Theology and Science 

Volume 18, 2020 – Issue 2

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Religious Belief Makes Me Stupid

Pages 167-170 | Published online: 13 May 2020

Atheists like to tell themselves that they’re smarter than the stupid religious people next door. “On average, people who are nonbelievers are slightly more intelligent than believers,” writes Stuart Vyse in the Skeptical Inquirer.Footnote 1

Sadly, I’m the one who lives next door with the stupid religious family. Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior. I go to church on Sunday. Sometimes other days of the week too. I love my neighbor. I’m kind to animals. I pray for world peace. I give food to the homeless and support social justice. And, most importantly, I recycle.

Now, does being religious make me stupid? Or, do I choose to be religious because I’m already stupid? If I were smarter, maybe I could answer that question.

They say that it can be scientifically demonstrated that atheists are smarter. Here are the conclusions drawn from a meta-analysis of multiple empirical studies.

This meta-analysis revealed an overall negative correlation (r) of −.18, 95% CI [−.21, −.16]. Although this correlation is modest, self-identified atheists (N = 133) scored 18.7% higher than religiously affiliated individuals (N = 597) on a composite measure of analytic thinking administered across our four new studies (d = .72). Our results indicate that the association between analytic thinking and religious disbelief is not caused by a simple order effect. There is good evidence that atheists and agnostics are more reflective than religious believers.Footnote 2

See, that proves it! We religious folk are dumber! Well, I sorta think that proves it. I’m not smart enough to tell for sure. Those scientists didn’t ask me to participate in that study. Or, if they did, maybe I just forgot. 

According to dual process theory, say these clever scientists, there are two distinct types of cognitive processes: intuitive and reflective. Religious people rely on their intuition, allegedly. But those smart atheists rely on reflection and analytical reasoning. “There is now a good deal of evidence that analytic thinking disposition (“analytic cognitive style”) is negatively associated with religious belief. For example, religious believers perform worse than non-believers on cognitive tests.”Footnote 3 To prove this, these bright scientists used the Bat-and-Ball problem from the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT).

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The majority of participants respond “10 cents” to this question (e.g. 64.9%). This is the response that typically comes to mind upon an initial read of the problem, but it is incorrect. If the ball is $0.10, then the bat must be $1.10 and in total they would be $1.20. To recognize that the intuitive response is incorrect, the participant must be willing to stop and think analytically about the problem despite having what seems to be a plausible intuitive response. Performance on the CRT is therefore thought to index, at least to some degree, a willingness or propensity to engage Type 2/analytic processing … religious believers spend less time reasoning when given problems in a lab study, as would be expected if they are less willing to engage slow, deliberative reasoning processes.Footnote 4

That’s pretty decisive, right? When I, a religious believer, try to figure out how much that bat and baseball cost, I just meditate on my bobble head of Kris Davis and shout, “Go A’s!” 

Should Religion Go Extinct?

Is intelligence reproductively adaptive? Are those smart atheists more fit for survival? Should religion go extinct? Should those smart atheists help evolution along by eliminating us religious people?

That very important atheist at Oxford University, Richard Dawkins, is trying nicely to persuade us stupid people to give up our religious faith. “I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself,” he says.Footnote 5 I’m so happy Dr. Dawkins only warns us. I’m glad he doesn’t threaten us. Whew.

Atheists tell us that, because we religious people are stupid, we make war. This is confusing to me. I had thought that Jesus taught us to love God and love our neighbor. But, those atheists tell us that religious faith really leads to violence. Susan Blackmore says this: “The history of warfare is largely a history of people killing each other for religious reasons.”Footnote 6 If she’s an atheist and therefore smart, she must be right. Because Jesus taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9), then, to follow Jesus, I should join the atheists in eliminating religion so we can have world peace. Did I get that right?

Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are also very intelligent atheists. According to Dr. Hitchens, “[religion] wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.”Footnote 7 Dr. Hitchins assumes that “the attitude of religion to science is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.”Footnote 8 Even though Dr. Hitchins would like to see religion go extinct so we could enjoy world peace, he finds himself unable to be optimistic. “Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable.”Footnote 9 That’s sad. I feel sorry for disappointing Dr. Hitchens. Would it make him feel better if I were to commit suicide?

Dr. Sam Harris believes we can eradicate religion. He believes we should get rid of religion because “religious faith remains a perpetual source of human conflict.”Footnote 10 In order to bring global peace, we need to stamp out religion. Harris particularly wants to eliminate Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Islam is the worst, he says. Don’t think it is only the “extremists” who are a danger to society, warns Dr. Harris. Islam at its core is violent. “The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a fantasy … because most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith.Footnote 11 All of us who are religious are stupid; but Muslims are deranged in addition. This must be true, if a smart atheist says so.

