Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Religion Makes Smart People Stupid

The physicist Stephen Weinberg once famously remarked, "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil---that takes religion."

But religion's effects are not limited to making good people do evil; it can also make smart people act stupid.

David Gelernter is an example. He teaches computer science at Yale, and apparently once made some important contributions to parallel programming. Lately, however, he seems to spend most of his time writing essays and books; he's a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

But he's also obsessed with religion. In 1997, he falsely claimed, in an opinion piece in the New York Times, that "the Supreme Court outlawed prayer and Bible reading in the public schools" and refused to issue a correction. (Rather, in Engel v. Vitale, the Court ruled 8-1 that government-sponsored prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Nothing the court said prevents students from praying silently on their own, or reading the Bible during study breaks.) In his anti-AI book The Muse in the Machine, he spends 25 pages on Old Testament commentary. Gelernter once recommended that atheist students, unconstitutionally forced to recite "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, should simply "keep quiet".

And his obsession with religion makes him say some extremely stupid things. Here's an example: the Templeton Foundation, that den of insipid God-talk, recently asked 12 people, "Does the Universe have a purpose?" Here is Gelernter's response:

Consider this question: Do the Earth and mankind have a purpose? If so, then the universe does too, ipso facto.

Here Gelernter commits one of the classic logical fallacies: the fallacy of composition. In the fallacy of composition, one takes a property of a part of a system and extrapolates that property to the system as a whole. For example, "This cup is made of molecules. Molecules are too light to weigh on a kitchen scale. Therefore, this cup is too light to weigh on a kitchen scale."

As if sensing the silliness of his claim, Gelernter justifies his reasoning with ipso facto. He should have said, caveat emptor.

Could the Universe fail to have a purpose, even if the Earth and mankind do? Of course. Consider a pile of trash that has been assembled by the wind. Inside the pile is a torn page from Gelernter's Ph. D. thesis. Does the page have a purpose? Surely. Does the pile of trash itself have a purpose? No. Gelernter, by the fallacy of composition, would have to insist that the pile does, indeed, have a purpose.

Religion makes smart people stupid.

Gelernter goes on to extol the paradise that Judaism and Christianity have wrought: Humans desire goodness; but until the Judeo-Christian revelation this desire was, at least for Western humanity, vague and unformed.

This claim is incoherent at its root because there wasn't even a notion of "Western humanity" until 400 CE, well after the "Judeo-Christian revelation". What we think of as Western civilization is grounded just as much in Hellenistic philosophy and the Enlightenment as it is in Judaism and Christianity.

Religion makes smart people stupid.

Next, Gelernter goes on to display his deep understanding of biology: When we seek goodness and sanctity, we defy nature. The basic rule of Judeo-Christian ethics is, the strong must support the weak. The basic rule of nature is, the strong live and the weak die.

No, that's not the basic rule of nature. Strength, per se, may not gain you an evolutionary advantage; there are many more earthworms than there are bears. And nature is filled with examples of cooperation, which somehow magically arises without the need for "Judeo-Christian ethics". Gelernter should read some of the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, whose work conclusively shows that the virtues of sympathy, empathy, and cooperation exist in the animal world. Gelernter's "basic rule of nature" is a product of his own imagining, not the way the world works.

Religion makes smart people stupid.

But all of Gelernter's factual errors shouldn't distract from the essential inanity of his vision of the Universe: that our goal should be "goodness". I am reminded of a famous cartoon of Charles Schulz: Linus claims that "We are here to help others"; and Lucy responds "What are the others here for?"

A cosmic Purpose that we are here to be good, and nothing more, fails to capture some really essential things about our humanity: our desire to know and learn, to achieve more than others, to go where others haven't. If "goodness" is our sole Purpose, count me out. And even if "goodness" is our sole Purpose, religion has been remarkably unable to achieve it. Whether it is the 19 Muslim hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or Yigal Amir, who justified his assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on religious grounds, or Eric Rudolph, who bombed and killed people because of his Christian faith, religion is more often the problem than the solution.

