Why Intelligent People Are Less Likely to Be Religious

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 10.04.35 PM

I have a new article featured on Christianity Today, expanding on the thoughts I published for Fare Forward:

My story is almost always met with surprise: How could an atheist convert to Christianity at Harvard, the bastion of secular intellectual elitism?

Now this reaction has some empirical justification. A recent meta-analysis of studies on religion and intelligence found that yes, overall, people with high IQs and test scores are less likely to be religious. Researchers analyzed 63 studies on religion and intelligence from the past 80 years with differing results to discover the slightly negative correlation between the two.

Unlike previous studies that tried to explain the data by suggesting that smart people simply see past religion’s claims, these researchers, led by University of Rochester psychologist Miron Zuckerman, tried to identify other social factors in play. Nevertheless, the hype about their conclusions is overblown, and all of us—the religious and the non-religious—should be wary of placing too much weight on their findings.

Read why at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/august-web-only/brains-and-belief-arent-mutually-exclusive.html

Why I Need Celibate Gay Christians

I’ve been invited to contribute to the blog Spiritual Friendship. Given the amount of current free time I have (can you have negative free time?), I’m not sure how much I will be able to actually write for them. But I’m pretty proud of my first post, dedicated to one of my dearest friends:

I was forced out of the closet by a phone call. A dear friend had confessed that she was struggling with attraction for a woman, but was trying to not act upon it because of her Christian faith. Our other two friends on the phone strongly recommended she accept her sexual identity rather than let her sexual practices be dictated by her religious beliefs. I—the once militant atheist—came to her defense and said she should let her conscience be her guide. If she believed her religion that deeply, then she should try to her best to adhere to it and we shouldn’t admonish her for prioritizing her religion over her sexual inclinations. This, of course, stunned them and I was forced to come out of the closet as someone interested in Christianity. I confessed that I had started doing Bible studies and attending church. These were the friends least surprised when I was baptized a few months later.

Being witness to my friend’s intense struggle as I came to faith—even though I myself am straight and will not personally share her particular pains—was an immense blessing. It was readily obvious to me as I counted the cost of discipleship that making the commitment to Christ would truly entail dying to myself and taking up my cross every day. I did not know what this dying would look like—Can we ever fully know what new sinful part of ourselves we shall be called to crucify years down the road? But I knew that the Christian walk entails—even for Western Christians with all our comforts—a great deal of suffering and no immediate promises of deliverance. I learned that repentance comes in waves, and that even the most faithful need God’s mercy again and again. I’m so grateful for my friend’s transparency in our relationship and her faithful wrestling with God through her struggle.

Read the rest here: http://spiritualfriendship.org/2013/08/20/why-i-need-celibate-gay-christians/

Religion, Intelligence, and Socialization

A recent post for Fare Forward, in response to a widely publicized study:

The Independent just reported that “religious people are less intelligent.” Whatever remains of the “new atheist” crowd will argue that this study proves that education causes one to reject religion. Atheism is academic. Being enlightened or “bright” means you reject that dim-witted dogmatism of your fathers.

Read the rest at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/fareforward/2013/08/religion-intelligence-and-socialization/

I’d also like to note one of the wiser commenters, Rebecca Trotter, made a decent point:

… The church is often a terribly unwelcoming place for highly intelligent people. A person who is highly intelligent can’t help but ask questions, be skeptical, look at thing in New and novel ways. The fact that people given to do these things find what is often their first experience with acceptance and affirmation among the non-religious is an indictment of the church.

I am a religious writer, a member of mensa who could give away two standard deviations and still be a member of mensa and a highly creative person. Every time I write about the intersection of creativity, intelligence and the church, I am inundated by people sharing their experiences of being practically hounded out of the church. Some churches and Christians are very open and even vicious about those who are intelligent. Scientists are evil and serve the devil. There are bible verses which gets used as weapons to put down intelligence. Nearly every church has a policy of not supporting the work of their creative members.

But, as always, “Christians”, such as they are, would rather cast blame outward than look inward for solutions. It’s a comfortable but narrative, but one which is complete an utter horse hockey of the most putrid sort.

I never meant to imply that my socialization hypothesis is the end all, be all explanation. It’s just an alternative theory that would be worth exploring more, and an example of how we should be careful when it comes to drawing immediate conclusions about studies revealing correlation. Rebecca is right that some Christians (particularly the fundamentalists) have definitely been hostile toward science and intelligence over the years in a way that has driven people away from Christianity. But it’s interesting that those people have been driven – not to the arms of liberal churches – but from the church altogether. In that case, it seems to me that socialization is still playing a role because secularism is the alternative taken rather than a more intelligence-friendly form of Christian faith.

