Tag Archives: atheism

Atheist Manifesto

IMG_1121When we think of atheist anti-religious polemicists, we tend to think of the Big Four (or, as they have been labeled, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse): Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. Their work is really not my cup of tea, but for those who do like that sort of thing, then you should check out Michel Onfray’s book Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It was published in French in 2005 and in English in 2007. It’s fairly short, and is a lively read.

Onfray gets less attention than he should because he’s a French intellectual and most of his works are only accessible in French. When I say he isn’t getting enough attention, I don’t mean I agree with everything he says, or even that I like his work very much; I think it is important, however, that he offers a perspective on atheism and religion that is grounded in something besides scientism. Onfray was trained in philosophy, and it is this background that informs his attack on the three major monotheisms. The biggest strength of Atheist Manifesto, in my opinion, is Onfray’s awareness that atheism has a history — this is conspicuously lacking in the works of the Big Four. Onfray argues vehemently that the history of atheism has been neglected, which is certainly true in comparison with the history of religion; however, Onfray seems not to know about English-language scholarship on atheism, which deals with at least some atheist historical figures in detail. La Mettrie, for example, has received considerable attention from English-language scholars interested in Enlightenment materialism.

Atheist Manifesto is different from the better-known works of the Big Four in another respect as well. Onfray, a post-modernist, sets out to deconstruct religion and its truth-claims, not from a scientific perspective but by showing how much human intervention and mediation was involved in constructing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Not all of his interpretations are defensible: for instance, he argues that St. Paul’s negative attitude toward sexuality and women was caused by impotence, but he cites no sources (here or elsewhere in the book) and relies on psychological conjecture. Onfray’s historical analyses must be read with caution, and I would urge his readers to look elsewhere for reliable histories; however, his approach and arguments offer useful starting points for a more philosophical understanding of atheism.

The book is ultimately disappointing, because Onfray states several times that what’s needed now is a post-Christian, post-religious, atheist ethic, but fails to say what that might be. I agree with his argument against what he calls “religious secularism,” i.e. following religious morality and behaviour in everything except for believing in God. Religious secularism includes, for example, secular or even atheist congregations and clergy. For the most part, however, the section on a post-Christian secular order is an anti-Muslim rant, followed by almost no substantial arguments concerning the secular order that Onfray thinks we need. At the end of the book, the reader is no wiser than before about what Onfray’s ideal post-Christian secular order might look like.

Despite these reservations, Atheist Manifesto would be useful and interesting to atheists looking to broaden their reading horizons beyond the books of the Big Four. French intellectuals have published, and continue to publish, serious philosophical works on post-modern atheism; Onfray provides an accessible introduction to this field.

An Atheist at a Christian Funeral

My blogging break has been longer than I expected, due to various factors. I’m preparing this weekend to present a paper on the Baron d’Holbach, a famous eighteenth-century atheist, at the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Once I’m back from the conference I plan to write some posts about books I have read recently, including Ara Norenzayan’s recently published Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict and Ken Macleod’s SF novel The Night Sessions. In the meantime, here is a post of a more personal nature.

Last week, I attended the funeral for my husband’s grandmother. A few minutes before the chapel service began, my husband’s aunt asked him and his brother if they would like to give a reading. They were uncomfortable with this, so I said I would do it if no one else wanted to. I hadn’t really thought about what I might be reading, which turned out to be a passage from the first Letter of John (1 John 3:1-2).

You might expect that I would have a problem with reading a biblical passage at a funeral. I don’t believe that the Bible is the word of the Lord, and I don’t participate in any other elements of religious services (except for the shaking of hands, which I treat as an act of general goodwill). I know that for some atheists, being asked to read a biblical passage would present an ethical dilemma. Was it okay for me, an atheist, to read a biblical passage at a funeral? Was it a betrayal of my atheism to do so? Or disrespectful to the believers at the service?

Let’s take the disrespect issue first. I didn’t ask any of the family members what they thought — there really wasn’t time — but I felt that it would have been hurtful and insulting to renege on my offer to read. I needed to read the chosen words as if they had meaning, despite my own feelings about them, because they did in fact have meaning for several people at the service. I kept my mouth steadfastly shut about my atheism and did my best to read as if I were a believer. Did my atheism somehow demean the reading? Saint Augustine of Hippo argued that the validity of a sacrament does not depend on the worthiness of the minister; in other words, the power of the sacrament depends on the grace of Jesus Christ, not on the human agent who administers it. My Augustinian interpretation of the relationship between scripture and the person reading it is that, for a believer, the word of the Lord remains the word of the Lord no matter who is speaking it. A mere human can’t diminish it, so my atheism did not have an impact on the reading.

