From the Mailbag: “Reasonable, intelligent, and well-informed”


I got an email from a reader, asking me a question. (As far as I can tell, it’s not in response to any particular piece I’ve written.) With their permission, I’m posting their email here, along with my response to it. (I’m keeping the reader’s name private, per their request.)

Do you think that it’s possible for an intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person to be a Christian? Or do you feel that no reasonable, intelligent, and well-informed person could possibly believe in traditional Christianity.

Just curious.

Short answer: Yes, I think it’s possible for an intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person to be a Christian.

But I don’t think Christianity is an intelligent, reasonable, or well-informed position.

Intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed people can be wrong. They can be profoundly wrong. They can be stubbornly wrong. They can be deeply attached to wrong ideas, with contorted and absurd rationalizations for their wrongness. They can be wrong about big, important things. In fact, I would argue that this is universally true: every intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person is bone-headedly wrong about something. Being an intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person doesn’t mean every opinion or idea or belief you have is intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed. You can be an intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person, and still have dumb, unreasonable, ill-informed ideas.

And yes, I think Christianity is one of these. I think all religion is one of these.

Can an intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person be a Christian? Obviously. Many of them are. It would be absurd to claim otherwise, entirely counter to all the available evidence.

But that doesn’t mean it is intelligent, reasonable, or well-informed to be Christian. It isn’t. There is no good reason to think Christianity is true; there are lots of good reasons to think it’s bunk. And the same is true for every religion.

So what do the rest of you think?

Comments

  1. otrame says

    In fact, I would argue that this is universally true: every intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person is bone-headedly wrong about something.

    QFT and a good reminder to us all.

  2. says

    Pretty much. I’m certain I’m wrong about something important. I’m just not sure what yet, because obviously if I figured out what it was, I’d be in the process of changing my mind.

  3. Stacy says

    The smarter the person, the better they are at rationalizing dissonance and finding a way to make sense of the nonsensical.

  4. nonnie says

    I’d take it even farther. I’m quite certain there are religious people that have thought about whether or not there is a god even longer and more rigorously than I have. People who are more intelligent, more reasonable, more well-informed than I am. But I’m still totally comfortable with my own atheist conclusions. We all have to use our own judgment at the end of the day.

  5. says

    Intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed people can be wrong. They can be profoundly wrong. They can be stubbornly wrong. They can be deeply attached to wrong ideas, with contorted and absurd rationalizations for their wrongness. They can be wrong about big, important things. In fact, I would argue that this is universally true: every intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person is bone-headedly wrong about something. Being an intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person doesn’t mean every opinion or idea or belief you have is intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed. You can be an intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person, and still have dumb, unreasonable, ill-informed ideas.

    That says what I would want to say if asked that question far better than I would have said it. And, as otrame said, this is something that everyone should be reminded of.

  6. Lofty says

    Much of the strength with which we believe something to be true is derived from the level of trust we place in the source of the information. Scientists accept scientific facts from peer reviewed science, religious people accept stories from the church that supports them, and ordinary people trust people who talk/write/think the same as they do. People of course can be in all three categories, all at once, if the trust in each stream of information remains intact. I see this every day in FTB arguments, people simply don’t accept anything from what they see as a tainted source. Breaking that trust is hard work when your whole life view depends on it.
    Intelligence and reason by themselves don’t always change the way you get informed.

  7. Malachite says

    Every time I am tempted to think that Christians must be unintelligent, I am reminded of two people that I know who are Christians. These two people are two of the most intelligent people in the world, being leading lights of one of the hardest areas to research in. I have seen their minds grasp hard complex information that was new to them, in astonishingly small amounts of time. They are kind friendly people, too.

    It blows my mind that they are not atheists too. How can they not see what a stupid inconsistent bunch of stories the bible asserts? But then again, their speciality isn’t one that forces them to confront issues that religions sit uncomfortably with, unlike, say, geology or evolution.

  8. Uriel238 . says

    I would go as far as to say that atheism is not necessarily a symptom of intelligence, reason, or a state of being well informed. And that an intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person can be atheist through causes other than having arrived at that conclusion through research and logical thought.
    .
    Comparably, many of us never bothered proving the Pythagorean theorem before we started using it. There are many proofs,(here) some of them outright sublime. But I, for one, was introduced to the applications of the theorem long before I learned any of the proofs.
    .
    So it is with atheism or a naturalistic position regarding the universe: some of us were raised atheist. Plenty of us (not all atheists or even, necessarily, most) are angry apostates who turned from religion before developing a rational understanding of naturalism. And I’m sure many atheists are currently within that intermediary threshold.
    .
    My initial frustration with Christianity was first the biblical conflicts with scientific truth, and then the conflicts with modern-era morality, yet I’m sure that there are others whose frustrations developed in reverse. And this only concerns bible based faiths. It takes another step to rule out non-biblical dogmas, or even purely philosophical theist positions.

