Can You Be Honest, Intelligent, and Religious? May 5, 2010

Can You Be Honest, Intelligent, and Religious?

Here’s an interesting email from reader Kristen:

I was reading for a class on politics in the German Democratic Republic, and i found an interesting quote, which (roughly translated) means “one can have honesty, party loyalty, or intelligence, but only two of the three.”

Kristen wonders if that also applies to religion.

Would the following statement make sense?

One can be honest, support religious dogma, or be intelligent. But at most, two of the three.

Obviously, there are intelligent people who are religious. They have doctorate degrees and work in tough jobs. But these people also believe things like the idea that Jesus Christ inhabits consecrated communion wafers and that we get reincarnated when we die. That’s not being honest with reality. (When I say they’re not “honest,” I’m not calling them liars. Just pointing out that their beliefs don’t jibe with the real world.)

There are religious people who are honest. Just think of the people who genuinely believe what their holy books tell them and live by those tenets as best they can. The fundamentalists in various faiths are good examples of this. But it’s not hard to question their intelligence and ability to think critically.

There are honest and intelligent people out there. Not a lot. And I’m not claiming all non-religious people qualify. Most of us don’t.

Hell, maybe we don’t even need all three items on that list.

I would think most atheists would agree that you can’t be both honest and religious. One or the other, yes, but not both.

What do you think?

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  • Michael

    Can you be honest when making a friendly wager with a friend? Sure. Can you be honest with yourself about reality? No, probably not. Many different degrees of honesty. 2c

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Friendly Atheist:

    When I say they’re not “honest,” I’m not calling them liars. Just pointing out that their beliefs don’t jibe with the real world.

    But that’s such a non-standard definition of “honest” that it’s bound to confuse rather than clarify. Let’s get rid of that redefinition of “honest” and just ask if the following statement makes sense:

    One can have beliefs that jibe with reality, support religious dogma, or be intelligent. But at most, two of the three.

    Now if atheism is true (and I think it is), the above statement is trivially true because religious dogma doesn’t jibe with reality. So all one has really done here is find a confusing way of saying that religious dogma is untrue. Not that useful, IMHO.

  • Tamara

    Since I have come to grips with my atheism, I automatically assume someone is an atheist if they are intelligent when I first meet them. It is difficult to reconcile that someone who seems genuinely smart and sweet would allow themselves to be “conned” by the Church.

  • JJR

    This stems, I think, from a Bertrand Russell observation about Germany during the Nazi times…speaking about decency, intelligence, and being Nazi. One could be Nazi and decent but not intelligent. One could be Nazi and intelligent but not decent. Germans who were decent and intelligent were not Nazi.

    The GDR analogy is also probably apt.

    As to Hemant’s re-formulation, I don’t know…maybe; be interested to know what others think.

  • I don’t think honesty (or intelligence, for that matter) is an all- or- nothing quality. People can be honest sometimes and not others; honest in some situations but not others. And very relevantly to religion, people can be sincerely honest with others, and still deceive themselves. We all do it — it’s a fundamental part of how the human mind works, and isn’t limited to religious believers.

    Ditto intelligence. Maybe even more so. I think most of us are intelligent in some areas of our lives and profoundly stupid in others.

    So I don’t think it makes sense to say, “Hey! You’re being dishonest/ unintelligent about (X), therefore you’re not an honest or intelligent person!”

  • Citizen Z

    Yes they can be honest, religious, and intelligent. Just not about that one thing: religion. Everybody has a blind spot.

    Compare this to: honest, informed, creationist. Pick two. I agree with this but not the previous, simply because most people aren’t expected by society at large to really know all that much about religious dogma. It goes mostly unexamined. Whereas those who would call themselves “creationist” tend to claim to have studied the subject matter. Studied the subject to the extent that they are confident they’ve seen things the experts have missed.

    In many respects accepting religious dogma means accepting things with no evidence, while accepting creationism means deliberately rejecting facts.

