Is the Readiness All?
Things appear to have come to a head as far as this whole “smart” thing of ours is concerned. Apparently, many readers have been under the impression that, when we praised smartness, we were defining smart solely in terms of I.Q. This was never actually the case, and we have recently clarified our position on this matter in a Reader Mail response to a dedicated reader, for whose e-mail we are eternally grateful.
Pursuant both to this response and to our recent "We've Got Magic to Do” essay, we were asked the other day in a MySpace blog discussion whether we regard atheism itself as better proof of intelligence than I.Q., as there are, to be fair, many people with high I.Q.s who believe in God, but whom we appear to be calling stupid. It is a good question, and one which we have decided to address in its own essay, rather than waiting to insert some thoughts on it into a longer piece as an aside.
The answer, stated up front so as to quash accusations of suspense-building, is no; we do not regard atheism as proof of intelligence, nor do we regard belief in God, period, as proof of stupidity. It seems a valid general prescription that no one position on any one issue can accurately be taken as proof of intelligence, and atheism is no exception.
No further proof is necessary than to examine both positions cast into extreme circumstances: if there were some isolated society to which religion was unknown, all members of said society would naturally be atheists, and it would be absurd to conclude that they were all therefore exceptionally intelligent, as the population doubtless would contain the same natural spectrum of intellectual ability to be found anywhere else; likewise, if there were some society to which even the possibility of atheism were unknown, and in which faith-based precepts of one stripe or another were sworn to by even the most respected authorities, and the means of scientifically overturning them absent or untaught (as was indeed the case in many civilizations in the past), an individual would have to be possessed of near-unimaginable genius to come to atheism on his own, but could certainly be incredibly intelligent while still falling short of that mark.
Our own society’s present situation, of course, comes nowhere close to either of these extremes, but the maxim that atheism itself does not altogether prove intelligence still holds: a modern individual raised in non-religious circumstances needs only to avoid falling into the trap of religion when some powerful misfortune or philosophical quandary arises, whereas an individual reared in oppressive religious circumstances must struggle to free himself from them; we must necessarily admit that the second individual has before him the harder task, and that it is logically possible for him to be “smarter” in some abstract performance-based I.Q. sense than the first. Leaving open this window is, perhaps, inconvenient to our positions here, but we will remind you that what separates us from our opponents is the fact that, when facts arise that are inconvenient to our positions, we do not therefore omit or ignore them, however inconvenient they may be.
Wow, so far this essay is not funny at all. But it does sound like it was written in the late-17th or early-18th Century, which is pretty cool. And it turns you on a little bit, doesn’t it? Come on, admit it.
We’ll talk normal now, but only because we want you to pay attention to the essay instead of masturbating.
Anyway, what serves nearly to close the loophole that seems to have just been opened is the fact that, clearly, religious indoctrination does not just ramble around in the human brain independently of all the other functions, but rather affects them. If someone’s brain has the ability to comprehend advanced science, but out of deference to some unscientific religious ideal he refrains from studying it; or if someone has the ability to craft great literature, but due to a pious rigidity he shies away from complex themes; or if someone has the raw materials of the skill to compose great music, but out of a religion-imposed sexual retardation he wishes to avoid exciting the passions, then of course his accomplishments will end up falling far short of his ability. And, as we explained in the Reader Mail response concerning I.Q., the problem with I.Q. tests is that they measure ability in the abstract—they (allegedly) indicate what someone is capable of doing, but not whether there is present in his life some other factor that will prevent him from doing it.
And someone who is capable of becoming smart, but does not become smart, is not smart, any more than someone who is physically capable of shooting a gun but never kills anybody is a murderer.
Now, at this point, after having prepped the reader regarding the necessity of the admission, we can reveal the true purpose at the heart of this essay—the admission of the fact that, as loathe as are many who consider themselves intellectuals to admit it, emotion matters, even in regard to issues of a high intellectual premium.
When we say emotion, of course, we don’t mean making decisions based on wishes in place of evidence (as religious types do), or prioritizing the ability to interact with others emotionally above the ability to debate intellectually (as P.C. types do). All we are doing is acknowledging the fact that a certain degree of emotional maturity is necessary in order for an individual’s intellectual abilities even to enter into the picture. Unless someone is forced to learn something by rote (in which case they would anyway really only be getting forced to recite it, and not necessarily to believe it), the ability to learn something must naturally be preceded by the decision to learn it—and the decision to learn is motivated by emotion. We are smart because we have put a lot of effort into becoming smart, yes—but we would not have done so if we did not enjoy the idea of being smart.