Religion makes smart people - like David Gelernter - stupid.

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

You have made a universal claim.

Repeating it over and over again doesn't make it true.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous:

My claim is actually not a universal claim, any more than "smoking causes cancer" means that every single person who ever smoked will get cancer from it.

Michael Albert said...

But, while we're on the logical fallacies bandwagon, we should be careful of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Anonymous said...

Religion makes smart people stupid.

Yes. And your post demonstrates that the effect is not limited to the believers.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous:

Your riposte might have more effect if you were to give some examples to support your claim. After all, I did.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

I think the statement should be interpreted as: there is a positive correlation between religion and stupidity. Indeed, it cannot be a law. We all know scientists who are religious. I've often wondered how can it be that people I know and respect can be so religious. At least their religiousness is confined at home; they don't shout about it every minute.

We don't know what causes people to become religious. It is, as Lewis Wolpert says (but not very convincingly), a biological need. May be so. This would be a nice explanation. Although, rationally, as scientists, we wish to reject religion (and any unproved claims), we (I mean some...) may not be able to do so, just as they are not able, say, to stop smoking (poor analogy--I know).

To play the role of the devil and provide an example that the Anonymous commentator cannot, let me mention another, more famous, computer scientist, Donald Knuth. There is no doubt about his being smart. At the same time, he is religious. It is claimed (people at Stanford had told me long time ago) that he wanted to have a biblical quote at the beginning of every chapter of his Art of Computer Programming. (But the publisher objected.)

Another famous mathematician (probabilist), whose name I will not mention, cannot help it but be an Orthodox Jew (or behave as such). I heard that his explanation is precisely this: "I cannot do otherwise. I know there is no logical explanation, but it is what I feel I should be doing."

Fair enough. At least he doesn't try to convince anybody else, neither to use science to explain what he does.

The latter is the most embarrassing situation a scientist can come to: to want to use science to rationalize, to explain, what he or she believes in. This drives me crazy. And this is what I find ridiculous.

Pseudonym said...

It's not religion that makes smart people stupid. It's absolute certainty.

I submit the following evidence as proof:

- Pre-Iraq-war intelligence.
- Christopher Hitchens.
- Half the commenters on Pharyngula.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Andrew B (aka Pseudonym):

I agree, to some extent. But the question is, which kinds of belief systems work to reinforce false certainty, and which work to chip away at it?

A system where ideas are constantly tested and differing opinions are given a chance to thrive is more likely to get rid of false beliefs than a system that relies on dogma, threatens unbelievers with death, eternal damnation, or expulsion from the group, and ties its claims to evaluation of your character ("you're a bad person if you don't agree").

Elad Lahav said...

If I hear or read the adjective Judeo-Christian again, I'll probably explode. People who use this phrase tend to ignore the following facts:
1. That Jewish and Christian philosphies differ considerably from each other,
2. That Christianity includes many different and incompatible philosphies (predestination anyone?), and
3. That people who adhere to these faiths have been killing each other for centuries over these difference.

Pseudonym said...

I agree, to some extent. But the question is, which kinds of belief systems work to reinforce false certainty, and which work to chip away at it?

I agree with what you say, but I don't agree that your characterisation applies to "religion". At best, it's "some religion". You might even be able to make a case for "most religion", but in the absence of actual statistics to justify that claim, I'd be wary of saying that.

"Smoking causes cancer" is a claim based on studies and systematic reviews. There are actual numbers behind it. The claim that "religion makes smart people stupid" is not.

When's the last time that a Buddhist tied "claims" with evaluation of character? Or a Neo-Pagan threatened someone with expulsion over dogma? Or a Jew talked about "eternal damnation"? Or a Methodist threatened someone with death? (Hell, it's even been a long time since a Roman Catholic acting in an official capacity did that.)

Incidentally, Stephen Weinberg was also wrong, as Stanley Milgram famously showed.