A Playlist of Songs of Lament

Last month, a tragedy occurred in the life of one of my closest friends. She was understandably furious at God, and I was frustrated by a God who sometimes seems to love her less than I do. After we’d taken care of the necessary odds and ends, I retreated to my room to pray. Yet my tongue was stuck; there was nothing I wanted to say to God. Normally when I’m verbally incapacitated during prayer (a frequent occurrence for a reluctant convert), I resort to song for communication. Yet in this moment facing tragedy, I had no songs to sing.

Songwriter Michael Gungor explains the reason for my sudden muteness – “Approximately 0 percent of the top 150 CCLI songs (songs sung most in churches) are laments.” Popular songbooks contain half the number of laments found in the psalms; for evangelicals whose worship leaders pick and choose their favorites, the number of laments we learn dwindles even more. I could only think of one – “It Is Well With My Soul” – whose titular refrain couldn’t be farther from what I was feeling. To save you from having to dig as thoroughly as I had to to find appropriate songs to sing at this time, I figured I would share. So, here are some of the songs I found myself capable of singing during this time of lament, organized in order of the amount of frustration relative to praise I could muster while singing them.

Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2

Yahweh/40 – U2 

Pride – U2 

Rivers of Babylon – Sublime 

Trenchtown Rock – Bob Marley 

Casimir Pulaski Day – Sufjan Stevens 

For the Widows in Paradise for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti – Sufjan Stevens 

Hallelujah! What a Savior! – traditional hymn

Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley 

Timshel – Mumford & Sons 

Sigh No More – Mumford & Sons 

Awake My Soul – Mumford & Sons 

Dry Bones – Gungor 

How He Loves – John Mark Mcmillan

Satisfied in You – The Sing Team 

Feel the Tide Turning – Mumford & Sons 

Beautiful Things – Gungor 

In the end, I believe in a God who can redeem all our suffering, just as he did for the suffering of Jesus on the cross. I believe in Jesus, who felt such palpable distance from God – just as my friend did – that he cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” I needed songs of lament to remember this.

Gungor sums it up best in his article, “Why Worship Music Should Be Sadder“: “A Christianity that does not lament is a shallow Christianity. It is a medicinal, numbing balm we use to avoid living life in a world that is groaning. It is a Band-Aid to cover our wounds. Fig leaves to be sewn over our humanness. And many of us need to be saved from our addiction to this anemic, shallow substitute for Christianity.”

Hopefully this list may help you find this list of songs a helpful tool for living life in a world that is still groaning, aching for the full justice and grace of God.

New Post at Fare Forward – What the Church Can Learn from the Reza Aslan Affair

My latest post is now live:

Reza Aslan has become famous for what has quickly become dubbed “Fox News’ Worst Interview” about his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I agree with Robert Long’s assessment at The American Conservative that the interview is motivated by bulverism, which attempts to show why a man has come to the incorrect position before demonstrating that he is incorrect. Bulverism in general accounts for a significant portion of religious reporting and indeed for any interesting subject that gets pulled into the culture wars. The problem is that few journalists will be able to offer serious criticism on such a divisive subject, so they resort to either a blanket acceptance of radically controversial claims or an ad hominem refutation. My frustration is compounded when I realize that while there are countless scholars defending the orthodox position, it’s only the new outlandish theories that generate news stories. After all, “they were right all along” doesn’t make for a good headline.

I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet, but judging from what he said during his NPR interview, I’m not sure that it’s a worthwhile contribution to the field. Unlike our friends at Fox, however, I’ll give you some of the reasons why I think he’s wrong.

Read the rest over at Fare Forward: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/fareforward/2013/07/what-the-church-can-learn-from-the-reza-aslan-affair/

Introductory Bible Study – Part 2

It’s always wise to start a Bible study by asking the person where they are at, what is motivating them, what they want to learn, what their spiritual background is, etc. Before we started part 1 of this Bible study, this friend said, “I’m pretty sure I would fall in love with Jesus if I read through the gospels, but I want to make sure that I’m not just falling in love with a character, the way one starts to love Harry Potter.” I was thrilled to have found someone else so concerned about the truth of the gospels! So instead of proceeding with the “Kingdom of God” theme, I decided that Week 2 should cover the evidence for the authenticity of the Scripture. I think this Bible study is probably one of the best ways to explain why we can trust the scriptures, because it doesn’t depend on the authority of scripture to prove scripture. (i.e. it’s not just a bald appeal to 1 Tim 3:16) It simply asks us to look at whether the authors seem trustworthy. For this study, I wrote down questions to ask before looking at the texts. They worked extraordinarily well, as the answers I got were the ones that I expected and dovetailed perfectly with the purpose of the scriptures I selected. I consistently remarked that none of these verses definitely prove that the Bible is telling the truth, but they are markers of authenticity.

