Don’t Celebrate/Worry: Intelligence Isn’t A Virtue!


So atheists are smarter than religious folk.

A number of my atheist friends on social networks have rather gleefully been posting this story today: Science has now proven that atheists are more intelligent than religious people.

The Independent writes,

A new review of 63 scientific studies stretching back over decades has concluded that religious people are less intelligent than non-believers.

A piece of University of Rochester analysis, led by Professor Miron Zuckerman, found “a reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity” in 53 out of 63 studies.

According to the study entitled, ‘The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations’, published in the ‘Personality and Social Psychology Review’, even during early years the more intelligent a child is the more likely it would be to turn away from religion.

In old age above average intelligence people are less likely to believe, the researchers also found.

And so on.

There are legitimate methodological concerns to be raised, especially in terms of how religion is defined and measured. According to the researchers, religiosity is defined as “involvement in some (or all) facets of religion.” Uh, what? Not exactly clear. And, as the Independent article mentions, the study measures analytic intelligence, not emotional or social.

Speaking of which, intelligence is defined by the psychologists thusly:

the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience”.

Some of the reactions I have seen on said social networks from religious people have been a bit panicked, ranging from half-assed deconstructions to sarcastic dismissals.

But I don’t think us religious folk should be too worried. Nor should atheists be too proud of themselves.

Because intelligence isn’t a virtue in and of itself.

According to the Catholic Catechism, virtues are “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.” So virtues, like the cardinal ones (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) are life habits that morally shape individuals and orient their characters towards the good.

Intelligence does not necessarily do that. It took “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience” to conceive of and organise the holocaust. The atomic bomb was built by the smartest people in the world.

There’s something about our culture that instinctively sees intelligence as a good thing. But upon reflection, in and of itself, intelligence is neither good nor bad. It can serve the good immensely, yes. But likewise it can enable the bad in absolutely horrifying ways. It’s not a virtue. It can be helpful, but only to the extent that its use is shaped by the virtues. So while today’s study is interesting and all, its significance – morally, at least – shouldn’t be overemphasised, neither by atheists nor religious people.


One thought on “Don’t Celebrate/Worry: Intelligence Isn’t A Virtue!

  1. Pingback: Smarter than thou - Undeception

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