Vishal said...

Have you read his essay, titled Americanism - & Its Enemies? This guy is so amazingly blinded by his complete devotion to his faith!

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Pseudonym:

Religions are so diverse that any list I make of their negative characteristics is bound to find a few exceptions. Since Christianity is the dominant religion in North America, I was focusing on some of its attributes, but many other religions can be criticized similarly.

When's the last time that a Buddhist tied "claims" with evaluation of character?

Try reading about what's happening in Sri Lanka, where Christian churches have been attacked by Buddhist mobs.

Or a Methodist threatened someone with death?

Ever heard of Walker Railey?

Incidentally, Stephen Weinberg was also wrong, as Stanley Milgram famously showed.

To the best of my knowledge, Milgram's experiments did not attempt to draw any correlations of behavior with religious adherence; for one thing, his sample sizes were too small. But feel free to cite a paper in support of your claim.

Tim Kenyon said...

Caveat lector, actually. :-)

And I largely agree with Pseudonym's remarks.

Pseudonym said...

Religions are so diverse that any list I make of their negative characteristics is bound to find a few exceptions.

It's also just as possible that any negative characteristics that you list are the few exceptions. Or that where you live in North America is the exception. Or that the incidence of these negative characteristics are no more prevalent inside religion than outside, and you just happen to be engaging in unconscious confirmation bias.

Try reading about what's happening in Sri Lanka, where Christian churches have been attacked by Buddhist mobs.

Yes, I'm aware of this. I'm also aware that Sri Lanka has been in a state of civil war for over 25 years over ethnicity and nationalism, and this is just part of it.

Ever heard of Walker Railey?

No. I'm not American, so I had to look him up.

I can see how you can spin, say, acid attacks in deepest darkest Pakistan as being "religious" (even though they're more cultural than religious), but I think it'd be damn hard to spin this one.

To the best of my knowledge, Milgram's experiments did not attempt to draw any correlations of behavior with religious adherence; [...]

His experiments showed that good people can do evil without religion.

As far as I know, nobody has yet tried to draw any correlations between behaviour and religious adherence, but that hasn't stopped people on both sides pushing strong opinions based on a handful of examples and, hence, no actual evidence. As I skeptic, I call bullshit on both your houses.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I don't know what the reference to "spin" means. You asked for an example of a Methodist who threatened someone with death, and I provided one. You should be thanking me, and admitting you were wrong.

As for correlation between religion and behavior, there are lots of studies about this. For example,
"R. E. Smith, G. Wheeler, and E. Diener, Faith without works: Jesus people, resistance to temptation, and altruism, J. Applied Social Psychology 5 (1975), 320-330.

Your claim about Milgram is incorrect, since Milgram's famous experiment didn't study religion as a variable at all, so it is simply incorrect to say it showed good people can do evil without religion.

Of course, this whole argument is silly, because you seem to be taking my piece, which was an indictment of Gelernter, as some sort of scholarly treatise on the relationship between religion and behavior. It wasn't. The repetition of "religion makes smart people stupid" is a rhetorical device, not a summary of statistical studies linking religion and intelligence. Try reading with a less literalistic interpretation next time.

If I had wanted to discuss the relationship between religion and intelligence, I'd have discussed studies such as Helmuth Nyborg's paper in Intelligence.

Pseudonym said...

You asked for an example of a Methodist who threatened someone with death, and I provided one. You should be thanking me, and admitting you were wrong.

Thank you so much for the example. I'm not sure what I was wrong about, though; I don't recall making an assertion, just asking a rhetorical question.

The point of my question, of course, was that you seemed to argue that "religion" (in general) was "a system that relies on dogma, threatens unbelievers with death, eternal damnation, or expulsion from the group, and ties its claims to evaluation of your character". I asked for some examples, and (in this case) you came up with one individual who went crazy.

If your point is that religion doesn't, in general, prevent you from going crazy, then I agree with you. But this doesn't back up your point about the "system".