As for the question of whether I betrayed my atheism by reading scripture at a service, I guess I just don’t see this as a real issue. I chose freely to do the reading, to honour the need of a grieving relative for whom the words were comforting. What mattered more than my non-belief was the ability to speak with composure in front of a chapel full of mourners. Also, since religious texts are just texts, not magical spells or poison (pace Christopher Hitchens), I didn’t suffer any harm from the reading.

In fact, I enjoyed it; I hadn’t given a scriptural reading since junior high school, when I was still a Catholic kid, and I liked having a text to think about while I listened to the service. I also liked being able to do something for my relatives. I don’t know my husband’s extended family very well, so this moment became an opportunity to forge a bond with them. Far from being a sacrifice or burden, reading scripture for them felt like a gift.


Atheist Churches! Oh My God, No!

By Lara Apps


Today’s post might offend a few people, but I don’t care. I’m pissed off. And very, very disappointed in my fellow free thinkers. I like to think of myself as pretty accepting, but I have a massive problem with the “atheist church” trend. As in, I want to slap the founders and anyone who joins one of these travesties. In case you haven’t heard, atheist and secular churches are a thing now. You can go to an assembly, receive services such as weddings and funerals, and do all the church stuff without having to believe in God or read any sacred texts. Unless you’re a member of the London-based Sunday Assembly, in which case you can be part of the church even if you do believe in God. The Calgary Secular Church even has 10 Commandments.

What the fuck is going on? Is atheism, as some commenters have suggested, turning into a religion? It sure as hell looks like it, although cult might be a better label.

The justification given for these atheist churches is that people want to feel that they are part of a supportive community of like-minded people, and to have some structure in their non-believing lives. Fine. I get that. So join a running group, or a scrapbooking club. Start a book club. Whatever floats your boat. Learn to be friends with people who don’t think exactly the same way you do — your life will be richer for it. But for fuck’s sake, don’t buy into some homogenizing “structured godlessness” scheme. Don’t believe the hype! There is no way that a large, organized group of people can maintain an all-beliefs-are-OK stance in reality for very long. Sooner or later, you get things like, say, 10 commandments and conflicts over who really belongs in your church. Sunday Assembly’s co-founder, Sanderson Jones, has already mused that this atheist church doesn’t really have to be all that atheist (see the Salon article linked below). What this means is that “hard core” atheists don’t belong. The exclusion is already happening, and this church is barely off the ground.

Jones has also said that he doesn’t think established religions will have a problem with atheists adopting their methods and forms (why would they? this is a path back to “real” church), and that the only people who will have a problem with atheist church are “aggressive atheists.” Well, I’m not an aggressive atheist, and this enterprise sounds limiting, exclusionary, and exploitative. Not to mention boring as hell. Kind of like real church, only worse because at least real churches don’t pretend to be fostering free thought.

Vampire Weekend Made Me Cry


By Lara Apps

Not too many rock or pop songs really tug at my heartstrings (Baroque music is another story; I need a box of Kleenex handy to listen to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater). The last song I can think of that truly got to me, and still does, is U2’s With or Without You — I think it’s the keening. But Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, features two tracks that dragged some totally unexpected emotions out of me.

The first song, Unbelievers, has an upbeat sound with a quick tempo and catchy melody. Pay attention to the lyrics, though, and you find this (from Rock.rapgenius):

[Verse 1]
Got a little soul
The world is a cold, cold place to be

Want a little warmth
But who’s going to save a little warmth for me

We know the fire awaits unbelievers all of the sinners the same
Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train

[Verse 2]
If I’m born again I know that the world will disagree
Want a little grace but who’s going to say a little grace for me?

We know the fire awaits unbelievers
All of the sinners the same
Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train

I’m not excited but should I be
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
I know I love you
And you love the sea
But what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me

[Verse 3]
See the sun go down, it’s going on down when the night is deep
Want a little light but who’s going to save a little light for me?

If I’m born again I know that the world will disagree
Want a little grace but who’s going to say a little grace for me?

