Why do smart people lose their faith?

The narrative goes like this: The little boy goes to Sunday School each week with his mother, and there he hears stories that stir his young mind. He hears about Adam and Eve, and their great mistake. He hears that their son Cain killed his own brother. He hears that a big fish swallowed a guy named Jonah, only to spit him out on dry land three days later.

The young boy wins prizes for Sunday School attendance and for memorizing Bible verses. When he is eight, he “accepts Jesus into his heart.” During his teenage years he attends the church’s youth group and even serves as its president.

Then at 18 he goes off to college to study English. (He thinks he wants to be a teacher.) But when he leaves college four years later, he no longer calls himself a Christian. He no longer believes in God. He has left all that behind him and now considers Christianity intellectually vacuous.

It’s true that no one actually argued him out of his faith; he was not driven to atheism by compelling arguments. He had begun his journey away from the faith before he knew any arguments, and only found the intellectual support for his departure later. But if reason did not drive him from the faith, what did?

The fact is, nothing drove him from the faith; he drifted from it, carried by the fashionable winds that blow through academia. Because he has since found intellectual support for his position, he likes to think that his decision was purely logical. In reality, he simply went along with the decision some of his professors went along with when they were his age, and for the same reasons.

According to numerous studies, people with high IQs are slightly less likely to be religious. But Jordan Monge, regional director for The Veritas Forum, explains that: “Intelligent people don’t simply reject religion because it’s wrong; they reject it because their social environments lead them to think it’s wrong.”

Monge notes that the sociologist Frank Furerdi, himself an atheist, has warned that in investigating the connection between intelligence and irreligion, “secular researchers are likely to discover what they already suspect, which is a co-relation between their values and high levels of intelligence.” With such a bias in play, “social science research turns into advocacy research.”

When college students hear the narrative repeated – smart kids go off to college and lose their faith – it can become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Monge quotes a recollection from the University of Chicago political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain, who left the faith for many years, before returning later in life.

In her student days, Bethke Elshtain recalled, “I had slowly but surely inched over to join the company of those who chided those who believed. I decided I was not gullible, like those folks, and if they wanted to cling to wishful thinking, they could certainly do that, but I was at university, after all, where I had learned skepticism, and indeed I had decided that I had become a skeptic myself, joining most of my professors in that designation.”

Bethke-Elshtain did not leave the faith because she decided it was false but because she decided she was not gullible. In conversations with those who have walked away, one often discovers a secondary reason (at least it is represented as such) for their departure. Few are convinced that the faith is untrue. More are convinced that the “faithful” are untrue, or, like Bethke-Elshtain, gullible, or, as is often claimed, hypocritical.

It has been said that Christians are the best evidence that Christianity is true. They are also the best evidence that that Christianity is false. And this is the case whether the person considering Christianity has a high IQ or not.

Published first in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, Saturday, September 7, 2013

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