Can you be smart and religious?

Before I’m called a tool of the Devil, let me just say first of all that I think this question is absurd. Intelligence and belief have nothing to do with one another despite the fact that there have been a number of studies indicating some correlation.

An article from CNN says smarter people tend to be less religious and more liberal. A blogger at Psychology Today reminds us, however, that “correlation does not establish causation.”

You can be religious and intelligent at the same time. You just can’t be anti-intellectual and intellectual at the same time–not without some serious psychological issues.

By intellectual, in this case, what I mean is someone who engages in a process of free inquiry or someone who applies a critical thinking process to ideas, information, beliefs, and values. Plenty of people are religious intellectuals. Plenty of other people are religious anti-intellectuals. And plenty of other people yet are anti-religious intellectuals.

What the heck? Let’s take it one step further and include anti-religious anti-intellectuals in the mix.

More intellectual people do tend to be less religious, but this is a correlation, not a causation. I bring this up mainly to say that debating any issue within a religious context–as I have been doing this week with the issue of gay rights–leads to a crisis of audience. If you ask a question–as I did with “Can you be Christian and gay?“–that involves religious inquiry into a social issue, you can expect that your audience might include people at varying extremes of the religious/anti-religious/intellectual/anti-intellectual spectrum.

Some will just think, “Why care what the Bible says?” Others will think, “How could you question what the Bible says?” You’ll be stigmatized on the one hand and demonized on the other. In other words, there’s really kind of an ick factor to writing about religious/social topics to mixed audiences. I should probably quit now in self-defense, but I’m not going to.

Someone on Twitter reminded me this morning that Gustave Flaubert said, “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” Thus, if I write for no one else, I write for myself. I write not to preach my beliefs to others but to learn what they are for myself.

In that spirit, I don’t care about the question, “Can you be smart and religious?” It’s just my lead-in to what I want to say.

When I graduated from high school, a preacher in the church I grew up in told me to be careful not to pick up ideas at the university. I thought the warning was absurdly anti-intellectual. Yet I find its equal and opposite anti-religious stance of being careful not to pick up beliefs to be no less absurd. Neither are attitudes that help me live my life or help me make more moral choices along the way.

So I don’t care about that question, but what I do care about is the next question this brings me to: “Can you be anti-intellectual and ethical in a constantly changing world?”

Anti-intellectualism is lack of inquiry, resistance to and resentment of a critical questioning of your own beliefs. Ethics are systems of determining right and wrong. The combination of technological innovation, globalization, and scientific discovery means the world is in a constant state of flux. Thus, we make choices each day that require ethics that did not exist the day before. Religions might give us moral codes handed down from thousands of years ago, but our ethics have to live in the same world we live in.

We can and do apply religious belief to ethical choices, but we still have to develop an ethics apart from those beliefs. For example, if I say “It’s unethical to post pictures of strangers online only to make fun of them,” my religion did not teach me that. There’s nothing in the Bible about photographs, unflattering or otherwise, and the question of social sharing of photographs didn’t really become a concern until the past five to ten years. I had to apply a combination of social codes of fair play and a personal sense of empathy to determine that I shouldn’t put anything and everything my camera happens to capture online. My religion can teach me empathy and compassion, but it can’t teach me the details of every ethical choice I make. I have to think each one through as it comes up.

That’s an easy one. What about the tougher ones? What about the ethical issues that come up in 21st century life that appear contradictory to religious beliefs? What about the issue of gay marriage? What about the issue of the bullying of gay children?

We really didn’t have any concept of gay marriage until the 20th century, and we didn’t have biological or genetic sciences to define homosexuality as an orientation people are born with until the 20th century either. This shift from discussing the issue as a matter of committed relationships as opposed to illicit sexual encounters–along with the shift of discussing homosexuality as an orientation as opposed to a behavior–does change everything.

We might still disagree. We might still come to different conclusions. We might still apply religious beliefs to the question from different perspectives, but the fact remains that our knowledge of genetics in this century has changed the nature of the debate for us.

This is why I say you can be anti-intellectual and religious, and you can be intellectual and religious, but I’m not sure you can be anti-intellectual and ethical. Religions can hold us to traditions and traditional values, but ethics have to develop with the times or break apart. That doesn’t mean you have to be smart to be good. It just means you can’t hold new information and ideas in abject contempt and still maintain a functioning ethics.

Just a random thought…

Besides, how strong is faith anyway if it can’t hold up to critical inquiry? That’s what I thought when I was told to be careful about picking up ideas. If ideas are all it takes to destroy faith, there isn’t much to the faith in the first place, is there? If you are teaching your kids something that can’t sustain them when they go out into the world, it’s probably way past time to critically examine your beliefs.

What was it the man said about the unexamined life?

1 thought on “Can you be smart and religious?”

  • Bravo, Sharon! This gets to the heart of some ideas I’ve been kicking around for some time now. Here in small-town Oklahoma, I meet a lot of people who are anti-intellectual and religious, and a few smart-alecks who are intellectual and anti-religious. What I don’t encounter often enough is humility, humor, and open minds. Thanks then for this!

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