If any readers bristled at the phrase emotional maturity in that last paragraph, don’t worry. We ourselves bristled at having to type it. This, of course, is because the expression has been negatively affected by its association with… well, prissy girls. The kind who pronounce mature with a hard “t,” and are always calling people immature for totally innocuous shit like the fact that they find attractive people attractive or laugh at jokes even when the jokes are clearly hilarious, and who for some reason are instantaneously moved to paroxysms of white-hot rage whenever they see someone over the age of fourteen watching a cartoon, even if that cartoon is The Simpsons.
Seriously, what is wrong with those girls? You’re in the lounge peacefully watching The Simpsons, and all of a sudden all these girls are screaming at you, and you’re like Fine put on whatever you want, and then they put on some shit that is like a million times more immature than The Simpsons, and you’re like Oh right like this is so mature, and they’re like Whatever you just don’t understand it, and you’re like The fuck I don’t this show is retarded, and then they call you a rapist or something and you’re like How the fuck does the fact that I like The Simpsons make me a rapist but then they just don’t answer you and then suddenly the next day there’s a rumor all over campus that you were stalking some girl you have never even heard of in your life and WHAT IS SO MATURE ABOUT THIS?
So, anyway, that’s not what emotional maturity means. What it does mean, at least as it relates to our purposes here, is the ability to bring the intelligence to bear in situations where this is advisable—most especially dire or traumatizing ones wherein the individual does not wish for what the intellect might tell him to be true.
Consider the example of a man at whose door the cops have arrived to tell him his son is dead. The man may, in this most horrifying of moments, still be able to realize that the cops are only doing their job and that it’s not their fault, or he may lose his shit and say that the cop is lying and take a swing at him. If he does the latter, unwise though this may have been, we can certainly understand and forgive his instantaneous reaction to this awful news. He only lost it for a second, and it was in the most traumatic circumstances imaginable.
This, by the way, is what the commonly misused expression “there are no atheists in a foxhole” actually means. Religious types sometimes use it to mean that atheists are all bullshitting and know deep down that there is a God, but what it actually means is that it takes a near-superhuman level of philosophical fortitude to stand by an unwelcome truth in a traumatic situation. The example of a soldier who has been a lifelong atheist but who suddenly freaks out and starts praying when he thinks he’s about to die doesn’t “prove” that there is a God any more than the father losing it and punching the cop “proves” that his son isn’t actually dead. (People lose their minds in traumatic situations—supposedly, the most common last word spoken by dying soldiers is “mommy”… Does this “prove” that their moms are omnipotent beings with supernatural powers? No. These outbursts are equivalent to confessions extracted under torture—i.e., argumentatively worthless.)
But now let us look beyond the instantaneous reaction, of which nearly all types may be excused, and examine possible long-term ones. Probably, the father who freaks out and punches the cop would come to his senses after a little while and be sorry. But suppose he didn’t? Suppose he spends the subsequent week, or year, or the rest of his life, hunting down the cop who told him that his son was dead? At this point, we would say that the guy is stone-cold nuts, right?
The reason we would be able to say this is that there would necessarily be a mountain of evidence that the man’s son is dead aside from the cop’s word—the man is brought to the morgue, for example, where he sees the dead body of his son with his own eyes. Or if no corpse is available to be seen, the man cannot deny the fact that days and weeks pass without his son ever coming home. In short, there was, when the son was alive, a mountain of evidence, in the form of continuous firsthand contact, to support the position that he was alive—and when he is dead, all the evidence that he was alive suddenly goes away, and is replaced with evidence to one degree or another that he is dead.
But suppose this were not the case. Suppose that, instead of leaving behind corpses, human beings vanished at the moment of death, like Yoda. Suppose that, even when his son was alive, the man did not see him regularly because he lived far away—or that, for some reason, he had never even met his son, but had only ever been told that he had a son, and believed it based solely on the word of the people who told him so, and that these same people, even after the incident with the cop, continue to swear to the man that his son is alive. It would be their word against the cop’s, and the cop would be in the difficult position of having to prove that the son is dead to a man who does not wish to believe so, and has no particular reason to believe so, unless he is instilled with a desire to know the truth for its own sake, which he may or may not be. (Consider also the case of those black “POW/MIA” flags you see everyplace, even though there’s almost certainly nobody still over there… In a few years, we will be at the point where even if there were guys still over there, they would be dead of old age—do you think the flags will come down then? We bet not.)
