Why Aren’t More Intellectuals Believers?

Studies have shown that atheists tend to be smarter than Christians. Why?

“God’s alright when he isn’t making bears eat children, you know?”

I didn’t. But this was just one of the arguments that would be lobbed at me by my new atheist friend, Tyler.

Tyler used to believe in God. Though I didn’t know him at the time, his theology degree and sleeve of artfully ambiguous Christian tattoos suggest he took the whole thing pretty seriously, so when we began discussing his recent de-conversion, I paid attention.

We considered the aforementioned story from 2 Kings. Elisha curses a group of boys for calling him “baldy,” so the Lord sends bears to maul a few dozen kids. After debating how feasibly the story could be implemented in a Rogaine commercial, I conceded that it seemed a bit harsh.

Is this intellectual approach to Christianity a faith killer?

We talked about how a loving God could allow the immense suffering in the world, discussed Balaam and his talking donkey, and crunched some numbers on the six-day creation.

As Christians, it’s easy to view this approach of picking apart Scripture and doctrine as cynical and unhelpful. For many of us, our experiences with God are enough to cultivate genuine belief. For others, the thought of accepting something as true without being certain of it’s intellectual credibility seems absurd.

But is this intellectual approach to Christianity a faith killer?

The University of Rochester recently published a review of decades of research demonstrating that “religious people are less intelligent than non-believers.” A summation of 63 studies on the subject, the Rochester report cannot be dismissed by the religious community. We must recognize as an objective fact that people with higher IQs are turning to atheism.

Atheist author Richard Dawkins points out that, according to a survey of the National Academy of Scientists, only 7 percent of American scientists believe in a personal God.

So why aren’t more of our best and brightest minds believers?

It’s a complex question, but I have two theories. First, there is an incredible bias against theism within higher education. In 2009, Dr. Brent Slife published a study of this “pervasive, implicit bias,” and demonstrated ways that the anti-God mentality is a systemic part of academia.

The result of this bias is that the most intelligent people (since they are likely to attend college and grad school) are exposed to tremendous negative pressure from both mentors and peers regarding their beliefs.

Secondly, I believe the present Church culture in America is unfriendly to intellectual scrutiny.

I have experienced firsthand the judgmental glares of church ladies who didn’t take kindly to me polluting their potluck fellowships with tough theological questions. Once the conversation gets messier than the Sloppy Joes, it’s time to wrap it up with the catch-all “His ways are higher than our ways,” or “If we knew everything we wouldn’t need God now, would we?”

This has to stop.

We must stop pretending that Christianity doesn’t make any claims beyond our personal experiences with God. The it’s-not-a-religion-it’s-a-relationship rhetoric sells short what Christianity is—a series of significant truth claims.

Yes, if accepted as true, these claims are simply the jumping off point for a profoundly intimate relationship with a powerful, loving creator. But when we discourage members of the body of Christ from challenging the status quo or even the fundamentals of our faith, we limit their own discovery of truth. By testing the claims of Christianity, we substantiate them in our own hearts.

If what we believe about God is true, no genuine discovery can ever contradict it. If we are to bolster the perception of Christianity in an increasingly secular world, we must welcome the skeptics, and we must be willing to answer their questions. We can be confident that the same God whom skeptics are trying to disprove designed the minds that seek to disprove him.

Still, the atheist seeking a dialogue is not the biggest issue here.

A fact we must face with American atheists (since their growth has been primarily in the last two decades) is that most of them were raised in Christian, or at least theist homes. Thus, these disproportionately intelligent people are rejecting Christianity based on their experience within the Christian community.

What attitude do we have toward other Christians who question the fundamentals of the faith? Typically, we tend to view them as less solid in their walk or unconnected to God. This mindset is incredibly damaging.

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If our belief in God is rooted solely in the shallow soil of human emotions, this shallowness will be evident in the fruit that our faith produces.

Christ’s call to have a childlike faith has been bastardized to a point that encourages blind acceptance of whatever we happen to have been told. So let’s examine the reality of this calling. I believe the faith of children carries with it two significant qualities. The first is that kids are remarkably uncynical. The skepticism that plagues our generation is a learned trait, one that desperately needs unlearning.

Secondly, they are annoyingly inquisitive. An inquisitive mind asks why the sky is blue. It asks why the grass is green. It asks why Arrested Development got cancelled but George Lopez still has a successful career. There are some things we will never know, and that should drive us crazy.

The Berean Jews were commended in Acts because they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed.” How far we have come from church leadership that commends those who question their teachings!

