seeing this article made me think of an old blog post i wrote here a while back.  i thought this would be a good time to revisit this:

believe it or not, the inspiration for this blog post comes from an article on, entitled 4 things both atheists and believers need to stop saying.  the author asserts that Atheists in general have a superiority complex, and think of the Religious as simple minded or stupid. 


while it may be true that many or even most Atheists tend to lean towards this stance, i wonder about the validity of the premise - not whether or not Atheists think they are smarter, but whether or not Atheists are smarter.  i know that some research has been done on this, but the results are murky and unremarkeable.  there have been studies linking high IQ to a disbelief in God, but i take these with a grain of salt.  it doesn't prove anything.  i think at best all we can do is add up what we know and discuss the information.  so what do we know?


1.  indoctrination is hard to break out of


or you could use the word brainwashing, no difference.  i don't think that it's a coincidence that many people break away from religion as their brain grows.  the human brain continues to grow into our 30's.  we get smarter, not through accumulation of information, but literally with additional capacity.  as we smarten up, the same traditions, ceremonies, and beliefs start to take on a different meaning.  most religious people have experienced doubts when they start to question things that they've come to accept as fact.  many of these questioners become non-believers as their questions simply grow too large to ignore.  however, the great majority seem to brush off their questions and return to blind faith.  so, the question is why some, and not others?  is this where intelligence comes in?


2.  not everyone is smart


visit an amusement park on a hot summer day and you surely know this to be true.  about 16% of the general public have IQ's over 115.  i don't know where the line between smart and stupid is, but i would think that 115 seems to differentiate the smart with the less intelligent.  it's obviously coincidence, but most figures show that about 15% of people are Atheist.  but if 84% (or even 60%) of humans are not exactly 'bright', is it that difficult to conclude that they may not have the mental faculties to break free of religious indoctrination?


3.  scientists are smart


by their very nature, they kind of have to be.  they use complex mathmatical formulas, dig deep into research, understand diverse and difficult concepts, and read ALOT.  as the religious love to point out, scientists are overwhelmingly Atheist.  the connection is almost too obvious to point out. 


4.  conversion is a one way street


while it occassionally occurs, an Atheist becoming a Christian is nearly impossible.  without knowing every single case where this has happened, it is reasonable to assume that most of this kind of conversion is questionable - did this person REALLY not believe in God?  it's also reasonable to assume that many of those who converted to religion did so out of pressure from family and friends.  on the other hand, religious devotees are turning to Atheism in droves.  thousand of former religious folk leave their religions daily.  the reason is obvious - once you break the spell, you can never fall under it's power again.  if your mind can be freed from religion, there is simply too much evidence against belief.  all it takes are two things:  information and critical thought.  at some point, all believers are exposed to information that should make them question their belief, but only those who possess critical thinking skills can make the leap. 


5.  critical thinking is a sign of intelligence


on the surface, i'm sure that most people would agree with that statement, although it is not an outright fact.  you can be highly intelligent and not possess critical thinking skills.  but i would argue that is the exception, not the rule. it is essential to becoming an Atheist to put aside blide faith and use your faculities to dismiss what you've been taught.  this is critical thinking, or problem solving if you like.  the problem in question is what to do with the inconsistencies that you encounter when dealing with religion.  i maintain that the less intelligent are not as adept at using their problem solving skills, so when they are presented with incongruities in their religion, they shuck it aside to avoid an unpleasant thought process.  those who are more comfortable in using critical thinking (the more intelligent) will embrace this dichotomy of thought, research, question more, think more, and ultimately make a rational and logical conclusion.  hence, Atheists converting from religion. 


6.  freethinkers, rationalists, reason


these are the words that describe the Atheist movement.  isn't it funny that even the religious describe Atheists using these words?  look at those words again - the very definition of intelligence is right there!


i'm sure i'm just scratching the surface here.  i'd welcome some additional viewpoints, research, and opinions on this topic.  please feel free to share your thoughts. 

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Taking your thoughts point by point, here's my take on this article.

1.  Indoctrination can be incredibly hard to overcome. And, I don't think it's always correlated to the acquisition of new information.  There are cultural and societal issue to overcome. An example of that is the Clergy Project, an on line community of atheist ministers. And, it should go without saying that expressing atheism, as a former Muslim in an Islamic nation, is getting a one way ticket to the graveyard.

