Q&A re Smart Fundamentalists

From ex-Christian.net  11/23/06

 Dano said…

     If we can agree on this, "Some humans are very smart, and some humans are very dumb," can you give me your explanation as to how some of the very smart ones can live their whole lives, like your brother has "In the faith," and not be able to think their way out.

     I have a tendency to automatically downgrade the I/Q of anyone who calls themselves Christian, but am stuck with the dilemma of recognizing that some of them seem to be a lot smarter than me.

     How can a really smart person not see the convoluted logic and the obvious Pagan genesis of the Jesus Story?

Dan (Agnostic) 


Hi Dano – 

You ask if I agree that some humans are smarter than others, and if so, why smart people can be Christians. 

Before trying to address your questions, let me say that the word Christian means very different things to different people who embrace the label.  Coming from a fundamentalist background, I was astonished to discover the vast diversity of Christian identities.  There are questions that we simply do not have answers to, and for some Christians, this is the realm in which faith operates.  For them, Christianity is a moral community and a set of metaphors that illuminate life’s mysteries.  Faith really is just faith:  the essence of things hoped for.  This kind of faith is not necessarily anti-rational or anti-empirical; it defers to rationality and evidence in the natural world. That said, many forms of Christianity violate both reason and evidence, so I will answer with those in mind.    

Now to your first question:  Are some people smarter than others?  The answer here is pretty clear for a developmentalist or psychologist. When psychologists measure "smart" they’re trying get an approximate read on someone’s ability to retain information, link it up with other information already in their brain, analyze it logically, and apply it where it fits.   Even though Americans like to think that any of us can become anything, the reality is that life gives us these gifts in very different chunks. Near my home is a school that houses the most gifted and most impaired kids in the Seattle Public Schools. Some are reading Orson Scott Card in the 2nd grade.  Some will struggle all their lives to form a simple word or two. (Funny how which kids end up where seems to have nothing to do with justice.) 

Your second question is one that many freethinkers have scratched their heads over.  Although analytic abilities and education correlate negatively with belief in a human-like god and acceptance of traditional dogmas, we all have met, lived with, and often loved very smart people who are fundamentalists. Some cognitive-science types have speculated that many humans find abstraction uncomfortable or uninteresting and so instinctively personalize their experience of the universe. This may be partially true.  We do know that all over the world people are inclined to supernatural thinking that includes powerful, magical human variants.  (Even when these have animal bodies, they have human psyches.)  But we also know that when political or social factors interrupt the spread of viral religious memes, the percent of people who can live without supernaturalism is much much higher than what we see in the United States today. 

So, back to people who seem particularly smart and particularly stuck.  Here are some factors to put into the hopper. 

1.  "Smart" has a lot of different components.  People can be very good at storing or analyzing some kinds of information and not others.  

2.  We human beings, including those who are smarter than average, are far less rational than we like to think we are.  Much of our thinking is just a bunch of rationalizations for preferences and behavior that actually are driven by our more primitive emotions and instincts.  

3.  Our brains have all kinds of built-in hard-wired shortcuts they use to simplify information processing.  (See Pascal Boyer:  Religion Explained.)  One consequence of this is that we have a remarkable ability to hold beliefs that are incompatible with each other. The incompatible beliefs can be perfectly comfortable until some life experience forces them into contact with each other. 

4. We don’t just store facts as independent little scraps of information.  Rather, we weave them together into stories and theories about the world around us.  New information gets slotted into this big framework and often altered as need be to make it fit. A great example of this is the Iraq debacle.  Neo-con foreign relations strategy is driven by ideology – an overarching theory – essentially a secular religion like communism though very different doctrinally. They got stuck because information coming in from the Middle East was forced to fit the basic assumptions of this ideology.   

5.  As Michael Shermer points out in his book, Why People Believe Weird Things, extra-smart people have even more ability than the rest of us to build a complex rational structure on top of a few false assumptions (or base prejudices).  

6. One should never underestimate the power of a social group to shape beliefs.  For many people their emotional bond with a group of believers is the lock that holds their beliefs in place.  When we have warm loving relationships with people, we tend to reconcile our beliefs to theirs.  Thinking very differently than they do is uncomfortable, and often requires distancing emotionally or leaving the group. Social groups also determine our information sources and trusted authority figures.

7.  If you look up the concept of "memes" or "memetics" on the web, you will find a fascinating body of research that discusses how and why ideas spread, independent of their truth or merit. 

At the risk of repeating myself excessively, the best protection any of us have against egregious falsehood is doubt coupled with the willingness to honestly ask those questions that could show us wrong.  Being part of a social context that values doubt and hard questions is tremendously helpful – especially when that group is diverse enough so that people catch each others blind spots. 

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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1 Response to Q&A re Smart Fundamentalists

  1. Valerie says:

    Anonymous writes . . .
    I work at a prison . . .    As far as inmates claiming to be Christians.  That’s almost automatic for most of them, especially the sex-offenders (mostly child molesters).  Jesus forgives everyone.  Don’t you know that?  If you’re right with Jesus, you’re alright.   They also sign up for the sex-offender programs solely to reduce their prison stay.  It’s a joke.  Just like the so-called Muslims in the prison system.  They get perks for that.  I could go on for hours of all the hypocrisy I see but that’s Evangelical Christianity and prison rehabilitation in America, in general.
        I offer my little reply to Dano:  Just because you have a high IQ does not mean you can think critically about your religious convictions.  Even smart people are weak minded when it comes to that and need to believe in something unreal.

    Valerie writes . . . Sounds like you have a total insider view on the hypocrisies in the prison system.  Thanks for the correction and extra information.  You and I both know that religious belief has very little to do with how well developed a person’s moral reasoning and moral emotions are.  But the general religious public tends to link morality and religiosity.  As a consequence they might be surprised by the high rates of belief among prisoners or the high rates of morality among non-believers. 
    One might hypothesize that the high rates of religiosity in prison populations are caused by several factors:  below average information processing abilities, the need to disown guilt, below average educational attainment, and – last but not least – targeted proselytizing of inmates by "Prison Ministries."  Personally, I can think of nothing much worse than a pious sociopath. 
    I also agree with your response to Dano.  People apply their critical reasoning skills selectively.  To some extent, I think our refusal to talk about religion publicly has contributed to this – it has allowed people to keep their religious beliefs in a separate pocket from the rest of their lives.  It also means the only people talking publicly about religion have been those who are "witnessing."  I think that we need to teach about religion in our public schools, just like we teach about other dimensions of human society – the history of religion, the current sociology and politics of religion, and religion as a natural (psychological, biological) phenomenon. 


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