Every so often a scientific study appears purporting to show an inverse correlation between intelligence and religiosity; in other words, the smarter you are, the less likely you are to be religious. The latest offering is a meta-analysis of such studies which confirms the now-familiar story. Not surprisingly, a hearty cheer goes up from the atheist camp every time a report like this one appears. The insinuation is often that such studies provide evidence that religious beliefs are untrue or unreasonable. The more intelligent you are, so the logic runs, the better your chances of figuring out the right answers — and the most intelligent folk are those with non-religious answers!
Should Christians be disturbed by such studies? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these studies are based on reliable data, and that there really is a correlation between intelligence and non-religiosity. Do the studies give evidence that Christian beliefs are epistemically subpar? No, for a number of reasons.
1.If intelligence were generally correlated with having true beliefs, we would expect there to be wide agreement among the beliefs of intelligent people. That may be the case with respect to undisputed matters of fact (what we call “general knowledge”) but it isn’t true when it comes to controverted issues. We find wide disagreement over major disputed issues among those with high IQs.
2. The more intelligent a person is, the greater his capacity to rationalize: to come up with supposed reasons in support of beliefs which are actually held on other (non-rational) grounds, and to convince himself (and others) that those beliefs really are held for those reasons. The intellect never operates in isolation from the will or the emotions. So a person’s intelligence can work just as effectively against the pursuit of truth, especially if that truth is an unwelcome truth. A sharp intellect is like a sharp knife: it can be used for good or for ill, depending on the disposition of the one who wields it.
3. On a related point, it’s not uncommon for very smart people to hold and defend very bizarre and counterintuitive ideas, and to act in quite foolish ways. Common sense is often taken to be a reliable guide to truth, but intelligence doesn’t strongly correlate with common sense. As I’ve heard folk say, “You really need a PhD to believe something that crazy.”
4. High intelligence can easily become an occasion for pride, arrogance, and an attitude of self-reliance. (If an intelligent person insists otherwise, they’re rationalizing; see point 2 above.) But Christianity regards such attitudes as vices, in conflict with devotion to God and love for one’s neighbor (see, e.g., Prov. 3:5-7; Matt. 5:5; Rom. 12:16; Phil. 2:3; 1 Pet. 5:5). So the Christian faith and its accompanying ethic can be a stumbling block to those who have high IQs. One might even say that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an intellectually wealthy person to enter the kingdom of heaven.
5. If the so-called Reformed epistemologists are correct, whether a person’s belief in God is rational bears no direct relation to how intelligent that person is. Whether one has a rational belief in God depends primarily on whether one has a properly functioning sensus divinitatis (and no defeaters for one’s belief in God). Belief in God is analogous to belief in the existence of other minds or the existence of a mind-independent world: it’s a properly basic belief that is formed naturally if all is well with one’s cognitive faculties. The rationality of such beliefs isn’t indexed to the intelligence of the person who holds those beliefs. It’s basically a matter of whether that person is “of sound mind.”
Moreover, as Alvin Plantinga has forcefully argued, whether theists are “of sound mind” depends fundamentally on whether theism is true. The question of whether or not God exists can’t simply be “bracketed out” when interpreting the sort of sociological studies we’re considering here. Interpreting the results as support for atheism may well be an exercise in begging the question.
6. Finally, we should observe that if Christianity is true then we should actually expect to find less believers among the intelligentsia (and not just for the reasons suggested above). Consider the following from Luke’s Gospel:
In that same hour [Jesus] rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10:21-22)
Knowledge of the truth and entrance into the kingdom depend on the gracious will of God (cf. Matt. 16:16-17; John 3:3-8). And as Scripture consistently testifies, God is often pleased to choose “against the grain.” He chose Jacob over Esau, the firstborn (Rom. 9:10-13). He chose the little nation of Israel over the more populous and impressive nations (Deut. 7:6-8). He chose David over his elder brothers (1 Sam. 16). Examples could be multiplied. Accordingly, while God bestows saving grace on people from all walks of life, he is especially pleased to call the weak, the poor, the lowly, and the foolish, because that magnifies divine grace rather than human virtue:
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:26-29)
Thus, according to the Christian view of God and salvation, we should expect to see proportionally fewer believers among the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the intellectual high-fliers. But then the sort of studies mentioned above cannot serve as evidence against Christianity. If anything they serve as confirmations of biblical teachings.
None of this is to suggest, of course, that Christianity is anti-intellectual or hostile to those who are intellectually gifted. Even a non-believer like Antony Flew could observe from the New Testament that the apostle Paul possessed a “first class philosophical mind” — and Paul put his intellect to good use. Jesus himself was a skillful logician. I would venture to say that over the course of history Christianity has done more to promote scholarship, the pursuit of truth, and the life of the mind than any other religion or ideology. Fides quaerens intellectum. Yet at the same time, Christianity doesn’t identify intelligence with virtue or idolize the human mind. It puts the intellect in its proper place.
In sum, one of the great virtues of Christianity is that it especially welcomes those who are looked down on by the world’s intelligentsia. So it’s no surprise, and no discredit, that the more simple-minded are well represented within its ranks.