  • I’m going to strongly disagree with this claim. First, I agree with Ramsey that this is an incredibly non-standard definition of honest. To expand on his point, under that logic, anyone who was a geocentrist was dishonest even if they lived in the time where the evidence supported that. This isn’t a helpful definition.

    For other definitions of honesty that are closer to the standard meaning, I think it is pretty clear that this is false.

  • I think there are a lot of intelligent, honest religious people.

    This is true even of much weirder beliefs than religion. Many cranks and conspiracy theorists, for instance, are very intelligent, and pour a lot of this intelligence into their theorizing. That’s sort of the saddest part about it, that so much intelligence can be wasted for lack of critical thinking.

  • So I’m a professor (I teach ethics as part of my dudies) and an atheist, and we have this discussion in my class. Here is a good way to think about it.

    A man who is color-blind will tell you, in all honesty, that the sky is not blue; it is not truthful, as objectively we know the sky to be blue. However, he is honest in his assessment because that is how he sees it. Honesty is an ethical trait; truth is one of observable fact.

    You can be ethical and honest without speaking truth.

    Is, of course, one way to think of this.

  • Yes.

    Can they also apply the same standard of reason and evidence to their religious beliefs as they do to most other things? No. Faith is a neat way of avoiding reason.

  • I agree with Greta Christina, based on personal experience and observation. I have a brother-in-law that qualifies as a genius when it comes to mathematics and engineering. He is also a creationist. He’s obviously not a stupid man and he’s about as honest a person as I’ve ever met when dealing with others, but not so honest with himself when confronting (or avoiding) personal issues. People just love to pigeonhole folks, but it doesn’t work consistently in the real world.

  • Trace

    …and handsome…and popular….

  • Charles Minus

    Of course you can be honest, intelligent,and religious. I was myself for many years. I’m not religious anymore. Like everything else, people grow and change.

  • littlejohn

    I’m sure there are intelligent, honest people who are religious, but they absolutely baffle me.
    How can you be intelligent and honestly believe obvious nonsense?
    I’ve never been religious, which may be a factor.
    But I’m often tempted to assume that a person who holds literal religious beliefs cannot, by definition, be intelligent.

  • I definitely think you can be religious, honest and intelligent. I would suggest that you question the honesty and/or intelligence of religion because you believe that God doesn’t exist.

    I on the other hand believe God does exist, and could from a similar perspective question the intelligence and/or honesty that atheists display when it is clearly a “ridiculous” proposition to be an atheist given the evidence for God. (Just my opinion, and although I wouldn’t normally say that, I just wanted to make the point about how we view things based on our world view).

  • Incidentally, if we’re going to try to discuss this we might want to, you know, have something resembling actually relevant data:

    There’s a lot of evidence for an inverse correlation between religiosity and intelligence. See for example, this study showing an inverse correlation between likelyhood to believe in Biblical literalism and IQ This study shows a similar sort of correlation with Wonderlic scores . This study shows that if we restrict ourselves to white male adolescents (thus not needing to control for as many variables) then there is a strong correlation between IQ and atheism: . This study shows a correlation between atheism and IQ across many different countries:

    There are of course, serious causation v. correlation issues here. But it is clear that there’s a robust correlation here.

    However, a statistical difference of this sort does not in any way shape or form mean that there is no one in the tail ends of the distribution. So this doesn’t say much about whether there are intelligent religious people or intelligent, honest religious people. As I said in my previous remark, I see no reason why not to think such people exist, and at least based on anecdotal evidence I’m pretty sure they exist (It might be a bit obnoxious to claim that I fit in the category when I was religious).

  • I think that it is certainly possible to be all three by altering your religious views so that they conform to reality. A Deist or one of those Christians who sees God as an instigator for creation rather than a micro-manager could anyway. Its the fundies and the creationists who insist that reality change to fit their dogma that are dishonest, lying religious people.

  • darth314

    Nobody can be honest all the time, to himself and to others. It is in our nature to lie to ourselves and others all the time, be it consciously or unconsciously. So that one should be skipped, in my opinion.
    Leaves the question if you can be religious and intelligent at the same time. I say probably.
    However, my impression is that few really smart people are religious, but maybe that is just the case in the part of the world where I live.

