Intelligence and belief in God


Does disbelief in God correlate with higher intelligence? According to this article, a researcher thinks so:

Belief in God is much lower among academics than among the general population because scholars have higher IQs, a controversial academic claimed this week.

In a forthcoming paper for the journal Intelligence, Richard Lynn, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Ulster, will argue that there is a strong correlation between high IQ and lack of religious belief and that average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 countries.

In the paper, Professor Lynn - who has previously caused controversy with research linking intelligence to race and sex - says evidence points to lower proportions of people holding religious beliefs among "intellectual elites".

The last bit of that quoted text, which mentions that Lynn has made assertions correlating intelligence with race or sex, makes me quite wary of what he has to say on this subject. I am also suspicious of the suggestion that IQ test results directly correlate with "intelligence", which I think is a concept that is loaded and often difficult to pin down.

That being said, though, I do think there is a way of viewing this subject that is being overlooked, because the idea of God per se is so commonly conflated with specific notions of God as "he" is often conceived. It hardly surprises me that many intellectuals and academics would reject as untenable a pre-Enlightenment concept of an interventionist God as Patriarch-in-the-Sky who miraculously fertilizes a virgin's egg with his Divine sperm, or who causes the offspring of that fertilization process to literally rise upwards into a heavenly realm that is part of a pre-Copernican three-tiered universe, or who in the modern day and age miraculously heals a parishioner's aunt's bad hip because the parishioner asked enough people in church to pray for it. I think that the more educated one becomes, the more likely one is to develop a view that sees the world as governed by consistent and generally predictable physical laws, which doesn't really seem to jibe very well with this traditional and miracle-laden form of theism (which Marcus Borg calls "supernatural theism".) They see this literalized mythology, and I think rightly so, as untenable and inconsistent with the way they understand the universe to operate.

But what does that have to do with the concept of God per se? As Marcus Borg says, "tell me about the God you don't believe in, and I probably don't believe in that God either." So many intellectuals who reject the concept of "God" are really just rejecting a stereotypical concept of God.

Perhaps the idea of a God who is not supernaturally theistic is not everyone's cup of tea. Maybe supernatural theism is easier to work with than the theologies of people like Tillich, Borg, Spong, Hartshorne, or Hick, because it conceives of God in ways that are more analogous with our ordinary experience of other objects and agents in our world, and is thus more accessible to the human imagination. Because an ineffable God as Ground of Being is much more difficult for us to get our minds around than ordinary objects that we encounter in our everyday world, we rely on mythologies as the lens through which we view the Divine. Not that this is a bad thing, but the problems arise when these mythologies are so often taken literally, and God becomes objectified and turned into something within the same ontological category as those objects we encounter in everyday experience.

Peter Rollins, in his book The Fidelity of Betrayal, writes of the problem of objectifying God:
This idea of life as beyond the realm of objectivity can be compared to our experience of light. No matter how wide we open our eyes or how hard we stare we cannot see the light that illumines our world. Just as the light in a room is not seen but rather enables us to see, so our life is not experienced but enables us to experience. Our life does not then exist like objects we encounter on a daily basis; however, it is undeniable that our own life is present to us. This can help us to understand what we mean by saying that God is not a problem to be solved but rather a mystery to participate in. For, like God, our life cannot be understood if we distance ourselves from it and treat it as an object of contemplation. Rather we must explore it indirectly, understanding that it is testified to in the midst of our engagement with the world rather than caught by treating it as an object in our world. God is no more an object in the world than our life is an object in the world. Rather, God is that which grounds our world and opens a world up to us. (p. 115)
Rollins also points out in his book that when faith is identified with the affirmation of creeds or is dependent on the truth of certain historical claims--which is what characterizes so much of Christianity--it lends itself almost inevitably to questioning and the possibility of rejection by intellectuals:
When the truth affirmed by Christianity is thought of as constituting a series of factual claims open to being assessed by intellectual experts, Christianity opens itself up to a corrosive form of doubt that threatens to destroy it. (p. 92)
One of the things that I like about what Rollins has to say on the subject of miracles as violations of physical laws is not that these miracles do or don't happen, but that the whole question is irrelevant. The focus of religion, he believes, should not be on any faith in such miracles, but rather on the transformative power that religious faith introduces into our lives. This is the real "miracle":
The point is not to exclude the idea that miracles can involve awe-inspiring, breathtaking spectacles, but rather to point out that if the event is purely spectacular, involving no real change in the core of one's being, then it is nothing more than a spectacle. Physical changes are natural insomuch as they take place in the natural world. Our medical technology is constantly improving and is able to heal in ways that would have seemed magical only a hundred or two hundred years ago. Vital as such healing is in today's world, such a focus can eclipse what Christianity affirms as the true miracle. It is not something natural (although it will manifest itself in the natural world) but something supernatural. It does not register as an object that can be recorded and beamed around the world on some religious cable channel, or witnessed at a local charismatic healing service. A miracle worth its salt takes place in the world but is not of it. A miracle worthy of the name is so radical that while in the physical world nothing may change, in the one who has been touched by it nothing remains the same. (p. 149)
As long as the concept of God is objectified, and as long as religion is equated with the affirmation of truth claims that intrude upon the magisterium of science, I think it is going to be a tough sell as an intellectual concept in the modern age.


