God for Dummies, Literally

by Randall Stephens

Here is a debate that rarely, if ever, erupts in the quiet halls historians and religious studies scholars inhabit: Folks who believe in God are not the sharpest tools in the box. Or, God is for dunderheads . . . So, Mencken was right. The Chronicle Review recently brought up the research of Richard Lynn, University of Ulster psychology professor emeritus, who is both raising hackles and stirring up dust.

Richard Lynn . . . . has ignited a fresh dispute. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Intelligence—which was co-written with John Harvey, an independent scholar, and Helmuth Nyborg, a professor of psychology at the University of Aarhus, in Denmark— Lynn argues that there is a strong correlation between high levels of intelligence and disbelief in God.

What would it look like if a historian of American religion bought this argument? (Might that amount to professional suicide, or, at least, maiming?) Would he or she dust off ye olde secularization thesis?: “Since the 1960s, believers have been dumb and dumberer.” Would the model work for 19th or early 20th century history?: “Pentecostals—intense believers—were thicker than a block of wood. They may or may not have been dispossessed, but they certainly were stupid.” Sounds like the old mainline chestnuts from the 1950s.

Lynn’s previous arguments concerning race, gender, and intelligence are damning enough. And the comments the Chronicle has culled from newspapers and blogs are telling. It seems that few academics and commentators, regardless of their own take on the matter, want to jump in Lynn's boat.


Anonymous said…
If we're talking about raw or potential or genetic intelligence, however you want to phrase it, I would definitely balk at the notion of agnostic/atheists being superior to anyone else. But if we're talking about intelligence as shaped by education and experience, it only makes sense that your average agnostic would be smarter than the average religious person. Agnosticism/atheism is not the default position (except maybe in France?), so those who hold to it are more likely to be among those who have had a higher education.

On the other hand, if you were to compare agnostic/atheistic intelligence with that of religious adherents who are highly educated or have made a serious study of their faith, I doubt there would be any discernable difference.

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