  9. johnthedrunkard says

    The question fails because there is no clear definition of what constitutes being ‘Christian.’

    Even within the mind of the individual beliver, ‘Christianity’ is so complex, and requires assent to so many specific notions, that most ‘Christians’ would not be able to present a coherent picture of what they do or do not believe.

    This is another example of belief ‘when no one is watching.’ The Trinity? Transubstantiation? Virgin Birth? Intercessory prayer? A coherent narrative from 4 mutually contradictory gospels? An apocalyptic ‘Last Judgment’ or uncle Walt looking down from heaven? How many ‘Christians’ even have coherent thoughts on these topics, let alone anything as risky as a ‘belief?’

    So yes, intelligent, well informed people DO call themselves, and believe themselves, to be ‘Christian.’ But it is impossible to determine what that label actually means for more than one of them at a time. And even within the individual, the actual content of belief may be in constant flux.

  10. atrytone says

    At first I thought “Yeah! There exist religious folk that are reasonable, intelligent and well-informed and still wrong.” But that can’t be the case. If you’re well-informed about Christianity, science and philosophy then reason should reject the whole notion. There’s no doubt that intelligent people can be religious, and there’s no doubt that reasonable but otherwise ill-informed people can be religious, but to be all three? Nah.

    Unless you’re one of those gay-accepting, feminist, tolerant, modern super liberal Christians, but they don’t believe a single thing in their holy book anyway.

  11. Uriel238 . says

    Unless you’re one of those gay-accepting, feminist, tolerant, modern super liberal Christians, but they don’t believe a single thing in their holy book anyway.

    Christian is a label that includes the gay-accepting, feminist, tolerant, modern super liberal ones, though granted, the conservative heads will include them only when they get to speak for the denominations. Otherwise, they eagerly say that they’re not really Christians, along with those Catholics/protestants and those freaky cults that believe in biblical fanfic.
    .
    But I’m pretty sure that it’s the rare person who is reasonable, intelligent and well-informed in all things. We each have holes in our education, or points where our attitude is polarized barring overwhelming and comprehensible evidence to the contrary. I can completely imagine people with entirely materialist and naturalist outlooks who also trust the biblical infallibility (and their ministers’ interpretives) while nimbly avoiding cognitive dissonance by keeping the worlds separate.

  12. says

    While I agree with Greta’s conclusion and reasoning, I find it hard to understand what it is like to believe in religion in the first place.

    As a child I tried understanding Christianity (what I was raised in) but had (have) a rather…literal streak. I could not read the bible and take it seriously, and I tried many times. I assumed that’s what people are supposed to do, y’know? You pick your religion/faction and support it. Eventually I found out about atheism and immediately abandoned all attempts to do so. Once I realized religion wasn’t required, I simply stopped trying.

    Over the years I’ve realized people can be intelligent and reasonable regardless of their religious beliefs, but the whole thing still confounds me. I don’t get it.

  13. says

    I agree with your answer. I consider it an empirical fact that Christians can be “reasonable, intelligent, and well informed.” So can adherents of all the other religions. I personally know Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus who fit that description. I agree with you that atheism is more reasonable, even though people who are more intelligent than I disagree.

    I am glad to hear that you see things the way I do because lately I have been on the receiving end of some rude invective from fellow atheists on Twitter for observing that religious people can be intelligent and good. When I have argued that we atheists should honestly acknowledge the existence of good, intelligent religious people, instead of distorting the facts to score points, I have been called stupid, naive, and intellectually dishonest. I have even been accused of being a Christian in sheep’s clothing, pretending to be atheist so as to corrupt real atheists by casting doubt on their perception that all religious people are stupid or evil.

    One reason atheists are often angry at religious people, as your excellent book explains, is that atheists have so often been on the receiving end of bigotry. But I don’t think it will help the cause when self-identified atheists act like closed-minded bigots who attack people instead of simply addressing ideas.

  14. Dee Emarr says

    This is exactly my view on this, Greta.

    Every once in a while I meet an atheist who has the petulant, childish view that anyone who is religious is automatically a brain-dead moron, and I vehemently oppose that view. Not only does it play into the whole “arrogant atheist” stereotype, it’s just flat-out wrong. People are complicated. The idea that you CAN’T be reasonable, intelligent, and well-informed, and still hold “opinion X” is silly.

    At bottom, I think this is about an inclination among people towards self-aggrandizement; atheists are not immune to this tendency. The basic idea seems to be that holding “opinion X” automatically puts you in a higher tier than someone who does not. And while I think that views about reality are zero-sum (in that there is ultimately one correct view about reality), I think it’s more of a process of self-correction rather than a ladder one ascends.

    Being correct about god doesn’t make you special in any way other than that you’re correct about god.