questionmark  Should we approach the Bible as innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent? Should we demand that their truth be proven or should we accept them to be true until it can be proven otherwise?

questionmark  What do the authors of the gospels claim to be presenting? [After all, one would rarely say that a criminal is innocent if he has pleaded guilty.]

The authors of the gospels claim to be eyewitnesses or to be writing the reports of eyewitnesses.

  • Luke 1:1-4
  • John 21:24-25
  • Acts 1:1-5
  • 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
  • 2 Peter 1:16-20

questionmark  If you are starting a religion, how do you want to portray your leaders

[For example, the Peter figure in Islam is Abu Bakr, who is one of the first to declare that Mohammed is a prophet of god. “Abu Bakr is the bravest of men,” “for the likes of Abu Bakr, there are no scales,” “if the iman (faith) of the entire humanity was placed on one end of the scale and just the iman of Abu Bakr on the other, the iman of Abu Bakr would weigh more heavily than the entirety of humanity,” “the most lofty of them in ability and highest in honor was Abu Bakr… the sun neither rose nor set above anyone else – after the Prophets beter than Abu Bakr.”]

Church leaders in Christianity are consistently portrayed in a negative light.

  • Matthew 16:17-20 (Peter is deemed “the rock” of the church)
  • Matthew 16:21-23 (Peter is told, “Get behind me, Satan”)
  • Matthew 26:30-35 (Peter is told he will deny Jesus three times.)
  • Matthew 26:36-56 (The disciples can’t stay awake, Peter lobs off the ear of a servant and Jesus heals it, demonstrating Peter’s foolishness, Peter flees with the disciples)
  • Matthew 26:69-75 (Peter denies Jesus three times)

questionmark  If you are having a big debate after the death of your leader, what’s the easiest way to resolve the dispute? [To put the answer in the mouth of your leader!]

Jesus is silent on the biggest church debate over circumcision.

  • Acts 15:1-21

questionmark  If you want to make up a religion, what would you want to gain from it? [Fame? Fortune? Women? Power? For example, Brigham Young, the leader of Mormonism after the death of founder Joseph Smith was elected president of a large group of “Latter-Day Saints,” lead 70,000 people, became governor of Utah for a time, was polygamous and could choose any wives for himself that he wanted, died with $102,000 in property and $1,000,000 in land – which was an incredible amount of wealth at the time.]

Jesus’ disciples have nothing to gain by lying.

  • Luke 9:23-24 (They are told they’ll have to take up their cross.)
  • Acts 9:23-25 (Paul’s life is threatened)
  • Acts 14:19-20 (Paul is stoned)
  • Acts 16:16-24 (Paul frees a slave girl from a demon and is imprisoned)
  • Acts 27:41-44 (Paul is shipwrecked)
  • Acts 28:16, 30-31 (Paul freely goes to Rome where he is put under house arrest)
  • Most of the disciples die martyr’s deaths, and Paul works as a tentmaker to avoid taking money from the churches to support himself.

All of this goes to show that the disciples are reliable authors, with little incentive to lie and a clear intent to tell the truth. They claim to be eyewitnesses, reporting the facts. And if their tales are authentic and true, well, we have to seriously contend with the implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus Chris for our own lives.

Introductory Bible Study – Part 1

A friend of a friend was interested in studying the Bible to learn what it’s about. As I reviewed two potential introductory Bible studies to go through, I realized I disliked each of them for different reasons. The first one was too focused on personal salvation (the typical start – create the problem of sin and resolve it with forgiveness), a method I think is ineffective and narcissistic. The second one began by trying to demonstrate the authority of Scripture with… Scripture itself! (And used the typical evangelical debasement of 1 Timothy 3:16)  I decided this just wouldn’t do. So I’m going to post here the verses I’ve pulled for each week.

Week 1 – Who is Jesus?

Genesis 1 (God created the Universe)

John 1:1-18 (Jesus is this creator God – logos – incarnate in the flesh)

Colossians 1:15-20 (All things are created through Jesus and for Jesus)

Mark 1:14-15 (Jesus came to declare, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”)

The Spirit & The Letter

My latest blog post over at Fare Forward’s blog at Patheos, a meditation on what The Great Gatsby can teach us about interpreting Scripture.

