“Believers are stupid.”

Notoriously smart Christian, Francis Collins

Sadly this sentiment comes up pretty often in atheist circles.  Some non-believers can be downright vituperative about religious people.  Sometimes I think it’s just extreme frustration with silly arguments or hateful attitudes associated with certain religious groups.  But a lot of the time, it seems to be meant very literally.

The mistake people are making is in confusing a selective, compartmentalized suspension of rationality with stupidity. It is abundantly clear that manymany intelligent, otherwise reasonable people turn off their critical thinking when it comes to religion. Believing something without evidence and reason is pretty much the definition of “faith,” after all.  In my experience, people who believe in something supernatural didn’t come to that belief through rational review, but more due to tradition, personal revelation, or plain old gut feeling.

Intelligence and rationality are often treated as synonyms in our culture, so it’s understandable that people conflate them.  But you can be really smart, and you can systematically review most claims with evidence and reason in mind, and still cordon off an area for beliefs that don’t get that treatment.  I think for people who try to subject every single claim to rigorous critical thinking, this approach is very puzzling and frustrating.  Sometimes it’s hard to get beyond that gut reaction of bafflement to the empirical truth that lots of intelligent people are religious.

As a thought experiment, imagine some belief you consider total, obvious codswallop – whose roots and causes are clear to you as mistakes of observation or well-known foibles of human perception. Perhaps alien abduction stories, the healing power of crystals, astrology, or bigfoot sightings. Now, don’t you just have a visceral reaction along the lines of, “How could anyone believe THAT? How could someone be so blind as to what is actually going on?” If you know a believer in this stuff who is otherwise bright and sane, don’t you boggle at how they can carry both of these personality aspects in the same brain? That mystified disbelief is just how non-believers tend to feel about smart believers.  Hell, I don’t understand how I could have believed the things I did when I was Catholic – there’s not a lot of hope of me really grokking the religious beliefs of other people!

But really I think we should examine this meme in our community and dispose of it.  Of course some individuals or some particular arguments may be stupid, and there’s no need to obscure that fact.  But if we could forge ahead with the idea that we all have more in common than religious labels would imply, I think we would do more for acceptance of atheists and for bettering our society in general.  We also need to remind ourselves that we’re not 100% rational either, because emotions are necessary for reasoning.  I guess it all boils down to a simple idea.  While I do think any equal rights movement needs a few firebrands, for the vast majority of us, Phil Plait’s famous advice is the best way to make cultural and interpersonal headway: “Don’t be a dick.

So for my part, I don’t think believers are stupid.  I have lots of friends of different beliefs, and generally it doesn’t even come up.  We all have a lot more to talk about, like work, kids, budgets, good books, favorite movies, relationships, health issues, family issues, jokes, housekeeping, procrastinating housekeeping, and on and on and on.  As long as you’re not spewing hatred or trying to use government force to indoctrinate my kids, your beliefs are no skin off my nose.  I wish more believers and more non-believers would get on board with that.

About Christine

I'm a full-time mother to two kids, an ex-lawyer, a breastfeeding counselor, a skeptic, and (to steal a phase from Penn & Teller) a "science cheerleader." You can reach me through my Facebook page.

Posted on November 30, 2011, in Religion and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I find this a helpful contribution. As one who has gradually become more sceptical over the years (and now one who tries to stir people to think hard about their beliefs) I am amazed at how few understand that no-one (including Collins or Dawkins) actually understands much about the Universe (Multiverse?) still less about possibilities in the currently unseen part of life in its myriad forms. Because we know little I think it is a mistake to assume that those whose knowledge and best guesses are in different areas to our own are therefore fools.
    Having spent much of my professional life as a science educator it also occurs to me that our knowledge is constantly changing and while reality may be a constant, the shaping of that reality in a form we can understand is a never-ending journey. The only sad part is that many feel they have arrived and stop the search.

  2. I think Michael Shermer put it very well when he said that “smart people are very good at rationalizing beliefs they came to hold for non-smart reasons.” Arguably, compartmentalizing your beliefs in a manner that you suspend your critical thinking ability with regard to one area is a stupid thing to do, but it’s entirely possible to commit a stupid act without being generally stupid oneself.

    I count myself extremely lucky that my first encounter with religion (my parents being atheists of the typically non-imposing kind) was at age three (maybe four) when the girl next door, who was two years older than me, told me that she and her (hardline Calvinist) family went to church on Sundays to talk and sing to some guy named “God” who was supposedly there but couldn’t be seen, heard or otherwise observed. Now, I figure that if the (stereo)typical Christian mythology actually worked, the clouds would have parted and I, an innocent babe, would have seen the self-evident truth of Christianity. But what actually happened was that I said, in so many words, that talking and singing songs to someone who wasn’t there was the most stupid thing I’d ever heard of. The reason I count myself lucky was because my first exposure to religion wasn’t from an authority figure, but from a peer, and thus rather than rely on being conveyed by an authority figure, the concept had to stand on its own merits. Which, even to a 3 year-old, were found wanting.

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