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Are Religious People Dumber? Not quite.

February 14, 2020 | apologetics, theology | No Comments

There is a particular narrative, favored by skeptics, that occasionally erupts into the public forum. It happened in 1990 when Ted Turner famously (and clumsily) declared that “Christianity is a religion for losers”. (The muddled nuance of his actual intent was drowned in the ensuing indignation). Or in 1993 when Washington Post writer Michael Weisskopf derided conservative Christians as “poor, uneducated, and easy to command”. (Clearly, a single stint at trying to command them would have quickly disavowed him of this conceit).

However, such gaffes have minimal effect compared to the dishonest portrayal of religious people in general, and conservative Christians in particular, in culture and entertainment. Recall the buffoonish, and wildly inaccurate, caricature of William Jennings Bryan in the classic drama of the Scopes evolution trial, “Inherit the Wind”. Bill Maher, an entertainer who some regard as a comedian, released Religulous in 2008. “Religulous” was a widely panned cinematic undertaking that spotlighted the the most foolish and outrageous religious beliefs and represented them as normative. Gentler criticism arises even from within the ranks, to wit “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”, Mark Noll’s 1994 opus. (Of all the feedback Noll received, the one he most embraced was that the scandal was less specifically the Evangelical mind, than the American mind).

Are religious people really dumber? In 2013 research psychologist Miron Zuckerman endeavored to prove just that in a meta-analysis of 63 studies. The data seemed to confirm a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity, i.e. more intelligent people are less religious. The original review faced serious criticisms, so in 2019 Zuckerman[1] published a second meta-analysis of 83 studies backing up his original claim. Meanwhile, in a large national survey Pew Research found that college graduates are slightly more likely to be atheist or agnostic (11% college grads versus 4% High School or less) and less likely to consider religion very important (46% of college grads versus 58% High School or less).

The many criticisms directed toward Zuckerman’s research tend to emphasize methodological shortcomings that might undermine his central premise. The most damning could be that it merely represents a snapshot of postmodern western civilization and university culture, excluding all of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Most critics tend to overlook the more salient question: assuming the correlation is correct, does it matter? Professor Zuckerman seems to think so. Clearly, he believes that intelligent people should reject religion because they are more rational:

“our findings support the view that intelligent people are less religious because they are more rational” p10

“We suspect that a primary reason why intelligent people find religion irrational…” p11

Of course, Zuckerman’s data supports no such conclusion. The only way to show that anything is irrational is to prove it is irrational through logical argument, something far beyond the limits of mere data analysis. But let’s allow that his finding of a weak correlation between intelligence and lower religious belief is valid. Is it meaningful? I would argue not. It may even confirm an important Biblical precept. Here are four reasons why it should not matter.

1. The correlation is weak, and intelligent people who are religious considerably outnumber equally intelligent people who are non-religious

Opponents of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, may naively interpret Zuckerman’s finding as support for the narrative that intelligent people, because they are more rational, naturally reject irrational religious belief. In doing so, they succumb to base rate neglect. Abundant data confirms that even among the intelligent and highly educated, the overwhelming majority continue to profess religious faith. This holds true worldwide. Even in highly secular Europe the percentage of professing atheists ranges from less than 1% in Bosnia and Romania to a high of 25% in the Czech republic. Conversely, across western Europe 71% still identify as Christian, though only a minority actively attend services. The percentage of atheists or agnostics in Africa and Latin America remains minuscule.

A correlation of around -.20 between intelligence and religious belief is very weak. To help the reader understand, the absence of any correlation would be 0.0. If the upper 50% entirely rejected religion and the lower 50% completely embraced religion, the correlation should be -1.0. A correlation of -0.2 is enough to be statistically significant, but as a practical matter is meaningless when religious people vastly outnumber the nonreligious.

2. Smart people are no more likely to be right, and tend toward excessive confidence in their own opinions.

In his clever, insightful, and thoroughly researched work “The Intelligence Trap”, British science writer David Robson exposes the dark side of intelligence. Among the higher ranks of intelligentsia, we learn that:

  • College graduates are more likely to believe in ESP and “psychic healing.”
  • People with IQ’s over 140 are more likely to max out on their credit.
  • High IQ individuals consume more alcohol and are more likely to smoke or take illegal drugs.

