Who says people use intelligence when succumbing to religious faith?

Religion and Intelligence

Nancy Sherer

One hot, dusty, Minnesota summer day when I was eight years old, I went to the bathroom to get a drink of water. I took the bubble gum out of my mouth and put it down on the edge of the sink, drank a big glass of water, then put the gum back in my mouth. To my horror and dismay, I tasted rubbing alcohol.

There was no doubt, even though I had never tasted rubbing alcohol before, that that was the bitter taste in my mouth -- and I knew that rubbing alcohol was poison. I spit, I rinsed, I gargled and spit again while my not-yet-done-growing brain wondered how much rubbing alcohol it would take to kill me, and how much could have been on my bubble gum?

Poison is a serious problem for a child. Having been raised in a devout christian household, I knew that my only chance for survival was prayer. I ran to my bedroom, knelt by my bed and began to pray to god to not let the poison kill me. I never finished that prayer. Somewhere in the middle of the ‘please god don’t let me die’ I had an epiphany.

If I had consumed enough poison to kill me, I would die. No god would intervene by changing the law of nature to prevent poison from acting the way poison always does. If I didn’t consume enough poison to kill me, I would live, and god had nothing to do with it. In the same moment I knew there was no such thing as god.

But I was only eight years old. My parents, who were very smart and educated, believed in god, as did every person I knew. As far as I knew, every person in the whole world was either Protestant or Catholic. I had no concept that anyone in the world was an atheist - except for the Africans, because they didn’t have bibles.

But my certainty that there was no god remained. Perhaps, I thought as I reluctantly threw my bubble gum away, god was like Santa Claus. Did adults make up religion as a game? So I began asking careful, if childlike, questions. I didn’t want to come right out and ask if there was no god.

As everyone knows, once the Santa story is revealed, those surprise gifts under the tree stop arriving. So, every once in a while, I would ask a leading question such as ‘if god is everywhere, why do we have to pray to tell him what is going on?’ or ‘if god doesn’t want things to be bad, why doesn’t he stop bad things?’ I received thoughtful explanations about free will and god’s love and some things being just too complex for the human brain to understand. I concluded, sadly, that my parents really did believe in god.

As years went by, I noticed some hopeful changes in their behavior. Like the year Dad refused to go to Easter Sunday service. Like when my parents decided to name my new brother Timothy instead of Christopher.

But my curiosity about religion remained. By the time I was twelve, I realized that christianity was nonsense, but perhaps some other religion had information that put the universe in order. I scrutinized one belief system after another, eventually dismissing each as nonsense.

Over the years, I became an expert on comparative religion, but I never found a single clue as to why other people believed such elaborate and erroneous mythologies. Religion was followed at great cost.

I would have abandoned my examination of religion. In and of itself, it is as tedious and unrewarding as cleaning a sock drawer. However, one fascinating question remained: Why do people insist on ‘believing’?

Many non-believers, once rejecting religion, ask themselves ‘how could I have been so stupid as to fall for that #%&?’ I don’t think stupidity has anything to do with it. Many people who are very intelligent are swimming in belief. Many people who don’t contemplate anything more complex than alternate routes to work are non-believers.

One clue about religions’ appeal comes from observing dominance hierarchies in other species. It is obvious from a Darwinian perspective that submissive behavior must give a survival advantage. Religion requires submissive behavior from every believer. Whether kneeling, bowing, or crawling on one’s stomach, believers derive mental satisfaction - AKA god’s grace - from being submissive. In my lifetime of research, I have never come across a religion that didn’t require submissive behavior.

However, the dominance behaviors take a different turn in Homo Sapiens. Our form of dominant-subordinate behavior is structured differently than baboons, chimps and gorillas. For whatever reason, we value the abstract concepts of fairness and equality. Unlike other species, humans have experimented with social constructs that don’t require submission.

The Greeks take credit as the first group of people to experiment with democracy. In addition to their attempts to overcome the politics of submission, they also demoted their gods to concepts. (Scholars are happy to point out that Greeks didn’t believe that Athena was a supernatural being, but rather the spirit of wisdom and culture.)

Those ancient Greeks were no more or less intelligent that people living today. The faith-ravaged Islamic nations have brains as capable as other groups of Homo sapiens. Children have enough common sense to see that this is a rational universe. Magic and miracles might be fun games, but if you have a real problem, you had better look to logic and science for solutions.

It is easy for non-believers to understand the damage that religion does. It is easy for non-believers to think they battle against ignorance and stupidity. Rather than disputing religionists’ doctrines, sloppy logic and clamped-jaw declarations of faith, perhaps it would be more helpful to consider the biological imperative of dominance hierarchies.

Whenever the subject of enlightenment comes up, I remember being eight years old with the taste of rubbing alcohol on my tongue.. . and realizing that crawling on my knees talking to air was not a solution to problems. This didn’t take a great deal of intelligence - but just a child’s size dose of common sense.

Nancy Sherer