  • Nakor

    Assuming each relates only to the topic of religion (so honest means speaking the truth about your beliefs, intelligent means being smart about your beliefs, and supporting religious dogma means just that), then my knee-jerk reaction is no. But yet I know people who are intelligent outside of religion, and not with direct regard to it. I would say that this still applies to them (they are not intelligent with regard to religion) but it made me think of the possibility of someone who has not yet been exposed to the idea that religion could be wrong. It’s entirely possible for an intelligent person to have a fact wrong if nobody has pointed out that possibility.

    If, in a mathematical proof, I have made a mistake, it doesn’t mean that I am unintelligent, it means I have made a mistake. However, if after being exposed to the existence of that mistake I do not correct it because I still, incorrectly, am convinced I am right, then I have shown that lack of intelligence. Ergo, it is possible for someone who is honestly (not wilfully) ignorant of the very possibility of atheism to be intelligent, honest, and support religious dogma.

    One last consideration. In many cases can we consider religious dogma in an intelligent person to be not a case of a lack of intelligence with regard to religion, but rather a mental block created by brainwashing during childhood? Iffy, but feasible enough to consider before discarding, I think.

  • I agree with Ramsey that you’re redefining honesty to basically conincide with “what’s true”. In which case, it depends whether atheists or theists are right. I don’t know (but if pressed I’d go with atheists).

    The original meaning is more interesting (applief to either religious belief or party loyalty).

    I’ve just started Luke Muehlhauser’s Truth-Seeker Challenge (the abridged version), where you read the best philosophical arguments for and against theism (ie, not the new atheists such as Dawkins or the popular apologists like Strobel). We’ll see how that plays out. I suspect the theists will have blind spots in their reasoning, but then maybe so will the atheists. I’ll let you know.

  • Randy

    I have many friends and relatives who are devout Christians. Many of them are very intelligent. They are all honest people. I have observed two things. First, i notice that a lot of people, such as my father seem to “comparmentalize” their religous beliefs. My father is an intelligent man who taught me a lot about critical thinking, yet he is a devout Catholic, who believes in Mary’s perpetual virginity, transsubstantiation and the like. He, like most other religionists, can point out absurdities in other religions-i.e. the absurdity of the Mormon’s “Magic underwear”, but he lacks the objectivity to see the absurdity of his beliefs concerning his own religion.
    Also, many extremely intelligent people are able to believe things for which there is no evidence, or things for which there is evidence to the contrary. A great example for this was provided by P.Z. Myers, concerning climate change denialists. He points out that George F. Will, is one of the most vocal climate change denialists, yet he is very well educated, and very intelligent, indeed brilliant. Myers asserts that the reason that Will is able to rationalize against the prevailing scientific evidence regarding climate change, is because of the fact that he is so intelligent. According to Myers, only an intelligent person could invent such convoluted rationalizations.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Chiming in with general agreement with the comments above. You can be intelligent and honest in general, and still hold specific positions that don’t make sense, or buy into specific arguments that are poor. If your standard of intelligence is that a person should never buy into a bad argument, pretty much no one will meet your standard.

  • Claudia

    Of course there can be honest intelligent and religious people. Its called cognitive dissonance.

    Warning anecdote ahead!

    I knew a guy, smart guy, who was Christian. Not a literalist, but certainly a believer in Jesus and the whole thing. He saw Islam as being founded by a patently mortal warlord and full of contradictions. Then he got himself a Muslim girlfriend and started studying Islam. He converted to Islam and when he told me he explained that he could see now how little sense Christianity made; why would god send himself down in the form of his son that was actually him to sacfrifice himself to himself so he could forgive everyone?

    I couldn’t help but laugh. Now that he didn’t believe in the Christian god all the blatant flaws of Christianity were laid bare, while the flaws of Islam were suddenly veiled (ejem). Good, honest, intelligent people can hold totally incoherent ideas in their heads and keep them neatly segregated from every other aspect of their lives. Even Bible thumpers mostly do this, because if they didn’t they’d be unable to function in the world.