By way of explanation, research has shown that highly intelligent and educated people are much more confident, and this confidence makes them less likely to doubt their opinions or change their minds. Rather than pursuing truth wherever it may be found, smarter people channel their energy toward arguing and reinforcing their preexisting opinions. Furthermore, they are just as susceptible to the social pressures and cognitive biases that impair good decision-making throughout the human species.

Hence, intelligence alone confers no particular authority to one’s religious opinions, one way or the other.

3. Religious people often believe dumb things. So does everyone else. It is a universal human frailty.

A 2017 survey from Pew Research found that Christians were less likely to believe in psychics, reincarnation, and astrology than those identifying as “nothing in particular”. Those who embraced such paranormal beliefs were also younger, less educated, less white, more feminine, and more politically liberal. Atheists fared better in this survey, but their historic link with the brutal and flawed ideology of communism gives them much to be humble about. As fewer millennials embrace or practice history-based Christianity, they are turning to….astrology and witchcraft. Correlation may not prove causality, but it does prove correlation.

We shouldn’t infer too much from these associations. Christians, nonChristians, agnostics, and atheists are all highly diverse groups who deserve not to be stereotyped, but any objection on that basis also applies to the religion-intelligence link.

4. The gospel message offers grace and hope to the poor, meek, and humble more than the proud and privileged. Intelligent people have a hard time being humble.

The actual subject of intelligence receives little notice in Scripture. The closest Greek word synetos, translated below as “prudent”, appears only four times in the New Testament. Out of the four, two are parallel verses in the synoptic gospels and one is a quote from Isaiah:

In that hour Jesus rejoiced in the Spirit and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight.”

Luke 10:21, NKJV

For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”

1 Corinthians 1:19 NKJV

The Greek word sophos, translated “wise”, appears much more often and is frequently used in an ironic sense. Such passages reflect a consistent theme of Scripture, that God favors the poor, weak, and powerless over the rich, strong, and mighty. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to assert that Scripture actually endorses Zuckerman’s finding:

“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption— that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.”

(1 Corinthians 1:26-31, NKJV)

Intelligence can be a wonderful gift but is also a double-edged sword. Let us not think too highly of ourselves (Romans 12:3), for “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5, NKJV)

(“So what I’m hearing is: Maybe your dog doesn’t do quantum mechanics, but his faith in you is devout, sincere, submissive, and trusting. Be more like your dog.” –the Spaniel)

  1. Zuckerman, M., Li, C., Lin, S., & Hall, J. A. (2019). The Negative Intelligence–Religiosity Relation: New and Confirming Evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219879122

Photo by Bill Davenport from FreeImages

“Pride is the first sin that ever entered into the universe, and it’s the last that is rooted out. It is God’s most stubborn enemy.” – Jonathan Edwards

Traditionally, Christians have been of the persuasion that sins are bad, and some sins are worse than others. What do you think is the worst sin? Murder? Rape? Idolatry? Blasphemy?

For most of church history, there was little disagreement in the answer. From Augustine in the fourth century, to Edwards in the 18th century, to Dorothy Sayers in the 20th century, it was a one word answer: pride.

The commencement of all sin.[1]

The root of all heresy.[2]

The first sin.[3]

The greatest sin.[4]

The head and origin of all sin.[5]

On what grounds did they reach this conclusion? Did they just make it up? Did they value self-abasement? The answer lies in Scripture:

The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; Pride and arrogance and the evil way And the perverse mouth I hate.[6]

Everyone proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord; Though they join forces, none will go unpunished.[7]

Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.[8]

So what’s pride? How can we not do it if we don’t know what “it” is? The ancients took care of that for us as well:

“The desire for inordinate exaltation” – Augustine

“Inordinate desire of one’s own excellence” – Aquinas

“The excessive love of one’s own excellence” – Catholic Encyclopedia

“Pride is nothing else (as the learned say) but love of thy own excellency, that is, of thy own worship.” – Walter Hilton

But we can make this even simpler: pride is thinking too highly of ourselves. And for those passionate in the service of Christ, it is their greatest weakness. As Edwards wrote:

The first and worst cause of error that prevails in our day is spiritual pride. This is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of Christ. …. Pride is much more difficult to discern than any other corruption because, by nature, pride is a person having too high a thought of himself. Is it any surprise, then, that a person who has too high a thought of himself is unaware of it? He thinks the opinion he has of himself has just grounds and therefore is not too high.[9]

To visualize the concept, imagine a scale. Our self-perception should be in general balance with who we really are. Consider traits such as intelligence, skill, expertise, virtue, or any other matter of importance. When our self-perception in any area exceeds reality, that is pride. If the scale is heavily tipped on the reality side, other factors may be in play: exaggerated or false humility, lack of confidence, or poor self-image. In practice, a perfect balance may be unattainable. If we must err, let us err on the side of modesty.


The first casualty of pride is self-awareness, so we don’t know ourselves well enough to recognize it. Often – perhaps most of the time – we are unaware of its presence. Tim Keller likened it to carbon monoxide: it kills you without your knowing it.

Pride aimed inward is overconfidence, an unrealistically high opinion of oneself. It causes us to be overconfident of our abilities, our beliefs, our power, and our moral standing before God and each other. Pride directed outward is self-exaltation. It drives us relentlessly to compare ourselves to others, to get and have more than others, to take credit for what is good, and to blame others when we fail. Ultimately, it is a passion to grasp for ourselves the place reserved for God Almighty.

After three thousand years in the realms of theology and philosophy, this truth has re-emerged in the realm of science. For example, the Book of Proverbs (Solomon, ca. 1000 BC) stated that by nature we are self-justifying and feel morally superior:

    Every way of a man is right in his own eyes,
But the Lord weighs the hearts.[10]

In January 2017, Scientific American reported: “Most people consider themselves to be morally superior.”[11] The article noted that “decades of research confirm that we are all above average—at least in our own minds…. above all else we believe that we are more just, more trustworthy, more moral than others.” In other words, according to the latest research, Solomon nailed it.

We don’t just think we’re more virtuous. We think we’re smarter. And better. And very, very important.

But we’ve only scratched the surface. Stay tuned for future installments. Subscribe to this blog to be notified of future posts, and share it with others!

Key points:

  • God hates pride
  • Sinful pride is having too high an opinion of oneself
  • Everyone is proud in some aspect of life

  1. St. Augustine: https://biblehub.com/library/augustine/anti-pelagian_writings/chapter_33_xxix_not_every_sin.htm
  2. Hilton, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/hilton/ladder.ii_1.i.iii.v.ii.html
  3. Aquinas, https://biblehub.com/library/aquinas/summa_theologica/whether_pride_is_the_first.htm
  4. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3162.htm
  5. Dorothy Sayers. The other six deadly sins. 1941/
  6. Proverbs 8:13
  7. Proverbs 16:5
  8. Proverbs 26:12
  9. Thoughts on the revival of religion in New England, Part IV Section I: Spiritual Pride. Jonathan Edwards, 1740
  10. Proverbs 21:2 ( NKJV )
  11. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/most-people-consider-themselves-to-be-morally-superior/

By U.S. Army, Post-Work: User:W.wolny - Archivesnormandie 1939-45, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=765569

It is early spring of 1943. The Axis powers are beginning to crumble against the massive and unrelenting Allied onslaught. Plans for the imminent invasion of Sicily are underway, establishing a base for the invasion and liberation of continental Europe.

