When smart people believe in God

There is nothing an atheist likes more than a really dumb or hypocritical believer.  And, let’s face it, they’re not hard to find.  In fact, finding that George Bush Jnr. has strong religious convictions is kind of reassuring – he is not one of us!  But what do we do with smart people with spiritual faith?  And what if they are smarter than us? 

Apparently Einstein believed in  “Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of what exists.” His interest in science came about as a consequence of a desire to learn how God had created a harmonious universe.  That is, he wanted to give a scientific rationale for his “uncertainty principle,” for his belief that “God does not play dice”  

He famously said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” 

Well, Einstein wasn’t a fool by any stretch of the imagination and neither are all those who have faith.  Yet it does seem de rigueur to assume that those with faith are somehow mentally deficient and/or lacking the courage to face an existence beyond this earthly one.   

Is this really true?  Of everyone with faith?  Or are such criticisms of faith actually predicated on a distaste for religion, that most tangible and flawed manifestation of belief?  Religion has historically been linked to power and, therefore, is invariably dominated by men and subject to the manipulation and abuse that power breeds in all institutions.  The list of misdeeds to which we can attribute at least some religious impetus is pretty impressive, even if we just look at Christianity:

                          ·         The Inquisition

                                           ·         Various Pogroms

                          ·         Witch burning

                          ·         The Crusades (extra points for involving two religions!)

                          ·         Various and many wars

                          ·         Sexual abuse of children by clergy  

Even if we lined up some of the achievements of religion (and there are some), it remains a good target but, in the end, an easy one. 

Perhaps faith in God, however, is different and more problematic.  How do we deal with the fact that intelligent people are believers?   

And is atheism – demanding as it is of infallible evidence of God – merely the product of a limited ability to conceptualise beyond the obvious?  

Poor old William Golding, the Nobel Laureate, got an unforgettable lesson in religion.  When he was a child in WW2, he relates in his autobiography, he was sitting in school watching a Spitfire fly low over the fields outside his classroom window.  Suddenly the scripture teacher was standing before him asking sternly, “What did I just say to the class, William?” 

“I don’t know, Miss.” 

Bringing her hand across his face she said emphatically, “God (slap) is (slap) love (slap).”



Filed under atheism, life, Religion

24 responses to “When smart people believe in God

  1. Just like ‘poor old William Golding’ I had a few similar experiences. There is nothing like being educated at a religious school (in my case C of E) to turn one into an athiest.

  2. Ah. About time, I was going to ask you thank me for my post by writing one of your own.

    It is a predicament when intelligent people believe in god. Oddly enough, few people will connect Religion and Science, though there is an evident correlation between the two.

    Religion is an adventure or an easy cop-out for solutions. Most poeple take the latter, and thats perhaps where Religion has created alot of its problem. Instead of creating people who venture and discover their own truth with the help of Religion, they completely rely on someone else to teach them of it.

  3. Hm. You left out Jonestown’s People’s Temple when Jim Jones had all those people commit suicide for God or the Waco, TX fiasco. However, you must realize that the people in charge of these abominations, like the clergy who sexual abuse minors, Kings who send troops into the Crusades (Presidents who send troops to Iraq?), witch burning, etc. are not “God”‘s doing, but MAN’s doing, and not ALL religious men, but a few. I am SOOO anticatholicism, however, if you take the ratio of good priests who get NO publicity and the bad ones who get TOO MUCH publicity, out of the 400,000 priests in the world, how many do you suppose commit pedophilia? My point, if I haven’t been clear enough, is that religion is not the cause of atrocities; individual people are.

  4. The gist of your piece might be “You don’t have to be stupid to be religious – but it helps.”

    All seriousness aside, intelligence appears to offer no protection whatsoever from erroneous belief. A glance at the history of science will show that quite clearly. (Or, indeed, the history of practically anything.)

    I think intelligence is the ability to rearrange one’s knowledge in novel and useful ways. If one’s “knowledge” is flawed (e.g. if you “know” God exists) then intelligence won’t help you detect the error. It may even compound it.

    I think intelligence often does its work by taking unauthorized short cuts. Another name for this is “intuition”. Intuition is very useful as it reaches goals that logical plodders can never reach. But it is also dangerous because it bypasses the controls of logic. There is perhaps nothing more frightening than an intelligent mind in thrall to an illogical belief. (There are some very intelligent people in insane asylums.)

    So do all creative intelligences fall prey to wacky ideas? Possibly. The point surely lies in the quality of their evidence and reasoning. Einstein’s work on Relativity was quality stuff; his religious beliefs were not. We do not need to bother with Newton’s theological writings in order to marvel at his work on gravity and optics.