We know the fire awaits unbelievers
All of the sinners the same
Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train

I’m not excited but should I be
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?

I know I love you and you love the sea
But what Holy water contains a little drop little drop for me

I’m not excited but should I be
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
I know I love you and you love the sea
Wonder if the water contains a little drop little drop for me

The band has said that this is not an atheist anthem; in a more extended comment on the song, lead singer Ezra Koenig says that it is about polarization, the splitting of the world into two, e.g. religion and anti-religion. It’s also, clearly, about trying to fit into such a world. The references to holy water, grace, fire, etc. suggest strongly that the song’s narrator is a Catholic atheist (that is, an atheist who used to be Catholic); however, I think the lyrics could be interpreted more broadly as referring to anyone who is an unbeliever toward any dominant ideology or religion, all of which tend to condemn naysayers. In any case, the lines that I responded to the most when I first heard the song are the pre-chorus and chorus, specifically the line “Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?” I remember the hostility of believers coming as a shock when I was younger, and it still saddens me that a large proportion of the people on this planet think I deserve to burn in hell just for opting out of religion. It doesn’t matter how much good I try to do in my life: I’m a lost soul to them.

You would think that this wouldn’t matter to an atheist, since belief in an afterlife tends to get jettisoned along with belief in god/gods. It’s true that threatening an unbeliever with hell is unlikely to be effective in changing their behaviour. Still, though, there’s a moment when you have to come to terms with severing yourself from most of what humanity believes about the world, life, and death. I don’t mean to suggest that atheists are heroic or unique in this; we’re not. But while atheism is liberating, it’s also, at times, a difficult way to relate to the world. Unbelievers captures this beautifully.

The other song is called Ya Hey. Musically, it reminds me very much of U2’s Joshua Tree-Rattle and Hum period for reasons I can’t quite pin down. Here are the lyrics, courtesy of Rock.rapgenius:

[Verse 1] Oh, sweet thing Zion doesn’t love you
And Babylon don’t love you
But you love everything
Oh, you saint
America don’t love you
So I could never love you
In spite of everything
In the dark of this place
There’s the glow of your face

There’s the dust on the screen
Of this broken machine

And I can’t help but feel
That I’ve made some mistake
But I let it go

Ya Hey (x3)

Through the fire and through the flames
(Ya hey x2, Ut Deo, ya hey x2)
You won’t even say your name
(Ya hey x2, Ut Deo, ya hey x2)
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”

But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Hey x2)
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

[Verse 2]
Oh, the motherland don’t love you
The fatherland don’t love you
So why love anything?
Oh, good God
The faithless they don’t love you
The zealous hearts don’t love you
And that’s not gonna change

All the cameras and files
All the paranoid styles
All the tension and fear
Of a secret career

And I think in your heart
That you’ve seen the mistake
But you let it go

Ya Hey (x3)


[Middle 8]
Outside the tents, on the festival grounds
As the air began to cool, and the sun went down
My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound

Of you spinning “Israelites”
Into “19th Nervous Breakdown”


Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Hey x2)
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo Annotate

This is a song addressed directly to God, expressing the frustration, anger and,
perhaps, grief of the doubter. Like Unbelievers, Ya Hey captures the way
doubting God feels — it’s not a purely intellectual experience if you used to
believe. Robert Leedham expresses this perfectly in his moving post about this

“Rather than dropping oblique reference points every third line, it sees Koenig adopt a magnificently blasphemous posture from start to finish. He is talking to Jehovah/The Almighty/The Big Cheese as the representative of a world of non-believers and hardened cynics. He is demanding to know, ‘When confronted with such global indifference and outright aggression, why you would not announce your existence with absolute certainty?’

Anyone who’s lost faith in religion will have posed this question before. When all was well in my life, bar a series of facial eruptions to rival Mount Vesuvius, it didn’t bother me that I’d never witnessed a shining white light and a voice booming with thespian wisdom. That would arrive in my hour of need, at a moment that required more than biblical vagaries like “I am that I am.

The truly upsetting brilliance of ‘Ya Hey’ is that it recognises this moment will never come. It’s not in God’s nature to announce himself like that. Despite having created Zion, Babylon and the rest of world, he will watch it fall apart without staging an intervention. He will leave you strung out on a hospital bed, incandescent with fear and anger, regardless of what you might consequently think of him.”