If we leave aside "dogma" for the moment, since it means one thing in common parlance and something completely different when used as a Christian theological term and hence could cause some confusion, the fact remains that there is a large (admittedly proper) subset of "religion" for which this is all relatively unknown. Or, at least, to the extent that it's a problem, it's no more of a problem inside religion than outside (e.g. judging peoples' character is just as much of a problem in the community sporting club as it is in the local church).

Of course, this whole argument is silly, because you seem to be taking my piece, which was an indictment of Gelernter, as some sort of scholarly treatise on the relationship between religion and behavior. It wasn't. The repetition of "religion makes smart people stupid" is a rhetorical device, not a summary of statistical studies linking religion and intelligence.

Of course. I realise that.

Gelernter is acting stupidly. We agree on this. The problem that I have is the singling out of religion. Do you know for sure that Gelernter wouldn't be acting just as dumb had he become involved in politics rather than religion? Without controlling for all of these factors, it's impossible to say that it's religion making him do this, or it's just what the guy is like.

I've put a bit of thought to the "religion makes smart people stupid" remark, and are there any better analogies than smoking and cancer. I can think of two.

First off, it would be possible to follow this blog post fairly closely, replacing "religion makes smart people stupid" with "evolution makes people amoral". The DI has one or two proofs-by-example which could be trotted out for the purposes, but I couldn't be arsed looking up what they are. (I try to avoid cheap shots.)

A better analogy would be "alcohol makes normal people violent".

In one sense, it's true: Alcohol consumption has indeed made people do things that they later regret, and alcohol abuse is a serious problem in some places.

On the other hand, it's a highly misleading statement without further qualification: The overwhelming majority of people who consume alcohol don't become violent, most violence in the world isn't caused by alcohol, how much of a problem it is is highly culture-specific (some people have a worse culture of alcohol abuse than others), and alcohol, by itself, can be beneficial when used appropriately.

visitorX said...

i'd want to see more interesting blog entries instead of these boring religious stuff you've been writing for past few weeks.

cody said...

I agree with this post in it's entirety.

I think Milgram's experiment really showed that humans under the influence of authority can bend their moral codes much further than we would have previously thought. And in retrospect it was fairly obvious, exhibited previously in firing squads, the bag over the executioners head or the strict command structure of any military ever. Militaries at least have strong reason to do this, as a military with a chain of command would be pretty ineffective. Typically, religions have a similar commander-in-chief, upon whom all responsibility falls, thus removing the devout from their moral obligations. Of course this is all just me speculating.

Here are old (un-sourced) statistics on the religious beliefs of American prison inmates. And to normalize them, here are the religious beliefs of Americans who aren't incarcerated (though different year).
Good for us atheists at least. Sorry, no formal studies yet, maybe a more astute reader could redirect us.

It is unfortunate that religion can be so incurable even in mostly immune people (like Knuth). Dawkins has a very sad story of a would-be geologist abandoning his science because it was incompatible with his young earth beliefs.

Weinberg also said, "I am all in favor of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue. One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment." I love that essay.

Feynman's talk: What is Science? seems particularly relevant, as he seems to strike on the essential feature of science: test information, always and forever. I believe it to be the reason religion struggles so hard to modernize while science is pretty much modernization incarnate.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Elad Lahav:
Jewish and Christian philosphies differ considerably from each other
First, they are religions and not philosophies. Second, the distance between them is smaller than the distance between Christianity and Buddhism.

Christianity includes many different and incompatible philosphies (predestination anyone?)
Again, let me stress that Christianity is not a collection of philosophies, but a religion. Yes, it does include incompatible parts, but so does the Judaism religion (not philosophy!), and so does any religion. Reason: a religion is a collection of ad hoc beliefs based on myths and superstitions.

people who adhere to these faiths have been killing each other for centuries over these difference
This is a very weak argument: people who adhere to, allegedly, the same faith (such as the catholic and protestant versions of Christianity) have, indeed, been killing each other too for centuries. Religion, by its very nature, creates a feeling of superiority by the one who adopts it and, as a consequence, this person is ready to roll up his sleeves and enforce his faith to another person of a different religion.

