The first thing we have to realize is that intelligence is compartmental. By that I mean that people who employ sharp wit and critical thinking about one area of life (or even multiple areas) can still remain almost juvenile about a number of others.
Scientists who were/are religious
Galileo, Newton were two famous examples of such intelligent people who were very religious. Coming to present times, Francis Collins is a living American physician-geneticist, noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes, and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP). He currently serves as the Director of the US National Institutes of Health. “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” is a bestselling book by Francis Collins in which he advocates theistic evolution. In the book, Collins describes briefly the process by which he became a Christian.
From Atheism to Christianity
Collins came to Christianity in a powerfully compelling way. He began as an atheist, someone who felt that “the truth was all there in…mathematical equations” and said “God seemed to be unnecessary” for a scientific explanation of the world. But, as he worked in medical school and was exposed to patients on their deathbeds, he became fascinated by several Christian patients, who seemed to have accepted their fate and were placing their lives in the hands of God.
One patient told him she was confident that her faith in Jesus would see her through; Collins began to envy the certainty of these patients and wonder if he, too, could not share in that confidence. A fellow practitioner at the medical school advised the eager student to read C.S. Lewis’ celebrated book Mere Christianity. From then on, we are told, conversion was only a matter of time.
Collins considered searching all the world’s religions for alternative approaches to spirituality, but it was hard to do so back then: “There was, folks, no Wikipedia of world religions at that point, and I couldn’t figure out what on Earth [all the different faiths] were about.”
So he read C.S. Lewis and allowed his inquiry to rest there. Collins was not yet satisfied – he remained an agnostic or at least a non-Christian for an extended time – but he was clearly content enough to make no investigation into any of the other major religions of the world. For months he mulled over what he had read in Lewis and asked himself if Christianity was the ultimate guide in his spiritual journey.
What happened next is bizarre and surprising. On a hiking trip through the Canadian wilderness, the geneticist saw a frozen waterfall in three parts, thought that the three parts represented the holy Trinity (Father God, Son Jesus & the Holy spirit), and fell on his knees to accept God into his life.
Now, the idea that nature contains private coded messages from a supernatural being to an individual person is the antithesis of the scientific (indeed, rational) mindset. It is primitive, shamanistic, superstitious. The point of the scientific revolution was to do away with such animistic thinking.
How are these contradictions possible, you say?
They are possible because intelligence is compartmental. We must be ever on our guard against the “halo effect” which is that tendency to ascribe to individuals who are distinguished in one field, an authority which they do not deserve in others.
For example, just because Albert Einstein was an expert in astrophysics doesn’t mean he was an authority in politics, philosophy, or metaphysics (if there is such a thing as an expert in that). It shouldn’t lend much weight to either believers’ or nonbelievers’ arguments that this famous person or that one was “on the right side” on matters of religious belief.
Childhood Indoctrination is the Culprit
Another thing you must realize is that very intelligent people will believe very nonsensical things if you get to them young enough. When you grow up in an environment which takes for granted that a system of belief is sacred, your knowledge base and your critical thinking skills grow up around that belief structure in such a way as to leave it undisturbed. In fact, an argument could be made that without the checks and balances of the scientific method, human reasoning only serves to rationalize and validate the emotional content already in place in our psyches from our earliest years.
WE THINK IN ORDER TO RATIONALIZE WHAT WE ALREADY BELIEVE.
Have you ever seen a tree that’s grown up around a fence post, enveloping it as if it is a part of the tree itself? That happens when the post was there before the tree was even a sapling. Intelligence and education are like that as well. If you can instill a belief structure in a developing mind early enough, all the reasoning powers of that individual will develop around those beliefs in such a way as to leave them undisturbed. Those critical thinking skills may even become proficient at challenging belief systems outside the one around which they grew, but it’s a completely different skill set to learn to turn them inward, challenging the core beliefs which were already in place before those skills were developed.
And finally, people who did not grow up thoroughly enveloped by a community of faith will find it difficult to appreciate how heavily the social pressure to remain faithful keeps the fence-sitters amongst us from freely embracing our own cognitive dissonance.
I recall clearly how apprehensive I became in my late teens each time I collided with my own inner skeptic, realizing how costly it would be for me if my pursuit of reality ever led me outside the Hinduism fold. I knew long before I finally became honest with myself that I could lose everything, and for the most part I was right. When your whole life is built around an idea, challenging that idea shakes you to the core of who you are, both psychologically and socially.
For some of us, this threatens to demolish our entire world. So it is possible for highly intelligent people to believe in nonsense like god(s).