2.  This is tied into #1.  Are the less intelligent able to mentally break free from religious indoctrination? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. To repeat, I think it not only has to do with the ability to critically think, but societal factors in a person's life.  This may also include people who may be quite intelligent, but are also extremely passive, fearful, and unwilling to "buck the system" out of concern for rejection or other negative things which will occur in their life.

3. Yes, I would agree that scientists are in all probability innately more intelligent than the average person. However, how do you explain someone like Francis Collins, head of the human genome mapping project, who is a true believer in Jesus? I don't necessarily think innate intelligence coupled with the ability to solve complex problems, in and of itself, is a defining factor.  Look at the example Melinda gave of her engineer brother-in-law. I, too, happen to know a civil engineer and a mechanical engineer who both are religious and consider themselves good, conservative, Christian, Republicans. The mechanical engineer is also a racist. There has to be something more than just the ability to solve complex problems.

4.  I agree. De-conversion is a one way street. The problem is, getting down that street. I see it as somewhat similar to a person's suspension of disbelief while watching Star Wars. You know it's not real, nevertheless, you go along with the story for the sheer entertainment and excitement of it. Religion is the suspension of disbelief. The difficulty, however, is that the suspension of that disbelief has been so ingrained in us, since our first conscious memories, that many of us seem to compartmentalize it and accept it as an alternate form of reality.  A CPA doesn't worry about the Assumption of the Virgin when he/she is calculating itemized deductions for a client's income taxes. Sunday morning, he/she is not worried about the itemized deductions, as making sure (s)he's doing the proper propitiations to get into heaven. Two separate forms of thought, without a door to open between them.  When faced with evidence of the big bang by cosmic background cosmic radiation, or evolution by natural selection, they'll twist the one "theistic" compartment to try and make it fit with the rational and problem solving one.  If that doesn't work, jettison the evidence of what won't work in the latter to keep the former, and get back to the calculator.

5.  Maybe, though I'm not totally convinced. A person with a developmental disability can exercise a certain amount of critical thinking based upon experiential information. Keep your hand off a hot stove or out of the campfire.  Back to more complex problem solving. Just because someone can do differential equations, does not mean they can make a coherent closing argument at a murder trial. Likewise, while I can do the latter, with my math skills, I have a hard time balancing a checkbook on the nose of a trained seal.  I do think a fair amount of this is the compartmentalization of ideas that we all do, coupled with our various and sundry abilities and developed skills.

6. Yeah, maybe.  It's the "freethinker" part I'm not so sure of. Someone who follows the New Age guru Deepak Chopra may same the same thing about their open mindedness regarding the "quantum spirituality" of the universe. 

Interesting topic. And, interesting post.

Pat, great reply.  many thanks for your input.  

Matthew and Matthew - thanks

Matthew, I like your post.

And I enjoy thinking critically, even about critical thinking itself and about people who think critically.

1. On indoctrination.

What purpose does it serve, if not to shut down critical thinking? To be effective the indoctrination has to start early. The effort required to break free has to be good exercise for what a friend once described as the "thinking muscle". I sure would NOT send kids to Catholic schools so they can get the kind of mental exercise I had to do.

3. Scientists are smart?

Some of the sciences require more "smartness" than others. I loved high school and college physics; I avoided college organic chemistry because it required so much memorization. What can I say about those fields of study that during the 1960s started calling themselves the social sciences and are now pejoratively called the soft sciences? Compared to the "hard sciences", they require a more humane kind of smartness.

4. Conversion a one-way street?

When conversions away from religion are inadequately done, they might in times of crises or when near death result in conversions back to religion. How do I recognize an inadequate conversion away from religion?

5. Critical thinking a sign of intelligence?

Check the kind of thinking done by people who'd grown up in violent or abusive homes. It's hyper-critical. Instead of being a sign of intelligence, it might be a sign of post-traumatic stress or a warning of future behavior.

6. Freethinkers, rationalists, reason, etc.

Be wary of self-congratulatory talk; it might serve as cover for something else. A very angry anarcho-communist I once knew claimed he was an atheist. I asked him once if he was glad he'd been born. He replied "Hell no!" He died without becoming calm enough for me to ask if he had grown up in a violent or abusive home.

Thanks, Matthew, for providing me the above opportunities for critical thinking.

your welcome Tom.  i'm glad you enjoyed it.  this was one of the earliest posts i did here at A/N.

maybe better stated atheists and tolerance.. or patience.. that which the fundines lack always it seems.. and 'I'm" the bigot right? pfffft

  Hi Matthew:

When you say 

"i know that some research has been done on this, but the results are murky and unremarkeable.  there have been studies linking high IQ to a disbelief in God... but i take these with a grain of salt.  it doesn't prove anything."

