A new study, published last month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by a group of Harvard psychologists, got me thinking for the zillionth time about how much I have come to detest the “faith vs. reason” debate.
In this most recent iteration, scientists set out to discover how people who believe in God think differently from those who don’t. So they posed to 882 people — both believers and nonbelievers — a bunch of tricky math problems. (For example: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?)
The people who got the answers wrong were likelier to believe in God. They used intuition to try to solve the problems. Those who got the answers right were likelier not to. They used reason.
Immediately, the faith-reason debate erupted again — this time framed narrowly and childishly as: Believers Are Stupid Because They Failed a Math Test. According to this way of thinking, evident wherever the chattering classes gather, reasonable people are smart, and smart people are atheists. By this same logic, unreasonable people (those who rely disproportionately on intuition) are stupid, and stupid people believe in God. “People who don’t think, get [stuff] wrong, tend to believe in God,” wrote Matt Taibbi of the Harvard study on his blog in Rolling Stone.
But equating belief in God with intellectual inferiority is ludicrous. A look around at your own friends and acquaintances reveals the flaw in this generalization. Your Aunt Mary, who continues to go to Mass each Sunday, can run intellectual circles around your Uncle Henry, who abandoned God after his confirmation.
Even Sam Harris, the atheist and neuroscientist who ushered in this era of faith vs. reason debates with his 2004 book “The End of Faith,” sees the danger in confining believers and unbelievers to narrow categories. “Obviously, there are very smart people who believe in God,” says Harris, “and very stupid people who don’t believe in God.” He adds, however, that research shows atheists to be more intelligent.
This should go without saying: It’s dumb to dismiss religious believers as dumb. Forget Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, who is the most-cited illustration of a devoted Christian who is also a brilliant and well-regarded scientist. The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a political scientist at Harvard, is a Catholic priest and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant.” When Isaac Bashevis Singer accepted the Nobel Prize in literature in 1978, he wrote this: “There must be a way for man to attain all possible pleasures . . . and still serve God — a God who speaks in deeds, not in words, and whose vocabulary is the Cosmos.”
What’s really wrong with the Harvard study is that it appears to hold reason over intuition as a superior way of thinking about the world — and, thus, atheism over belief. (The authors say they aren’t making value judgments.) And the atheists who argue so vociferously for their own intellectual superiority make the same mistake.
Reason is one way of measuring the world — an excellent and crucial way, to be sure. But intuition is also part of intelligence, as are hunches and feelings. The value of these more instinctive approaches to human experience has been lost in the relentless, rationalistic efforts to prove who’s stupid and who’s smart. Thus, the ephemeral mysteries of existence are reduced to equations on a board in an AP math class. (The answer to the math question above, by the way, is five cents.)
The religious impulse may well be rooted in intuition. But what’s wrong with that?
Among believers, “there’s an appreciation of the mystery of it all that can lead to some very profound philosophical thinking,” says Robert Wright, the author of “The Evolution of God.” The thing rationality most needs to be liberated from is not intuition, Wright adds, but “subtle cognitive biases that undergird tribalism, and hatred, and prejudice.”
Faith and reason can live happily together: It’s narrow-mindedness, by the faithful as well as by atheists, that leads to stupid thinking.