Saturday, November 28, 2009

I don't think you're stupid.

I've been trying to think how to write this piece without coming off as a pompous ass. I may or may not succeed.

I've noticed an air of superiority among atheists that I find troubling. Some of my religious friends feel that atheists look down on them. Richard Dawkins alludes to a correlation between higher intelligence and nonbelief in God or other supernatural phenomena. Dinesh D'Souza said of the new atheism, "It wants to make the believer feel like a total idiot for believing in God."

I do not think anyone is stupid for believing in God. I don't think that it's because I'm so smart that I lost my faith--although I did once have a bishop who cautioned me that if I wasn't careful, my "keen mind" could become a "stumbling block" to my faith (i.e. I should quit thinking so much). I'm certainly no dummy, but I'm also smart enough to recognize that there are many people out there who are smarter than I am, and I know many believers among them. For example, my mother is one of the most intelligent people I know. Many of the LDS apostles have had successful medical, scientific or political careers and are obviously very bright guys.

So, if you believe in God, I don't think you're stupid, but I do think you're wrong. I'm not going to go into why I think you're wrong because I've already discussed that in other posts. What I would like to write about today is why I think you believe. And I'm sure I'll get an earful of rebuttal, but I'm okay with that.  :-)

Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society , puts it this way: "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons." You might could even argue that it requires more intelligence to hold up the scaffolding of a shaky foundation.

I'm going to posit why I think believers go to such great lengths to defend their beliefs: They are highly invested in those beliefs and thus highly motivated to maintain them.

When I was a Mormon, I believed that losing my testimony was the worst thing that could happen to me. People who lose their beliefs are painted as dark and defective, full of evil. Brigham Young said of those who leave the Church, "They experience darkness, ignorance, doubt, pain, sorrow, grief, mourning, unhappiness; no person to condole [lament] with in the hour of trouble, no arm to lean upon in the day of calamity, no eye to pity when they are forlorn and cast down; and I comprehend it by saying death, hell and the grave." Or from Doctrine and Covenants 85:9: "...all they who are not found written in the book of remembrance shall find none inheritance in that day, but they shall be cut asunder, and their portion shall be appointed them among unbelievers, where are wailing and gnashing of teeth." A quick search for "unbelief" in the LDS Topical Guide suggests the following related topics: Hardheartedness, Doubt, Hate, Pride, Stubbornness, Wickedness, Fearfulness. Clearly to lose your belief in the Church is a very bad thing.

Belief is a prerequisite for God to work miracles in your life. (Matthew 8:13, Matthew 9: 28-29, Luke 8:50 for just a few examples.) Interestingly, the New Age idea of manifesting reality through our thoughts also claims that we have to truly believe it in order for the universe to shift around and grant our desires. (So when everything isn't rosy, it's your fault because of some mental block dampening your belief.) 

Most mainstream Christians don't think you have to belong to any particular church to be saved, but lets take a look at perhaps the best known verse in all of Christendom, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (emphasis mine)." Or Mark 16:16: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." 

Obviously the stakes are a wee bit higher than, say, not getting presents anymore for not believing in Santa.

Besides these frightening (and  albeit false) consequences of losing belief, no one likes to find out they've been had, especially about something so fundamental to their sense of identity. I can attest to that.

There's a certain sense of security in believing that you have the answers and that you know. It can be unnerving to have to admit that you don't know and that there are no guarantees and that everything doesn't always necessarily work out for the best. So I understand the motives for holding on to irrational beliefs.

But if you can find the courage to let go of that ledge, you might find that what awaits you below is much more like an inflatable bouncy house than menacing, jagged rocks.


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13 comments:

  1. Hear, hear!

    I agree, when what you believe is one of the basic foundations of who you are, it is a bit unnerving to even remotely think about the possibility of being incorrect.

    Great post, by the way.

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  2. If you don't think "believers" (used broadly) are stupid then quit calling them "irrational." Every believer has a rational for their "weird" belief. You illustrated this in your example of New Age Law of attraction people. They explain evil in one's life as stemming from not believing in the power of positive thinking. This is a rational argument even though it may not be a correct one.

    That people have a rational argument for their "weird" beliefs is part of the point of Shermer's statement:

    "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons."

    What Shermer is not saying is that these are qualitative distinctions he is making. What counts as a "smart" reason? why are their beliefs "weird?" I am sure Shermer has answers to these questions but they will stem from a preference for a certain epistemology in a specified context.

    People believe things for a variety of reasons. Personal experience, testimony, empirical evidence, revelation, and so on. All people use these reasons through out their lives to justify their belief in something. I believed a girl like me in third grade because someone told me that was the case. I believed that my parents would get me a bike for Christmas because they said they would. I believe in God because I believe that God has interacted with me in the past. I believe things about this God because there is a series of books that claim to say something about God's character. I believe what the my doctor tells me because he has done the studying that I haven't. I take the drugs he gives me because I know they have been clinically tested. We all move in and out of these epistemological criteria depending on the context in which we are in. I will admit that their is some overlap in the situations in which we apply these criteria but nobody operates on solely one all the time. And that is where I think Shermer makes his mistake. He claims (erroneously) to stand in one category exclusively and judge all others by it. Thus allowing him to say that people believe in ideas he doesn't agree with (weird things) by defending them evidence and criteria that he doesn't think should be applied in that context (non smart reasons).

    Shermer would have certain beliefs about the world that would come about with similar reasons that people use to justify their faith in God, but he would just say that the criteria doesn't apply in this case.

    I had an atheist professor that believed in big foot, and not even based on personal experience but based on a recounting of one of her past mentor's experience of running into a big foot.