    Email SilverTiger

  5. shewalksinbeauty

    I have nothing to add to your statements! Who thought it was possible?

    Excellent points.

    Thank you.

  6. Big John – a friend of mine suffered awful abuse at the hands of Christian Brothers in his childhood. He doesn’t believe in God but he has done that more wondrous thing, he’s risen above his childhood and turned into a caring and kind human being.
    H&H – You are right in that evil can twist any means to its end and you have added a few to my list. Religion, with its historical links to power and its invariable links to a “higher power,” just lends itself more readily to power’s abuses.
    Zaid – Your point that there are those in the world -atheist, Christian, Muslim, pacifist, conservationist etc – who blindly follow belief and those that explore and recreate their belief into a force for personal or societal good is well made.
    SilverTiger – We have all met the intelligent person “in thrall with an illogical belief” (and they are not all in mental health care) and those for whom a little knowledge has become a dangerous thing. I liked your discrimination between “knowledge” and intelligence – it reinforces what we suspect to be a range of intelligences out there and none of them in isolation are indicators of wisdom.
    SWiB – Thanks for your rant on God recently. It set me to thinking and finally emerged as this post.

  7. Einstein, a Deist. Makes sense to me.

    And thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment.

  8. Tim

    What a fascinating treatise! One of the more interesting examples of this, for computer nerds, is Donald Knuth, a widely-respected computer science figure. As a comp-sci professor, he developed a method for assessing large computer applications, and came up with the solution of diving into a consistent location (i.e. “about 1/3 of the way through”), and then exploring that page and every reference made within it.

    Knuth later did a similar kind of research on the Biblical “3:16’s,” the verses found at chapter 3, verse 16 of each book in the Bible. (For books with fewer than three chapters, or less than 16 verses in the third, he came up with creative work-arounds.) His exploration led him down some interesting paths, and gave me a new appreciation for historical exegesis.

    One of the worst examples of “smart people believing in God” is the “intelligent design” crowd. It appears that all they’ve done is simply approach questions of faith with the attitude of “how can I use ANY scientific explanation to prove that my faith is true?”

    My feeling (as a person of faith) is that the “arrogance of ignorance” that is so common among religious folk is only slightly more annoying than the “arrogance of education” from those who approach faith as nonsense. It’s one thing to discard formalized religions because of their sordid past. It’s another to simply bring the mindset of “proving that those religious nuts are idiots” (basically the converse of the ID movement).

    Somehow, your article managed to avoid this tone, and respectfully presented the (apparent) conundrum of “smart people believing in God.” Sadly, this respect is absent in most pro/con discussions about faith, by people on both sides. – Tim

  9. Thank you, Tim. You are right when you say that it is difficult to encounter respectful debates between believers and non-believers. It is a shame because even atheists are on a spiritual journey of a kind (although, no doubt, many would rightly and logically disparage my use of the word spirit). Let us just say that many believers and non-believers are co-joined by a search for truth and that this is potentially a rich road to share.

  10. Tim

    I found this when researching strong atheism (from infidels.org):

    * There is more to moral behavior than mindlessly following rules.
    * Be especially sceptical of positive claims.
    * If you want your life to have some sort of meaning, it’s up to you to find it.
    * Search for what is true, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
    * Make the most of your life, as it’s probably the only one you’ll have.
    * It’s no good relying on some external power to change you; you must change yourself.
    * Just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good.
    * If you must assume something, assume something easy to test.
    * Don’t believe things just because you want them to be true.

    And finally (and most importantly):

    * All beliefs should be open to question.


    I found it interesting that much of this list corresponds to my approach to theology. – Tim

  11. What an interesting list, Tim – thanks.

  12. xptweakerntn

    I see your points, but using “witch burning” as a point to show that Christians don’t even practice their own faith is a little extreme. For example, I agree, a lot of “Christians” don’t even really know what it means to be a Christian. However, saying all Christians are like you described is like saying all middle-easterners are suicide bombers. Sure, some do use themselves as bombs, but do all? Some Christians are really loving people, who would never do any of the things you mentioned, but do we hear about those Christians? Sure, it takes faith to believe in a God, but isn’t that what religion is about? The belief that someone greater is watching over you daily, for some, is hard to believe. It all really comes down to two things. 1:How you were raised. 2: Your outlook on life (“I can do all by myself” or “We have a purpose”.

  13. I just want to put out a notion for consideration: It is as equally impossible to have a reasoned conversation about the nature of the universe with an ardent atheist as with a committed theist. Richard Dawkins got it right when he stated that the problem is not with people of faith, but people who commit themselves to a doctrine.