Meanwhile, back at US military intelligence, a tightly knit group of outliers have been poring over captured Nazi military communications. They conclude that Berlin is a Potemkin facade – the entire brain trust of the Nazi war machine is hiding away in the Canary Islands. “That is their true vulnerability,” they determine. “Capture the Canaries, and victory is assured.”
The Allied command views the minority report as pure nonsense, but a third of the officer corps is persuaded and defects. Soldiers, seaman, and marines are transferred to the Canary Islands and commence their assault. Strangely, the beaches are deserted except for driftwood, dead starfish, and a noisy flock of seagulls. The befuddled Germans sense an opportunity too great to pass up, and begin to airdrop a few unfortunate paratroopers to keep the Allies distracted.
Meanwhile, with a third of Allied forces diverted, the Germans retake North Africa. The Japanese overrun India, then Australia. With the British Empire in full collapse, German warships and troop carriers begin to amass at Cherbourg for the final amphibious assault upon the British Isles.
In this counterfactual scenario, faulty intelligence led to a commitment of resources to fight the wrong battle in the wrong location, snatching defeat from the very jaws of victory. In other words, kind of like Christians fighting over the age of the earth.
This should be the golden era of science apologetics. Never has there been more evidence in support of a Divine Creator and the wisdom of His plan for humanity. Astronomy and physics have established beyond doubt that our universe of space, time, matter, and energy had a beginning. There is nothing in our realm of understanding to explain it. The universe and our planet are exquisitely designed for human civilization, with nearly a thousand specific parameters tuned in perfect alignment. In the realm of theoretical physics, the nature of fundamental physical reality looks too complex for comfort.
Biology, biochemistry, and genetics have revealed unfathomable complexity in the nature of life and reproduction. There is no working model for the origin of life. The problem of human consciousness remains so intractable we don’t even know where to start.
Medical research confirms beyond any doubt that the Biblical model of heterosexual monogamy is uniquely conducive to the mental and physical health of adults and their children and to social stability. Psychology and the social sciences corroborate the Biblical view of human nature as naturally proud and self-serving, with a propensity toward evil.
Every year more scientists and intellectuals come to embrace Christianity as the only adequate explanation for all they know and see.
With overwhelming firepower at our command, what do we do? A tiny contingent  with quasiscientific credentials insists that the Earth is really only six thousand years old (faulty intelligence). Their strategy has engaged a large proportion of the Christian community (diversion of resources). They make that hill the one upon which the Truly Faithful must stand or die (wrong battle in the wrong location). Opponents of Christianity are gleeful to engage, knowing full well their real vulnerabilities lie far from that battlefront. Young people raised in the Church are losing their faith in college, being persuaded over this one peripheral issue that Christianity is anti-scientific. Non-Christians simply roll their eyes and groan. And no one seems to get why.
To the apostle Paul, the Truth of Christianity stood on the resurrection of Christ. He penned those words when eyewitnesses to the risen Christ still walked the Earth, of whom Paul was one. For some Christians today, the Truth of Christianity stands or falls on a six thousand year old Earth. There’s only one way to lose this war, and we’re making great headway. The seagulls are getting nervous.

Lost in Math

October 30, 2018 | book reviews | No Comments

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray 
by Sabine Hossenfelder. Basic Books, June 2018. Reviewed by Steven Willing, MD

“Physical laws should have mathematical beauty”. Paul Dirac, Nobel Laureate*
Way back in 1973, the world of theoretical physics reached a dead end. That year marked the last successful prediction of any elemental particles – the top and bottom quarks – which were experimentally verified in 1995 and 1977 respectively. (The Higgs boson, finally detected in 2012, had been predicted in the 1960’s). Since then, there has been no successful prediction that would supersede the standard model.

In the intervening decades, dozens of additional particles have been predicted; not one has been found. String theory evolved and gained wide acceptance, without a shred of experimental verification. Proton decay has been sought but never observed. Dark matter remains dark to our own investigations. The search for a grand unified theory, based on the the holy grail of supersymmetry, has gone nowhere. Eighty years of effort failed to combine general relativity with the standard model. More exotic concepts – the multiverse, wormholes, extra dimensions, mini black holes – have eluded observation and may never be testable. Some ideas are untestable, even in theory.  

Not that we are lacking in achievement. What physicists call the “standard model” – where all matter and forces except for gravity are accounted for by 25 elemental particles and forces – has been wildly successful both in experimental validation and its predictive power. The same is true of quantum theory. There’s only one problem. Physicists hate them both. Nature, it seems, is too unnatural for their tastes. 

The standard model has been denigrated as “ugly and contrived” (Michio Kaku), “ugly and ad hoc” (Stephen Hawking), “ugly and baroque” (Brian Greene), with “the air of unfinished business” (Paul Davies). What troubles them so? Fine-tuning. Too many improbable coincidences. Too hard to understand or explain. Quantum mechanics is “magic”.  Too many arbitrary constants. (In the standard model, there are at least 19 unique constants that cannot be predicted by the model. They can only be determined by scientific measurement).  