The results are far from murky. In fact, the results showing a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence has been consistent over many decades of research. 


Religious people are less intelligent than atheists, according to a...

Study found 'a reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity' in 53 out of 63 studies


New meta-analysis checks the correlation between intelligence and f...


I agree, that this is indeed unremarkable. However, it's quite logical and intuitive. You wouldn't think it remarkable if someone who went around espousing the tooth fairy were considered stupid (in the clinical sense) would you? Why does belief in god get far more much social respect than belief in Santa? Why is it less socially acceptable to question religion than it is to question aliens? The answer to this is social conditioning. The second article above points to this.

yes, this is new information than when i originally wrote this post.  i included the link to this new study at the top of the discussion, and it was my reason for re-posting this topic.  

..."Why does belief in god get far more much social respect than belief in Santa? Why is it less socially acceptable to question religion than it is to question aliens? The answer to this is social conditioning."...

Excellent point Bob, and in my view the correct conclusion.  This extends beyond religion to assumptions like, 'X is the greatest country on earth', etc.  Tribalism!  It's still what 'informs' and motivates us in this very young and not yet proven experiment in civilization.  Religion has been useful in this transition as means for the smart to control the not so smart, or attempts at the opposite.  For social conditioning to be effective it has to either start with indoctrination of the very young (through softening the intellect with palatable notions like Santa), and/or with persistent cultural saturation.

I've lived in places like Salt Lake City and the Pine Ridge reservation and Charlotte, North Carolina where fairly irrational social norms are little questioned and vociferously defended when they are challenged.  No rational case can be made for these ideas, but they are ubiquitous and socially conditioned into stable memes.  People in those places aren't necessarily more or less intelligent than people elsewhere, though they don't seem likely to be places where intelligence proliferates and thrives.

We humans, distinct from most other animals, exhibit highly plastic brains -- we are able to learn and develop 'good tricks' that are transmitted not genetically but memetically.  If a culture develops and stabilizes around an irrational but useful meme, it seems entirely possible that intelligence could, by differential reproductive success (see Mormons) decline within that memosphere.


I've lived in places like Salt Lake City and the Pine Ridge reservation and Charlotte, North Carolina where fairly irrational social norms are little questioned and vociferously defended when they are challenged.

One of this country's major problems, and impediments to learning is provincialism.  Gather a group of people of the same background and beliefs together, isolate them, and it will be hard for them to accept anything other than what they are accustomed to. 

Here in NYC, we are daily exposed to every culture, every language every belief system and every race on the planet. In places like this new ideas flourish, and sanity tends to be the norm. Diversity is the key.

Just one example:

Topless Women in Public Not Breaking the Law, Says NYPD

See Topless Woman? Just Move On, Police Are Told

How would such public policy be greeted in Salt Lake City, Pine Ridge reservation, Charlotte, North Carolina, or any part of our ignorant bible belt?

Diversity, exposure to divergent ideas, customs, and cultures is why Europe has a much higher percentage of non-believers and rationalists;  while the U.S. wallows in ancient irrational superstitions. 


"One of this country's major problems, and impediments to learning is provincialism..."


I agree with you on that.  Right now I live near Greenville, SC, which is a relatively progressive outpost in an increasingly regressive South (and perhaps nation as a whole).  What we think and do here has some, but not much, effect on the State House and the US Congress and our nation's policies.  NYC obviously has more effect, but what I've seen in the boroughs is sort of a projected provincialism with no strong connection to realities in say, Provo, Utah.  That may be a good thing -- I'd certainly rather live according to the values of NYC than Provo for the most part, but it's still provincialism.

Our newfound civilization has not yet equipped us with the means to meld into one big 'tribe'.  Maybe we're getting there and maybe that's good, and maybe it will collapse like a house of cards.  We just don't know yet, and so we follow or lead whatever trends seem right at the moment.  Philadelphia was once our nation's capitol and now it's not.  Denver may be in the future, or Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle  and Tucson capitols of four distinct nations.

New York City is a unique melting pot, and I love it for that, but it's not at all representative of the rest of the country.  All of those other places are diverse or insular in their own ways, and might like to bring NYC or especially DC around to their way of thinking.  We have a long way to go before becoming one 'tribe', and I won't even try to assign value to doing so.

I seem to have wandered quite far from the original topic.



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