prejudice just because others don’t hold their beliefs, use it as an excuse to make war and seek to keep man rooted in the past using the old “it has always been so it shall always be thus” argument… Gods.
Now I’m not about to debate the existence of God because such a conjuration of the mind is something I cannot prove either way, I might as well debate the existence of Middle Earth as being somewhere other than in Tolkien’s mind (although isn’t Middle Earth somewhere near New Zealand…..) and in any case religion will always win this argument using logical fallacy and the principle of the ultimate regress (God came first and that’s an end of it). I am just going to illustrate that believing in one can have effects that you maybe wouldn’t realise at first glance by looking at atheism, religious belief (bias), intelligence, and social/economic geography.
Just to clarify an Atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God and ⁄ or finds the very concept of God meaningless or incoherent (Baggini 2003). Atheists are not by default prejudice just because they don’t entertain the belief systems of other groups. I’m a skeptic and an atheist and as such will convert for evidence.
Religion, belief bias and Intelligence
The term Intelligence means different things to different people but in the scientific community it’s measure can usually be that of intelligence quotient (IQ) which usually relates to an individual’s mental agility or working memory (WM). Much research indicates that IQ to some extent could be dictated by genetics, most notably that of Francis Galton (Gillham 2001) and also the family environment (Devlin, Daniels & Roeder 1997) through twin studies. More recently though whilst still maintaining genetics have an effect at some level heritability is deemed to be less important because of the limitations of such studies in that they are completely dependent on homogeneity in the sample which is not reflective of the populace outside of it (Johnson, Turkheimer & Gottesman 2009). It could also be said that a better measure of intelligence might be differing levels cognitive function or that of crystalised (Gc) and fluid intelligence (Gf). This article, however, will focus on IQ as a measure and belief bias.
It has been reported by many that there is a negative relationship between intelligence and religious belief. Howells & Sinclair (1928) both found of a sample of college students that more intelligent students were less likely to have strong religious beliefs. The works of Shenhav, Rand & Green (2011) reveal how belief and specifically religious belief alters the cognitions of people uncovering a correlation between intuition (go with what you know) and religiosity using the Cognitive Reflection Test. This study found that self reported religious participants relied heavily on intuition rather than reflection (more cognitively demanding). This is interesting to me as through my travels I have sought to study breifly in the Faisal mosque in Pakistan, Churches in Europe and Africa and many other communities and it does seem evident that those in a religion would rather believe what people in there own group say than evaluate things on their own merit objectively. So does this mean that the religious don’t think? Obviously not it just means that thought patterns are different (neural correlates are an interesting avenue here) in the religious communities and that belief biases exist… but why? Lynn (2009) shows us that across 137 different nations that countries with higher IQ have higher levels of atheism. So when you look at the face of it then it does seem that a lack of religious belief fosters a more intelligent nation. There are however many mediating factors that can contribute to this outcome.
Geographical location and intelligence with regards to religious belief has already been highlighted but it may not be just down to belief of lack thereof making a more or less intelligent population in that region. Think about what truly religious countries have in common and what those that are not have in common for a moment. Barber (2012) lists those things highly religious countries have in common which can reduce IQ including : poverty, lower education levels, worse child nutrition, less urbanized, poor environmental control (lead poisoning reducing brain development), increased level of pathogens. On top of this, these places usually also have lower levels of economic and social certainty. So is it any wonder that in nations beset by such hardships and uncertainty that people turn to a religious entity to seek comfort? It also happens to be these places in the world that have the lowest levels of atheism, Sub-Saharan Africa under 1%, the Islamic nations etcetera. Now think of what we might call the modern world. Westernised nations in particular lack many of the environmental hazards listed above leading to higher levels of certainty socially, economically and with regards to health in life and the rearing of healthier offspring. Again it just so happens that atheism manifests itself in greater numbers in these countries, Sweden 64%, Denmark 48%, France 44% (Zuckerman 2007) for example.
So, far from advocating that religion makes people less intelligent from this it can easily be seen that there are many factors in these areas that contribute to a lower level of intelligence. Perhaps they are actually the reason why people are more likely to band together under a belief system which they have themselves invented for comfort and guidance rather than religious belief making people stupid. Does God make us ignorant then? Well belief in one certainly makes people ignorant to those things that contravene their beliefs (cognitive dissonance). Such ignorance and thought processes can then lead to the dismissal of evidence out of hand with regards to any topic one is not ready to believe which surely is stupidity. That said, it can’t be accurately stated that being religious has a causal effect on low intelligence and yet the relationship is such a striking one that it does look like religious belief holds us back as a species in certain areas and faith groups. It is encouraging however to know that many possesing the keener minds amongst us were extremely religiuos but these people could see past it and still go on to be the purveyours of scientific wisdom. If you can think of any of the greats let me know.
Baggini, J. (2003). Atheism: A very short introduction, Oxford University Press.
Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-Book, Amazon.
Devlin , B., Daniels, M., & Roeder, K. (1997). The heritability of IQ, Nature, 388, pp.468-471.
Gillham, W. N. (2001). “Sir Francis Galton and the birth of eugenics”. Annual Review of Genetics 35, 1, 83-101.
Johnson, W., Turkheimer, E., Gottesman, I, I., & Bouchard, J. T. (2009) Beyond Heritability Twin Studies in Behavioral Research. Association for Psychological Science 18, 4.
Lynn, R. A., Harvey, B. J., Nyborg, H. (2009) Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations. Journal of Intelligence, 37, 11-15.
Shenhav, A., Rand, D. G., & Greene, J. D. (2011). Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. Doi; 10.1037/a0025391, accessed 10.03.2012.
Zuckerman, P. (2007). Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns. In M. Martin (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press