    I was stunned that someone so critically minded would believe in big foot because someone told her that they bumped into it once. If I had told her that I had bumped into God once she would have laughed at me.

    In any case, people don't usually have irrational beliefs. They have conclusions and criteria for evidence that you don't hold.

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  3. On a separate note, I don't see the cushy playground you are offering as an alternative to my embarrassing security in a belief that is fundamental to my identity.

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  4. I agree. I think that belief in God is irrational, but dismissing it as stupid misses the boat.

    And -- to respond to your commenter Mike -- there is a very real difference between "stupid" and "irrational". It's subtle, so I wrote a couple of parables about belief to explain it.

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  5. I would say there is a difference between stupid and irrational. I don't think that belief in God is either, in and of itself. You can be stupid and/or irrational and believe in either God or nothing. You can also have a rational belief in either. We are just going to disagree what counts as evidence and the conclusions we reach. That puts the argument in the realm of epistemology.

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  6. The facts are there. Ok, maybe "stupid" is the wrong word. Let's say "below average intelligence".

    "Of 43 studies carried out since 1927 on the relationship between religious belief and one's intelligence and/or educational level, all but four found an inverse connection. That is, the higher one's intelligence or education level, the less one is likely to be religious or hold "beliefs" of any kind."”

    - Richard Dawkins

    517 eminent scientists were surveyed in a 1998 study conducted by Nature Magazine and they found that over 90% of them were either atheist or agnostic.

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  7. Mike said "Every believer has a rational for their "weird" belief. You illustrated this in your example of New Age Law of attraction people. They explain evil in one's life as stemming from not believing in the power of positive thinking. This is a rational argument even though it may not be a correct one". I believe the word Mike should be using is "rationale," which is defined as" a statement, exposition, or explanation of reasons or principles." A rationale is not necessarily rational. It's simply someone's explanation of why they believe something to be true. People who believe that doubting the power of positive thinking have a rationale for believing that, but that rationale is faulty. I believed in the Tooth Fairy at one point in my life, but my rationale for that (finding a dime under my pillow replacing a lost tooth) was faulty. I assume when Mike talks about books that claim explain the character of "God", he is referring to the books of the Bible. (Correct me if am wrong.) These books make "God" seem jealous, petty, murderous, and evil to me. To me Mike's rationale for believing in "God" seems faulty, i. e., irrational. There are books in existence that claim the Holocaust is a hoax. They are filled with the authors' rationale for calling the Holocaust a hoax, but they are faulty.

    Keep in mind that Michael Shermer was a fundamentalist Christian at one point in his life. I find his rationale for leaving the Church to be the foundation for his statement that people believe in "weird" things because they are skilled at defending them. Just a thought

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  8. In connection with the statement that maybe you need to be more intelligent to be able to argue an irrational belief ...

    I would suggest that it makes more sense that lower intelligence will more likely result in someone who is easily swayed by less evidence. For anything. So you can give one of the simplistic arguments against God (why is there suffering if there is a loving God?) and they'll go with it, or you can give a simplistic argument supporting the existence of God (if there's no God how do you explain the incredibly low odds of intelligent life evolving out of nothing?) and they'll go with that too.

    Low intelligence is probably too general a term to use anyway. If, more specifically, we're talking about a low capacity for critical reasoning, then my suggestion above works. But if we're talking about mathematical skills, or musical skills, or communication skills, then not so much. You can be awesome at critical thinking and have no communication skills, and nobody would know how good your critical reasoning skills are because you can't explain what you're thinking.

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  9. *I did not mean to imply that the argument against God's existence involving human suffering was stupid, only that simply saying only that fails to acknowledge the reasoning many people have come up with against that particular argument.*

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  10. In connection with the statement that maybe you need to be more intelligent to be able to argue an irrational belief ...

    I would suggest that it makes more sense that lower intelligence will more likely result in someone who is easily swayed by less evidence. For anything. So you can give one of the simplistic arguments against God (why is there suffering if there is a loving God?) and they'll go with it, or you can give a simplistic argument supporting the existence of God (if there's no God how do you explain the incredibly low odds of intelligent life evolving out of nothing?) and they'll go with that too.

    Low intelligence is probably too general a term to use anyway. If, more specifically, we're talking about a low capacity for critical reasoning, then my suggestion above works. But if we're talking about mathematical skills, or musical skills, or communication skills, then not so much. You can be awesome at critical thinking and have no communication skills, and nobody would know how good your critical reasoning skills are because you can't explain what you're thinking.

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  11. Mike said "Every believer has a rational for their "weird" belief. You illustrated this in your example of New Age Law of attraction people. They explain evil in one's life as stemming from not believing in the power of positive thinking. This is a rational argument even though it may not be a correct one". I believe the word Mike should be using is "rationale," which is defined as" a statement, exposition, or explanation of reasons or principles." A rationale is not necessarily rational. It's simply someone's explanation of why they believe something to be true. People who believe that doubting the power of positive thinking have a rationale for believing that, but that rationale is faulty. I believed in the Tooth Fairy at one point in my life, but my rationale for that (finding a dime under my pillow replacing a lost tooth) was faulty. I assume when Mike talks about books that claim explain the character of "God", he is referring to the books of the Bible. (Correct me if am wrong.) These books make "God" seem jealous, petty, murderous, and evil to me. To me Mike's rationale for believing in "God" seems faulty, i. e., irrational. There are books in existence that claim the Holocaust is a hoax. They are filled with the authors' rationale for calling the Holocaust a hoax, but they are faulty.

    Keep in mind that Michael Shermer was a fundamentalist Christian at one point in his life. I find his rationale for leaving the Church to be the foundation for his statement that people believe in "weird" things because they are skilled at defending them. Just a thought

    ReplyDelete

Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism