So, as I lazily surfed the internet this morning, I pulled up ScienceDaily, my favorite one-stop-shopping site for scientific news of all sorts. (Yes, I do have scientific interests: technology, especially nanotech and edgy materials engineering; exoplanets; archaeology and paleontology—basically anything that would make for a neat story.) While scrolling past tedious stories about reindeer RNA and stickleback genomes, I stumbled upon a headline that seemed tailor-made to irritate me: “Liberals and Atheists Smarter? Intelligent People Have Values Novel in Human Evolutionary History, Study Finds.”

I’ve seen this kind of article before, though usually conservative religious folks are being pathologized—viewed as a special kind of crazy or stupid. This is the first time I’ve encountered that old argument with an evolutionary spin: that the liberal atheist is not only smarter and saner, but actually evolutionarily more advanced.  So, let’s prod at this article a bit, shall we?

Here’s the summary of the study’s findings at the beginning:

The study, published in the March 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Social Psychology Quarterly, advances a new theory to explain why people form particular preferences and values.  The theory suggests that more intelligent people are more likely than less intelligent people to adopt evolutionarily novel preferences and values, but intelligence does not correlate with preferences and values that are old enough to have been shaped by evolution over millions of years.

Get that? Their thesis in a nutshell: smart people are more likely to believe and do things that aren’t instinctive, i.e. biologically ingrained through the development of the species. How does this translate into liberalism?

In the current study, Kanazawa argues that humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends, and being liberal, caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers they never meet or interact with, is evolutionarily novel.  So more intelligent children may be more likely to grow up to be liberals.

Ah! Things are a little clearer now: conservatives only care (or mainly care) for their own, while liberals care about everybody; caring for one’s own more directly ensures the survival of one’s group; ergo, conservatism is “evolutionarily designed,” while liberalism is “evolutionarily novel.” But are these even useful definitions of conservatism and liberalism? Are they not rather criticisms of conservatism elevated to the status of definition? Moreover, this model seems not to follow from history and experience, especially if conservatism is wed to theism, as this article does. (Obviously there are atheist conservatives, just as there are theist liberals. My point is simply to answer the muddled, and sadly all too common, taxonomy of this one article.) I know many generous people, of all ideological and religious stripes: two of the most generous people I’ve known are an atheist libertarian and a rather mystical socialist. (They were also both Anglo-Saxonists, a factor this article omits from its taxonomy.) But even considered politically, there’s evidence to contend against the notion that conservatives don’t care for others beyond their inner circle. (Caution: the linked article is partisan, its tone contentious, and its analysis open to criticism. Nonetheless, the statistics are interesting as an answer to the “conservatives = Grinch” canard.)

Another point: theists usually do “car[e] about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers they never meet or interact with.” We theists call them “coreligionists,” and we Christians call them the Church Universal: a union of strangers across time and space, bound as brothers and sisters in one family, joined into one body through our Living Head, Christ. True, the article was making a point about conservatism; my point is merely to contest this article’s essentialist linking of the theism and conservatism.

But what of religion proper? How is that “evolutionarily defined”?

Similarly, religion is a byproduct of humans’ tendency to perceive agency and intention as causes of events, to see “the hands of God” at work behind otherwise natural phenomena.  “Humans are evolutionarily designed to be paranoid, and they believe in God because they are paranoid,” says Kanazawa.  This innate bias toward paranoia served humans well when self-preservation and protection of their families and clans depended on extreme vigilance to all potential dangers.  “So, more intelligent children are more likely to grow up to go against their natural evolutionary tendency to believe in God, and they become atheists.”

Again we find an insult presented as its definition: theism = paranoia. A theist might just as easily say that atheists are cosmic sociopaths, incapable of the natural empathy that humans ought to possess with their Creator. Both approaches are fundamentally unfair, killing a debate before it can happen. However, to pursue the article’s line of thought ad absurdum, could we not argue that theists have highly developed minds because of their perception of a divine intention at the back of natural events? After all, empathy and “theory of mind”—awareness of others possessing thoughts and feelings like one’s own—are both higher order concepts, distinguishing humans from lower animals, at least in degree in the case of empathy. A theistic psychologist might posit that the human perception of the divine—the sensus divinitatis—is a natural extension of human empathy. Again, I don’t think that psychology is the proper arena of contention between theism and atheism; my point is simply that the article has problems even on its own terms.

Here’s my biggest problem with this article—not its specific arguments, but its whole premise. It’s just another manifestation of what Chesterton called “the great human heresy”: “that the trees move the wind.” In his essay “The Wind and the Trees,” he tells of a small boy on a windy day who, seeing the trees moves violently, suggesting removing the trees so that the wind would stop. He thought that the trees moved the wind. Chesterton expands this notion into a parable of two great approaches to philosophical, political, religious, and social realities.  The first, “the great human dogma,” is that “moral circumstances” (or mental) lead to “material circumstances”; the second, “the great human heresy,” that “material circumstances” lead to “moral circumstances.” Chesterton explains succinctly what the latter approach is flawed:

When people begin to say that the material circumstances have alone created the moral circumstances, then they have prevented all possibility of serious change. For if my circumstances have made me wholly stupid, how can I be certain even that I am right in altering those circumstances?

The man who represents all thought as an accident of environment is simply smashing and discrediting all his own thoughts—including that one. To treat the human mind as having an ultimate authority is necessary to any kind of thinking, even free thinking. And nothing will ever be reformed in this age or country unless we realise that the moral fact comes first.

I believe the ScienceDaily article does precisely this: it claims the trees move the wind. In doing so, it commits the unfortunate epistemological error of “sawing off the limb it sits on,” as C.S. Lewis puts it in Surprised by Joy.* In other words, attempts to explain ideological or philosophical positions—ideas—in terms of biological states (“material circumstances”) result not in the refutation or defense of those positions, but in a perilous epistemological position that undercuts all rational thought. It makes reform impossible, as Chesterton says, because reform comes from inside of a mind. But if philosophies are pathologies, reform is impossible, analysis is impossible, judgment is impossible—science is impossible.

But what do I know? I’m just a dumb ol’ conservative theist.

* A related but more sophisticated version of the argument is put forth by Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga, in his 1994 paper “Naturalism Defeated.” A lecture based on these ideas was delivered by Plantinga at BIOLA University: notes are here, as well as audio—which, sadly, is only in the odious RealPlayer format. In response to critiques in intervening years, Plantinga published a tweeked version of his argument in Knowledge of God (2008). There is also a book defending Lewis’s argument: C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea (2003).

8 thoughts on “Just a Dumb Ol' Conservative Theist”
  1. I find what you have written very refreshing. Though I consider myself a very progressive Christian I do find myself at times wanting to scream at those who arrogantly proclaim their atheism that there is something to what Paul said; “What can be known about God is plain…because God has shown it”

    Then I sit and watch Jonathan Miller’s PBS special, A BRIEF HISTORY OF UNBELIEF, and catch myself thinking, “why can’t Christins present something on television that sounds this intelligent and meaty?”. Maybe someone will. So, I’ll keep channel surfing.

  2. The funny thing is that this sort of biological determinism is by far more absurd than Leibniz’s best-possible-world hypothesis that Voltaire skewers in Candide, but I figure one of two things must be true: either Chesterton hasn’t yet become our era’s Voltaire but will be; or the same Voltaire is a Voltaire-yet-to-come. I know I could easily imagine what a modern-day Candide whose Pangloss spouts off this sort of nonsense would look like, but I’m afraid I lack the literary power to make such a satire sound like anything more sophisticated than a ham-fisted (pun intended) apologetics text.

  3. That Voltaire may actually be Flannery O’Connor, Nathan–several of her later stories (I’m thinking specifically of “The Lame Shall Enter First”) feature atheist protagonists who think just the way David describes. Needless to say, she takes the wind out of their sails.

  4. Fair enough. I suppose we’re just waiting for her stories to have the effect that Candide did, pretty much defining a philosophical system for generations to come.

  5. Never happen, for the simple reason that her stories define a philosophical system for generations previous–that is, straight Catholic theology. Sure are funny, though.

    1. No, I’m not talking about O’Connor’s own philosophy–after all, who in the world could tell you what Candide’s (the character’s) philosophy is? On the other hand, anyone who’s read or even heard about the novel thinks that she knows exactly what Leibniz thinks about theodicy irrespective of the fact that Dr. Pangloss is a creation not of Leibniz but of his most famous critic.

  6. Apparently the intellectual advantage that atheists possess is 6 IQ points. 103 versus 97.

    From the vantage point of a tested 148 IQ I can only look down and ask “What you talking about Willis?”

  7. […] 2. More specifically, our Lord, in His “Sermon on the Mount,” made it clear that morality is a matter not merely of behaviors, but also–and especially–of intentions. Science has a place for physical behaviors, but mental intentions are inscrutable to it. Attempts to scientifically account for morality will inevitably treat mental intentions as physical behaviors, a move destructive to science and rationalism. […]

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