Wrapped up: how smart people stay religious

I mentioned long ago — like, long ago, back when I first started this blog — that I am sort of the black sheep of my family. My parents and my brother are all quite devout Christians. As I've become more outspoken regarding my beliefs (or lack thereof, as it were), they've occasionally engaged me in discussions/debates about religion. No one's minds were changed, but we've had some interesting conversations. I've always held my family in very high regard though; they are not imbeciles. They are intelligent and thoughtful, and the discussions we've had were at least vigorous, despite everyone leaving with the same beliefs with which they entered.

At the risk of sounding awfully arrogant, I do associate atheism/agnosticism/skepticism with a higher degree of intelligence, simply because it is the nature of an inquisitive mind to question why rather than to blindly and stubbornly believe what others tell them is the truth. Religion, though, thrives on "faith", which by its very definition means an affirmation of belief despite, or sometimes even because of, a lack of evidence. Where there's evidence, "faith" doesn't even enter the equation; we simply accept reality as it is presented to us.

So it's always baffled me how my family, despite their intelligence, have managed to cling to these beliefs that skeptical minds like mine find implausible to the point of absurdity. My family can unleash a stinging and insightful criticism on innumerable political and sociocultural issues, and yet they don't blink at the prospect of drinking the "blood" of a martyred deity as a gesture of atonement or affirming the veracity of a book that is rife with internal contradictions, well-documented historical and scientific errors, and dubious historical authenticity.

But recently, when I went to my brother's wedding, I got a glimpse of exactly what it is that keeps otherwise intelligent people from clinging to these beliefs. It was the first time in years that I had been surrounded by devoutly religious people; prayers were spoken at every opportunity, and I seemed to be the only one there who didn't say "Amen". My brother is quite close to both the minister who performed the ceremony and a visiting pastor from his old church in another state. All my brother's friends, his new wife, her family, my family, and seemingly everyone else was eager to affirm their supernatural beliefs.

I realized then something that I had long forgotten since I began traversing the road toward my own apostasy: that religious commitment is not governed by intellect, but by emotion. For some who are more inquisitive, intellect does occasionally enter into it. But for anyone in my family to openly question their faith as I did would make them vulnerable to being ostracized by the community upon which they depend for friendship, counsel, and support. I remember that the only reason I was able to be skeptical about my beliefs was because, as I got older, many of my friends in the church moved away or moved on, and I didn't have a community quelling my doubts and reinforcing my faith. I was able to directly and boldly confront the questions that had plagued me for years, and I was able to press on until I was satisfied — no matter the cost.

And still, rejecting religion required me to form an entirely different world view, which in itself was quite difficult. I imagine that, if I'd known about the thriving atheist community that has over the years become both more open and more numerous, I might have gotten through that stage more quickly. Nonetheless it was a trying time for me, and I can understand why someone whose world view is heavily informed by faith would have difficulty perceiving their lives in a different context.

All this is essentially a roundabout way of saying that smart people remain religious because of groupthink. In the atheist community, skepticism is encouraged. As a matter of principle, we do not take anything on "faith" — to do so undermines the very capacity for reason which allows us to reliably discern truth from falsehood. But people of all religious faiths are, to some degree, discouraged from skepticism. After all, faith itself is a suspension of one's tendency toward skepticism. Think it sounds a more than a little implausible that an all-powerful deity sacrificed himself to himself as a blood offering to free humanity from a curse he put on us? Just have faith. Think it sounds a little ethnocentric to believe that of all the thousands of religions throughout human history and tens of thousands of dead gods, that you just got lucky enough to have found the one correct one? Just have faith.

No, my friends, do not just have faith. Have doubts. Be skeptical. Demand evidence. Use your capacity for reason. Do not be persuaded or controlled by the emotional comforts of groupthink. Learn to dispassionately question and criticize beliefs postured as truth, no matter how deeply you hold them. Believers aren't necessarily less intelligent than nonbelievers — nonbelievers just aren't willing to cast their intelligence aside to affirm delusional beliefs, no matter how comforting they may be.

Comments

  1. If I was able to question my faith, anybody should be able to. I think many people just want to win the argument during a debate and don't stop to think about the atheists argument. To do so, might mean giving into "the devil's persuasion". Faith is a really difficult position to argue around since it can't be proven or disproven. It's constantly pounded into the Christian, you just have to believe, read your Bible and go to church. Positive circumstances in your life equate to gods intervention while negative consequences equate to god testing your faith or adding to your character. All these circumstances add to this notion of faith and evidence for gods intervention. No way to test if thats true or not. Nevermind that everyone has ups and downs, trials and tribulations regardless of their religious convictions or lack thereof.

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  2. I wrote, much more recently but still at the beginning of my blog, "it all comes back to faith". I agree there is an element of groupthink but I think even more is the element of conditioning. My wife is much, much smarter then me, and a strong critical thinker. But she accepts the church in the face of what I now see and obvious contradictions. Why not just because her friends do. but because she has, with her considerable intelligence managed to conform the world she see's into the world view that has been established as absolute from before she could say her own name. She has been taught that every good feeling that she ever had, the love of her parents, the joy of making good choices, were all an extension of God's love. Each happy coincidence a divine intervention, each unhappy one a divine invitation to learn and grow. There are some who go on blind faith, doing as their friends and family do, afraid and ill-equipped for the struggle the conflict of doubt. But there are those, like my wife and I imagine your family, who have seen those contradictions and have attacked them intellectually, and thoughtfully and with the presumptions of faith and have come to some reconciliations, ever well reasoned ones. Or dismissed them as immaterial, because not only is their faith is paramount, it has been affirmed and reaffirmed throughout their entire lives.

    There are many faithful who would also argue against the groupthink idea, saying that everyone must find their own testimony, must learn for themselves it's true, they must have their own personal conversion even if they have grown up in the church. I think this is the one thing that is naive. Overwhelmingly children follow the religious and cultural examples of their parents. Because of the paradigms they grow up with given to them by the people in life they trust most.

    This is why (here comes that intensity talked about on your other post) I tend to agree with some of the more activist atheists in labeling the teaching of religious ideals as absolutes to children,especially in a fundamentalist atmosphere as, truthfully, a form of intellectual child abuse.

    Community, conditioning, fear of mortality. I have wondered how such antiquated ideas have clung on so tenaciously. I think it's pretty amazing there are any atheists/agnostics at all.

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