  • I suppose another, more specific, interesting question is, “Can you be honest and intelligent when exploring religious questions and still hold religious beliefs?”

    I don’t know. Even if no gods exist, we have to acknowledge that well-applied reason doesn’t guarantee the right answer. So I suspect that the answer is yes, you can be all three at the same time.

    But then there’s the stochastic version of the question: do those three often coincide? Or is it only rarely that individuals who are honest and intelligent in their probing of religious questions remain believers?

    Given the predominance of atheism among philosophers and natural scientists, I think that’s the answer: you can be all three, but it’s much easier to set aside one or another of them

  • brent

    I used to not think so but then I met my parents in law.

  • David

    “Religious” is as precise a term as “atheist” is–in other words, not very.

    If by “religious” you mean “accepting ‘obvious nonsense’ as truth” (as littlejohn describes it above), then of course not. To recognize a statement as nonsense and yet allow it to define one’s actions in the world is not intelligent behavior.

    But if by “religious” you mean “acknowledging that life contains mystery that is beyond the scope of one’s current comprehension,” then it seems to me that religion is the only appropriate response to intelligent observation. What would be foolish would be for a finite being to claim infinite knowledge.

  • plutosdad

    The original quote sounds like honesty with other people, but your post sounds like “honest with themselves” or “intellectually honest”.

    I think if we confine ourselves to evangelical christianity then no.

    But what about Thomas Aquinas? He reserved himself from making factual statements about the world based on faith, indeed he argued we shouldn’t do it. (I have no idea why American Christianity threw out all his ideas). He thought god was outside of nature and therefore “unknowable”.

    The truth is there is a tradition in christianity of them not being so fundamentalist and fearful of science. But I find the average christian doesn’t really believe a lot of that stuff. I think a lot of us just have bad experiences with the wrong sort of christian.

    Also, let us not forget Kuhn’s whole point: scientists are human with the same frailties as religious folk. They may cling to a cherished idea and refuse to believe the evidence in front of them.

    Being honest with yourself is hard work for all of us.

  • RJ

    I have to say, I was told to come view this blog by an atheist friend, and within seconds, I have been accused of being either dishonest, or lacking intelligence, seeing as I’m religious. But I’ll set that aside for now.

    I understand your claim that religious people are either “not being honest with reality” or unable to “think critically”, but I would like the opportunity to refute it. I believe that without religion, without God, any attempts to explain the origins of life and the world that I observe around me will only result in infinite regress. With that knowledge in mind, I would hardly call my decision to believe in God a result of either dishonesty or primal stupidity.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with a man named Daniel Tammet, but he once posited that there are five scenarios which, if ever occured, would cause him to abandon his faith. These are essentially five scenarios that would “prove atheism”.

    Like Daniel Tammet, I have thoroughly assessed my faith, and I know exactly what it would take for me to abandon it. Believe me when I say that my faith is not completely blind. Perhaps you can be bought over by atheism at a lower price than I can. What it takes for me to cross over is more what it took you, I suppose. And my intelligence and/or honesty has nothing to do with that. I’m just waiting for atheism to prove itself, if it ever will.

    At any rate, this is just some input from your regular dishonest, unintelligent, religious fellow. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find clarity and truth a few years from now and join you all in atheist euphoria.

  • Shannon

    I agree with what J.J. said. You’re not using the agreed upon definition of “honest”.

    With the real meaning of the word, yes, certainly, a person can be honest and religious.

    With your definition of honest (which seems to be more like “correct”) then we’re all dishonest at one point or another. Show me an atheist who has never been wrong about something.

  • Aaron

    My brothers are undeniably intelligent and honest, and both young earth creationists. I do not think this triangular structure works. Their take on the scientific theories that refute their beliefs is “Your theories are just wrong because they fail the most basic test, conformity with scripture. Why can’t you see that simple fact?”
    Any arguement simply causes frustration because “It must simply be wrong.”
    Some other structure might work. Perhaps rational + intelligent + fundamentalist?
    But nobody is completely rational.