I'm afraid your arguments are poor.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Pseudonym:

Most religious people I meet are, indeed, stupid. Very much so. They behave like idiots. I have in mind the hordes of American Christians, the tele-evangelists, the pentecostals, I have in mind the Greek Orthodox idiots: when I encounter Greek church-goers, most of the time, I can associate a certain idiocy with them. I'm not exaggerating. I also have in mind the muslims and the orthodox jews and so on. In fact, I can think of no religion that does not, generally speaking, create stupidity. Let me give you an example of a guy who became even more stupid when he became more religious: Tony Blair.

Of course, it is not claimed that religion implies stupidity. I mentioned examples above and I'm still puzzled as how to treat religious people who are so because of a disease of sorts... But there is no doubt that the set of stupid religious people is far larger than the set of smart religious people. This is provable. (Simple counting by means of unbiased sampling.)

Anonymous said...

The world has meaning and no meaning at the same time. "Meaning" is an illusion of the mind, just like anything else, including this sentence. But I have found peace through rebellion
I would spice this comment up but I am too tired right now... And definitions are overrated

Anonymous said...

hahaha. please don't look up my ip number or anything.... privacy please...

Elad Lahav said...

Takis Konstantopoulos:

Judaism and Christianity have evolved over the years to become much more than
just religions. Religious thinkers such as St. Augistine, Rambam and Thomas
Aquinas, on whose thought the modern interpretations of Jewish and Christian
beliefs is largely founded, were philosophers, not just theologians.

My point, in case you missed it, was that the differences between Judaism and
Christianity, and among different Christian beliefs, are much deeper than
whether Jesus is the Messiah, or whether wafer turns into flesh when
administered by the right person. It concerns issues such as whether people are inherently righteous, and the reasons for doing what is right (purely
philosophical questions, by the way, dating back to, at least, Plato).

I'm afraid your arguments are poor.
I'm afraid it is a poor argument to call someone's argument poor without
justification.

Anonymous said...

@Religotards

I'm not sure it's a question of whether religion makes smart people stupid or not. Religion removes the components that made them people at all.

If you can't come to your own conclusions, if you let another person dictate your thoughts because you're too lazy to investigate the accuracy of their claims, then you're a house-plant. A ficus maybe.

These "people" don't even have free will. I ate a smarter breakfast this morning.

Sea Turtle said...

I LOVE this. I found your argument convincing and uplifting :D

Anonymous said...

I'm of the soft opinion that these "smart" people, possibly aren't quite as intelligent as they are with being practical at manipulating the limited intellectual resources they actually possess.

Sure, part of the way of being smart is to take a "you never know for sure" style of attitude in order to fairly judge all things, but dismissing the contemplation of ridiculous conceptual notions out of habit is what keeps one from crossing over from the rational to the delusional perspective of reality.

Anonymous said...

I'm not really sure why people are picking apart this post like it's some sort of scientific study. It's just an observation that seemingly smart people are capable of completely ignoring an enormously illogical concept.

If people would actually study religion and not blindly accept what other brainwashed people tell them, they would most likely come to the conclusion that it can't be true.

And to reply in advance to people who will respond with "I am not brainwashed and I believe in the savior/mohammed/etc," It's okay. I know you can't think logically. You just keep on blindly following what your clergyman tells you. Don't bother actually reading your religious texts and exploring the history of your "faith," that would be too hard.

Anonymous said...

Religion doesn’t make smart people stupid, just because you’re well educated does not mean you’re smart. There are people who are good at certain things of complication to most, but at the same time can’t even tie their shoes. Religion does not make smart people stupid because religious people are not smart to begin with. Thinking that there is an invisible man in the sky is a reflection of a mental illness not of smartness. Smartness is an overall knowledge of the world added with education and many other things, but most importantly common sense. Commonsense is lost on all religious people and therefore no religious person is smart. Religion doesn’t make smart people stupid.