As director of The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann made a controversial choice in choosing to depict the parties of the Roaring Twenties with music featuring today’s top artists and styles. In one sense, this made the movie a less “true” depiction of what life during the Jazz Age was life. The minor allusions to that era, the droning trumpets and hints of blues, are authentic twenties, but the rap styling and rapid beats would have been foreign to those alive during that era. Yet in another sense, Luhrmann’s decision better conveyed to our modern ears the sense of excitement and vibrance that roaring parties offered at the time.

Jazz sounds quaint and old-fashioned to us, but at the time, it was provocative and dramatic. Conservative commentators at the time anxiously questioned the value of jazz. If one is trying to convey a scintillating, rambunctious party to a modern audience, jazz music won’t do it. To communicate the heart of the jazz age to a modern ear requires, in a way, abandoning literal authenticity. This permits Baz Luhrmannt to actually convey a deeper truth – to pass along the spirit of things.

Read the rest at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/fareforward/2013/06/the-spirit-and-the-letter/

Spiritual Friendship

I’ve got a new blog post up at Fare Forward on friendship. A preview:

This weekend, I was blessed to have the opportunity to hear Wesley Hillthe author of Washed and Waitingspeak at Harvard on spiritual friendship and sexuality. One of the challenges he posed sprung from his reading of St. Aelred of Rievaulx’s reflection Spiritual FriendshipHe noted, “there aren’t a lot of similar treatises [on friendship] that we could point to in today’s church. Why is that? Could we be part of rewriting them ourselves? Could we be part of living into them ourselves and recovering them? Taking a book like that and dusting it off the shelf and enlivening it with our own practice in the church today?”

To see my thoughts on why we lack treatises on friendship and why we should fix this problem, read the rest at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/fareforward/2013/04/why-dont-we-talk-about-friendship-more/

Atheism & Objective Morality

Since my story was published in Christianity Today, I’ve been getting a lot of negative feedback about the lack of evidence presented in the article. I don’t have time to write down all my thoughts, especially because I’ve been trying to write emails back to everyone who has written me so far. [A particularly trying task in light of the fact that lately I’ve been spending 8 hours a day at work looking at a computer screen.] Your letter will be put at the top of the response pile if you send it via snail mail.

One student wrote me:

You said that John Joseph Porter pointed to your inconsistency in believing in objective, universal moral categories. What do you think about consequentialist theories (i.e. preference utilitarianism) or even deontological theories (i.e. contractualism)? You seem to make a big jump; there are many moral theories that are objective but not theistic.

This depends on what you mean by “objective.” Do consequentialist theories or deontological theories work for constructing answers to our basic ethical questions? Yes. A utilitarian can give an explanation for why he chooses to push the fat man over the bridge to save the lives of five other people (I’m hoping you’ve read this example, else you’ll think I’m a weirdo, but I suppose all us philosophers are). But the utilitarian cannot explain why he values those people. In other words, he cannot answer the meta-ethical question of “why should I strive to maximize value?” So I would argue that my ethical philosophy was internally consistent but lacked sufficient meta-ethical justification.

Of course, you can ask the same questions toward Christians – why should I strive to love God? And I think the answer iles in Lewis’ response “God is goodness.” This is a bit of a Platonic resort, and I suppose I could have adopted a Platonic view of the good without believing in God. But then you’d have to wonder – what is this weird form of goodness and how did it get there? A self-caused universe didn’t seem to offer sufficient explanation on that front. (Again, not to say it’s impossible. But just that it would be rather unusual.) [Also note that here Christianity has a distinct advantage: the Trinitarian view both allows God to be personal and permits him to therefore be impersonal qualities like, for example, love!]

I would say this: when you’re choosing a worldview, you don’t have time to parse through every single possible question that might be posed nor to tease out every single possible contradiction. It’s taken centuries and the project is still unfinished! I appreciated the introduction to one of Hume’s books – “Amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” To me, this means: you still have to go on living your life. You can’t be the philosopher pondering it all without acting. You must eat, work, live, and love. As you do so, you will approach these actions with a particular perspective and philosophy. You cannot remain agnostic forever. There is no completely neutral perspective. With that in mind, you have to plant your flag somewhere. Christianity is where I plant my flag.

I chose Christianity because I think it offers the most complete framework for approaching the world: explaining ethics and meta-ethics, showing my sin, offering not only forgiveness but also redemption.