Intelligence is orthogonal to belief

Something good came from watching Penn & Teller’s little presentation “The Bible is bullshit!” (I feel obliged to give the link, but please, don’t mistake it for a recommendation) Penn & Teller brought on Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and editor of Skeptic magazine, to support various points of their humble assertion. An insight made near the end of this presentation reminded me why I’ve always liked Shermer. It’s an observation explained in detail in his book Why People Believe Weird Things, which I intend to pick up and read one of these days.

For those of us in the business of debunking bunk and explaining the unexplained, this is what I call the Hard Question: why do smart people believe weird things? My Easy Answer will seem somewhat paradoxical at first:

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

Those reasons can include family influences, societal pressures, educational experiences, emotional inclinations, etc. We are all baptized almost at birth with a myriad of such prejudices which are not easily thrown off. Smart people are particularly adept at defending and rationalizing the ones that they keep. They may be unaware of the cognitive biases at work in their favor.

It’s a common mistake of many atheists, skeptics, and debunkers to assume that belief in religion, superstition, or the paranormal can be attributed to lack of intelligence on the part of the believer. In fact, as Shermer has explained, intelligence is orthogonal to belief. Never assume that because somebody you know believes in something irrational that he/she must be stupid. It may be that the opposite is the case.


6 responses to “Intelligence is orthogonal to belief

  1. As a religious smart-person (RSPs), I appreciate that Shermer was willing to make an attempt at understanding people like myself and examining a common quandary for many atheists and agnostics, namely “How can other smart people like me believe in religion, when my own intellect has led me to doubt and question all things religious?” I think his argument, that smart people are good at creating justifications, is a good one. Also, I agree that religious commitment may be attributable to cognitive biases and environmental influences, although I think actual active belief is a much different state which is deliberate, by and large. Yet, despite these well-meaning efforts at understanding and explaining RSPs, it is clear, Hydralisk, that you still hold to the position that religious beliefs are “irrational”, and therefore faulty, even if they are defended in a logical way. I wonder, though, have any of the beliefs you now hold come to you purely through abstract mental reasoning, or rather, have any of them been absent of all taint of “irrational” epistemology? If not, does that make all those beliefs flawed? I would guess no, not necessarily.

  2. The only argument that I have with anyone discussing the ‘rationality’ of religion is that they approach it by taking for granted that the beliefs are based on human custom rather than divine revelation.

    Even by admitting that religious people can be smart (thank you for that gracious acquiescence) the topic is still framed around smart people believing in false doctrines that have no foundation because their deity doesn’t exist.

    It is impossible to ‘win’ on either side of this debate because the two sides do not agree on the fundamental premise about which they debate.

    I’m not trying to convince anyone here that God exists, but I will refute any attempt to debate the validity of religious beliefs that only allows for a secular viewpoint.

  3. Zugman and John J, thanks for your responses!

    You are questioning whether I hold any beliefs that were not arrived at through “irrational” epistemology? I would expect that I do! However, if you are trying to make the point that it is possible for an irrational belief to be valid, I do agree.

    It is irrational, for instance, to believe that on a given day a man in a ninja suit is hiding in your closet waiting to jump you when you enter your bedroom–but the thing is not impossible. It is irrational to hold beliefs that seem to contradicts all the laws of nature as we know them–but it is not impossible that we may have gotten some of the laws of nature wrong. Conspiracy theories are generally irrational for the fact that the more people thought to be on board, the less likely it is that they all can keep the secret–but conspiracy theories can occasionally turn out to have been correct.

    I don’t imply that reason is foolproof. Reason is simply the most reliable tool imo that we have of filtering what is probably true from what is probably hokey.

    John J:
    True, and if you go to the root of why they suppose that religious beliefs are based on custom, it is because they arrived at that conclusion through reason, is it not? You can get into Hume and a preference for explanations drawn from mechanisms we understand. Why go to a supernatural explanation when a natural explanation is readily available? etc.

    As long as there is a conflict between reason and faith, you are right, the debate can never be resolved.

    For the record, it has never seemed odd to me in the slightest that religious people can be smart since, obviously, I was once a religious person myself, and I don’t consider myself stupid (on most days). That false assumption is one I have on occasion seen other skeptics and atheists make. (I am not an atheist either, btw)

  4. I should also caveat for the record that I wasn’t trying to start a fight either.


  5. Oh I know, but I never mind when people do πŸ™‚

  6. Yeah, I wasn’t necessarily trying to start a fight either, although as you’ve remarked before, Hydralisk, I can be a pretty aggressive theist. Also, I know that you would prefer some more lively debate on your blog πŸ™‚

    P.S. My high self-opinion is well known among those who know me personally, and most of my “acquiescences” are far less gracious, heh heh.

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