  • Killer Bee

    In the absence of relevant information or a lack of interest in seeking alternative ideas, all the logic and critical thinking in the world will not cause you to change your ideology because you’ll always be working with the same starting premises.

    The rationalizations I’ve heard for the discrepancies between real life and religion are logically possible. Mind-numbing, but theoretically possible.
    I don’t know how anyone ever loses their religion. Logic is easy but it’s a rare individual who bothers to do the hard work of checking the truthfulness of his starting assumptions. And why bother if you’re happy with the prepackaged answers to the big questions that you’ve already got? Cognitive capacity plays a role here, too.

    It may be a better question to ask whether an open mind is compatible with a dogmatic mindset, bearing in mind that dogma isn’t limited to religion. The answer to that question is obvious.

  • TychaBrahe

    I am of reasonable intelligence. I do not have any religious beliefs, but I have an unfounded scientific conviction. Despite all that has been learned about the Hubble constant, I prefer to believe that the Universe is closed. The idea that the Universe will expand indefinitely, that the second generation stars will go nova and conditions will not permit the formation of new stars from their remains, so that eventually all light will go out and all life will cease and the Universe will be devoid of purpose offends me. If the Universe were closed, its expansion could be unwound, and perhaps in the “Big Crunch” at the end of the Universe, a new Universe could be born.

    I am intelligent to know my ideas are most likely wrong. I am honest enough to admit that I am deluding myself. But since whatever will happen will happen long after I’m around to observe it, I feel comfortable keeping my delusion.

  • Aj


    I believe that without religion, without God, any attempts to explain the origins of life and the world that I observe around me will only result in infinite regress. With that knowledge in mind, I would hardly call my decision to believe in God a result of either dishonesty or primal stupidity.

    It’s turtles all the way down. Oh wait, only gods are allowed to terminate an infinite regress, not anything that’s logically possible. I guess it depends whether you consider wishthinking dishonesty or not.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with a man named Daniel Tammet, but he once posited that there are five scenarios which, if ever occured, would cause him to abandon his faith. These are essentially five scenarios that would “prove atheism”.

    Not intelligent enough to understand the anthropic principle? Not humble enough to admit ignorance of god, multiverses, or an eternal universe, has to pick one through wishthinking? Not educated enough to know that suggesting a literal “beginning” to the Big Bang is incoherent?

  • muggle

    “I would think most atheists would agree that you can’t be both honest and religious.” I beg to differ and given that I’m agreeing with the bulk of comments above, I think you’ve been proven wrong in this assumption.

    You can be honest, intelligent and mistaken. On the issue of religion — or more accurately god’s existence — my theistic friends think I am; I think they are.

    Oh, and Greta’s right yet again. (Now that woman is smart!) I am honest to a fault. Ask anybody. I have pissed almost everyone off at one time or another with my scrupulous honesty. Yet, I know I lie to myself (I certainly overlook how annoying and untactful my scrupulous honesty can be) and/or am mistaken and/or sometimes bury something deep so I can deal instead of dissolving into something wrapped in a white jacket with strapped arms in a padded cell.

    We humans simply cannot deal with reality all the time. If we could, the arts would not be so damned popular. Neither would sports. Or drugs… I think you get my point.

  • gayathomemom

    Honesty, intelligence and religiosity are relative, so to say they cannot mutually co-exist in one person is as easy to refute as it is to prove.

    In my opinion, however, the idea that there is a supreme being that cares who I sleep with, what I eat and what I do on Sunday is absurd! In addition, anyone who does believe that, I feel I cannot trust to be truthful in their friendship with me as a gay person.

    Oh, and I would add religion to the things muggle says we use to not deal with reality:

    “We humans simply cannot deal with reality all the time. If we could, the arts would not be so damned popular. Neither would sports. Or drugs… I think you get my point.”

  • Jake

    In response to littlejohn’s question:
    > How can you be intelligent and honestly believe obvious nonsense?

