Posted by: dacalu | 20 April 2010

“Thou shalt not be stupid”

I have a rant this week.

I’ve just read an article by William Provine that has provoked my ire, chiefly because he’s advocating for a particular type of thought. A rather large proportion of our society has subscribed to a new form of morality that we might wish to call “scientism,” but could equally be called “common sensism,” and indeed goes by such a name in regions where science is unpopular.

The train of thought goes something like this: The first rule of life is “Thou shalt not be stupid.” It is wrong to be credulous and uninformed, but worse than that you must avoid being unintelligent. We can see it in a movie like “Religulous” or a book like “The God Delusion.” Both warn us about all those stupid people who have fallen into the trap of religion. Is their primary sin believing in God? By no means. That, after all, would be a metaphysical proposition. No, their sin is being so stupid as to believe in God. If only reasonable people were made to understand just how stupid we religious folk are, they would immediately jump ship and become atheists.

No, no, they say. Don’t believe in God because there is no evidence for God’s existence – well at least no empirical evidence. The underlying assumption being that it would be stupid to believe in any other kind of evidence.

I’m not sure I got that argument until just this moment. They think they have the right answers, and if you disagree with them, you must not be in possession of all the facts. Or, if you are in possession of the facts, you must be A) contrary or B) stupid. I suppose I’ll cop to contrary, but not in this regard.

I am not uneducated or unintelligent. I appreciate the difficulties presented by science + Christianity. I simply have not observed that science + atheism has any fewer difficulties.

Free will and Divine omnipotence seem contradictory. So do personal responsibility and biological determinism (or for that matter psychological or physical determinism). And yet almost all of us, Christian or no, believe in free will and personal responsibility despite the fact that science suggests deterministic answers.

Suffering and Divine benevolence seem contradictory, but honestly, my suffering is neither lessened nor explained by chance or determinism. It’s just as painful (if not more so).

Creation and the occasional sense of purposelessness to life and universe seem contradictory. An eternal universe (or one spontaneously arising out of “universal laws” which existed >before< there was a universe) alongside our sense of purposelessness (or worse yet our sense of purpose) doesn't add up any better. Why should anyone be around to "feel" anything anyway?

So I want to start by saying that Christianity is not stupid because it is somehow logically inconsistent. The universe is confusing. You have to have some model for how it works. The real question is "which model is least inconsistent?" The atheists haven't even convinced me that their system works at all, much less proving that it's better than Christianity. To give them credit, the Judeo-Christian theologians have had 3,000 more years to work on the problems. Maybe the atheists will catch up after a while. In the meantime, stop calling people stupid. It’s juvenile.

Deep breath.

Point two, the thing that really annoys me. Why is stupidity the worst of sins? Presumably, because one wants to avoid concepts of evil and hatred. Stupidity seems a non-offensive, and non-religious fault to critique, but it begs the question, “what’s so good about intelligence?” I’m a big fan of intelligence and education. One of the biggest I know. I long for a world of brilliant people with decades of intense learning. But I long for it because I think it will make better people – more sympathetic, understanding, happy, and compassionate people. I have religious values that let me value intelligence secondarily. Why do the scientismists value it?

A) for it’s own sake
B) for the sake of some other value that they’re hiding.

[May will say that they value “truth” and want people to know the truth. First, the question still applies “why truth?” and second, who decides on truth? Presumably, those smart enough to figure it out on the basis of observation. Others will say for the sake of happiness, but that’s another morass. What makes for happiness?]

Let us, for the sake of charity, choose A.

Now ask yourself, which would I rather have as a fundamental tenet of my ethics:

Thou shalt not be stupid.
Thou shalt love God and your neighbor.

The second is more practical and more practicable. Perhaps I have a straw man here, but can I at least get a serious discussion on these topics?

How do we understand our ethics? If you don’t want to have any, that’s perfectly rational, but not pragmatic. Notably, the rest of us, who do believe in ethics will feel obliged to lock you up somewhere. If you do have ethics, justify them. And that applies to Christians as much as to atheists. It’s hard work making sense of this universe and our place in it. It takes serious philosophy, introspection, and yes, reason. Thousands of authors have tackled this problem and many of them are worth reading.

I know a few atheists who have seriously thought out their position, who have read, thought, and even prayed looking for answers. They know how challenging it can be to come to any reasonable conclusion and don’t insult people who have come to different conclusions. Neither science nor common sense provides straightforward answers about God or ethics. We must expect difficulty and disagreement. We must expect that no answer will be fully satisfactory, but the best ones (scientific and religious) take personal work and discipline.

To think anything else would be stupid.



  1. The Eastern philosophical position I come from does sometimes elevate “Thou shalt not be stupid” to prime position, although admittedly in a somewhat different form to scientism. Think of the Buddhist concept of dispelling ignorance. The idea is that when one is not being stupid, something along the lines of loving God and neighbour will follow in short order as a direct causal consequence.

    And to give Provine some credit, the article in question does finish with a plea to harness reason to learn the best way of instilling moral sense into children.

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