Dr. Harris reads the holy book, the Qur’an. But, he complains, the Qur’an, thought to be literally the word of God, teaches devout Muslims to commit themselves to holy war against all non-Muslims. Harris cites one dangerous passage after another, such as, “The only true faith in God’s sight is Islam … . He that denies God’s revelations should know that swift is God’s reckoning” (Qur’an 3:19). The Qur’an and its concept of jihad or holy war are essential not just for suicide bombers, but for all devout Muslims. “On almost every page,” writes Dr. Harris, the Koran instructs observant Muslims to despise non-believers. On almost every page, it prepares the ground for religious conflict … Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”Footnote 12 According to Harris, this cult of death gets additional energy from teaching young men that, if they become a suicide bomber, they will go straight to paradise, avoid the judgment, and receive a reward of seventy virgins for their pleasure. What can we expect from a religious teaching such as this? “The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, subjugated, or killed.”Footnote 13

This frightens me. How should atheists defend themselves? First, according to that very smart Dr. Harris, we should teach religious people to become as rational as he is. We should teach our children to think critically, to evaluate religious claims on the basis of evidence. Once we have examined religious beliefs, they will be seen to be unfounded. We will emerge from our outmoded faith into the freedom of a truly liberal society. But, if teaching reflective reason to intuitive religious people fails to deliver world peace, then atheists should move toward a second form of self-defense.

I see a problem here. If we religious people are intuitive and stupid, then we will be unable to learn analytical reflection. We are incapable of being as rational as our atheist neighbors. So, atheists will have to resort to a second form of self-defense. What is that?

The second form of self-defense is pre-emptive nuclear war. Might pre-emptive self-defense be called for to eliminate religious people? Yes, says Dr. Harris. This threat might even call for a nuclear first strike against Muslims. “The only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.”Footnote 14

Now, that’s really smart. Having tried to obey Jesus and become a peacemaker, I’ve never figured out how to bring peace to our conflicted world. But, now I’ve learned from those rational atheists that the way to bring peace is through nuclear war. Wow! Through nuclear war we will make religion go extinct and only those intelligent atheists will survive in a peaceful world. Those atheists are really smart!

God’s Peaceful Kingdom

For a long time I have admired Seyyed Hossein Nasr. He seems so very intelligent as well as kind and wise and good. Dr. Nasr says that we cannot fully appreciate reality unless we see that everything good comes from God’s grace. “God is at once Mercy and Compassion, and it is by virtue of this Mercy that the whole universe is brought into being and all religions are revealed.”Footnote 15 As a stupid religious person, I’ve always thought this to be true.

I have another religious friend I have thought is pretty smart. That’s Antje Jackelén, the Archbishop of Sweden. Dr. Jackelén is smart in the same way Socrates was. She recognizes the difference between what she knows and what she doesn’t know, and this makes her smarter than those who mistakenly think they know everything. “God haunts the brain … . God is greater than my brain–and I also believe that God is greater than everybody’s brain. To speak with the words of the Bible, ‘In God we live and move and have our being’ [Acts 17].”Footnote 16

Maybe those very intelligent atheists can teach us to become more rational and more peaceful. If they can’t, then they can drop nuclear bombs on us. The world will then be at peace. We can thank God for that.


1 Stuart Vyse, “Are Atheists Sadder but Wiser?” Skeptical Inquirer 44, no. 2 (April 2020): 31–3, at 32.

2 Gordon Pennycook, Robert M. Ross, Derek J. Koehler, and Jonathan A. Fugelsang, “Atheists and Agnostics are More Reflective than Religious Believers: Four Empirical Studies and a Meta-Analysis,” Plos One, April 7, 2016,; Corrected version:

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), 306.

6 Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 199. Research scientists are showing an interest in the possible connection between religion and violence. One hypothesis is that “if violence is presented as the authoritative voice of God, it can increase the possibility of more violence.” “Scriptural Violence Can Foster Aggression,” Nature 446, no. 7132 (8 March 2007): 114–15. The question is whether religion is the “cause” of violence or if something else is the cause while religion exacerbates violence. New Religious Movements scholar Mark Juergensmeyer is cited saying, “Religion is not the problem; but it can make a secular problem worse.” Ibid.

7 Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York and Boston: Twelve, 2007), 4.

8 Ibid., 46–7.

9 Ibid., 12.

10 Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2004), 236.

11 Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 85, author’s italics.

12 Harris, The End of Faith, 123.

13 Ibid., 110.

14 Ibid., 129.

15 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “God,” in Islamic Spirituality, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2 Vols (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 1: 311–23, at 317.

16 Antje Jackelén, God is Greater: Theology for the World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2020), 157.