Some theists will use this line of defense when questioned about their beliefs: “Person X is very intelligent, and he believes in God. Who am I to say he’s wrong?” It’s a natural inclination for people to accept the views of people in authority. From a young age, we are conditioned to respond to authority. We learn that our parents know better than we do and that we should do what they say. When we enter school, we learn to listen to our teachers. Our society functions in large part because we rely on people in authority to be knowledgeable (1).
To an extent, this reliance on authority is necessary. After all, teachers and parents generally do know better than the children in their care. Law and order can only be maintained if citizens respect the authority of the police. However, the natural tendency to believe what we’re told can lead to intellectual laziness, with people not bothering to think critically about their lives and examine whether claims and ideas are actually true.
Experts are not always right. Even very smart people can be wrong. Likewise, smart people can be wrong about God. A person’s intelligence does not cause her to be right; an intelligent person who fails to recognize material evidence can still hold the wrong opinion.
Smart People Can Be Wrong
It’s a mistake to confuse intelligence with knowledge. Intelligence relates to the way one processes information, not necessarily what she knows or believes. This can lead to an individual making complex justifications to defend her beliefs, even when those beliefs are clearly false. For example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, physician and the author of the famous Sherlock Holmes stories, believed in fairies (1). As science historian Michael Shermer notes, “Smart people believe weird things because they are better at rationalizing their beliefs that they hold for non-smart reasons.”
The Appeal to Authority
An appeal to authority is a logical fallacy that usually takes the following form:
- Person A is an expert in Z.
- Person A said X about Z.
- Therefore, X must be true.
This is a fallacy because person A’s opinion or misinformed conclusion does not actually affect the truth, and experts are not always right (2). An expert’s opinion or interpretation is frequently closer to the truth than other people’s opinions, because she is well educated on a topic. That view, however, is not automatically correct simply because one is an expert about something, and being an expert does not make one’s opinions or conclusions automatically more valid. Experts can and often do make mistakes.
Simply stated, a fact isn’t true because someone said it was. Valid scientific findings are accepted as most likely true because they can be independently tested and validated. Scientific authority stretches only so far as the scientist’s ability to accurately report on the results of such testing. Therefore, accepting a claim only because an expert made it and ignoring evidence to support or refute the claim flies in the face of the scientific method.
Pointing out this logical fallacy should not be used to dismiss expert opinions or conclusions out of hand. It should, however, be kept in mind any time a claim’s veracity rests solely on the authority of the person making it. If an expert has no evidence to support her claim or if her claim cannot be reproduced and tested, her view is hardly more reliable than that of anybody else.
Atheism, Education and Intelligence
Belief is not merely a matter of intelligence. It’s an issue of what information a person has available and how she processes that information. Atheism often comes down to asking the right questions or spotting the problems in belief; a person who has not been exposed to those doubts or who has never had an occasion to question those beliefs might never consider atheism, regardless of her intelligence. Similarly, belief in a deity does not automatically make someone stupid.
To be sure, a number of highly intelligent people throughout history have believed in God. Yet some data seem to suggest a strong positive correlation between intelligence and atheism (3). The reasons for this are complex and tied in part to the socioeconomic trends and not necessarily a direct cause of higher intelligence. Nevertheless, it’s not difficult to imagine that many atheists arrived at their position through skepticism and critical thought, skills which do require some level of intelligence. Critically examining the claims of religions allows a person to see through them, recognizing the fallacies they contain. This might be why atheism is much more common among scientists as among non-scientists (4). Such data do not support or negate the existence of a deity. Yet they do refute arguments claiming the prevalence of theistic views among intellectuals as a way of supporting a belief in God.
Ultimately, the level of intelligence shown by believers and non-believers has little to do with the reality of God’s existence. If it did, then the existence of intelligent atheists would be equally as compelling as the claims of intelligent theists. Both views cannot be right. Without evidence, there is no reason to believe the claims of any individual, regardless of their expertise, intelligence or level of education.
- Cialdini, Robert B. "Authority." Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Rev. Ed. ; 1st ed. New York: Harper Business, 2006.
- Moosa, Tauriq. "The Dangers of Being Smart." Big Think. June 13, 2012. Accessed September 26, 2014.
- Bennett, Bo. "Appeal to Authority." In Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of over 300 Logical Fallacies. EBookIt.com, 2012.
- Lynn, Richard, John Harvey, and Helmuth Nyborg. "Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations." Intelligence 37, no. 1 (2009): 11-15.
- Masci, David. "Scientists and Belief." Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project. November 5, 2009. Accessed September 26, 2014.