It has become a popular stereotype in modern America that religious people are the enemies of reason, the opponents of science or the defenders of the irrational. For instance, consider this headline from the Scientific American in 2012, “Losing Your Religion: Analytic Thinking Can Undermine Belief.” The article actually does go on to conclude that perhaps science and religion are not at odds all the time, but when you meet with this kind of headline, it is clear that they were trying to tap into a certain stereotype that would get people like me to click on the article.
Or, consider this research done by Miron Zuckerman of the University of Rochester who found, “a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity.” He suggests three reasons as to why this may be the case. “First, intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma. Second, intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs. Third, several functions of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by intelligence. Intelligent people may therefore have less need for religious beliefs and practices.” Again, the implication of this study is rather clear. If people are intelligent, the conclusion is that they do not need religion. Somehow, religious belief and intelligence are at odds.
It is interesting to read this research in conjunction with G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. Even a century ago, he realized the tactics that many secularists were using in the battle to make religious people appear unreasonable, irrational and worthy of dismissal. He wrote, “Simple secularists still talk as if the Church had introduced a sort of schism between reason and religion. The truth is that the Church was actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and religion.”
A little bit of simple religious literacy reinforces Chesterton’s point. When you read Thomas Aquinas, there is no doubt that he sought to try to bring together faith and reason. He knew that both of them were worthwhile and true, so he wanted to understand how they interacted. Many early scientists happened to be Christians as well. They believed that the universe was created by God, and because of that belief, they were able to develop things like the scientific method. Because of the existence of an intelligent Creator, it was reasonable for scientists to expect that the universe had an underlying degree of rationality.
It is certainly not the case that faith and reason have to be at odds despite what the research says, but the research does indeed say something. Clearly, correlation does not imply causation, but we cannot just reject this research because we don’t like it. After all, not many of us think like Chesterton. Very few people have ever had the intellectual power of Aquinas. Maybe faith and intelligence are at odds for most people, and even though there are outliers who show that they do not have to be at odds, in general, maybe there is this tension between faith and intelligence that exists for the average person like you or me.
I want to take the three conclusions from Zuckerman's study and evaluate them through the lens of Chesterton and The Everlasting Man. It seems to me that he provides answers for each of these contentions as to why more intelligent people happen to be less religious. I hope by exposing these weaknesses, perhaps it will suggest that these reasons are insufficient, and perhaps there is another reason or set of reasons that explain why this correlation seems to exist.
First, Zuckerman’s first contention is that perhaps intelligent people are less likely to conform and therefore are less susceptible to religious dogma. I have to be honest. This one kind of makes me laugh because in 21st-century America, it is a lot easier to conform to our overarching culture rather than conform to a belief in traditional Christianity. As Chesterton said, “The crux and crisis is that man found it natural to worship; even natural to worship unnatural things.” Throughout human history, there has always been this tendency to worship. A vast majority of cultures around the world have always embraced some kind of belief in the supernatural. Obviously, not all of them were as developed as others. Some were in fact quite simple while others, like Christianity, have developed a vast intellectual tradition with all kinds of nuance and complexity. However, there is this seemingly natural tendency for people to have some type of religious belief.
Therefore, in our contemporary moment, it may certainly looks like people are moving away from a belief in religion, but they are replacing religion with an ideology that serves a very similar purpose without a belief in the supernatural embedded. Because they have this desire to worship something, they move on to what Chesterton would refer to as unnatural. Even when they reject religion, they find something else to fill in that spot, and I would argue that it is much more popular today to conform to the dogma of secularism than it is to conform to the dogma of religion. Therefore, this first supposed explanation does not really make sense to me. It seems to me that traditional Christians are the rebels who are going against the grain of our modern culture. We are arguing for the supernatural in our world that is increasingly moving away from that belief. We are actually the freer thinkers who are willing to move away from the dogma.
Zuckerman’s second potential explanation for the negative relationship between intelligence and religiosity is that nonreligious people tend to be more analytical as opposed to intuitive. Intelligent people tend to be more analytic, so these traits seem to move together. This is also what the first article I mentioned from the Scientific American talks about.
Chesterton would presumably defend the value of intuition while not rejecting the importance of analysis. “When the man makes the gesture of salutation and of sacrifice, when he pours out the libation or lifts up the sword, he knows he is doing a worthy and a virile thing. He knows he is doing one of the things for which a man was made. His imaginative experiment is therefore justified.” I know that some of you are going to have a great deal of difficulty with the fact that Chesterton refers to an imaginative experiment. Experiments are supposed to be entirely objective, done in isolation and ultimately able to be measured and evaluated. Certainly, nothing in the imagination can meet those criteria, but I think that is the point.
We are very quick to dismiss knowledge that this always been intrinsic to the human experience because we reduce experience to subjectivity. Why has man always made offerings to some type of supernatural? They did it because they felt it was the right thing to do, and after they did it, they understood that it felt right. Therefore, the experiment was verified. It would be just as easy to imagine a situation where someone poured out a certain offering, and it didn’t feel right or didn’t feel like anything. In that case, the experiment would have failed.
