The Ethical Dilemma: Are Atheists Too Smart?

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Is There An IQ Test for Atheists?: One of the reasons I love Humanist Network News is that, unlike some other atheism-related publications I’ve seen, there are always some down-to-earth pieces I can relate to (and not just the comics!). Other publications seem pitched to a very esoteric, intellectual demographic that requires more effort than I care to expend. I tried attending one humanist meeting, and while some of it was terrific, the PowerPoint presentations on neuroethics and the glaciological impact of climate change rendered me unconscious. The other participants made me wonder if I’d accidentally stumbled into a Mensa meeting.

I’m neither genius nor slouch, but I feel like the world of religion targets people without education or critical-thinking skills, while atheism attracts just the opposite. What about the vast middle? I don’t even know what to call myself (atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker, etc.) other than the rather vacuous but perhaps accurate term, none.

—Too Cool for School

Dear Cool,

Did you know the Yiddish word for synagogue, shul, means school and rabbi means teacher? Most religions have at their foundations extremely opaque documents that laymen can’t understand, and there was a time when one of the most educated segments of society was the clergy, who were trained to explicate those documents. Even today many religions require their leaders to undertake years of dedicated study so they can tell their flocks (as in sheep) what their good books say and what it means, without mere laymen having to make any effort to analyze the tomes themselves.

And no matter how counter-intuitive it may seem, there are plenty of insightful, accomplished, intellectually disciplined people—even scientists–who are also very religious.

Nonetheless, your point is well taken: Most organized religions do their best to keep the masses at Mass by telling them what to think and do, rather than scaring them off with challenges to their mental faculties (other than regular washing of the brain). Most people who come to become “nones” do so because their logical minds reject religious dogma. Nones also tend to be people with enough confidence in their own ideas to break away from “truths” they are taught from birth and upheld by everyone around them. The subset of nones who become activists in their non-religiousness, as opposed to blithely ignoring the subject entirely, tilts toward those who are fascinated by things theoretical and who enjoy debating abstract and abstruse concepts.

As the ranks of the nones increase, however, so does the range as well as number of people comprising that expanding designation. In stark contrast to an organized religion (or a-religion), nones are all over the place—including people who believe in some sort of god (but not religion) at one extreme, those who are adamant that no god can possibly exist at the other extreme, and pretty much every possibility in between. As more people feel comfortable living without religion, there are more who aren’t particularly interested in convoluted conundrums and arcane arguments. Many simply want to protect their freedom of non-religion, or are just looking to socialize without a church social, marry without clergy, and raise a family without Sunday school or lessons on intelligent design.

In addition to the publications of the American Humanist Association (which also include The Humanist, featuring thoroughly entertaining articles such as “In Praise of Frivolity” by Greta Christina), take a look at those from other groups such as Freethought Today from Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Don’t believe only PhD’s need apply to non-believer schools of thought. Just keep trolling for groups, publications and sites that speak your language, and you’ll find a class of “nones sense” at a perfect level for you.

Do Atheists Have a Choice?: I’ve heard people say that LGBT can choose to be straight (and there are therapists claiming they can produce that transformation), but most people don’t agree, arguing “straight or gay, born that way.” People say the same thing about being religious vs. atheist—it’s a choice. Do people really decide whether and what to believe? If I could do that, maybe there’d be a lot more coins under my pillow.

—Sorry, Tooth Fairy!

Dear Tooth,

I don’t know how much scientific data is in yet regarding the religious question (there’s overwhelming evidence that LBGT is more hard-wired predisposition than elective, and is perhaps more elastic and complex than a simple either/or), but both of these “choices” seem to be more about how individuals opt to identify themselves—to themselves as well as to others—than a reflection of their true inclinations. When LGBT was universally met not only with stigma but also with discrimination and violence, people would not admit to it to others or themselves. The same is true with religious belief. If you expected to be shunned or executed for lack of belief, you probably wouldn’t acknowledge or even entertain that option if you could help it. Repression ruled.

Few people are born conscious of whether they are LGBT or atheist, especially if their milieu demands they be straight or pious. But as they grow up, they may start experiencing dissonance with the models they are attempting to emulate, and over time either deny those rumblings, or embrace them and come out—whether it’s as LGBT, atheist, or both. Belief certainly seems to feel natural and welcome to some, while others can’t embrace faith no matter how hard they or those around them try to get them into it.

The biggest difference may be that not everyone is LGBT (although increasingly, people are experimenting with things like bicuriosity). But if everyone got curious about their religious beliefs, they might all come to the logical conclusion that their faith is about as real as the Tooth Fairy, but not always as benign.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.