PrickliestPear said...

I have no doubt that belief in God is lower among academics than the general population. So?

I agree with the criticisms you suggest, particularly the point about IQ tests (which, of course, are invariably created by academics, and which are therefore going to reflect a bias in favour of a certain kind of intelligence).

I would also take issue with the implicit assertion that the views of academics as a group are somehow representative of the views of the smartest people in general. Absurd.

The academic world is very conservative, and tends to produce and employ only those people who accept the prevailing orthodoxy -- which, at this point in history, is largely hostile to religion. If you don't accept the various dogmas of postmodernism, you're not likely to pursue a career in academia, and you'll have a rough time of it if you try.

Joliene said...

I agree with your points about IQ tests, which it seems to me test a certain kind of intelligence.

I commend you for your inclusion of Borg in this article (and Spong, in passing). These are two of my favorite scholars to read about what Christianity means to many of us. It seems to me the the quotation you used from Borg is generally the heart of the argument. I would agree that most (strong empasis) "intelligent" people don't believe in the anthropomorphic daddy-in-the-sky god that sends us economic growth when we are good and fetus-shaped hurricanes when we are bad. Such thinking is selective and absurd. And I think this probably ties in with what you hear from SO MANY people-- "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual." This statement, it seems to me, generally means what I think this survey is really putting its finger on-- the reality that most of us cannot believe in that supernatural God, but that we would a little dishonest to say that we are completely Godless... at there very least, there seems to be something beyond coincidence and chance going on, something beyond survival instinct in us, and something more than pure physical interaction in this world.

Mystical Seeker said...

Prickliest Pear,

would also take issue with the implicit assertion that the views of academics as a group are somehow representative of the views of the smartest people in general. Absurd.

Good point. The world is full of intelligent people who are not academics.


Well stated. I think that a lot of people who say they are "spiritual" but not religious are really part of what Spong calls the "church alumni society"--people who find themselves drawn to a sense of awe towards a Reality greater than themselves, but they can't necessarily affirm a set of dogmatic propositions that they think they have to accept in order to be considered "religious."

mark gill said...

Intellectually, I agree with you. But, what happens when you actually see healings that are real and you can see it happen right before your very eyes?

I have had too many experiences of seeing such things to negate the power of prayer, where instant healings did occur. I know there is a lot of "sham" in this area, but I am talking what what I know from actual experience.

There is a "spiritual power" that I realise I cannot explain or perhaps even understand, but I know it is real. I do not, however, say that it only comes through prayer to the religious "god" of either Judaism or Christianity......I cannot accept the view of "god" as posited in either religion

Mystical Seeker said...

I have had too many experiences of seeing such things to negate the power of prayer, where instant healings did occur. I know there is a lot of "sham" in this area, but I am talking what what I know from actual experience.

There are some, like Marcus Borg, who believe that certain kinds of healing prayers work, not because a supernaturally theistic God intervenes if we ask him to, but because of some sort of interconnectedness in the universe where we can influence the outcomes of events (somehow). I am not sure how this is supposed to work, and am skeptical of this point of view myself, but I do understand that this is a way of getting around the problem of an interventionist God while still engaging in intercessory prayer.

PrickliestPear said...


The world is full of intelligent people who are not academics.