  15. Uriel238 . says

    When I have argued that we atheists should honestly acknowledge the existence of good, intelligent religious people, instead of distorting the facts to score points, I have been called stupid, naive, and intellectually dishonest…

    This just goes to show that atheists as a group are no better than anyone else. And they’re no less susceptible to prejudice and group-loyalty dynamics than anyone else.
    .
    Much like the gay-rights community has pointed out that while they are no less moral or righteous than anyone else, they are no more moral or righteous either, so it should be within the freethinking community: we have to accept that we, too, are plenty susceptible to human cognitive biases, and only by our awareness of these biases can we hope to get past them. In the meantime, we presume we are no more righteous, but also no less, than anyone else.

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    … entirely counter to all the available evidence.

    Well – counter to some of the available evidence. The rest tends to support the opposing hypothesis.

  17. jasonfailes says

    Yes, when the Christian part precedes growing into a reasonable, intelligent, and well-informed adult.

  18. atrytone says

    No one whose properly educated about science and history can be both reasonable and religious. The Bible says people lived to be hundreds of years old. Either you believe humans can be hundreds of years old despite evidence to the contrary or you don’t. If you don’t then you can’t be Christian.

    Saying you’re Christian while rejecting the silly bits of the Bible is like calling yourself a Socialist despite being a Randian. I don’t care what you call yourself, I care what you actually believe.

    That’s not to say they can’t be reasonable in most other areas of life, of course, but if the question is simply “Are they reasonable people?” the answer is “no.” Of course I’d say no one is really reasonable. It’s just a question of how unreasonable you are.

  19. Greta Christina says

    That’s not to say they can’t be reasonable in most other areas of life, of course, but if the question is simply “Are they reasonable people?” the answer is “no.”

    atrytone @ #18: That’s not a very useful definition of “reasonable.” If “reasonable” means “always being reasonable about absolutely everything,” then, as you yourself point out, the word would apply to nobody.

  20. atrytone says

    You’re right, that wasn’t well articulated.

    What I mean to say is, everyone is, to one degree or another, unreasonable. People are susceptible to confirmation, attribution and belief biases. I find myself giving into confirmation bias the most and I absolutely hate hate hate it.

    My point was, we shouldn’t ask ourselves who the most reasonable person is. Rather we should ask who is the least unreasonable. And I would argue that atheists, on average, are less unreasonable. I mean, atheists aren’t very different from regular, liberal religious folk. In many cases, the ONLY difference between us is our position on the supernatural. But that small, little bit is enough to make us less unreasonable.

  21. khms says

    Do you think that it’s possible for an intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person to be a Christian? Or do you feel that no reasonable, intelligent, and well-informed person could possibly believe in traditional Christianity.

    I think my answer would be “yes” and “yes”.

    To elaborate a bit more, there’s a difference between “think” and “feel”. I know they can be reasonable, I understand the relevant biases and compartmentalization (on a layman level) – but I can’t quite grasp the kind of contortions their minds must be going through to make it work.

    Like Greta, I think everyone has these kinds of biases.

    However, there is an important difference in how different people deal with these problems. I don’t think I have such a wrong idea that I would not be willing to change my mind on given realistic amounts of evidence. In fact, I have trouble finding an idea that’s important to me that I haven’t examined. That may be because I don’t have all that many ideas that are really important to me … I think.

    I think I irritate people more often by being tentative than by having an unshakable position.

    And of course I still make dumb mistakes. I just think I’m not wedded to them – or at least I am willing to consider divorce.

  22. John Horstman says

    An alternate interpretation is that the existence of “an intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed person” – as in someone who is always those things all the time about everything – is a fiction. In that case, the answer is “no”, but it matters about as much as the ratio of… oh, let’s mix it up: Shivas to Ēostres.

    (I’m becoming increasingly annoyed with abstracted hypotheticals: when one’s worldview recognizes context as a determining factor in pretty much every decision and truth claim, hypothetical questions that are abstracted from some real-world context are functionally meaningless. My friend and roommate asked me the other day about whether I’d pull a lever to stop a train full of people from crashing. I instantly said “no”, as I have no regard for the non-lives of imaginary, decontextualized non-persons.)

  23. Uriel238 . says

    My friend and roommate asked me the other day about whether I’d pull a lever to stop a train full of people from crashing. I instantly said “no”, as I have no regard for the non-lives of imaginary, decontextualized non-persons.

    It sounds like your roommate was trying to introduce you to the classic trolley problem, a thought experiment and paradox that demonstrates that deontological ethics (such as those typically advocated in religion). Granted, such experiments can be dismissed as entirely hypothetical, but pondering them can serve to prepare for (rather frequent) circumstances in real life in which humans have to choose between moral wrongs. While the trolly problem itself is unlikely to manifest in the real world, in our military theaters (for one example) we have to consider morally similar circumstances all the time.

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