Faith and Intelligence

Atheists and agnostics are sometimes accused of seeing themselves as more intelligent than people of faith. Which begs the question: as a former believer, do I consider myself to be smarter now that I am a freethinker? In a sense yes, in that I’ve gained knowledge I did not possess before and have developed critical thinking skills that I likewise used to lack. It feels like learning an instrument, in fact a good analogy. People who learn the violin are from one perspective smarter than they were before, with new knowledge and abilities, a brain rewired, and indeed smarter than me, and others, in that respect. But this is a rather informal meaning of intelligence. Virtually anyone can learn the violin, and virtually anyone can find the knowledge and skills I did. Now we’re talking about capacity. We’ve entered the more formal definition of intelligence, under which the answer is obviously no, I’m not smarter than my old self or believers. So the answer is yes and no, as is often the case with variable meanings.

Consider this in detail. There are many definitions of “intelligence” (“smart” can simply be used as a synonym). The formal definition of intelligence generally has to do with the ability or capacity to gain knowledge and skills. You wouldn’t grow in intelligence by gaining knowledge and skills, but rather by somehow expanding the capacity to do so in the first place. (Granted, it could well be that doing the former does impact the latter, a virtuous cycle.) The human and the ape have different capacities, a sizable intelligence gap. Humans have differences too, in terms of genetic predispositions granted by the birth lottery and environmental factors. An ape won’t get far on the violin, and some humans will struggle more, or less, than others to learn it. Human beings have greater or weaker baseline capacities in various areas, different intelligence levels, but most can learn the basics (the idea that enough practice can make anyone advanced or expert has been thoroughly blown up). So under the formal framework, the believer and the skeptic have roughly the same intelligence on average, with the same ability to discover certain knowledge and develop certain skills — whether that ever happens is a separate question entirely, coming down to luck, life experiences, environment, and so on. While studies have often found that religiosity correlates with lower IQ, the difference is very small, with possible causes ranging from autistic persons helping tip the scales for the non-religious to people of faith relying too much on intuition rather than logic or reason when problem-solving, a problem of “behavioral biases rather than impaired general intelligence” — and behavior can be changed, very different than capacity. If this latter hypothesis is true, it would be like giving a violin proficiency test to both violin students and non-students and marveling that the non-students underperformed. Had my logic and reasoning been tested before my transition from pious to dubious, I suspect it would have been lower than today, as I learned many critical thinking skills during and after, but this is not about capacity; it’s just learning anyone can do. Under the more serious definition of intelligence, I don’t believe I’m smarter than my former self or the faithful.

But now we can work under the informal, colloquial meaning, where growing intelligence simply has something to do with a growing base of knowledge and new skill sets. Do we not often say “He’s really smart” of someone who knows copious facts about astronomy or history? Don’t we consider a woman highly intelligent who speaks multiple languages, or is a blazingly fast coder? When we suspect that if we devoted the same time and energy to those things, we could probably hold our own? (Rightly or wrongly, as noted. Either way, we often don’t think as much about capacity as simple acquisition.) This writer, at least, sometimes uses these flattering terms to describe possession of much information or foreign abilities.

In that sense, I certainly believe I’m smarter than I used to be. I realize how insulting that sounds, given that the natural extension is that I consider myself smarter than religious persons. But I don’t know how unique that is. When the weak Christian becomes a strong Christian through reading and thinking and conversing, she may consider herself smarter than before — perhaps even more knowledgable and a more sensible thinker than an atheist! In other words, more intelligent than a nonbeliever (wouldn’t you have to be a fool to think existence, the universe, is possible without a creator being?). When a man learns vast amounts about aerophysics, he sees himself as smarter than before and by extension others on this topic; when he masters the skill of building planes that fly, the same. If intelligence simply means more knowledgable about or skilled at something, everyone thinks they’re smarter than their past selves and by extension other people, with, obviously, many clashing and contradictory opinions between individuals (the Christian and the atheist both thinking they are more knowledgable, for instance).

Some examples are in order from my personal growth, just to illuminate my perspective better. I’ll offer two. I used to believe that, among other reasons, the gospels could be trusted as being entirely factual because they were written 30-40 years after the alleged miraculous events they describe (at least, Mark was; the others were later). “Too soon after to be fictional.” But then I learned something. Other religions, which I disbelieved, had much shorter timespans between supposed events and written accounts! Made-up nonsense about what happened on Day X to Person A was being written about and earnestly believed just a year or two later, in some cases just a day or two later — birthing new religions and stories still believed today! That was just the way humans operated; it’s never too soon for fictions, things can be invented and spread immediately, never to be tamped down. So, I’d gained knowledge. I felt more intelligent because of this — even embarrassed at my old ways of thinking. Not right away, but eventually. How could anyone learn this and not change their way of thinking accordingly, realizing that this argument for the gospels’ trustworthiness is simply dreadful and should be retired?

Since the first example was in the knowledge category, the second can concern critical thinking skills, and is neatly paired with the first. I used to suppose that it was sensible to believe in the gospels (and of course God) because they could not be disproved. After all, why not? If you can’t disprove them, they could be true. So why not continue to believe the gospels to be full of truths rather than fictions, as you’ve been raised or long held? Eventually I started thinking more critically, more clearly. This was the argument from ignorance fallacy: if something hasn’t been disproved that’s reason to suppose there’s truth to it. It’s rather irrational — there are a million stories from all human religions that cannot be disproved…therefore it’s reasonable to think they are true? You can’t disprove that the Greek gods formed Mount Olympus, that Allah or Thor exists, that the god Krishna spoke with Arjuna as described in the Bhagavad Gita, or that we’re living in a simulation. The ocean of unprovable things is infinite and of course highly contradictory, with many sets of things that cannot both or all be true. There are too many fictions in this ocean — you may believe in one of them. To only apply the argument from ignorance to your own faith, to believe that the gospels are true because they cannot be disproved but not all these other things for the precise same reason, is simple bias. Mightn’t it be more sensible to believe that which can be proven, rather than what cannot be disproven? That would be, in stark contrast, a solid justification. Now on the other side of the gulf, I can barely understand how I ever thought in such fallacious ways. But better, more logical ways of thinking I simply developed over time, and as with the development of any skill I can’t help but feel more intelligent because of it.

One does regret how derogatory this may seem to many readers. Yet it is impossible to avoid. I consider myself more intelligent than I used to be because I have knowledge I did not possess before and ways of thinking I consider better than prior ones. By extension, it seems I have to consider myself more intelligent, in this area, than those who, like my past self, do not possess that knowledge or those habits of critical thinking. However (and apologies for growing repetitive, it stems from a desire not to offend too much), this is no different than any person who uses the informal meaning of intelligence in any context. If you use that definition, and believe yourself to be more knowledge of the contents of the bible or biology, or more skilled at mathematics or reading people, than before or compared to others, you consider yourself smarter than other people, in those areas but not necessarily in others. If you instead use the formal definition of intelligence, regarding the mere capacity to gain knowledge and develop skills, then you’d say you’re not actually smarter than others (as they could simply do as you have done) or at least not necessarily or only possibly smarter (again, there are differences in capacities between human beings; some will be naturally better at mathematics no matter how hard others practice). In this latter sense, I’m again compelled in my answer: I essentially have to say I’m not smarter than my former self or current believers who think as I once did.

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