  14. Tim


    This is where I keep feeling this sense of memetics with atheism the same way Sue Blackmore sees it with Christianity. However, last night I was struck by another thought, and I’m going to have to form it into a blog entry.

    Why is it that a significant portion of the population consistently “conforms to uniqueness”? That is, there is always a segment that wants to distance itself from the masses (“lemmings,” in the contrarian’s view), simply because their choice is popular. You see this with Mac users who want to “think different[ly]” in the same way that you see it with the “www anythingbutipod com” crowd.

    When I talk to serious atheists (frequently, but not always “Strong Atheists”), there is always a sense of “I don’t want to be a sheep,” and “I think for myself, I don’t do what some preacher/teacher/evangelist tells me to. Why do so many of us want to proclaim our uniqueness?

    Isn’t it funny, in an oxymoronic way (and I don’t mean “several morons”) that so many want to demonstrate that they are not like the many? – Tim

  15. Tim

    By the way, at the AnythingButiPod site, I saw this post concerning the iPod vs the Zune, which is what made me make this connection:

    “just more mindless MS bashing…people will do ANYTHING to hate on whoever’s at the top…”

    The irony of this comment, from one of the more vocal anti-iPod voices in the thread, was fabulous! – Tim

  16. xptweakerntp – Your last comment re beliefs and how we are raised is very true and applies to much of our world view, I would say. And, of course, religions are very quick to pick up on this getting in, as they do, at the ground floor with impressionable young minds. Few of us really escape our childhood.
    Andrew – I think you have hit the nail on the head re the commitment to doctrine. Once any belief (religious, political) closes the door on other ideas it invariably creates a negative, even destructive, dynamic.
    Tim – You have definitely picked up on a human trait re “conformity to uniqueness” (do write that piece). Of course, this is not to say that all belief that is not mainstream is motivated by a dumb desire to be contrary. I imagine someone tarred Jesus with that same brush once! Me, I’ve always been a bit of a sheep – I’d have stood on the wharf laughing as Columbus sailed off to prove the world was round…

  17. Archangel Melanie

    While Jesus was in town this last spring of 2006. He also talked about John F. Kennedy. He said he knew who shot JFK? God saw a policeman hiding behind a tree with a rifle ready to shoot. He was hiding on the same side of the street as the president aproached. The letters in the killers name are F. Ritter.

  18. loubird

    hmmm…what an interesting blog to stumble upon. With equally interesting comments–although the last two are a bit difficult.

    I would have to agree that Oscarandre did a pretty good job at not sounding too condescending.

    Religion/spirituality is a deeply personal reaction to the parts of life that science can’t explain. I would say that’s why religions tend to grow along the lines of the usual hierarchical human social interactions. However, atheism follows this very same hierarchical course. The reality is that there are some aspects of the world that we will never know or understand. Yes, evolution/punctuated equilibrium seems to be the best explanation for how species came to be, yet, why? Why would life evolve? Sub-atomic science has unearthed similar questions. People tend to turn to religious/spiritual explanations for answers to these questions; I would say that is a natural course for human behavior. The problem with most atheists (and I would include Richard Dawkin) is that they are so against people trying to answer the unanswerable through spiritual experiences, or even tradition. Tradition is an aspect of evolution and anthropology–it’s how humans deal with the unanswerable and each other. I think selling such traditions or personal experiences as being for ‘dumb’ people is exceedingly erroneous.

    I have to add that you can find plenty of ‘dumb’ people in science. For instance, scientists thought menstruating women created a poison up until 1958. Of course, they ‘proved’ this by injecting mice with menstrual blood and lo-and-behold, they died. Just think of all the currently ‘proven’ scientific theories that will soon be proven to be more matters of faith than reality.

  19. CogInTheMachine

    loubird, you are long gone (DEC 07) but we evolve because the strong survive and get the best mates, the weak die virgins! All life follows this, except now with medical science we’ve kinda screwed it up so the weak are reproducing because “it’s their right” where as I think in a world with exploding populations we should be thinking about the future of our species. I’m a 23yr old female with moderate-severe health problems so I will no be having kids by choice, for humanity, for the child, and for myself. A little off topic, I know, but I think a valid point. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) breed inferior live stock or pets, so why humans?

  20. Curious George

    Some people who say there is no God accuse Christians and people of other faiths of being arrogant, irrational and closed minded. Just curious but isn’t saying that God cannot exist arrogant, irrational, and closed minded? To conclusively state that there is no God is to say that you know all that there is to know and there is nothing else. In actuality, perhaps God does exist but you either a) choose to deny Him or b) have yet to know/experience Him.

