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Relative intelligence of atheists and believers

06 June 2014


From Dr John Appleby

Sir, - I can believe Professor Edward Dutton's overall statement that atheists are, on average, more intelligent than Christians (Features, 30 May). In fact, I can also believe many of his other statistics regarding correlations between various personal characteristics and religiosity. A correlation is not a causation, however, and a definition is not a fact.

He asserts that intelligence has nothing to do with emotions - a definition, not a fact. Even so, intelligence is not simply the ability to solve problems quickly, as it relates strongly to the ability to handle abstract concepts and to pose questions, while "problem" can mean anything from a puzzle to a broken-down car.

I accept that atheists are often intelligent, because there are few people who are sure atheists, and they tend to be those who reflect on theism and reject it, whereas there are many more people who are a-religious or agnostic. Perhaps the arrogance of certainty about an abstract theism is more common in the very intelligent.

There is also the widespread assumption that atheists are beyond believing in things without proof, and yet it is certain that we all believe in unprovable assertions - something elucidated early last century in the failed attempt to axiomatise mathematics completely and consistently.

Perhaps the most useful assertion here is that the intelligent are more likely to believe in something that they don't call God.

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From the Revd Dr Nigel Porter

Sir, - With regard to Professor Edward Dutton's feature, I wish to make two points.

First, he takes a rather simplistic view of faith, and then is drawn to a number of conclusions based on that narrow view. He seems to accept without question that there is no rational component to faith; in other words, it is not possible to conclude there is a God by following rational processes. While his definition of faith does include the term "belief", it appears to ignore the fact that beliefs can be emotionally or rationally based; indeed, many of our beliefs about religion and the world are based in reason.

Religiosity, for many people, is not a product of blind, unquestioning faith. A simple faith is no bad thing, but I personally cannot help but subject the truth-claims of Christianity to intense scrutiny. While religious experience of the kind Professor Dutton refers to was a factor in my movement from atheist to believer, reason formed the greater part. I have subjected the truth-claims of Christianity to intense scrutiny and found the core of them credible. Simply put, reason has a greater claim on my beliefs than emotion. I do not believe I am unusual in this.

The second point that I wish to make relates to the ways Professor Dutton's findings may be used. I am sure that his research had ethical approval, and/or he accessed only published research that had such approval. This is important, because history tells us that unless controls are in place for predicting and managing the outcomes of studies that compare groups of people, then the findings can be used to justify inhumane treatment.

For example, consider the myriad of studies in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s that "proved" the inferiority of African Americans on a number of measures, including intelligence. Although later found to be flawed, these studies were used to justify discrimination.

To what use does Dutton expect his findings to be put? Expecting no use at all would render his study idle; expecting only positive use would be naïve.

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