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Does religion make people stupid?

Does religion make people stupid? featured image

In the interests of transparency, I should start this blog by pointing out that I am religious. I do not mean by this that I am a particularly holy person (far from it) or that I am utterly convinced that there must be a God. I simply mean that I am a practising Catholic. So, I am unquestionably biased, but given that everyone who blogs about everything is unquestionably biased that shouldn’t lead you to assume that what follows is not worth reading – although you are still free to reach that conclusion after you’ve finished reading it.

One of the most common charges laid at the door of organised religion is that it makes people stupid. As one of the most famous of living atheists, Richard Dawkins, puts it, “One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are not really answers at all.” Dawkins isn’t totally wrong, religion does help some people to be satisfied with ‘answers’ that are not really answers at all. But he misses the rather important point that these people are already stupid or, to be slightly more charitable, they are afraid to think properly.

Dawkins is also unquestionably right about the fact that there are no such things as meaningful religious answers to scientific questions. Science succeeds in making the incredible progress it does precisely by excluding certain types of questions from its investigations and calculations. It limits itself to finding out through observation, hypothesis and experiment, how the physical world works. It, quite rightly, doesn’t bother with questions such as ‘how should I behave?’, ‘what should I hope for?’, ‘how should I feel about reality itself?’ or ‘Is it better to exist or not to exist?’

Nor is religion particularly good at answering specific moral and social questions. Employing religious arguments sheds absolutely no light at all on whether I should support legalised abortion, or which party to vote for at the next election. In fact, as a day-to-day detailed guide in decision making, religion is more often than not completely useless. This is evidenced by the fact that, within my own Church, there is absolutely no consensus on most detailed political, social, medical or ethical dilemmas.

So why are people religious and what purpose does it serve?

Well, for me, religious belief is, first-and-foremost a form of consolation. Leaving aside the details, everyone would tend to agree that existence is either a meaningless brute fact that ends in total non-existence or the product of a supremely wise and good supernatural intelligence that has purposes beyond our grasp. It seems reasonable to me to conclude that there is absolutely no way of actually finding out which of these two possibilities is really the case. Therefore, I choose to believe the second of them because I don’t want to get so depressed that I can’t get out of bed in the morning. I am fairly convinced that this, at root, is why most people are religious. And what is wrong with that? Life is hard enough as it is without going out of your way to assume that it is ultimately meaningless. Admittedly, beyond cheering me up a bit, believing what I believe doesn’t help me that much, but nor does it make me any dumber than I already am.

But I think that belief in God does something else which, in a weird way, may help people who are already intelligent to think in a more disciplined way. It forces you into a self-conscious awareness of the principle of oneness. This is difficult to explain, but Iris Murdoch (herself an atheist but a Platonist) put it this way, “The urge to prove that where we intuit unity there really is unity is a deep emotional motive to philosophy, to art, to thinking itself. Intellect is naturally one making.” I agree with Iris Murdoch and, in this sense, I also think that the most profound difference between believers and atheists is simply that believers are self-consciously aware of this urge to tie everything together into a oneness.

In this slightly bizarre way, belief in God, regardless of whether there is a God or not, may actually be a stimulus to deep thought and human progress. Friedrich Nietzsche reached this conclusion when he wrote that, “the persistent will to interpret everything that happened according to a Christian scheme … has proved itself the disciplinary means by which the European spirit has attained its strength, its remorseless curiosity and subtle mobility.” G. K. Chesterton put it rather more simply when he wrote that, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

In other words, belief in God is a picturesque and entertaining way of making explicit our hard-wired drive to pull our understanding of reality into a complete whole. The point being that we never find God but we work out an awful lot of clever and interesting stuff along the way. Dispensing with God will not eliminate this hard-wired drive, but it will bury it and rob it of much of its emotional and existential urgency. Ironically, although it is far too early to tell now, if humanity really turns its back on religion this may result in us all getting considerably dumber.

So, to return to the original question. Does religion make people stupid? No, stupid people make religion stupid. But stupid people make everything stupid.