A new academic study suggests that religion is declining as people become more intelligent. But is that too simplistic a view?
The study, by Professor Richard Lynn, emeritus professor of psychology at Ulster University, points to the low incidence of believers among academics and scientists. To those of us who value reason and science, the idea that religion and intelligence are incompatible has an attractive logic.
But we need to treat this with a degree of caution.
We all know, or know of, intelligent people who are also believers. So there is no simple causal link.
And why is religion declining only now when intelligent people have always existed (most of whom were believers)?
I think a fundamental problem with the equation ‘more intelligence = less religion’ is that it conflates intelligence with education. And it ignores a plethora of other factors.
Dr David Hardman, principal lecturer in learning development at London Metropolitan University, is quoted by The Telegraph saying: “there is evidence from other domains that higher levels of intelligence are associated with a greater ability – or perhaps willingness – to question and overturn strongly felt institutions.”
Quite. If you are intelligent and well-educated, you enjoy a freedom of intellect that will allow you to overcome other powerful factors such as your cultural environment. Whether you can shrug off religious traditions may depend on how strong that environment is. I have no figures, but I’m prepared to bet that there is a higher proportion of believers among academics and scientists in strongly Muslim countries, or in Bible Belt-type communities in the US.
It’s easy – sometimes too easy – to use terms like ‘indoctrination’ when discussing these aspects of cultural environment. Indoctrination suggests the deliberate brainwashing, when the inculcation of religious ideas is often simply a matter of habit and tradition. The outcome, of course, is the same, except that the development of an enquiring and questioning mind is an invaluable aid in overcoming the religous habit.
Religious belief does not stand up well to intellectual scrutiny. Indeed, the majority of religious concepts, traditions and practices are clearly absurd. So one can see how natural intelligence will help in seeing these primitive and outdated ideas for what they are. But I think education plays an even more crucial role in developing greater intellectual rigour and to reject the intellectual brutality of religion’s ‘don’t question, just accept’ attitude.
But this still doesn’t explain the current decline of religion. Dr Lynn’s suggestion that people are becoming more intelligent is unconvincing. I think there is another element at play here – that as a society there is less of a requirement for religion.
Dr Lynn’s ideas have been criticised for too crudely portraying religion as a certain primitiveness of thought (one could turn his suggestion around and say that you have to be stupid to be religious – again, a seductive thought, but not entirely sustainable). But in some senses, I think he’s right to at least allude to the crudity of religious concepts.
There are many ideas about why religion arises in the first place – why people invest so much in supernatural concepts. Among these ideas is the line of thought that says supernatural belief is a way of explaining a mysterious world. As science has progressed, we require fewer and fewer supernatural explanations.
Organised religion provides social cohesion. But now we have many social bonds from which we can choose – bingo, hobby clubs, football teams and the Internet.
Belief in supernatural powers and the community of the church also provides us with help in dealing with the terrors of sickness. Now we have modern medicine.
Religion simply doesn’t have the same role in our lives that it used to. Its ignorant, stone-age concepts can’t compete with modern knowledge and technology. Supernatural belief, as a mindset, is archaic and anachronistic. But because many societies still have the habit of religion built into the cultural fabric, it persists. That’s why separation of religion and state is so important. That’s why religion should have no place in schools, courtrooms or parliaments. Only when we excise the dirty habit of religion will we all be free – smart and stupid alike.