Intelligent Belief

8 07 2011

A common myth extols the relation between intelligence and atheism, but a recent Gallup study (http://www.gallup.com/poll/147887/americans-continue-believe-god.aspx) once again exposes that notion for the chimera it really is. According to its most recent poll, 94% of people with a college education believe in God, as do 87% of those with post-graduate degrees. But here’s the real fun statistic: more people with a “High School or Less” level of education disbelieve in God than those with a “College or More” level. In other words, atheism actually skews in the other direction ~ towards those with less education. The more educated you are, in other words, the more likely it is that you believe in God than not, and this is true to an overwhelming degree.

But then, we believers are not surprised by this, since a mature belief in God requires a deft balance of paradoxes. Sure, there are a lot of fools who believe in God (though I should hasten to add that God took what was foolish to shame the wise, but there we’re talking about something significantly different than what I mean here), just like there are idiots who are atheists. I just think of the anecdotal evidence in my own life. The atheists who I’ve met are, more often than not, anti-theists more than they are a-theists, and when confronted with their position, are far less likely to have an intelligent response for their position. You get the clear sense that for many so-called atheists, it’s more an emotional response than an intellectual one. Though if on-line comments and chat streams are any indication, the vast majority of atheists are under-educated simpletons who couldn’t conjugate a verb to save their lives. Meanwhile, the smartest and most thoughtful people I know are believers, and committed believers at that. Allow me to effuse for a moment…

I’ve been privileged to grow up in the family I did and to have lived the life I have. I was born and raised in an idyllic childhood amidst the jungles and rural landscapes of the Philippines. My brother and I began our education at the International School in Manila, arguably one of the best schools in the world at the time (and probably still so). My father, a theologian, has been an academic all his life and has committed himself to learning as much as he possibly can about all things theological and cultural. He graduated from Occidental College and went on to Princeton Seminary, and then to the University of Hamburg in Germany for his Th.D., where he graduated Magna-cum-laude (they don’t award Summas in Germany ~ or at least didn’t back then). He reads, writes, or speaks 6 to 7 languages and has written a few books, two of which are over a thousand pages each (published by Eerdmans) and has lectured extensively around the world for many decades. My mother graduated valedictorian from her small, private High School and went on to practice nursing before meeting my father. Always self-conscious of the fact that she never got a college degree, she managed to soar past many college graduates in her own self-education, taking correspondence courses in English from Berkeley for years where she never received anything less than an “A.” She took French for a year at a local university when she was in her 50s and received, again not surprisingly, the highest grade in the class. She has read all 14 volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics ~ 90,000+ pages ~ among countless other books, is an accomplished pianist, and is one of the most intelligent people I know. After graduating at the top of his class from college, my brother went on to the University of Chicago for his Ph.D. in History before leaving just after passing his orals to work for the government, where he has been for over 20 years (he is fluent in both Tagalog and Mandarin). Full disclosure: my brother isn’t your typical believer. In fact, I’m not sure what he believes. But I am certain that he’s far too quick-witted to buy atheism.

One of my favorite family memories was sitting around our living room one Christmas when I was home from college while I quizzed my family from E. D. Hirsch’s book “Cultural Literacy,” a gift I’d gotten for my mother (in her continuing pursuit of the higher education she never formally received). Whatever question my mother couldn’t answer automatically went to my brother, and whatever question he couldn’t answer went to my father. You got 3 misses before you were out. We played this game for close to an hour, at which point I simply gave up after my father, the last one standing, simply refused to miss a single question.

It would take a much longer blog entry to write about my good friends over the years: doctors, lawyers, pastors, teachers, rocket scientists (seriously), engineers, therapists, musicians, artists, professional vagabonds ~ all of whom are deep, serious believers.

Needless to say, I grew up around some very bright people who were highly educated and extremely clever. To this day my parents, both now in their 70s, read the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books cover to cover each week (and are kind enough to give me their discarded copies) and keep up their friendships with other serious thinkers and life-long learners. Mine was an electric household of ideas and debates over things as varied as the political situation in Malaysia, to the finer theological arguments against predestination, to the demise of… well, cultural literacy. And the many late-night conversations over drinks with friends about the existential state of the universe outnumber the stars.

I don’t mean to show off but simply to ratify the well-worn truth that the most well-educated people throughout history and down through the modern age into the present have often been believers in God. And yes, this is even true among scientists (see an earlier blog entry “Dispelling Myths and Other Adventures in Atheist Literature”). Turns out, natural selection indeed may sample out the weak in mind, body, and soul, which is likely an explanation as to why the number of atheists worldwide has always been so vanishingly small and continues to be. Because if you really give it some thought, you’re forced to commit mental suicide to seriously adopt a materialist worldview (in spite of the fact that a number of avowed atheists are smart). It just goes to show you that being prodigiously bright in, say, astrophysics doesn’t mean you’re bright when it comes to basic matters of the heart ~ or soul. You can’t have it all, a wise man once said, so make sure what you do have counts.

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