Theism and Intelligence

November 19, 2007

Last month, I had a rather heated discussion with one of our couchsurfers about God and religion. Since then, I have had renewed renewed interest in thinking about religion, as well as a renewed motivation to write about and defend it. At least one of my interlocuters, who by no means represents the views of all atheists/religious skeptics, was a member of the “Smart people are atheists, stupid people are theists,” camp, which is my least favorite camp. So I figure a good way to start talking about this matter is with the relatively easy task of defending belief in God against the “theists are stupid” claim. This should be laughably easy.

The “stupid theists” claim rests on the belief that for religious people in the past, the purpose of belief in a supernatural being was to explain the natural world. People who advance this notion point to the story of Demeter, in which Persephone is taken to the underworld, eats six pomegranite seeds, and that’s why we have the seasons. “Well,” scoffs the skeptic, “now that we understand the science behind the seasons, we don’t need this myth anymore. The ancients didn’t know anything about science, but we do, and science has replaced myth.” Often, the person who argues in this line will imply that people who believe in God are simple or ignorant, whereas scientists are well-educated and intelligent, and point to surveys showing that scientists are less likely to believe in God than the general population as evidence that if people would just think instead of blindly following religion, they would realize that God doesn’t exist.

This doesn’t work, of course, because explanations are not really what myths are about. That’s what science is about. Scientists look at the phenomena of the natural world and try to find a naturalistic explanation for everything. But this argument, which assumes that religion is trying to do the same thing and concludes that religion is just badly-done science, is completely unsound. Religion is not, fundamentally, a method of explaining the mechanics of the natural world. Again, that’s science. To put this point as concisely as possible, religion asks Why? while science asks How?

So thinking about the matter more carefully, have we really “explained” why we have seasons? Via science, we know how the seasons come to be, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the why. Why is there a cycle of life? Why is there death? What is the significance of death as symbolized by the Winter, and what is the significance of the rebirth that we experience in the Spring? Atheists say “it doesn’t mean anything, that’s just the way things are,” which is a valid, meaningful claim, but it’s not a claim that they arrived at through science.

A system can’t be its own explanation. Reading a book, there is nothing within the book itself that can tell me whether the words have meaning. I have to bring some assumption to the book to be able to interpret it. “This book is in Russian, so I can’t understand it,” is a different claim from “This book is nonsense, it was created by a random splattering of pages with ink.”

I am not forming any kind of “argument from design” here, an argument which I don’t find convincing, I’m merely pointing out that religious claims are fundamentally different from scientific claims. It doesn’t matter how many surveys show that x% of scientists believe in God vs. y% of the general population. Philosophically, why and how remain separate.


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