Do Intelligent People Need Religion?

A new study led by University of Rochester psychologist Miron Zuckerman has, by some accounts, decisively proven that atheists are more intelligent than religious people.

Combining and standardizing the findings of 63 separate studies between 1928 and 2012, the meta-analysis finds a negative correlation between measures of “religiosity” and “intelligence,” and proposes that intelligent people have “less need” for religion because they are non-conformists who approach the world analytically rather than intuitively.

David Bentley Hart would disagree. In his latest book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, the Eastern Orthodox theologian argues, instead, that that “the absolutely convinced atheist” is not an uncompromising intellectual, but rather “someone who has failed to notice something very obvious.”

And while Zuckerman’s study is rigorously researched, it actually demonstrates Hart’s point: the study gets the details right, but glosses over what is most conspicuous.

Despite admitting the study does not account for “emotional intelligence” or “creative intelligence” the researchers persists in using the term “intelligent people” to describe only those people with higher analytical abilities. Even more questionably, it reduces religion to either a measurable level of belief in the supernatural or participation in religious ritual.

That the study’s logic is circular (if religion is intuitive and intelligence is analytical, how could they possibly correlate positively?) isn’t its main problem. The deeper issue is that it lacks the “conceptual grammar,” as Hart puts it, to interpret religious experience in the first place. While studies with narrow methodologies can yield interesting results, they obscure as much as they reveal about what it means to be an intellectually responsible religious person. In the end they tend to lapse into the same “tragic absence of curiosity” that plagues popular debates between atheism and theism in our era.

“One of the more insidious aspects of today’s public debates over belief and unbelief is that they are often sustained by the illusion that both sides are using the same words in the same way,” writes Hart. Indeed, his latest work is a simple plea for those who enter the debates to approach religion with a real awareness of what most of the major world faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism) actually mean when they use the word God: not a distant, supreme being, but the divine that is always present in all existence and all knowledge of the world. 

What religion offers, then, according to Hart, is not simply knowledge or analytic prowess, but wisdom, or “the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience; it is the ability to see again what most of us have forgotten how to see.”  

Religion reminds us that, “we labor to forget what is laid out before us in every moment,” and spend, “much of our lives wandering in dreams, in a deep but fitful sleep.” The Experience of God focuses on three mysteries that lie at the heart of every person’s experience of the world. These mysteries are summed up in the phrase, Satchitananda, or Being, Consciousness, Bliss—the Hindu name for the experience of God.

Earnest reflection upon reality, Hart says, will always leads us to an experience of wonder; we can’t help but be amazed, if we consider it carefully enough, that anything exists at all. This wonder doesn’t concern how one physical state arose out of another physical state through material causes, it’s the awareness that existence is a gift we receive in every instant.

But this awareness can be difficult to maintain: “having briefly awakened to a truth that precedes and exceeds the totality of discrete things, we may end up all the more oblivious to it for having tried to master it.” And because it’s not a problem to be solved or an ignorance to explain away, purely analytic intelligence may be powerless to receive it.

The most serious failure of a psychological analysis like the Zuckerman study is its reductive model of the mind. Whereas for Hart, our wonder shouldn’t stop at the fact of existence, but should propel us on to the even more wonderful truth that we are even aware of existence. The mind’s every interaction with the world, its ability to intend things outside itself, to synthesize perceptions into abstract concepts, and to reason, is also mysterious.

Even relying on the scientific method involves a measure of faith: “No scientist imagines that, at the probably unattainable end of the mind’s journey toward full understanding, reality will turn out to be essentially irrational.” 

Hart even goes so far as to argue that we experience “aesthetic desire” in “striving toward the absolute” when we undertake any quest for knowledge. We experience an ecstasy in the beauty and elegance of the what we discover that compels us to learn more: “What the mind seeks in attempting to discover the truth is a kind of delight, a kind of fulfillment that can supersede the momentary disappointments or frustrations that the search for truth brings.”

Religion, Hart says, has always linked this quest for truth with an inescapable longing for the divine.

How we could be so blind to a divine reality that is “inescapably present to us” is, for Hart, not so much an intellectual deficiency as a cultural one. He argues that our assumption that material is all that exists has become culturally inevitable now that we are so predisposed to “regard organic life as a kind of machinery, and to treat human nature as a kind of technology.” 

Hart isn’t out to defend religion on all fronts, but simply to remind us that, as he puts it:  “The human longing for the transcendent runs deep”—and that intelligence comes in many forms.