Why even Smart People Believe Religious Claims

Of course it is true that some highly educated people believe religious claims. Why is that?

Permit me to offer some explanations.

FIRST, smart persons are very good at defending ideas that they believe for non-smart reasons. They want to believe something, say for emotional reasons, and they then become quite adept at defending those beliefs after the fact, since they are smart! But it is arrogant of those with no credentials in the sciences, and no experience in the field or laboratory, to reject the hard earned knowledge of the sciences—and from their office chairs!

SECOND, the proclamations of educated believers are not always to be taken at face value. Many do not actually believe religious claims at all, but simply think them useful for the great unwashed. Without them, they fear, many will no longer have a basis for hope, morality, or meaning. They may be benevolent in their motives, believing that ordinary folks simply cannot handle the truth about life. They may feel it heartless to tell the parent of a dying child that the little one does not go to a better place, even though they believe this themselves.

Or they may be more manipulative in their motives, using religion as a mechanism of social control, as Gibbon noted long ago: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”

Consider the so-called religiosity of many contemporary politicians, whose actions belie the claim that they really believe the precepts of the religion to which they supposedly ascribe. Individuals may also profess belief because it is socially unacceptable not to—they do not want to be out of the mainstream, or fear they will not be re-elected or loved if they profess otherwise. Thus so-called believers may not really believe the truth of their claims; instead they may think that others are better off or more easily controlled if those others believe. Or perhaps they may simply want to be socially accepted.

THIRD, when sophisticated thinkers claim to be religious, they usually have something in mind quite unlike what the general populace believes. They may be process theologians who argue that god is not omnipotent, identify god as an anti-entropic force pervading the universe leading it to higher levels of organization. They may be pantheists, panentheists, or death of god theologians. Yet none of these sophisticated varieties of religious belief bears much resemblance to popular religion. The masses would be astonished to find out what many of these “believers” actually believe—how far such beliefs deviate from the theism with which they are familiar.

But we should not be deceived. Although there are many educated religious believers, including some philosophers and scientists, religious belief declines with educational attainment, particularly with scientific education. Studies also show that religious belief declines among those with higher IQs. Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins are not outliers, and neither are Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.

Surveys of scientists as a whole show religious believers among them to be quite small compared to the general populace, and surveys of the members of the national academy of sciences, comprised of the most prestigious scientists in the world, show that religious belief among them is practically non-existent.

Compare all this to religious belief among the less scientifically educated populace where religious belief is nearly universal. Or consider the following piece of anecdotal evidence. Among the intelligentsia it is common and widespread to find individuals who lost childhood religious beliefs as their education in philosophy and the sciences advanced.

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Comment by Michael Penn on April 10, 2017 at 8:57am

I've even heard of scientists who believe that the Grand Canyon is proof of a worldwide flood. Apparently it is being hidden from us all that a giant drain stopper is down there somewhere.

I personally know people who think that the book of Revelation is calling the shots on present day world events. (I used to be one of them.)  You simply cannot tell these people that other books were considered and Revelation got included around 419 AD. People think their "holy bible" is an accepted, given by god, continuous story. It simply is not so.

We are mostly intelligent people. We can all believe nonsense. We should prove all things but be aware that many things lack evidence.

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