Theologian answers atheists: “Myth #1, Atheists are Smarter”

A Roman Catholic priest with the impressive (and quasi-military) title of “Legionary Father Thomas D. Williams” tackles what he calls the “myths” being spread by atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens. In a post entitled “Myth 1: Atheists Are Smarter,” he writes the following:

It is a common myth of our day, not surprisingly propagated by atheists, that religious believers are undereducated folk who have abandoned the use of reason in favor of blind faith.

I think he has a point. It’s not necessarily true that a believer has less education or intelligence than a non-believer, and even if it were true it would be, at best, an ad hominem argument against belief itself. The real issue is not who has the most intelligence and/or education. The real issue is who makes the best use of what they do have. And it is on that basis that believers tend to suffer in the comparison.

Not surprisingly, Fr. Williams never quite gets around to exploring that aspect of the question, preferring instead to focus on the easy counter-examples of intelligent believers and people who, in the past, have spoken favorably about religiosity.

Sam Harris writes that because of the religious belief of its citizens, the United States appears to the rest of the world “like a lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant.”

I have lived in Europe for 17 years, and there is no question that Americans’ unapologetic religiosity makes Europeans uncomfortable.

Yet many eminent thinkers throughout our history, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, have interpreted religious conviction to be America’s greatest strength.

What Williams fails to mention is that de Tocqueville was most particularly impressed by the two qualities American religion manifested in the early to mid 1800’s: tolerance, and an emphasis on personal virtue over doctrinal dogmatism. Sadly, as our secular understanding of the real world has increased, those two qualities have tended to migrate away from the conservative Christian camp and into the liberal/humanistic camp. Well, sadly for believers, at least.

It does not require much in the way of education or intelligence to be intolerant of others, and dogmatic intolerance is the trait that, more than anything else, makes Europeans and other civilized folk uncomfortable. American believers are not only intolerant, but frequently attempt to force everyone to abide by their intolerant, sectarian standards, and that is indeed a reason for believers to be embarrassed.

It is well known that the coastal, semi-skilled knowledge-class prides itself on its liberal, irreligious views, and that religious practice suffers on the coasts and on university campuses. What this means is up for debate.

Unfortunately, Williams appears to be uninterested in exploring that debate. Which is too bad, since the question is very interesting. It gets even more interesting when you consider it’s not just a coastal phenomenon—universities in general tend to grow more liberal and irreligious over time, regardless of location, even if they are originally founded as seminaries and religious schools. Universities emphasize unbiased, open inquiry, plus objective detachment and an eagerness to discover the truth. These qualities have historically proven to be incompatible with maintaining a defensive, dogmatic insistence that one’s primitive ancestors already gave us The Truth.

The intellectual elites were also far more susceptible than common folk to the lies of Leninist ideologies.

And were among the first to recognize the genuine problems with Leninism. Open-mindedness does not make you infallible, it simply equips you to recover more rapidly from mistakes. Imagine how different Fr. Williams’s own life might be if the Roman Catholic Church had been able, after early missteps, to recognize the lies of the ascetic ideology which claims that God wants priests to be celibate and will supernaturally enable them to live in chastity and purity…

Any correlation between faith and education tells us precious little about whether or not God actually exists.

If it is true, as Jesus suggests, that the simple and humble see important truths more easily than the learned and the proud (Matthew 11:25), then it would not be surprising for the uneducated to be as wise or wiser in the ways of God than the hypereducated.

In the Gospel, as in The Emperor’s New Clothes, children see reality more clearly and honestly than pedantic adults.

The key to the Emperor’s New Clothes, however, is to recognize the difference between believing just because men say so and believing what you actually find in the real world. A small child can indeed look at the real world and see for themselves that the God men speak so much about is a God who, like the Emperor’s New Clothes, does not show up in real life.

What’s ironic is that Williams begins by admitting that educational level does not tell us anything meaningful about God’s existence, and then in the very next paragraph starts attempting to claim that education is inversely proportional to one’s ability to perceive God. Where the Emperor’s tailors claimed their magic cloth was so fine that only the extremely wise could see it, Williams croons softly that God is so virtuous, only the “intellectually innocent” have the purity to perceive Him. Warning us about the Emperor’s New Clothes, he tries to sell us the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Again, it’s not how much education or intelligence you have, it’s how you use what you do have. Just think a little: if God exists only in men’s minds, then the quality of the mind will indeed determine whether or not you perceive Him, and Williams’s argument is correct. Education crowds out God because it fills the mind with knowledge, leaving no mental room for imaginary deities. But if God exists outside of men’s minds, then all He needs to do is show up. Education does not make you go blind, so if God shows up then we can all see Him, educated or not. But if God does not show up, then believers cannot have observed Him either, and their claims about Him must be mere inventions.

Since he’s on a roll, Williams continues contradicting himself. After arguing that “[c]ommon sense often seems to be suffocated in the more-rarefied airs of the academy,” he turns in the very next sentence to the claim, “This is not to say that some of the most eminent minds of history have not been religious believers.” Clearly, then, education and intelligence cannot be genuine obstacles to perceiving God, despite everything that Williams claimed only a few paragraphs previously.

He goes on to list a number of highly-regarded scientists and intellectuals who, in ages past, have achieved great intellectual insights while still holding to the dominant religious beliefs of their time. Good for them. None of those achievements happens to include finding any reliable, objective means of observing God, or even of verifying His existence, but oh well. They were geniuses and believers, but even they couldn’t pull that one off because God does not show up in real life, and consequently they didn’t have anything to work with.

He closes with a pious, and somewhat self-righteous, appeal to the Common Man versus the Intellectual.

Give me an honest, hardworking man or woman over a self-important academic any day.

In the end, the important truths of life are accessible to all, not just to the worldly wise.

Right. “Honest+Hardworking=Us” and “Self-Important+Academic=Them,” got it. Smart people are the enemy; us dummies need to stick together because we’re better’n them.

Sigh. At least he got the last sentence right. The important truths in life are those which are accessible to all of us, because they are part of the objective reality we all experience in common. It’s not the fault of the “worldly wise” that God universally fails to show up, and thus leaves Himself equally inaccessible to all.

4 Responses to “Theologian answers atheists: “Myth #1, Atheists are Smarter””

  1. David D.G. Says:

    This is one of my favorite pet peeves, the claim (implied or explicit) that ignorance and blind belief are virtues, whereas knowledge and independent critical thought are Bad Things. It’s something we would expect to be claimed by a madman, or by a surreal character in Lewis Carroll’s stories. It astounds me that anyone would ever seriously propose such a bass-ackward set of values — especially, as in this case, someone who himself seems to be well educated.

    Nice job on the analysis, as always. Keep up the good work!

    ~David D.G.

  2. Bubbaj Says:

    DD, do you think he gets all hot and bothered when he reads that quote from Martin Luther?

    Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but–more frequently than not –struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.

    -Martin Luther

    Bet he does!

  3. Jason Roberts Says:

    This was a decent analysis for a little while then it went off the rails and finally tumbled into a canyon of ad hominem and anti-theistic conjecture.

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      It’s funny how often people tell me that my posts are wrong, in some vague, unspecified manner and place. These are my old posts from before I moved to Freethought Blogs, but I still do check the comment queue now and then, and if you have any specific points you’d like me to address, you are welcome to provide the details. I can’t promise I’ll get to them right away, but I usually answer my critics sooner or later.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: