Is Christianity Dumb?

October 28, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Benedict Spinoza Credit: Wikipedia

Benedict Spinoza
Credit: Wikipedia

It’s really the Enlightenment’s fault.  Ever since René Descartes decided the best catalyst for rational inquiry was skepticism, the skepticism supposedly necessary to reason and the faith integral to religion have been regularly presented as at odds with each other, or, at the very least, best quarantined from each other.  Consider this from Descartes devotee and Old Testament critic, Benedict Spinoza:

Those who do not know how to distinguish philosophy from theology dispute as to whether Scripture should be subject to reason or whether, on the contrary, reason should be the servant of Scripture:  that is to say, whether the sense of Scripture should be accommodated to reason or whether reason should be subordinated to Scripture … It is obvious that both are absolutely wrong.  For whichever position we adopt, we would have to distort either reason or Scripture since we have demonstrated that the Bible does not teach philosophical matters but only piety, and everything in Scripture is adapted to the understanding and preconceptions of the common people.[1]

Spinoza passionately contends that reason and religion must be kept in two separate spheres.  If they are not, he warns, Scripture will distort reason and reason will distort Scripture.  But key to understanding Spinoza’s argument for the separation of Scripture and reason is why these two entities distort each other.  “Scripture,” Spinoza explains, “is adapted to the understanding and preconceptions of the common people.”  Spinoza assumes that the biblical characters of antiquity did not have the intellectual faculties necessary to imbibe the great rational truths of the Enlightenment.  Spinoza elsewhere explains:

God adapted His revelations to the understanding and opinions of the prophets [and other biblical authors as well], and that the prophets could be ignorant of matters of purely philosophical reason that are not concerned with charity and how to live; and indeed they really were ignorant in this respect and held contradictory views.  Hence knowledge about natural and spiritual matters is by no means to be sought from them.[2]

Isn’t that nice.  God would have revealed matters of rational, philosophical reason to the biblical writers, but because they were not smart enough to understand them, God had to stick with giving them moral platitudes about “charity and how to live.”  Thankfully, Spinoza does understand the truths of rational philosophy and can explain them to us full-throatedly.

Unfortunately, Spinoza’s parings of reason with intelligence and religion with ignorance are still assumed in and normative to the thinking of our day.  Consider this from the Huffington Post:

Are religious people less intelligent than atheists?

That’s the provocative conclusion of a new review of 63 studies of intelligence and religion that span the past century. The meta-analysis showed that in 53 of the studies, conducted between 1928 to 2012, there was an inverse relation between religiosity – having religious beliefs, or performing religious rituals – and intelligence. That is, on average, non-believers scored higher than religious people on intelligence tests.

What might explain the effect?

Scientists behind studies included in the review most often suggested that “religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better.’”[3]

Now, the rules of rational and, for that matter, statistical inquiry remind us that correlation does not equal causation.  So, to surmise that religious beliefs decrease IQ from a study that happens to show some people with religious beliefs have lower IQ’s than those without religious beliefs is suspect at best.  Indeed, Jordan Silberman, a co-author of the study, admitted as much to the Huffington Post:

I’m sure there are intelligent religious people and unintelligent atheists out there … The findings pertain to the average intelligence of religious and non-religious people, but they don’t necessarily apply to any single person.  Knowing that a person is religious would not lead me to bet any money on whether or not the person is intelligent.

Silberman concedes that there are many anomalies that counter his correlation between religious belief and lower IQ’s, which speaks forcefully against any kind of causation.  Thus, this study gives us no real insight into to whether or not religion and rationality are truly at odds with each other.

So why do I bring all of this up?  Because, regardless of whether or not it is true, firmly ingrained into our society’s zeitgeist is the narrative that religion and reason are irreconcilable.  I, however, believe this to be false.  Christians can make full use of their rational faculties without having to sell their faith to the strictures of a seventeenth century movement and its incorrigible assumptions concerning the incompatibility of reason and religion.  Regardless of any assumptions bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, we know that we have far more than just reason or just religion, “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).  And His mind bridges both reason and religion.  After all, His command created both reason and religion.


[1] Benedict Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, Michael Silverthorne & Jonathan Israel, trans. (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007), 186.

[2] Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, 40.

[3] Macrina Cooper-White, “Religious People Branded As Less Intelligent Than Atheists In Provocative New Study,” The Huffington Post (8.14.2013).

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Robert Nordlie  |  October 28, 2013 at 8:33 am

    I agree with you entirely, Zach, and have felt that it’s an insult to say that intelligent people have to “check their brains at the door of the church” in order to believe. Nevertheless, Paul does say, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise,” reminding the Corinthians, “Not many of you were wise by human standards.” The fact is that the cross will forever appear to be foolishness to those who are perishing. And it is only those who become like little children who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Reply

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