So what made me cry? I have to say, the moment I choked up while listening to Ya Hey came as a complete surprise. I was focused on working out the lyrics when this hit me: “Oh, the motherland don’t love you The fatherland don’t love you So why love anything?” The lines are being sung to God, i.e. why should God love anything if no one and nothing loves him; but that line “So why love anything?” struck me as something a doubter might very well say to him or herself. I know I did once or twice in the past. It’s not a happy state of mind.

Not all atheists go through a difficult process of separating from religion; some are lucky enough to be born into unbelieving families, and some weren’t strongly committed to a religion in the first place. My own experience wasn’t traumatic — I would say it was positive, but there were definitely some tough moments (there still are; losing my father, knowing that I would not be seeing him again, felt a lot like being bound to the tracks of a train). If Vampire Weekend had been around when I was in my teens and early twenties, I’d have gratefully adopted these two songs as anthems.

Am I complaining? Do I regret renouncing religion? Absolutely not. What I’m trying to get at in this post is that emotional work is involved in a decision so momentous as changing, or leaving, one’s religion. I’m not entirely convinced that such decisions are truly choices; I think we are compelled to follow the paths that seem true to us. In this sense, then, atheists have a great deal in common with believers.

Girl Guides, God, and Being an Asshole

Girl_Guides_centenary,_Priory_Park_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1759682This was going to be a post about not being an atheist asshole.

Back in June, atheist blogger Matthew S. McCormick posted a slide show presentation he had given to a students’ society, in which he argued that it is necessary for atheists to be assholes in order to counter the oppressive superstition and irrationality surrounding us. He cites Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to support this position, while criticizing Carl Sagan’s view that a kinder, gentler approach to fellow truth-seekers is more appropriate, given that none of us has all the tools necessary to fully understand the universe. McCormick disagrees with Sagan and announces, proudly, that he is an asshole in the name of atheism. He believes other atheists should be assholes, too. I disagree with McCormick’s position as a general practice — but today I feel the need to be a bit of an “asshole.”

On Saturday, the Guardian published an article by Observer columnist Victoria Coren in which she moved from bitching about new words (“linguistic horrors”) such as ‘chillax’ and ‘vino’ to criticizing the UK Girl Guides’ recent decision to drop loving God from their pledge. (The Girl Guides have also dropped the part of the pledge referring to loving one’s country, but no one seems to care about that.) Coren feels that the phrasing of the new pledge “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs” is mere gobbledygook:

“Oh for the love of God! (Or, rather, not for the love of God.) What ghastly committee meeting, what endless wrangle, what months of debate, what conferences and whiteboards and PowerPoint presentations led to this lame, weak, hollow clump of Californian couch jargon?”

I’ll give Coren points for alliteration here (lots of w-words), and certainly the old pledge to love God had a certain simple, direct charm. But the rant that follows demonstrates that Coren is an idiot.

She objects to removing God from the pledge because Brownies and Guides often hold their meetings in churches:

“It seems a mean trick to play on all those churches that lend their halls for Brownie and Guide activities – forcing them to choose between continuing to house an organisation that has publicly severed its link with what they stand for, or withdrawing the space and leaving local children with nowhere to gather.

In other words, they can choose between feeling foolish or cruel. It’s an insidious position in which to place anyone, especially given that the new Promise also swears to ‘serve my community’, of which churches are surely an important part.”

Really? The Guides’ pledge change is going to hurt the feelings of local churches? So badly that they will be wringing their hands over allowing a bunch of little girls to use their space without invoking God? Or so badly that they won’t let them use their space any longer, forcing said little girls to meet outside in the harsh elements (or, say, to meet in school gyms)? As for the community bit, the importance of a church within a particular community varies considerably. And is it me, or is Coren suggesting that Guides should serve the churches?

If British Brownies and Girl Guides are anything like Canadian Brownies and Girl Guides, then the pledge is about the only time God is mentioned. I noticed that Coren never refers to having been a Brownie or Guide herself — perhaps she thinks that meetings are like Sunday school.

The comment that made me shoot my morning tea out of my nose was this:

“But even if there is some reason why God must be dropped entirely, was there really no better alternative? Could they not have looked for something like the “higher power”, which Alcoholics Anonymous allows so cleverly to stand, in the minds of atheists, for cycles of nature, the universe, time, society or anything that helps a person to realise they are part of something bigger than themselves and behave with accordant responsibility?”