    I’ll admit, a lot of awful atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. But from the Christian perspective, true Christianity is about One Person, Jesus Christ. Not one human being that ever walked this earth besides this One Person ever has or will measure up to His standards or character. Although many Christians (starting with the one who wrote this) could do a much better job of living out the Christian life, looking at the Christian rather than the Christ is always going to provide ammunition to the ardent non-believer.

    There are many people who are searching for truth and that is not a bad thing. The mistake is often made when you arrogantly posit that God cannot exist. Some atheists say that faith is irrational. But I ask them, with all of the science and intelligence (which are good things) that a person can obtain there are still fundamental questions of existence, purpose, and meaning that cannot be easily answered from either a religious or an atheistic perspective. To draw the conclusion that God does not exist from this is both cruel and illogical. Given these questions it seems to me that to humbly acknowledge the possibility of something (or I should say Someone) more is much more logical than just dismissing God altogether.

    My one question to the ardent atheist is why? If this life is it and nothing exists besides matter then why does it hurt when you lose someone you love? Why do we feel disappointment? Why do we experience emotional pain? You may say that faith is a crutch but that doesn’t answer why people experience emotional pain and suffering. It only tells the person who experiences these things to get over them. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it opens the door to apathy and possibly even greater atrocities than the opponents of faith continuously point to.

  21. Tim Fortner

    The main difference between a ‘God-believer’ and an atheists is simply this:

    the atheists leaves no room for the supernatural- the ‘God-believer’ does.
    It is upon this difference they are divided.

  22. Anon

    Tim Fortner:

    There is more than 1 form of atheism.

  23. BuddhaGirl

    Having been raised in a Christian home, I was often disappointed with the vague answers I got. When I asked where is God? A: Everywhere. Who wrote the Bible? A: Many ‘men’. How do those ‘men’ know what this ‘God’ says? A: They can hear him and they speak for him. (Oh, really? O.o ) How can a woman remain a virgin after she has had a baby? A: It’s a miracle. Did all the animals on earth live within walking distance of Noah? A: They migrated toward Noah guided by ‘God’. How do we know all this is true? A: Because the Bible says it’s true.

    We return to what man himself wrote in the Bible. Never any proven facts. Because I could never swallow this unproven, illogical (to me) belief..indoctrinated from birth until I was in my mid-40’s… I began searching for something I could understand, and follow, something that made sense. I found Buddhism. It is a philosophy, not so much a religion…although it is categorized as such. It is older than Christianity and if anything in Buddhism is not scientifically possible or proven, then it is willing to change.

    Unlike organized religions, Buddhism doesn’t indoctrinate, it teaches those who seek enlightenment. They don’t go out trying to pull others into it. They teach love, compassion, empathy, goodness, happiness, charity… Assuring that in return for being humble without selfishness, we receive happiness. “What we give out returns to us”. This has been proven. If you are good, do right by others, cause no harm, stay humble, do not seek riches or fame, live simple, do not kill other sentient beings,..you will give out and receive good energy.

    Energy is all around us in the form of atoms (scientifically proven) in everything. Atoms carry positive and negative energy. Our very actions and thoughts cause atoms to vibrate and become energized positively or negatively. Good actions and thoughts (prayers, meditation) spread goodness, positive vibes from you. This energy can heal, bring comfort, happiness, strength, goodness to others who seek it. It is not based on anything supernatural or whether you “believe” in a God or not. It is unconditional. There is no evil alternative to threaten you. (Hell) How can a loving God condemn a good, loving, caring person to Hell, just because they can’t swallow the stories “man” wrote in a book or accept someone they ‘say’ is our ‘savior’? I can’t sensibly, logically follow such stories. Revelations is the book that reveals the “car salesman” scare tactic..”Get it before it’s too late or you will miss out.” It also warns you that if you do not believe in it, you will burn in Hell. So many people are scared to come out of the fog that, even though they can’t believe it all, they stay in it “just in case” and so they will be accepted by the majority of Christians in the USA. It just makes life easier than to go against it… easier than being honest with themselves.

    Buddhism is a somewhat Atheistic belief. Their (my) belief, older than modern science, goes right along WITH modern science. That is why I follow Buddhism. It just makes sense to me. You can be an Atheist and still love, care, be a good person, have empathy and compassion for others and have a bright outlook on life and the future. It isn’t a life of doom at all. It is a life of freedom to live with a clear mind, without fear or indoctrination of vague belief systems. If people would just stop, think about whatever organized religion they follow, ask themselves “Is this logical? Can this really happen? Does this make sense? Can this be proven?”…they might just find some truth and clarity.

    These are my thoughts and opinions, anyway. I know others have different views and I accept them as I hope others accept mine.

    (Maybe this book needs publishing… Lol..jk 😉 )

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