Yes. Not only that, but when you consider what kind of people actually end up working in academia, it tends to be people who are very singlemindedly focused on something other than the contemplation of spiritual truth. So it's far too much to expect academics (as a group) to be particularly enlightened with regard to spiritual truth. When you look at it that way, this "study" (or whatever it is) seems like nothing more than a common exercise in stating the obvious.

mark gill said...

Borg had "radical amazement" experiences and came up with a different set of ideas than have others who have had similar experiences.........

The idea of some kind of "innerconnectedness to the universe" is completely fuzzy and almost non-sensical.

The problem with "god", as I see it is simply the problem associated with the hard, mean, and often cruel "god" as posited in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures........the "reward and punishment" "god", as identified by Borg and numerous others....

Borg simply does not know what the "sacred" that he experienced consists of......but, he is sure it is not the "god" he was raised to believe in......

I have experienced the "sacred" and neither do I know either....

The whole problem with the statement "do you believe in God" always assumes one means the "god" of Judaism/Christianity/Islam.......the concept of atheism came from a disbelief in their portrayal of "god"........

Mystical Seeker said...

The idea of some kind of "innerconnectedness to the universe" is completely fuzzy and almost non-sensical.

I would agree with that, and I don't believe in that notion myself. It is the one area that I disagree with Borg on. It doesn't seem to be of overall importance to his theology, though, so I don't really let myself get hung up on it. The main thrust of Borg's theology, I think, is to reject what he calls a "supernaturally theistic" concept of an interventionist God. This is something that I agree with him on.

mark gill said...

If anti-theism is correct, then Borg has no business saying that we need to be "born again" in many areas of life and that one cannot accomplish this without the work of the "spirit", although he is, again, fuzzy as to what the "spirit" is..........

Such change, if one follows his thoughts, requires intervention as one must have help in achieving change.......

Over the years, I have found that anti-theists have generally lacked any sort of experience with "god" or the "sacred" and assume their personal experience to be universal. They follow the logic of the Age of Enlightenment. But, forgetting that the "anti" spirit of that Age was directed against the "god" of Judaism/Christianity.......

Mystical Seeker said...

Borg is a panentheist who believes in God, and I doubt that he would call himself anti-theist, although he does reject what he calls "supernatural theism". "Intervention" does not have to refer to a coercively miraculous violation of the laws of physics; it could mean, for example in the case of process theology, divine persuasion. Not that Borg himself has endorsed process theology, but process theology is a form of panentheism as well.

mark gill said...

uncle« Previous Post | Next Post »
Prayer Transforms Us
I pray all the time. I do not mean “every minute,” but many times a day.

My understanding and practice of prayer are grounded in my understanding of God, the Sacred. I see God as a presence, as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being,” to quote words attributed to Paul in Acts 17.28.

For me, prayer – addressing God, paying attention to my relationship with God – is about reminding me of the reality and presence of God in the course of my day and days. It is about centering more deeply in God and about “opening” to God. It helps me to be more centered, more present, more appreciative.

What about prayers in which we ask for something – prayers of petition and intercession? To speak personally (and how else can we speak?), I do not think of God as an interventionist – that God “decides” to answer some prayers. To imagine that God sometimes intervenes leaves all the non-interventions inexplicable.

And yet I “do” both petitionary and intercessory prayer. I pray for help for myself. As Anne Lamott remarks in one of her books, the two most genuine prayers are “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I also pray for help and health and protection for family, friends, and “the world.” Doing so is a natural expression of caring; for me, it would be unnatural not do this. And not to do so because I can’t imagine how it works would be an act of intellectual arrogance – if I can’t imagine how something works, then it can’t work.

So I don’t believe that God sometimes intervenes to answer prayer. But this doesn’t prevent me from thinking that prayer sometimes has effects, even though I can’t imagine how. I am very willing to think of other ways of imagining God’s relation to the world, such as speaking of divine intention and divine interaction. At the very least, I am convinced that prayer changes us – that it transforms those who pray. This has been my experience

This is what Borg says. It goes beyond "supernatural theism". It indicates, as do many other of his comments, that "God" is a fuzzy concept and he cannot really identify what he thinks "god" is beyond calling it "the sacred"......whatever he really means by that........

But, then, who can identify "god" or even if there is one or a hundred.........and, does it really matter?