This week, researchers at the University of Rochester have made a slightly off-putting discovery. Trawling back through decades of studies, they believe they have found “a reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity.” That is, they believe they’ve worked out that atheists are smarter than religious people.
The research looked at 63 studies conducted between 1928 and 2012, and found that 53 studies showed this ‘reliable negative correlation’ between religion and intelligence. Out of those 53, no less than 35 were said to demonstrate a ‘significant’ negative correlation. Intelligence was defined as “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience.”
Before going any further, I admit I haven’t looked at the findings in detail, and I don’t plan to. But when a friend drew my attention to the study and asked what I thought, my initial reaction was pure defensiveness.
As a committed Christian, I immediately wanted the story to be wrong. “The research must be flawed,” I thought. “Who gets to define real ‘intelligence’, anyway? Maybe the sample of people involved in the studies was skewed. Or the inherent bias of the researchers could have swayed their findings. Maybe their definition of being ‘religious’ is at odds with the biblical Christianity I believe (ie: they’re probably just counting all kinds of non-Christian whack-jobs as being ‘religious’). And how many super-smart believers do I have to name [and I could name plenty] to prove that being intelligent doesn’t stop you being a Christian?”
Now, all those things (and more) might be true. What fascinated me was my automatic defensiveness and dismissal of the claim.
But after the first five minutes, I calmed down, walked away and did a few other things. When I came back to it today, I started to think: what if there’s a different way to look at this?
In ‘Escape from Nihilism’, a brilliant essay on his conversion to Christian belief, J. Budziszewski notes that everything goes wrong without God, even our minds. “One of the good things I’ve been given is a stronger than average mind,” he writes. “I don’t make the observation to boast; human beings are given diverse gifts to serve Him in diverse ways. The problem is that a strong mind that refuses the call to serve God has its own way of going wrong. When some people flee from God they rob and kill. When others flee from God they do a lot of drugs and have a lot of sex. When I fled from God I didn’t do any of those things; my way of fleeing was to get stupid.
“Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to commit. God keeps them in his arsenal to pull down mulish pride, and I discovered them all.”
Is the average atheist more intelligent than the average Christian? I’m prepared to say yes – it’s at least possible. After all, as Budziszewski says, you need a decent IQ to protect and perpetuate such a flawed worldview.
But we need to go deeper still. Forget Budziszewski; What does God himself say to us about the connection between human wisdom / intelligence and salvation? Look at how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 1 (starting at verse 18):
“The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
There is nothing at all unintelligent about biblical Christianity. But there is something about it that transcends human intelligence and the wisdom of the world. If you feel defensive about that, remember – God wouldn’t have it any other way.