Let’s get this straight. “Higher power” in pledges and such means a god of some kind, or, at best, a force governing our lives. No atheist I’ve ever come across thinks nature, the universe, time (WTF?), or society is a higher power that requires us to promise to love it. For many of us, the point of atheism is that we don’t recognize, and certainly don’t worship, any higher power. “Higher power” is a useful way to accommodate believers of different faiths, as well as agnostics, who wouldn’t find a pledge to the Christian God meaningful. It’s meaningless to atheists, who don’t require a supernatural higher power to make them “behave with accordant responsibility”. We’re perfectly capable of being responsible members of society without granting our society higher power status.

Coren, in her ignorant priggishness, seems incapable of grasping that “be true to myself and develop my beliefs” allows all of the girls who might make that pledge to follow their own faiths, if they have one, without assuming that they must have a faith. Being true to oneself will, for many girls, include loving God. The new pledge does not take that away from them.

Some Girl Guide leaders in the UK are “revolting” against the new pledge, insisting on using it while allowing non-believers to use the new one (because, obviously, the sky will fall if little girls don’t promise to love God). The issue has been framed as a believer vs. non-believer conflict, as if those are the only two possible positions. There are religions for which pledging to love God (which means, let’s not pretend otherwise in the British context, the Anglican God) doesn’t make sense: Wiccans, for instance, don’t worship God. Neither do Hindus or Buddhists. Strictly speaking, Catholics and Muslims probably shouldn’t be taking the old pledge either.

Predictably, the Girl Guides have been accused of “secular totalitarianism,” while its opponents are “rebels.” This kind of language is worth paying close attention to, as it demonizes one group while romanticizing another with heavily loaded terms that manipulate readers and listeners. Who wouldn’t want to rebel against totalitarianism? The new pledge is not, of course, totalitarian in any way; it’s a clear attempt to be inclusive toward those who don’t share the official state religion. Those who want to keep the old pledge and let non-believers “opt out” fail to grasp how difficult it might be for a young girl to do that when her peers are following their adult leaders.

I don’t personally care very much about references to God in most pledges, oaths, etc. It’s not as if I worry that a non-existent being is going to punish me for breaking a promise to love it. But if we want children, especially, to take pledges and oaths seriously as commitments to act in certain ways, then those pledges and oaths had better make sense to them. It’s time for recognition that promises to love God, and treating a certain kind of belief as the default position, simply don’t make sense to everyone in pluralistic societies. Kudos to the Girl Guides for taking a step toward greater inclusiveness.

Sexist Unbelief?


I tried writing this post a couple of days ago, struggled with it, nearly deleted it, and then decided to take another shot. The problem is that I feel, on the one hand, that I don’t have the right to comment on the recent spate of allegations about sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault within the anti-religious movement(s) and organizations. (I’m going to use ‘anti-religious’ to try to encompass the various atheist, secularist, and sceptical organizations; I’m not singling out any particular group.) I’m not a member of any such organization, I don’t know any of the individuals involved, and I don’t know whether the allegations are true. On the other hand, I’m a woman — and I want to add my voice to the women (and men) who decry sexism in all its forms. I might have left this alone, but it’s clear from the comments on articles written by women about this subject (and from the vile threats made against women in the public eye, such as the classicist Mary Beard), that misogyny is alive and well and that women are facing serious threats to their right to express themselves and tell the truth as they see it.

I’m not going to discuss particular cases; I don’t know enough about them, and you can read about them easily enough if you follow the links in the articles listed at the bottom of this post. If you’re in the mood for an especially weird sexist atheist read, by all means have a look at Secular Patriarchy. I’m not posting the link because I don’t want to encourage the author, but it’s worth reading if you’re sceptical about the likelihood that there are sexist atheists.

I want to comment on one of Soraya Chemala’s remarks in her Salon article “5 reasons why there aren’t more women in atheism.” Chemala wrote:

“Sexism is real and has an effect on women’s participation and leadership within the atheist community. Rape jokes and sexual harassment, as penalties and tools to silence women, exist in atheist and secular groups as well as religious ones. Many people hold the tacit belief that atheism equals rationalism and rationalism is gender-neutral, and therefore sexism can’t exist among atheists. But critical thinkers do irrational things all the time — and unless they actively try to resist existing prejudices, they can easily fall into them. The discrimination based on class, race, gender and sexuality that we see in the broader culture exists in atheist and secular communities too, and requires the same dismantling.”