As followers of Christ, we must not only make the Church a place that is open to the questions of others, we must ask tough questions ourselves. Our faith should be based on what we are certain of, not just on how we feel. If our belief in God is rooted solely in the shallow soil of human emotions, this shallowness will be evident in the fruit that our faith produces.

We are not called to blind faith. We are called to let the Spirit “guide us to all truth.” And when you know the truth, the truth will set you free.

Top Comments

Andrew Mark Henry


Andrew Mark Henry commented…

I agree that the Church is completely averse to intellectual scrutiny, but you might want to be wary before you wish for more of this. Rather than benign theological arguments, you will need to contend with the prevailing academic consensuses like:
1. The 66 books of the Bible are a man-made compilation over 200 years of arguing (even the Biblical authors like Jude and Paul accepted apocryphal texts as "canon")
2. The OT histories from Genesis to 2 Chronicles are political histories written by post-exilic aristocratic priests.
3. Some of the Gospel stories about Jesus almost certainly didn't happen (google the Greek pun Jesus uses in John)

And many more.

As long as we rely on the Bible to provide us with absolute, epistemological certainty about God, we will continue having this problem. The truth is, the closer we get to the Bible, the more incomprehensible, confounding, and human it appears.

Christians lose the intellectual battle because we root our faith in a modernist, apologetic paradigm of proving "truth claims"...placing an unnecessary burden on the Biblical text that it was never equipped to answer.

If the Church truly wants intellectuals back in its fold, it would require a healthy dose of humility and open-mindedeness on academic matters and an even healthier dose of exemplifying who we believe: the actual Word of God...the Logos...Jesus.

Jerome Haltom


Jerome Haltom replied to Michaela Diamond's comment

Theories do not become laws in science. They are different things, meant to characterize something in a different way.

But yes, uncertainty is the hallmark of science. Scientists are pretty much aware of this.

I think you're really misscharacterizing why scientists tend to lean towards atheism here, and that's misunderstanding is shown by your last sentence. Science does not take faith. Nor does science "create" things. Science is a process that humans do.

You see, we are aware that science does not deliver certain knowledge. But here's the part I think you're missing, and it's the really important part:

We also do not need to have certain beliefs.

You see, if science cannot deliver certain knowledge, then any certain belief is unjustified. That's why it doesn't take faith to be an atheist: you simply need to attune the degree of belief to the degree of evidence. At which point you have a belief which exactly matches that warranted by the evidence. No faith required.

If the evidence says that something is 95% likely: then you should be 95% confident in it. If the evidence says it is 60% likely, then you should be 60% confident in it.

Faith differs from that. Faith is believing in something out of tune to the evidence. If there is no evidence for or against something: then the degree of belief should be 50%. An exact "I do not know" position.

And being in an "I do not know" position regarding God is enough to make you an atheist.


Tim Edmonds


Tim Edmonds commented…

My journey has progressed from a child-like acceptance of the Bible as literal truth, to a re-adjustment of my interpretation of the Bible, which enables me to maintain a degree of intellectual honesty in my belief system. Human beings vary a great deal in intelligence, experiences, education and acquired knowledge, but, I believe, God is so much bigger and better than any of us, that He can reach any person, despite their experiences and intellect.

When I was a child I read the Bible like a story book and accepted it word for word. In my teenage years I was fortunate in that God revealed himself to me in a very powerful way, imprinting belief deep into my soul. Later in my early 20s God intervened in life threatening circumstances in a last minute, miraculous fashion. These events gave me confidence in the truth of a living God and the Christian message.

As I have become better educated I have modified the way I perceive the Bible. I trained as a biologist, and despite my desire to believe in the Genesis story, it became apparent to me that the evidence for life evolving from simple to complex forms via common descent is overwhelming. From a logical and mathematical perspective, I don’t believe that life could start and evolve without input from an intelligent creator, but, evolution by common descent is a cold, hard fact. As I scrutinized the Old Testament further, I observed that many of the stories included major logical errors, and some appear to be plainly impossible.

For example, how did Noah retrieve species from all corners of the globe, how did he keep animals with highly specific requirements alive when today’s modern zoologists still struggle, how did today’s endemic species disperse to their current restricted habitats without leaving any trace of their dispersal from the Middle East? My personal view is that the flood story recalls a real event from human history which was a regional flood rather than a global flood. There is evidence for a massive flood in the Mediterranean region at the end of the last ice age, and perhaps this is the event recorded in the biblical flood story, or perhaps not.