The mass of the Higgs boson serves as a case in point.   Its mass depends on the contribution from quantum fluctuations multiplied by the fermion/boson sum. Quantum fluctuations contribute an amount to the mass of the Higgs boson 1015 greater than what is measured. To achieve the measured mass, the quantum fluctuation effect must be perfectly offset by a factor of 10-15, with a precision extending to fourteen digits.   In the eyes of physicists, such fine-tuning is not “natural”. It is an improbable coincidence. Fine-tuning is “a badge of shame” (Lisa Randall), “a sickness” (Howard Baer). It seems to demand an explanation. It is “ugly”. There are other trouble spots of fine tuning: the cosmological constant, the “strong CP problem”, and the great disparity between gravity and other forces (the “hierarchy problem”).

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder suggests one reason physicists have hit a wall: in their philosophical quest for “Beauty” the world of theoretical physics has gotten “Lost in Math”. The popular perception of a scientist is that of one driven by cold, hard, objective, unswerving logic. Despite the stereotype, the theoretical physicists interviewed and cited  by Hossenfelder – all leaders in their field – seek, hope for, even insist upon solutions that are aesthetically satisfying.  To them, the ultimate explanation for everything should reveal elegance,  naturalness,  symmetry – all shrouded in mathematical beauty. Yet, there is a danger in this approach. If our present laws of nature were not beautiful, would we ever have found them?  Surely an ugly explanation beats no explanation at all. If a more fundamental theory is not “beautiful”, will we fail to find it? Or even look for it? What if ultimate reality is “ugly”? 

There are other barriers to progress. As high energy experiments from the Large Hadron Collider eliminate from consideration various testable hypotheses, successive hypotheses must assume even higher energy levels which may not be testable, ever: 

If we wanted to directly reach Planckian  energies, we’d need a particle collider about the size of the Milky Way. Or if we wanted to measure a quantum of the gravitational field – a graviton – the detector would have to be the size of Jupiter….Clearly, these aren’t experiments we’ll get funded anytime soon. 

To escape the current predicament, there are calls to abandon the scientific method by eliminating the requirement of experimental verification.  Physicist, philosopher, and string theory proponent Richard Dawid is advocating “non-empirical theory assessment”. With declining prospects of empirical validation, Dawid concludes that “the scientific method must be amended so that hypotheses can be evaluated on purely theoretical grounds.” But “if we can’t test it, is it science?” asks Hossenfelder. 

Hossenfelder is at various times lively, comic, and probing. She quips “Theoretical physicists used to explain what was observed. Now they try to explain why they can’t explain what was not observed…There are many ways to not explain something”.  

In her journey through the rarified world of particle physicists and cosmologists, Hossenfelder voices concern for how hostility to the idea of a God on the part of some harms the public image of science. In the course of their conversation, cosmologist George Ellis recalls his review of a book by Victor Stenger claiming that science disproves the existence of God: 

“I opened this book with great anticipation, waiting to see what was the experimental apparatus that gave the result and what did the data points look like and was it a three-sigma or five-sigma result? Of course, there is no such experiment. These are scientists who haven’t understood basic philosophy.” (God, the Failed Hypothesis, by Victor Stenger, reviewed by George Ellis in Physics World

“Lost in Math” portrays a community of researchers in philosophical crisis. The esteemed physicists interviewed in this book and its impressive author are to be congratulated on their efforts and their honesty. The genuine achievements of science are acknowledged and celebrated, while the limitations of science and of scientists are admitted frankly. Scientists are human, after all. 

Naturalness, beauty, simplicity are aesthetic and philosophical concepts, not scientific ones. While aggressive proponents of secularism accuse believers of irrationality for believing in a God that – they claim – cannot be proven, their rear guard is crumbling. The field of theoretical physics faces a headwall where empirical validation of foundational theories may no longer be possible. More foundational theories may ultimately be embraced on faith alone – so long as the mathematics is beautiful! 

In the world of physics, we find fine-tuning and mystery from the subatomic to the cosmic scale with rapidly diminishing prospects of natural explanation. It is possible we may never see deeper than we are currently able, that we have reached our limit of comprehension regarding the essence of underlying reality. Meanwhile, what can be proven is distressingly improbable. God must be smiling.

*In her biography of Paul Dirac, historian Helge Kragh noted that in the last 49 years of his life Dirac “largely failed to produce physics of lasting value”.