We have divorced to the intuition from knowledge, and that is why we end up with people like Zuckerman who draw this differentiation between intuitive personalities and analytic personalities. Certainly, some of us may lean in one direction or the other in terms of what kind of knowledge makes the most sense to us, but rather than having a differentiation between faith and reason, I think Zuckerman himself is actually drawing a false differentiation. Intuition is not valued enough in these types of tests that favor analytic personalities to begin with in their design. Therefore, intuitive people appear to be less intelligent than analytic people, but that just does not seem to be true, and Chesterton would argue for the importance of valuing intuition.
Finally, Zuckerman argues, “several functions of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by intelligence.” Basically, he is arguing that religion is a crutch that does indeed provide benefits, but intelligent people might not need those benefits. The funny thing about this supposition is that I think Chesterton would argue that this is not surprising at all and actually might support this finding. “In a word, mythology is a search; it is something that combines a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt, mixing a most hungry sincerity in the idea of seeking for a place with a most dark and deep and mysterious levity about all the places found. So far could the lonely imagination lead, and we must turn later to the lonely reason. Nowhere along this road did the two ever travel together.”
I think that Chesterton would argue that modern man is indeed on a search for all of these characteristics, and he tries to find them wherever he can. Therefore, some people are going to find self-regulation for example in religion while others will find that they are not going to really need to find that because they already have a great deal of self-regulation naturally. However, he moves on to really hammer the final point that provides the differentiation, and it is not based on intelligence.
“The pagans had dreams about realities; and they would have been the first to admit, in their own words, that some came through the gate of ivory and others through the gate of horn.”
Everyone dreams about certain things, and it comes back to what I think Chesterton would argue against each of these three points. There is a certain degree of naturalness to religiosity. It is not necessarily related to intelligence but related to human nature. Therefore, no one is denying this negative relationship between intelligence and religiosity, but I think that it is quite possible to conclude that the three suggested reasons brought forward by Zuckerman are insufficient.
An Alternative Explanation
Of course, the challenge is to then figure out perhaps a better reason. As I have said on this website before, it is not enough to just tear down bad ideas, it is much more productive if we can put better ones in their place.
I think that we have to reframe the issue. I suggested that it is kind of ironic to talk about intelligent people resisting religious dogma because Christianity in particular is not lifted up as the intellectual powerhouse of our modern era. Therefore, I don’t know that it takes intelligence to resist a minority position that doesn’t really control very many institutions in our country. I don’t know that the lack of religiosity necessarily shows a failure to conform but rather an embrace of the philosophy that has been projected by particularly our educational institutions.
Some people want to put the blame on colleges and universities, but Daniel Cox mentions over at FiveThirtyEight that most people actually lose their religion prior to adulthood if they are going to lose it. That does not surprise me. Let me first be clear that I do not oppose public education. I am a product of it, and I never had any problems with any educational discrimination or anything like that because of my Christian faith. Some people have stories, but I do not have any.
That being said, I can affirm that my public education presented me with a worldview without the presence of any God. I don’t believe that this is always a matter of point-blank hostility, but it is simply a fact of the way the institution is. I learned my religious views at home and at church, and I understood how the two of them could complement each other. When we learned the names of the planets in school, I learned about the heavens declaring the glory of God at home or at church. Again, it was not a matter of hostility for me, but I can see how easy it would be for people who do not have any type of religious worldview taught in their home to unsurprisingly emerge from our educational system without any type of religious framework. I can’t say that it is the fault of the institution of public education, but it is specifically designed to be secular in nature. That is simply a fact, and it operates based on the assumptions that it has been programmed to operate with.
Then, we need to think specifically about our situation in the United States, and there is a trend according to Pew Research that the religiously unaffiliated are continuing to rise as a percentage of our population. In 2016, 23% of the United States population would describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or nothing in particular. This is significant if my prior hypothesis is correct. The children coming out of these households would certainly not have the religious values taught at home that I did, so everything they learn would be entirely secular.
It will be very hard for this population to break out of the dogma that is taught to them at home and at school, and they are an ever increasing percentage of our population. Cox points out only 41% of millennials attend the weekly religious service while 62% of baby boomers do. Clearly, the trend is not going to change anytime soon.
Let’s bring it all back around it then. We have an increasing percentage of the population that is not religious. A slight minority of millennials and a slight majority of baby boomers attend weekly religious services. If that is true, then a very large percentage of our population is receiving an entirely secular educational experience. They do not have the home exposure to religion, and, by design, they do not receive religion in the public education system that a vast majority of children in the United States are part of. They are embracing what they are taught and exposed to. They are not freethinkers necessarily; they are products of the system that generated them.
The final piece of the puzzle then is that the ones who are the best at absorbing the system are the ones that continue to absorb the system well and advance within the system. They advance to the best institutions of higher learning which therefore allow them to not only become further reinforced in their belief in secularism, but they provide further reinforcement to the institution itself and the perception of what intelligence is.
Therefore, when you hear talk about religious people being unintelligent, I think a better explanation than any of the three Zuckerman suggested is that we have a system of institutions that encourages a secular worldview, and those who are more intelligent thrive in the system. More intelligent people tend to be more successful in terms of academic achievement and therefore time with in this institution. However, they also become more heavily influenced by this secular system, and without the counterbalance that homes have traditionally provided to a hypothetically religion-neutral, secular education, they are just going to secularism.
 G K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (No city: Wilder Publications, Inc, no date), 84, Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 85.
 Ibid., 86.
 Ibid., 87.