I now believe that the Old Testament, rather than being the literal word of God, is a collection of stories that have been handed down, generation to generation. How much these have been modified it is impossible to say. As in most examples of Middle Eastern storytelling, these biblical stories include some examples of wild exaggeration and fable. I do believe that God has directed His people to pass on these stories to us today for our inspiration. Within them we find examples of moral guidance and advice for living, we also find historical facts and real stories from historical persons, but along with these, are examples of hyperbole, excess and fantasy. Every human culture has fantastic creation stories to explain life and our existence, so why would the Jewish people be any different?

Jesus plainly believed the Old Testament stories to be true, and why wouldn’t he? He was raised in a culture that accepted scripture as total truth. He was taught this from a very young age, so, naturally, he would believe them to be accurate. He did not have the benefit of a 21st Century science education. If Jesus had been raised in today’s cultural environment, I very much doubt that he would have accepted all of the Old Testament as literal truth. Some may say that Jesus, being God in the flesh, would have had the benefit of total knowledge. My answer to this is that it is probably impossible to encapsulate total knowledge within a human brain, and, I believe, God intended Jesus to live as any person does, by naturally acquiring information by trial and error, and via education from within his community. I don’t think God would have given Jesus any unfair advantage over the rest of humanity. Jesus probably would not have had the benefit of unlearned knowledge, unless as part of a specific directive from God for a specific purpose. Although Jesus says in the New Testament that all scripture is God’s literal truth, I believe this to be an artifact of his cultural education within the Jewish community of his time, rather than a proof that all scripture is God’s literal truth.

Does this take anything away from the Christian message? Not in my opinion. God is still very real; the Christian message is still true. I have been very fortunate in that God has shown Himself to be very real to me by intervening in my life at various critical moments. If I had not had the benefits of these ‘proofs’ I probably would have discarded the entire Bible as fable. I know from personal experience that God can do the miraculous, so I don’t have a problem believing in Old or New Testament miracles, but I can't differentiate between genuine Old Testament miracles and Old Testament fables. Which is which, I do not know.

It is easier to accept the Bible as God’s word if you do not have the benefit of a scientific education, but it is also possible to retain faith in Christ and be intellectually honest. At the end of the day, it comes down to choice; atheists choose to close their minds to the existence of God because they want to; theists choose to open their minds to God because they want to. The level of education you have and your intellectual capacities are not critical to you following or rejecting faith in Christ, although they may determine how well you relate to the wider Christian community.

Shirley Roels


Shirley Roels commented…

Christians can and should probe questions of Scripture and truth deeply and without fear. The article's central theme is valuable for both the church and the academy. Yet, please take care in commentary about the role of higher education related to faith. Research over the last decade by Christian Smith, Jonathan Hill, and Alexander Astin documents well that higher education is not corrosive inherently of either theism or Christian faith. See Jonathan P. Hill's 2015 publication
"Emerging Adulthood and Faith" from http://calvincollegepress.com/calvinshorts/index.html for a current research summary. It is an excellent one-hour read using the National Study of Youth and Religion's database to examine the relationship between faith and college learning. There are many opportunities to deepen spiritual formation through both faith-related independent colleges and universities and campus ministries associated with public universities. As Director of the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education, a Council of Independent Colleges initiative, we track this research and support campus efforts that strengthen a sense of faith-based vocation.

Joe Olachea III


Garrett Rufus


Garrett Rufus commented…

My issue with "Childlike Faith" is we aren't children. As grown ups who have experienced things in life, we have learned and know not to have "childlike faith" in certain things and it's impossible to go back to believing those certain things without proof.

For example, as a child we believed or had faith in things like coodies and santa clause and the boogie man. Why? Because we were told to and we lacked the mental capacity to question or use logical reasoning to dispute the existence of those things.

Now that we are grown, we have a pretty good idea that Santa doesn't exist, and it's impossible to go back to believing in Santa without concrete proof of his existence. Just can't do it.

It's impossible to have child like faith in something you have reasonable doubt in and if you claim to, you are lying to yourself. Living in denial.and thatt is a sign of a lack of intelligence on some level.

Mike Blyth


Mike Blyth commented…

OK as far as it goes. The author points out that the church should be more open to questioning and honest doubt: "...we must ask tough questions ourselves. Our faith should be based on what we are certain of, not just on how we feel. If our belief in God is rooted solely in the shallow soil of human emotions, this shallowness will be evident in the fruit that our faith produces," and "I believe the present Church culture in America is unfriendly to intellectual scrutiny."

What the author doesn't acknowledge, however, is that many former Christians have lost their faith not because they were put off by the attitude of the Church, or because their questions weren't taken seriously, but because, after careful consideration of these "tough questions," they decided that the evidence simply did not support the faith they grew up with. These people, like me, could be right or wrong about that, but the issue is not with Christian's attitudes or even the presentation of their claims, but with the very facts themselves.

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