Friday, October 16, 2020

Religion does not make people stupid.


Two articles showed up in my news feed that I found particularly interesting, especially when they appeared close together (and I needed a subject to blog about).

The first one, “Does Religion make People Stupid?” ( caught my eye as I have tangled with people who take their interpretation of the Bible as the last word in science, history, ethics and so forth. It isn’t pretty.

Does religion make people stupid? No, stupid people make religion stupid. But stupid people make everything stupid.

One of the most common charges laid at the door of organised religion is that it makes people stupid. As one of the most famous of living atheists, Richard Dawkins, puts it, “One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are not really answers at all.” Dawkins isn’t totally wrong; religion does help some people to be satisfied with ‘answers’ that are not really answers at all. But he misses the rather important point that these people are already stupid or, to be slightly more charitable, they are afraid to think properly.

Dawkins is also unquestionably right about the fact that there are no such things as meaningful religious answers to scientific questions. Science succeeds in making the incredible progress it does precisely by excluding certain types of questions from its investigations and calculations. It limits itself to finding out through observation, hypothesis, and experiment, how the physical world works. It, quite rightly, doesn’t bother with questions such as ‘how should I behave?’, ‘what should I hope for?’, ‘how should I feel about reality itself?’ or ‘Is it better to exist or not to exist?’

Nor is religion particularly good at answering specific moral and social questions. Employing religious arguments sheds absolutely no light at all on whether I should support legalised abortion, or which party to vote for at the next election. In fact, as a day-to-day detailed guide in decision making, religion is more often than not completely useless. This is evidenced by the fact that, within my own Church (Roman Catholic), there is absolutely no consensus on most detailed political, social, medical or ethical dilemmas.

It is a short article and there are only 6 more paragraphs, well worth reading.

The second article from Ancient Origins, “Religion Isn’t the Enemy of Science: It’s Been Inspiring Scientists for Centuries” ( ) brings out noteworthy points about who these scientists were and why they were inspired.

The history of scientific thought is closely linked to that of religious thought, and with much more continuity than discontinuity. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle effectively set the Western template for studying the natural world in the 4th century BC. Most of his hugely influential scientific works were lost to Europe after the Roman Empire collapsed, but were developed by Muslim Arab thinkers like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) from around 900AD to 1300AD. Early Islamic figures were responsible for very rapid progress in a number of scientific fields, notably maths, medicine and the study of light (optics).

When Aristotle was reintroduced to Europe in the 12th century, his scientific work had a great influence on medieval scholars, who were invariably thinkers within a church, synagogue or mosque. A key example is the 13th-century Oxford theologian and later Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, who was also a pioneering early scientist. He presented a vision for how we might obtain new knowledge of the universe, the dawning of the first notions of experiment, and even a “big bang” theory of the cosmos and a concept of multiple universes.

When 16th-century philosopher Francis Bacon argued for a new experimental approach to science, he drew explicitly on such theological motivations. As the historian of science Peter Harrison argues, the scientific pioneers who followed Bacon, such as Newton and chemist Robert Boyle, saw their task as working with God’s gifts of senses and minds to recover a lost knowledge of nature.

In fact, science also has roots in ancient Jewish history that are as influential as the ancient Greek precedents. Philosopher Susan Neiman recently argued that the Biblical Book of Job should be understood as a foundation pillar of modern philosophy alongside Plato. This is because Job deals head-on with the problem of an apparently chaotic and fitful world, alien to the human predicament and unmoved in the face of suffering. And this, Neiman claims, is the starting point for philosophy.

It might also be the starting point for science, for Job also contains at its pivotal point the most profound nature poem of all ancient writings. Its verse form of questions is also striking to scientists from all ages, who know that asking the right creative questions – rather than always having the correct answer – is what unlocks progress.

The article is quite short, and it will not take much time to read. The important takeaway is that these people were/are thinkers, not stupid people.


Debra She Who Seeks said...

Religion and spirituality fill emotional needs, not intellectual ones. "Stupidity" or "intelligence" are irrelevant.

Diane Henders said...

I'm not qualified to comment on religion, so I won't. But "Stupid people make everything stupid": Amen.

The Blog Fodder said...

Debra, the author agrees with you partly. He is a believer because it is more comfortable than thinking life is nasty, brutish, and short and then you vanish into the abyss. It is how you deal with religion as an emotional support that determines whether one is stupid or a thinker.

Diane, That was the best line of them all.