Christianity: a faith for the simple

by Nick Spencer

simple mindedChristianity’s founding ideals are anti-elitist – so should we be surprised if its followers are less educated than average?

In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins makes great play of the fact that so few "elite" scientists apparently believe in God. A more recent US study, by sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, surveying 1,700 scientists and speaking to 275 of them, found that "nearly 50% of elite scientists [in the US] are religious in the traditional sense and over 20% … though eschewing religion, still see themselves as spiritual".

Ecklund’s study aims to correct the idea that scientists are overwhelmingly atheistic, although it refuses to shy away from the overwhelmingly atheistic feelings of some, such as physicist Arik who "proudly" told Ecklund that his children "have been thoroughly and successfully indoctrinated to believe as I do that belief in God is a form of mental weakness".

For all that it tries to correct the picture of widespread scientific atheism, however, the study can’t escape the fact that, although elite scientists in the US are more religious/spiritual than they are generally thought to be, they are still rather less religious/spiritual than the population as a whole.

Should we read anything into this? One over-hasty conclusion, a good example of what Sir Sir Humphrey Appleby called "minister’s logic", is that it hammers another nail into God’s coffin. Thus: 1) Elite scientists know more about the way the world works than other people. 2) A disproportionate number of elite scientists don’t believe in God. 3) Therefore God (probably) doesn’t exist.

What is interesting about this argument is not so much the questionable inference, as the questionable first premise. Our conviction that scientists, elite or otherwise, are somehow better qualified to discern the nature of reality is dubious. Elite scientists undoubtedly know vastly more about their subject than other people. But to imagine that that makes them somehow better qualified to adjudicate on big-picture questions is like saying because I know my home town like the back of my hand, I am well-equipped to lecture on European geography.

Beyond the fray of who believes what and whether it means anything, there is a wider and perhaps more interesting question of whether we should expect any correlation at all between a/theism and intelligence. If all intelligent people clustered at one end of the a/theistic pole, that would be highly suggestive.

But they don’t. John Carey observed in the introduction to his Faber Book of Science that "when a scientist of James Clerk Maxwell’s eminence uses molecular structure as an argument for the existence of God, few will feel qualified to laugh", before going on to remark, "of course, atheistical scientists are plentiful too". In as far as there is a correlation between a/theism and intelligence, it is far subtler than that.

Odd as it may be to admit, there is some reason within the Christian tradition to think that Christian believers should, on average, be less intelligent, or at least less well-educated, than their opponents. Before atheists get too exited by this, it isn’t an admission that Christians are naturally stupid, though no doubt some will choose to read it that way…


Christianity: a faith for the simple |

The Poached Egg

Recommended Resources: Can a Smart Person Believe in God? | Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics