And sometimes, it’s even interesting and thoughtful! So I thought I’d put it here for your considerations as well.
I’m a Canadian who’s been reading your blog for a couple of years.
Anyway, I have some questions regarding your take on Dawkins view of the intelligence of religious people, as seen in his TED talk about militant atheism (link below). I’m emailing you because I trust your opinion as a developmental biologist. Also, let me establish that I’m an atheist; I’m not emailing you to rant about how Dawkins hurt my feelings, etc. I am concerned about what I see is a very glib attitude towards the mental worth of millions and millions of people.
I feel that Dawkins’s argument is convincing at first blush. He provides statistical evidence for there being a correlation between atheism and IQ. The data also confirms my bias: I generally think of religious beliefs as unfounded things which can only be held thoughtlessly; i.e., the religious person doesn’t think too deeply about what he or she believes, which may indicate poor thinking skills.
But I think the issue is way more complicated than Dawkins makes out. For one, it raises the question of causal relationship between IQ and atheism is: does having a high IQ cause one’s atheism? Or does atheism cause one to have a high IQ? I could imagine it going either way. And how important is IQ at this point in time anyway?
Lastly: am I wrong to sense a somewhat bigoted attitude towards the intelligence of the religious? Imagine if Dawkins was instead talking about white people instead of atheists; his comments would then sound horribly bigoted and most people would (rightly) tell him that he’s oversimplifying the issues. Imagine if he said that in almost every paper it was found that there was a significant positive correlation between being white and having a high IQ. Or imagine if he pointed out that there are more white people in the National Academy of Sciences than black people. Then, imagine if he suggested that because of these facts, white people really should be in charge of the country. But because Dawkins is targeting the religious with these arguments, many atheists will probably accept them just because Dawkins is presenting them.
I’m sure many people, including yourself, would point out that there are big cultural differences between being a white person in America and a black person in America; on average, white people have access to better healthcare, better food, better schools, more money for college, less discrimination etc., etc. But isn’t this true also for religious people? I know that America has large under class, and I suspect that you’ll find more religious people among it than in the middle and upper classes.
Now, I’m not saying that Dawkins is being dishonest. I’ll accept that atheists make up a larger percentage of both those with higher IQs and those who belong to the NAS. My issue is the notion that religious people are just dumber than atheists. I don’t think this is true; I think that religious people are more likely to come from disadvantaged background, and (for a host of reasons) this means they do more poorly on IQ tests, which are largely a measure of educational achievement. To my mind, this means that in terms of promoting atheism, reducing poverty could be just as important as keeping creationists out of schools.
Here’s that TED talk.
Funny thing about it: it’s a half hour long, and I almost entirely agree with all of it. The part my correspondent is discussing starts at about 15:40, and is a segment about 3 minutes long, so we can set an upper bound to the extent of my disagreement with Dawkins to about 10% — but even that is too high, because I also agree with the facts he lays out. Yes, more highly ranked scientists are godless. A college education does seem to have a negative correlation with religiosity. But I disagree with the interpretation for a couple of reasons.
One is that IQ is a terrible metric. It always has been. It does not measure intelligence, actually; the tests are so laden with cultural values that it is actually more of a test of assimilation and acceptance of a certain set of social priorities. Which, I suppose, is fine, if your goal is to advance individuals into a civil service that maintains the status quo.
It has become a tool of racists. How can anyone claim that the average IQ of Africans (and already we’re talking absurdities, since Africa is a huge and diverse place) is 70, and then argue that the average intelligence of Africans is somehow south of being barely able to live independently? It’s nonsense. It’s completely invalidated by any observation of any group of Africans. All it really means is that Africans are not Americans.
So when someone tells me that religious people have lower intelligence than atheists, I translate that immediately into “Well-off people with some economic stability and access to higher education are less dependent on the social safety net religion provides.” That’s all it really means.
That successful scientists are even less likely to be religious is also explained, not by their greater intelligence, but by the fact that science is a social system — it selects for and reinforces its own set of values that tend to exclude faith. Faith is very anti-scientific — spend a few years planning experiments and trying to get funded, and you learn very quickly what works and what doesn’t.
(The creationists will love me for saying this, but science is an ideology. It just happens to be a powerful, successful, and useful ideology.)
(And the libertarians will hate me. I was just dismissing someone on Twitter who tried to claim his rationality was ideology-free. Sorry, guy, valuing rationality is an ideological position.)
My point is that most atheists did not reach their conclusions because they reasoned their way into them or are generally the smartest people around — rather, we are imbued by our cultural upbringing to place a high value on, for instance, mathematics and science and evidence-based decision-making. We got that first, and then using those priorities, we built an understanding of how the world works that does not involve a god. And people with those values do well in college and get jobs in science and technology.
Similarly, religious people did not arrive at their conclusions because they’re somehow intellectually deficient or incapacitated. They were brought up with a different set of values, which we can’t actually say are all bad — the extremes are, they can lead to the Westboro Baptists, for instance, but we can say the same of science, which in the extremes can lead to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. But the religious can be just as intelligent as the godless.
What this all means is that bringing more people to atheism and science isn’t about making them smarter — if we’re relying on a magical elevation of global intelligence to win, we’re doomed. We have to appreciate that this isn’t a battle of wits, but instead a conflict of values. You’re not going to convince people that they ought to abandon tradition and faith because the statistics show that our side has a higher average IQ.
We have to go right to the roots of people’s beliefs — we have to raise children to appreciate that science is cool and powerful and fun and life affirming, so that they think it’s a good idea to figure out math. We have to teach kids that when Side A presents solid evidence for their position, and Side B presents a powerful emotional argument for theirs, that they ought to give A a higher score in the debate.
Again, that’s about values. The kid who picks Side B is not being stupid, they are making a choice built on what they personally consider important.
I also think it would be a gigantic tactical mistake to build a case on the idea that kids should pick A because otherwise a man with a Ph.D. will tell them they’re not very smart and have a low IQ (I don’t think Dawkins was saying that at all, though). That leads to a different set of values: one that prioritizes authority. I think we’ve had quite enough of that in Western civilization already.
So I agree with my correspondent. You want to increase the number of atheists in the country? Make people more economically secure, give them access to education, build up equality and tear down inequities of all kinds, and promote positive rational values. Give people choices.
Now my agenda is revealed: that progressive, liberal values are exactly what creates more independence from religion, so that’s what we ought to be promoting.