Religion as Elementary Error, by LESLIE JONES

Vermeer, Allegory of the Catholic Faith, Metropolitan Museum of Art, credit Wikipedia

Religion as Elementary Error 

 by Leslie Jones

In a persuasive passage in Religion and Intelligence, anthropologist Dr Edward Dutton considers the category question[i]. He cites T. Rees’s definition of science, to wit, “thoughtful, sincere research”. As Dutton points out, this definition is so vague and capacious that research done prior to writing a novel could be characterised as a scientific activity, if done honestly.

Ironically, a similar criticism can be made of Dutton’s definition of religion. In chapter two entitled “Defining Science and Religion”, he endorses Pascal Boyer’s definition of the latter (in his book Religion Explained), as “a series of phenomena in human-thought generally involving logical or category contradictions…” (page 25). So broad is this definition that it allows Dutton to accommodate Marxism, Nazism and nationalism (and even certain conspiracy theories) within the category of religion or more precisely within what he calls “replacement religion”.

In other words, Dr Dutton conflates religion, hitherto almost always thought to be concerned with “explicit belief in a non-material existence and especially in gods” (as the author concedes on page 22), with ideology or belief per se[ii]. As an atheist or agnostic, he simply cannot accept that religion corresponds to anything real or true. Ultimately, for Dutton, religion constitutes faulty thinking or as Freud suggested in The Future of an Illusion, wishful thinking contingent on the precarious and painful nature of human existence. Anyone with a degree could debunk the arguments for the existence of God, in Dutton’s judgement.

Note also that although as Dutton observes, Marxists have at times exhibited something akin to religious fervour, his suggestion that class struggle and the dialectic represent “a kind of fate; [or] a force behind the universe” is hardly convincing[iii]. Qua ideas, Marxism, unlike Christianity, is eminently rational, a product of the Enlightenment. And a rational religion is an oxymoron.

The thrust of Dutton’s new book is that “believing in God is associated with foolishness and so, implicitly, with low intelligence…” (page1). Put less provocatively, he shows that intelligence is negatively associated with religiousness. Here, the evidence is admittedly overwhelming. According to a 2010 study by Lee and Bullivant, 57% of Oxford University students were atheist or agnostic compared to about 5% of the British population. As we ascend the academic hierarchy, the inverse correlation becomes even more marked. At Bath University, a 2012 survey found that the most intelligent group, PhD researchers, were the least religious. Likewise, Larsen and Witham noted in 1998 that 40% of 1000 top US scientists disbelieved in God compared to 7% of the general population. And Beit-Hallahami and B. & M. Argyle reported in “The Study of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience” (1997) that out of 700 Nobel Prize winning scientists, only one believed in God! On a personal note, the late Professor Arthur Jensen (who should himself have won a Nobel Prize) had “no more time for scientology than for a flat earth” – ditto for the rest of religion, although he greatly admired Gandhi (personal communication).

Dr Dutton was commissioned to write his book by Richard Lynn, the President of the Ulster Institute for Social Research. In Dysgenics (1996), Professor Lynn claimed that underlying (genotypic) intelligence has been declining because people with higher IQ have long been having fewer children. But this decline has hitherto been hidden in his judgement by the so called Flynn Effect i.e. the secular increase in intelligence as indicated by rising test scores. Lynn attributes the Flynn Effect, which he considers genuine, to increases in living standards leading to an improvement in nutrition. He (Lynn) expects that once the impact of this environmental effect is exhausted, phenotypic intelligence too will inevitably begin to decline.

Dutton, who roundly endorses Lynn’s take on the Flynn Effect, detects signs that levels of intelligence are beginning to fall in the UK, as evidenced by grade inflation, declining standards in higher education and the growth of an underclass with scant respect for law and order or for democracy[iv]. In chapter 14 of Religion and Intelligence, he anticipates that as cognitive ability continues to deteriorate, religion will make a comeback in the West, given the inverse correlation between IQ and religiousness. As this reviewer once remarked, psychometrics is now the dismal science[v].

Religion is the field in which some of the greatest pioneers of sociology forged their reputations. Although this book may not be the last word on the putative relationship between religion and intelligence, Dr Dutton is to be commended both for his extensive reading and for his temerity.

Religion and Intelligence: An Evolutionary Analysis, Edward Dutton, Ulster Institute for Social Research, 2014, London, 437 pp, £20


Leslie Jones, July 2014

Dr Leslie Jones is the Deputy Editor of QR


[i] The analysis of categories is a branch of ontology/philosophy

[ii] Note however that elsewhere, somewhat inconsistently, Dutton defines religion as belief in “controlling Gods or spirits and a spiritual realm”. See Dutton and Lynn, “Intellectual and Religious and Political Differences Among Members of the US Academic Elite”, Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, vol 10, (2014), article 1, at p 4

[iii] Dutton thinks that in prehistory, humans were evolved to over-detect agency

[iv] As A R Jensen points out in The g Factor, intelligence is a major node in what he calls the g nexus, a “complex correlational network”

[v] See The Galton Institute Newsletter, June 1999, review of The g Factor (1998) by Leslie Jones

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4 Responses to Religion as Elementary Error, by LESLIE JONES

  1. Fritz says:

    Makes little sense since, as Woodley and Dutton themselves acknowledge, intelligence was higher in the past — and there are no geniuses today anymore — but also more religious.

  2. Fritz says:

    Makes little sense since, as Woodley and Dutton themselves acknowledge, intelligence was higher in the past — and there are no geniuses today anymore — but Europe was also more religious.

  3. David Ashton says:

    Precise definitions must precede rational and factual analysis of evidence.

  4. Brian S. Rockford says:

    Some highly intelligent people have been “religious” and others not so. “It all depends…” (Joad).
    Some of us suddenly wonder why anything exists at all; Coleridge, Heidegger and Colin Wilson had this experience,. But the we wonder why this world is so full of pain and beauty in its apparent ascent of reproductive life. Do we have “free will” to improve it?
    Is “God” really “Love”?
    Are the sadists who torture victims in the most atrocious ways themselves tortured for ever after death?
    The curious thing is that the uncreated cosmos has “blindly” evolved brains who wonder why it exists.
    “Religions evolved to reinforce a sense of community cohesion important to our wellbeing and survival…. Big religions are so susceptible to throwing up small sects, around a charismatic leader whose wayward beliefs the hierarchy desperately tries to contain…. The same cognitive abilities that give us religion also allows to ask why the world has to be the way it is (giving us science) and to imagine entirely fictional worlds (giving us literature).” – Emeritus Professor Robin Dunbar, author of “How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures”, The Guardian Culture, 26.03.22.

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