I think Chemaya’s right that sexism within atheism seems dismaying because of tacit assumptions regarding the connections between atheism, rationalism and gender. But rationalism has been associated with men, and irrationality with women, for thousands of years. We could say that it’s the default position in Western societies when it comes to thinking about gender. Not everyone thought this way — women such as Christine de Pizan defended their capacity for reason, and Descartes suggested that the mind has no sex. Francois Poulain de la Barre took that suggestion up in three feminist treatises written in the 1600s. But the Enlightenment adopted the idea that women and men had very different natures, with different purposes and roles to play in society. This notion was developed further in the 1800s to become the ideology of separate spheres for men and women (women’s place was in the home, as the ‘angel of the house’, while men should work outside the home).* Modern studies that purport to show that men’s and women’s brains work differently reinforce the very old idea that women are less analytical and more emotional than men.

I don’t mean to suggest that there are no differences between men and women. But I’m deeply sceptical about claims that intellectual differences are innate — and, as I’ve suggested about studies of intelligence and religiosity, we have to consider what agendas are driving studies of how men and women think.

I’m not surprised by the allegations of sexism within anti-religious organizations, or by what seems to be the marginalization of women within atheism. Atheism, and anti-religion more broadly, valorize rationality in ways that are strongly reminiscent of the Cult of Reason established (briefly) during the dechristianization phase of the French Revolution. Considering how strongly rationality has been and still is associated with being male, it’s no wonder that women struggle to be heard and respected within rationalist movements dominated by men.

What’s maddening about this, besides the impact on the women within these movements, is that religion’s oppression of women is a central plank in the anti-religious platform. Kind of makes you wonder just how much better things would be for women in a New Atheist world.

*Obviously, I’ve simplified the history of gender and rationality. If you’re interested in further reading on this subject, I recommend:

Knott, Sarah and Barbara Taylor, eds. Women, Gender and Enlightenment. Houndmills, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Meade, Teresa A. & Merry E. Wiesner, eds. A Companion to Gender History. Blackwell, 2004.

Poulain de La Barre, François. Three Cartesian feminist treatises.  Chicago UP, 2002.

Ross, Sarah Gwyneth. The birth of feminism : woman as intellect in Renaissance Italy and England. Harvard UP, 2009.

Schiebinger, Londa L. The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Steinbrügge, Lieselotte. The Moral Sex: Women’s Nature in the French Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Stuurman, Siep. Poulain de la barre and the invention of modern equality. Harvard UP, 2004.

Wiesner, Merry E. Gender in history: global perspectives. 2nd ed.  Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Intelligence and Religiosity

A scholarly article appeared a few days ago that argues intelligent people are less likely to be religious than, um, less-intelligent people. It’s received a fair bit of attention, for obvious reasons.

The article, “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations,” by Miron Zuckerman, Jordan Silberman, and Judith A. Hall, was published online in Personality and Social Psychology Review on August 6th. If you have access to a university library, you can read it for free; if not, you can download it for $25 USD. Be warned: much of this paper is a discussion of statistical analysis. I don’t know enough about that to engage in a critique of their methodology, but their discussion of methodological issues is graspable if you’re willing to work your way through it. Here is the abstract, which is available for free at http://psr.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/08/02/1088868313497266.abstract


A meta-analysis of 63 studies showed a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity. The association was stronger for college students and the general population than for participants younger than college age; it was also stronger for religious beliefs than religious behavior. For college students and the general population, means of weighted and unweighted correlations between intelligence and the strength of religious beliefs ranged from −.20 to −.25 (mean r = −.24). Three possible interpretations were discussed. First, intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma. Second, intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs. Third, several functions of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by intelligence. Intelligent people may therefore have less need for religious beliefs and practices.

In a nutshell, the article is a detailed review of other studies on the relation between intelligence and religiosity; the authors have not done a new survey. The authors note that the first such study was published in 1928 and that there have been several large-scale studies in the last decade. The authors review 63 studies in all; 53 showed negative correlations between intelligence and religiosity. In other words, most of the studies showed that “the higher a person’s intelligence, the lower the person scored on the religiosity measures (p. 9).” The authors consider various factors, such as whether education levels, restricted samples, etc. account for this negative correlation. They argue that the relation holds even after taking those factors into account.