Cole Kane said...

I agree with you! And whoever was defending the scientist who were religious, just think how brilliant they would be without it.
Rev Leo Jon Said "religion is a useful tool that governs the mind from obtaining too much knowledge".

Brad Evans said...

Takis, any chance that Greece will separate church and state anytime soon?

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Elad Lahav:

I have no time to expand on arguments, this was supposed to be a quick post. But you gave no arguments either. If religions were compatible there would be no mutual hatred. Whether humans are inherently good or not is a matter of biology, not of arbitrary collection of unfounded beliefs (a.k.a. religion). Since you mentioned it, "St" Augustine tried hard to suppress science and logical thinking. He said, for example,

"There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity... It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn."

Don't tell me that Jews, Christians and Muslims love one another... You know better. Yes, Thomas Aquinas was more rational than "St" Augustine. Funny you don't mention Spinoza.

No time to expand on arguments on why religion does, by and large, make smart people stupid. Read Shallit's post again. He does a better job than me. And, indeed, let me say it again: Look at Tony Blair. He did become a bit more stupid because of religion (or he embraced catholicism to forgive himself for his crimes).

By the way, Shallit's proposition was: Religion Makes Smart People Stupid. It does not imply that stupid people are religious. And Shallit's proposition should be interpreted not deterministically but in the sense that the set of religious & smart has small measure. I gave an example of an element of this set above (Knuth).

Brad Evans:

Not in the next hundred years or so, I'm afraid. Take a look at this.

Anonymous said...

When you have eliminated that which you don't like the sound of, then that which remains, however impossible, must be the truth.

Anonymous said...

OK, so you wanted to slam Gelerntner and people who notice that the universe at both the macro and micro levels is remarkable enough to make people with open minds wonder if there isn't maybe something biggger than our puny life forces and our very limited intellegences...so, that's your right. However, I think you missed Gelerntner's point about purpose. It seems to me that he was suggesting a subset-superset relationship between humanity and the universe. If humanity, our reality (the subset) has/contains purpose, then it is logical to state that the universe (the superset) contains purpose within it also.

The question can then be posed, "Do you, Jeffrey, have purpose?" and if the answer is "yes," then the universe has purpose.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

The question can then be posed, "Do you, Jeffrey, have purpose?" and if the answer is "yes," then the universe has purpose.

That's the fallacy of composition all over again.

Gareth McCaughan said...

I think the latest anon is using "has purpose" in a weaker sense, where "X has purpose" = "X has purpose within it" = "X or some part of X has-purpose-in-the-usual-sense".

With this usage, it's not fallacious to say that if part of X has purpose then X has purpose.

On the other hand, with this usage the statement "the universe has purpose" is of scarcely any interest. Whichever usage of "has" Gelernter was using, the inference from "human things have (human) purposes" to "the universe as a whole has a purpose" is no good; the inference from "human things have divine purposes" to "the universe has divine purposes" would be OK but of course the evidence for its antecedent is ... problematic.

Anonymous said...

People who think we have a divine purpose is simply speaking from the ego. The ego wants us to believe we are more special than we really are. We are no more special than any animal or object on this planet. The universe does not revolve human beings.

Anonymous said...

I think it does. People lose their ability to think abstractly. They look to what is right and wrong from a book or from someone else. Their ultimate reason for following religion is selfish, so they can get to heaven.

Melville said...

Anon, You wrote: "The ego wants us to believe we are more special than we really are. We are no more special than any animal or object on this planet."

So, you're saying that you're immune to such feelings, unlike the mass of humanity? Sheesh, talk about being more special than other humans! Talk about ego!

Anonymous said...

It should be coined "Religious people are stupid"

Having an IQ does not make you smart. It simply gives you potential to become more intelligent.