Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Intelligence and Goodness

Last week, there was an article on the BBC website (Yeah, I know, I really need to start getting my news from more than one source) about landing the Rosetta probe on a speeding meteorite.  For reasons best known to themselves, the BBC opened it up for comment.

Strangely, specifically scientific articles seem to generate anti-theistic comments almost as much as specifically religious stories, in which posters compare religion unfavourably with science in the most scathing terms, and involving some curiously dogmatic (almost fanatical) claims about the beneficence of Science and its universal utility.  Wearily, I took up the Keyboard of Justice, and posted two or three times in defence of religious thought.

One of the responses to my posts included the following:  “(…) the fact there is a direct link between low IQ and religious beliefs says all you need to know.”

Now I’ve heard this assertion made before, most notably (and inexplicably, given the book’s stated aim of converting the religious to atheism) in The God Delusion, by Professor Dawkins.  I’ve no idea about the details of the study which turned up this interesting statistical gem, the numbers involved or whether it was conducted in a training camp in rural Somalia or an Oxford theological college, but then, as now, it strikes me as both curiously irrelevant and strangely revealing.

Curiously irrelevant, in that I’m not sure that it adds or detracts to either position in any way.  I can only assume that the intended meaning is that people with a low IQ are more likely to be wrong about these complicated sciento-philosophical questions, and mistakenly come down on the side of religion.  Obviously, those more intellectually gifted people would be able to see straight through the false claims of the liar Religion, and instead turn to the Truth and Light of Science.

Does this actually hold true though?  Is intelligence of the sort prized by the scientism of the new atheists, and measured by IQ tests, the kind of intelligence that’s required when considering the nature of the universe?  An interesting way of looking at this is provided by the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, which involves rating a character by six different numerical traits.  Three cover physical abilities, while the rules divide mental ability into Intelligence and Wisdom.  The former involves book-learning, knowledge and analytical skills, while Wisdom reflects a character’s insight, perceptiveness and intuition.  I’m not saying that this is a perfect way of modelling the way people’s minds work, but the division (and a similar one is followed in many other games) can be a useful one.  When dealing with questions beyond the ability of science to provide an empirical answer to, I wonder which is more relevant, if either?

It is revealing, because I think it says much about the way such people view the universe.  As far as I can tell, and I make no claim to be an expert, intelligence is prized above all things, and the ability to apply the scientific method to any given idea or phenomenon, no matter how inappropriate.  The likelihood of being right or wrong on the nature of the universe can be estimated by a given person’s IQ.  There is an arrogant intellectualism that attaches the greatest value to intelligence, and gives little if any to what we may, in the phraseology of D&D, call wisdom, or to kindness or gentleness or charity or hopefulness.   The aggressive, proselytising atheists that make themselves heard on such boards seem remarkably uninterested in concepts like love, mercy or hope, presumably since they don’t fall within the purview of Science.  Now obviously (I hope) I’m not levelling this accusation at all atheists, since I dislike generalisations of that sort, but for the evangelical new atheist scientism-ists, the above sadly seems to be fairly accurate.

Many (in fact most) of the more or less witty sallies made against religion by individuals of this school focus on the supposed intelligence of atheists and the comparative stupidity and gullibility of theists.  Morality and questions of Right and Wrong, of how we should conduct our lives, rarely if ever seem to enter into it.  Type ‘Atheist Quotes’ into google, and you will see plenty of more or less cutting attacks on the intelligence and gullibility of the religious.  Type in ‘Christian Quotes’ and you will find that most are concerned not with belittling others, but in how to live well, and with faith, hope and love.

I know which I hold to be more important.  If I was to be given a binary choice as to whether I would want to live amongst the intelligent or the good, I would choose the latter without hesitation, although obviously I’d take people who are both for preference.

Focussing on intellectualism in this way also leaves hanging the question of something else as well: Happiness.  Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes, and while that is demonstrably rarely actually true, it is also true that the most intelligent people are seldom the most contented.

Assuming that it must be one or the other, give me a world of dull but blissful tranquillity over a world of intelligent, amoral strife any day!

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