Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Paradox of The Intelligent Believer

Re-publication of my original essay in the Maryland Mensa Magazine (M-ANATION) from December, 2000.

The question of intelligence and religious belief is one which has been considered by psychologists, as well as philosophers and others. The central issue appears to be whether, in fact, one can profess religious belief - an evident suspension of critical reasoning faculties - and still be regarded as "intelligent". Or, is it true that there is little or no association between the two?

Certainly, it is quite conceivable that intelligent people can do some very un-intelligent things - such as reckless driving, smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, eating too many fatty foods (despite cancer and heart disease risks) and playing lotteries - where the chances of success are minimal at best. By extension, it is not beyond the pale to find intelligent people who believe in all manner of nonsense, including: astrology, the Bermuda triangle, ouija boards and tarot cards - not to mention "weeping" statues, and "visitations" of the Blessed Virgin Mary!

The reasons for the latter are probably as numerous as the intelligent people who fall prey to them. Thus, an intelligent person is just as likely to suffer from low self-esteem, as his "normal" IQ counterparts - and hence be just as likely to become a candidate for the superficially soothing messages of acceptance that most religions have to offer. It may also be the case that a gullible, but intelligent person, has never had the opportunity to develop his/her critical faculties and a healthy skepticism. There could be abundant reasons for this, not the least of which is growing up in a repressive home environment wherein one's own thoughts and opinions are consistently devalued and ridiculed.

Before proceeding to address the question of whether the "intelligent believer" constitutes a paradox, it is useful to consider what traits define high intelligence - in the context of which I say "intelligent believer". First, I assume the upper 2 per cent of the population - or those who normally would be admitted into an organization such as MENSA. "Intelligence" itself carries somewhat elusive meanings - and need not always be reflected in standard IQ tests - especially if cultural factors enter.

However, certain general characteristics appear to be uniquely and consistently associated with intelligence over time and include:

- An exceptional curiosity in nature/ the universe

- Ease in manipulation of abstract symbols

- A high level of verbal aptitude

- Facility in adapting to novel situations and conditions

It is interesting that none of these precludes a religious outlook or religious belief, per se. Indeed, the observed fact that many highly intelligent people: a) belong to churches and religions, and b) practice them quite seriously, means that one must resist oversimplifications and generalizations. How then can one reconcile these observed facts to intelligence, while at the same time accounting for the intelligent atheist?

Only one - based on "inner natures" - seems to reconcile the disparate data, and provide a sensible perspective - explaining why many highly intelligent people are atheistic, and many others are religious. In his monograph, Inner Natures: Brain, Self and Personality,  Laurence Miller proposes that human character traits /personality and disposition occur in several categories of general brain architecture.

Each brain, as it were, falls into one of these categories and predisposes its owner toward certain definite tendencies, behaviors attitudes and degrees of socialization. Miller takes pains to emphasize that a given brain morphology in itself is neither "good" nor bad", only different. It is the peculiar nature of our society, however, to regard  certain predispositions or behavioral traits (e.g. introversion, aloofness) as "bad" and others (e.g. extroversion, gregariousness) as "good" - thereby discriminating against those possessing the "wrong" types of brain. (A discrimination compounded by promotion of workshops,  strategies, therapists, etc. to convert the "wrong" types to the "right" types!)

 Foremost among the wrong brain types, evidently, is that deemed paranoid, which not only contains elements of introversion/social withdrawal but also significant suspicion and distrust of others. Miller, however, distinguishes two distinct paranoid categories - one extreme (associated with the "Norman Bates" type character) and the other more benign and moreover quite able to function in modern society (as opposed to the Bates'-type dysfunction which generally leads to incarceration or suicide).  It is this benign, functional type which most directly impacts on the matters under consideration.

Miller's own hypothesis is that this brain configuration is brought about by brain damage or chemical (hormone) imbalance - or whatever, which introduces an enormous disparity in the functioning of left and right hemispheres. More to the point, it is almost exclusively left-hemisphere dominated, to the exclusion of the right. This left-hemisphere dominance is reflected in a strong allegiance to logic and rational thought - in preference to intuition or imaginative thought. In short, the left-hemisphere dominated person is more likely to use reasoning in a variety of applications to life and also to determine the worth of an idea or subject in proportion to its amenability to reasoning. Faced with religious doctrines - mostly not amenable to reason - he is far more likely to be a rational skeptic or out-and-out "unbeliever".

By contrast, a right-hemisphere dominated person will be far more likely to rely on feelings, intuition and imagination than on logic. Certainly, logic will not dominate his or her ordering of thought and emotions the way it does in the paranoid type.  Not surprisingly, the right-hemisphere dominated person will more likely be open to a more diverse array of experiences and "realities". He (or she) will be less likely to regard one mode of reality (amenable to reason and empirical analysis) as legitimate to the exclusion of others. Arguably, therefore, the right-hemisphere person will more likely be interested in religion - its doctrines, world - views, and postulation of a "supernatural" realm independent of objective, physical reality (for which logic and science apply).

Examples, of course, abound. In Catholicism - for instance, there is a charismatic movement within which participants are freely encouraged to express their "absorption of the Holy Spirit" and "speak in tongues" while in general emoting to a high degree. In some charismatic gatherings, participants have been known to actually hurl themselves on the floor and flail arms and legs in near epileptic spasms to emulate a "possession" by the "Holy Spirit". Such behaviors would be unthinkable to an individual dominated by logic and more likely to be thoroughly self-contained and self-conscious.

In Protestantism, such displays are rarer to be sure - but not non-existent. One need only go into some Protestant (especially Evangelical) congregations wherein "The Blood of the Lamb" is being emotively rendered even as congregants approach the altar to be "saved". Often - just before the Pastor approaches, the congregant will hurl himself to the floor and go into a frenzy of activity while loudly shouting in mock paroxysms of rage to emulate a "demon" that has possessed him. The paroxysms do not cease until the "demon" is forcibly "ejected" by the Pastor using some type of invocation.  


It would appear that the "intelligent believer" is not really a paradox when viewed in the context of brain-personality types. Several conclusions would seem to follow:

1-Intelligent believers have a greater right-hemisphere dominance than intelligent atheists/agnostics/skeptics.

2- Intelligent believers have a greater need for emotional affinity and this is satiated in religious rituals/services

3- Intelligent believers are not necessarily "gullible" - but with (relatively) less left-hemisphere influence are less likely to critically analyze or appraise religious doctrines, dogmas, beliefs for logical consistency or degree of probability.

4-Intelligent atheists/agnostics are  very likely to exhibit strong left-hemisphere bias and be governed much more by thought/logic than feeling. This could be due to a paranoid brain architecture.

5-One's religious beliefs - or lack thereof - cannot be used as any objective indicator of intelligence.

All of the above, of course, constitutes a hypothesis but one which I am convinced can be subject to empirical test.  It is generally known, for example that the Myer-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBPTI) is able to distinguish between thought/feeling and other personality profiles in the population at large. It is also true that its application to particular population groups (e.g. Mensans) has revealed astonishing disparities. For example, Mensans typically display a 3:1 preference of thought over feeling in the MBPTI, and hence a predisposition to left-hemisphere characteristics (Mensa Bulletin, Dec. 1993) 

  It will certainly be interesting to pursue more aspects of this issue in the future including what empirical tests might be used for the hypothesis.

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