I was inspired to re-post this week’s flashback by a Telegraph article with a most provocative title: “Intelligent People Are Less Likely to Believe in God”.
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche had balls. Whether one agrees or disagrees, or even understands, his philosophy, one must recognize the man’s audacity. Openly admiring Nietzsche remains, to this day, a rather dicey proposition. I am, for better or worse, an inveterate fence-sitter; it makes it that much easier to swing over to one side or the other, depending on whom one wants to antagonize. I will not go as far as to denounce myself as a Nietzschean. But I recognize his brilliance. I think that’s a pretty safe step; madmen, as much as geniuses, are often brilliant. I need not decide which category is most apt in this case.
As an aside, in the course of researching this post (I hasten to add that only a minimal amount of research can ever be said to lie behind my musings), I noted that Wikipedia credits Nietzsche with the development of perspectivism, the view that “all ideations take place from a particular cognitive perspective … [in other words] individual concepts of existence are defined by the circumstances surrounding that individual.” Now, I haven’t read any Nietzsche since my undergraduate days, and couldn’t possibly vouch for the accuracy of this neat little Wiki snippet. But if Nietzsche really did come up with that concept (or wrote authoritatively enough to be given credit for it), I cannot help but allow a little admiration to flutter in my cynical, black heart. [Ed. note: as someone who has more experience in cultural and geographic displacement than your average North American, I find this explains a lot about the differences in perspective that I encounter on a daily basis.]
When Nietzsche boldly declared the death of the divinity, he didn’t mean it literally. Recently, however, a spate of books seems intent on proving that God is not only dead, but non-existent. Great minds produced these works; more importantly, they are best-sellers (I note that not as evidence of greatness, but of the fact that they are being, presumably, widely read). Their titles are adamant (God Is Not Great; The God Delusion; God: The Failed Hypothesis) and exhorting (Letters to a Christian Nation; The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason). I confess that I have been tempted to peruse at least of couple of these books. As with any phenomenon, one is often loath to feel left out. But time and time again, I have recoiled from committing myself financially to the task. After all, that’s what libraries are for.
It is a necessary caveat to state that I haven’t read the very books I am about to discuss. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. As such, the point of this post is not to criticize these books; that would be absurd in the circumstances. Besides, it may well be that I agree with much of what is said in them. I merely want to comment on what has struck me as an unusual trend. I can’t help but wonder why or how it was decided that the time is ripe for this sort of discourse; clearly, the decision was an astute one, considering the books’ aforementioned popularity. Then again, I also fail to understand why or how someone decides that fashion needs to revisit the 80s, or teenagers with no apparent talents need to become famous and fabulously wealthy.I should also mention that I am, publicly at least, an agnostic. However, as I stated here before, I do not believe that faith can be explained by reason or science; it is, fundamentally, a private experience – and a uniquely individual one (and I don’t propose to share mine). My comments below are aimed at small-r religion – personal faith – and certainly not organized Religion. The latter is an entirely different beast.What interests me about the efforts of Hitchens, Dawkins et al., is their sheer proselytizing zeal. Why bother convince people that God doesn’t exist? I understand the missionary’s purpose – people might not find God without a little help. But who is the God-denier’s audience? There are, of course, the atheists; but it seems rather redundant to preach to the choir. I suppose there are the agnostics; for all intents and purposes, though, most of them are default atheists anyway. As for the believers – it strikes me that the moderate, rational ones, who might be swayed by the arguments found in these books, are not the ones who typify the ‘dark’ side of religion. They are probably people who diligently go about their lives, observing the law, doing their bit for the economy, raising the next generation – nice enough people by virtue of the law of averages. What victory is it to rob them of what may well be a source of solace or strength or personal contentment? They’re not the ones who start wars, promote intolerance or generally make life miserable for everyone else. What has their God ever done to you? As for the fundamentalists and other fanatics – is it all that likely that any of them will give considered thought to these arguments, if they even bother to read the book? And, further yet, actually be converted?
An oft cited argument is that religion is responsible for a lot of the ills that plague our modern world. I think there’s some truth in that, though I find it a rather facile statement. There are plenty of other factors that fuel human discontent, for which I think religion might function more as an outlet, than a source. The argument suggests that, by abolishing religion, we can root out some of the problems. Of this, I am skeptical. Here’s where my cynicism rears its Hydra-like head(s). I have a feeling that, deprived of religion, people would find something else to fight about. It’s not the gods who’ve sown discontent among us; discontent is bred in our hearts, just as grace or compassion is. I don’t believe that, in a state of nature, humanity is free of flaws. Society does what it can to polish the raw material, but it’s not, itself, a perfect mechanism; in lieu of that, it provides certain, more or less legitimized, outlets for the imperfections. Religion has, no doubt, been a justification for terrible deeds for centuries, if not millennia. But I wonder how often it is a justification raised in abiding conviction, rather than mere convenience.As ready as I am to absolve religion of a great portion of the liability attributed to it, I’m equally prepared to shear it of credit for humanity’s acts of compassion. In that sphere, it is also merely an outlet. You may ask, then, what is the point of religion? I am not religion’s apologist (were such apology necessary). I am reminded, however, of Marx’ famous dictum. It is not the Marxian perspective on religion I wish to adopt; but the phrase is suggestive. Religion is the opium of the people. Think of it as drugs. You choose to take, and what to take and how much. You choose how far you will go to get your ‘fix’. People can try to tell you what’s good for you, and baby-sit your choices – a mostly futile endeavour. Taking drugs will not solve your problems but it might give you a new perspective; you might feel good and you might wind up dead. As with all choices, you have a (moral, if you will) obligation to be informed before you act; beyond that, it’s free will, baby, and personal responsibility all the way.
Despite appearances to the contrary, my view of religion is no more negative than my views of any other human endeavour. It shares, with all of them, the same basic flaw – the inherent imperfection of humanity. I am, to that extent, baffled by its attackers. It’s not their arguments that intrigue me, but their motivations.
Still, this is not the first time that someone has made an assault on the heavens, so to speak. I think it apt (if not particularly witty) to end this meandering post by borrowing from Mark Twain: with all apologies to Nietzsche, reports of God’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Ed. Note (August 2012): As it happens, I ended up getting Dawkins’ God Is Not Great a while back. [Bargain bin at Indigo, and no, that is not intended as a commentary on its qualities. Just that patience can pay off if you’re looking for a bargain.] I did enjoy it, and as I had anticipated, did not disagree with most of it. I am still somewhat ambivalent about its fundamental intent or purpose, though I suppose it can be seen as the “cri de coeur” of the atheist movement in the face of the growing mass of evolution-deniers. On that level, I can support its aims because we definitely do need more intelligent discourse on this. Incredible, in fact, that the discourse is still ongoing – well into the 21st century.
As for the study mentioned in the article I linked at the top, do I think that intelligent people are less likely to believe in God? I think the link between intelligence and non-religiosity is, as critics have said, simplistic. First, if the sample population considered consisted solely of academics … no offence, but they don’t have a monopoly on intelligence. And perhaps the social and institutional structures associated with academia attract, or promote, people with no religious affiliations or beliefs. Second, the fact that religious belief has “declined across 137 developed nations in the 20th century” might have any number of causes other than the purported increase in intelligence during that time. [I say “purported” because my daily morning commute, alone, makes me seriously doubt this fact. If the average IQ is, indeed, rising, the curve must be bulking around the centre.] After all, it’s not like the 20th century witnessed a series of cultural and economic upheavals, global conflicts, or massive technological booms … right?
What do you think? Are more intelligent people less likely to believe in God? And is that an unfairly loaded question?