I had a discussion a few days ago with someone who told me that many very smart people he knew were also religious. I thought about that for a minute, and after reflection I just couldn’t agree. I don’t think one can be really smart and religious at the same time.
Yes, I know that some people who are academically smart and who have done great things, like Newton, were and are deeply religious. But in the old days you had no choice about being religious: you imbibed faith with your mother’s milk. And there was little chance to think for oneself, for it was either a death sentence or permanent ostracism if you questioned religion, and there were few ways to find like-minded souls.
Now, however, it’s different, for—except in some benighted lands—there is far more freedom to learn about nonbelief and hear the arguments against God; parents and society aren’t so insistent about instilling religion in young folks; and you face less ostracism if you’re a nonbeliever. (Of course it’s always easier if you keep that to yourself.)
And many public intellectuals—and virtually all accomplished scientists—are atheists. Why? Because there’s no credible evidence for God. It’s palpably and painfully obvious that religion is a human construct and that the tenets of different faiths are not reconcilable. The things that the faithful say they believe are simply ludicrous. I cringe, for example, when I hear a “smart” person like Rabbi Sacks or the Archbishop of Canterbury profess such stuff.
To me, this means that someone, regardless of how “smart” they seem, is at the very least irrational if they believe in God or the attendant superstitions. It is as if their brain is a jigsaw puzzle with one crucial piece missing: the piece that accepts important propositions in proportion to the evidence supporting them. And to me that kind of irrationality is a form of stupidity, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “dullness or slowness of apprehension; gross want of intelligence.” It’s not that they’re totally stupid; just partially stupid.
Look at it this way: if someone spent much of their lives worshiping Santa, elves, fairies, or even Zeus, and maintained in all seriousness that Santa delivers presents to Western children at nearly the speed of light each Christmas, you’d think they weren’t playing with a full deck. But somehow it’s okay if they do the same with Allah, Jesus, Muhammad, God, Vishnu, and the like. They can profess such stuff and still be considered “smart.” I can’t agree.
So I have to admit this: when a person who seems intelligent tells me that they are religious—at least in the sense that they’re theists who believe in unbelievable stuff—I immediately discount their minds. Yes, I can still respect what they say as scientists or doctors or electricians, or any area of their expertise, but I always regard them with a bit of pity. If that sounds arrogant, so be it; but don’t you pity a 9/11 theorist or a believer in UFO visitations? Why is religion any different? Why should we “respect” religious belief but denigrate belief in Bigfoot and homeopathy?
I understand that some adults are unable to shake habits and beliefs instilled in their youth—after all, evolution has almost certainly molded our minds to accept what our elders tell us in our formative years—but that’s less excusable these days, days when you can easily find arguments against God and religion.
I’ll admit here, then, that if you tell me you’re a theist, or adhere to a religion that makes untenable reality claims, I’ll think less of you. I won’t deem you “stupid,” which is an overall assessment of one’s mental acuity, but I’ll think you somewhat irrational and, as the Brits say, perhaps a tad thick.
Of course I expect readers to weigh in below. And tell the truth!