    When I was an (IMHO) honest, intelligent, christian, I was under the impression that there was good evidence and there were good arguments “out there”. While I hadn’t checked these out personally, I trusted the intelligence, honesty, and experience of the church leaders who instructed me. I was mistaken in that trust.

    There are many areas of science that I think I understand the conclusions, but haven’t personally worked through the evidence and derivations. So I trust the experts, at least to some extent.

    So I think there is a sense in which many religious people can “justify” believing what they do. I also think it is a mistake to assume bad faith. Religions that have survived have done so because they are well adapted to manipulate, preseve, propagate and defend their complex of beliefs.

  • aerie

    This post makes me think of Dr. Francis Collins, elected by Pres.O as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Brilliant geneticist AND self-professed evangelical Christian. I certainly don’t doubt the man’s honesty.

    I still can’t wrap my mind all the way around it.

  • charles

    religious beliefs cannot be justified

  • simone

    I have a very good friend who is a very intellectual person. In her spare time, she reads about linguistics, enlightenment philosophy, and political theory. She was a huge supporter of Barack Obama in the 2008 election, and she is very involved with the LGBT community and believes wholeheartedly in gay rights.

    However, two or three years ago she experienced a kind of religious conversion. She had been raised with little to no spirituality whatsoever, and “found god” in spite of her parents’ attempts to instill her with rationality. To this day, she is a deeply devout (albeit “closeted”) Christian, though you would never know it by looking at her or even talking to her.

    To me, this makes sense (knowing her) because she is optimistic to a fault, and always believes that things will work out, something which would theoretically only be augmented by the presence of a benevolent “god figure” who always looks out for you. She is also incredibly stubborn, and cannot be disavowed of her new beliefs. She also has a habit of ignoring the bits and pieces of Christianity which she doesn’t like, which may count as being dishonest.

    I agree with those who have said that being intelligent, religious, and honest is possible because people compartmentalize, and are often very hesitant to apply their advanced abilities to think critically to their closely-held religious beliefs.

  • yes, they can. What about people who have experience over-natural event and then turn into God?? intelligence is not gone, and to be honest it is an individual subject.

    I compare it like a scientific have an hypotesis, and seems no sense and the scientific is convinced is gonna work, but at the end it doesnt work. That scientific is not less intelligent, is just a personal relation of what you think is true. I’m Christian btw.

  • SleeperWillWake

    I can’t help but roll my eyes when I see articles like these. I for one believe that someone’s religious beliefs or lack there of has no effect on person education and/or intelligence. Despite what some would like to believe. There is actually evidence that suggest that more religious attendence leads to higher education.

    “Sociologist Jennifer Glanville has published studies suggesting that church attendance for children correlates with higher GPAs as teenagers. The correlations is a slightly better predictor than both parents having college degrees. Glanville also explains that, “Surprisingly, the importance of religion to teens had very little impact on their educational outcomes… That suggests that the act of attending church — the structure and the social aspects associated with it — could be more important to educational outcomes than the actual religion.” Glanville believes that students who go to church are more likely to have other things that lead to better GPAs, regardless of religious views, including more pro-active adults in their lives and more contact with peers who have similar values.”

    But there is also evidence that suggest that  intuitive thinking increases belief in God (or religion) while reflective thinking decreases it. However, intuitive thinking isn’t always irrational, invalid, or unjustified. But either way it advocates the idea that religious beliefs has more to do with behavior and thinking patterns than intelligence. Someone who is more reflective may not be the most intelligence. But someone more intutive could be more intelligent.

    I don’t think there will ever be clear answer. Studies like these have be done for years and have resulted in evidence that conflicted with previous studies. But I think this is more of matter of common sense. Since both intelligent theists and atheists exist we shouldn’t assume that someone beliefs makes them more likely to be intelligent than the other.

  • Atheist

    I think the answer is, you can believe in god, as he cannot really be disproved. However not in the bible which has be re-written by so many mortal men to meet their own needs and many century’s after the given facts (church of England was created by Henry the 8th) god can be all and anything, written religion is a man made cult to follow. That said who can argue if it makes one happy and a better person?

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