A few observations:

The idea that intelligence and religiosity are related is not new. The beliefs of the uneducated masses were often regarded as mere superstition as compared to the proper religion practiced by the elite classes. In the 18th century, anti-religious writers argued that the ignorant needed religion; only the enlightened could live moral lives without it. Of course, before the 20th century no one was thinking in terms of IQ, but the pattern of devaluing whatever the lower classes believe while privileging the beliefs of the educated members of society is consistent throughout Western history. The modern interest in intelligence and religiosity is, I think, an iteration of the pattern, with a different sort of class division being created that separates high-IQ individuals from those with lower IQs — and between the religious and the non-religious.

The authors point out that most explanations of the negative relation between intelligence and religion “share one central theme — the premise that religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better’ (p. 3).” They do criticize this premise, but not, I think, as strongly as it deserves. It seems to me that the entire enterprise of trying to establish what the relation between intelligence and religiosity is presupposes a) that there is one; b) that it would be useful to know what it is. The anti-religious agenda and snobbery are obvious.

One “explanation” that has been offered for the relation between intelligence and religion is that atheism “is evolutionarily novel,” and since intelligent people are better able to cope with evolutionary novelty, they become atheists. The authors of this article cite Kanazawa as the proponent of this theory, which is based on the idea that religion developed because it conferred an evolutionary advantage. What’s important to consider here is that any theories about how religion developed among pre-historical humans are speculative. Anthropologists have different interpretations of what, for instance, the famous Venus figurines mean (goddess figures or pornography?) and what the intent behind cave paintings was. We have to speculate, because there are no written sources to tell us what pre-historic humans were thinking. Furthermore, what evidence is there to show that religion was evolutionarily advantageous or that atheism didn’t exist? The idea that religion evolved suggests that humans were originally not religious, which would make religiosity more novel, in the evolutionary sense, than non-religiosity. Finally, it’s woefully unclear what is meant by atheism being evolutionarily novel, because the article contains no historical or anthropological background whatsoever. It’s actually unclear what the authors mean by atheism, since they never define it and tend to slip from “non-religious” to “atheist” without commenting on the difference between the terms.

The authors discuss several other “explanations,” such as the idea that intelligent people are non-conformists. Their own favoured “explanation,” which they claim is new, is that religion fulfills certain functions, such as alleviating loneliness. Intelligence fulfills the same functions, or at least leads to a person being able to satisfy their needs without religion. So religion and high intelligence are functionally equivalent. For example, a person who is less intelligent, and  feels lonely, will be comforted by a secure relationship with God. An intelligent person, on the other hand, is statistically more likely than a less-intelligent person to get married and to stay married. The authors reason from this as follows: “if intelligent people are more likely to be married, then they may have less of a need to seek religion as a refuge from loneliness (p. 20).” It’s the same sort of reasoning that has led some scholars to suggest that sports fandom, nationalism, etc. are religions, because they fulfill the same functions as religion.

The functional explanation seems very forced to me. Part of the problem is that the authors don’t discuss any qualitative information; there’s nothing here about religious and non-religious (or intelligent and less-intelligent) people’s own explanations of their behaviour and beliefs. What we get instead is a convoluted attempt to explain a statistical correlation by other statistical correlations.

What are the implications of this research? It reinforces the notion that religiosity is a characteristic of unintelligent people and that non-religious individuals are more “evolved” than religious people. Remember the “Brights” movement? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brights_movement) Perhaps I’m being alarmist, but this kind of language, especially the use of evolution as an “explanation,” gives me the willies. We’ve heard this before, haven’t we? What’s happening is the development of a discourse that suggests atheists are better humans — that they represent evolutionary progress. Believers, in this model, become flawed, degenerate humans. Expendable, perhaps.

The fact that women are, overall, more religious than men adds a disturbing wrinkle to the intelligence-religiosity relation. If women tend toward religiosity, and religiosity is connected with lower intelligence, it’s not a great leap to the conclusion that women overall must be less intelligent than men. Why else would they be more religious?

No doubt, many atheists and other non-religious people would say that these studies are simply practicing fair turnabout on the centuries-old view of unbelievers as irrational, immoral monsters. But any work that suggests an entire category of humans is less intelligent than another is playing with fire. We need to think hard about the agendas and consequences of such research.