The cop drafts the best and most convincing argument possible that the man’s son is dead, types it out on a single sheet of paper, and presents it to the man (this would indeed be going beyond the call of duty to rather a ridiculous degree, since his duty was only to inform the man of his son’s death, and not to make sure he believes so, but still the analogy serves). The man’s desire to persist in the belief that his son is alive, then, can now wholly be satisfied by the simple act of ignoring the words on this piece of paper, which is of course easily done. The man is obviously smart enough to understand the concept of his son’s being dead and the argument to that effect—since neither is all that complicated—but if he lacks the emotional maturity necessary to choose to engage them, his capacity to understand is a non-issue.
Upon ending the analogy and returning to the matter of atheism, there is of course one major amendment to be made. Atheists do not argue that God once existed but has since passed away, but rather that there was never any God (or, for the polytheistic religions, were never any Gods) to begin with. When Nietzsche declared that God was dead, the sticking point was not that he was unable to produce a body, because the phrase was a metaphor. It was phrased as “God is dead” rather than as “God never existed” to emphasize the idea that humanity had advanced to the point where belief in God was no longer necessary—i.e., we were ready finally to accept the fact that there never was any God to begin with. (Whether it is in fact the case that a phase of human progress in which religion existed was either necessary or inevitable is an interesting question, but an irrelevant one—religion did exist, but must now cease to, regardless of whether it did or did not have to. We fully admit that many ultimately beneficial philosophies arose out of the existence of religion, but this does not constitute an argument that it should continue, any more than the fact that many legitimate scientific discoveries were made accidentally by alchemists and astrologers constitutes an argument for the continuance of belief in alchemy or astrology).
Now, we realize that it is not exactly news to the philosophically trained readers of this site that it is logically impossible to prove an absence. Someone who believes, say, that Bigfoot exists, can venture into the Great North Woods and, with a little luck, capture Bigfoot, and subsequently convince those who doubted his existence, as they would be bound to the evidence of their senses, whereas someone who wishes to convince believers that Bigfoot does not exist can only point over and over to the fact that no-one has yet done this, or even anything close. But there are important differences between Bigfoot and God, even aside from the fact that God has never had a monster truck named after him.
For starters, one can take the compromise position that Bigfoot once existed—i.e., that there was once some species of large and advanced ape in North America, accounting for the many similar and independently collected Native American legends, but that the poor beasts have since gone extinct. Furthermore, there is the fact that, even among those who lend credence to his biography, there are more-or-less established boundaries respecting what Bigfoot may or may not do—believers would be unlikely, say, to argue that he remains undetected because he can turn himself invisible, or shrink to microscopic size, or hibernate beneath the ground for a thousand years when he feels threatened. Finally, there is the fact that, even if one day Bigfoot (or rather, a Bigfoot, since if it did exist it would needs be a species rather than an individual) were to waltz out of the forest and introduce himself (after his fashion, whatever it may be), this would amount only to the discovery of a theretofore unknown species of ape, and not to anything supernatural. The glamour of his mystery has caused Bigfoot casually to be classified with the paranormal, but since there is nothing fundamentally extrascientific about a species of ape that is really, really hard to find, it would be quite exactly in error to claim his eventual discovery as evidence of the supernatural, and no new credibility whatsoever would properly then be gained by tales of ghosts, vampires, etc.
The problem with the God legend (argumentatively speaking, and so ignoring the obvious fact that many more people desire much more strongly to believe in God than in Bigfoot) is that it transcends all three of these precepts: One cannot argue that God once existed but no longer does, since God is by definition immortal; one cannot chip away at the legend based on accepted boundaries concerning what God may or may not do, since God can by definition do anything; and one cannot erode God’s cachet down to a sensible form of belief among believers, since God is by definition supernatural.
Technically, in fact, God is the only thing that is by definition supernatural. People do not realize this about other “supernatural” legends partly because skeptics are prone to using the phrase “a scientific explanation” when positing alternate scenarios—and the problem with that phrase is that it is redundant. All science means is sound explanations of things, and so if a valid explanation of something exists at all, it is inherently a scientific explanation. What would be the alternative—an unscientific explanation? That would only mean that the explanation is not really an explanation.
This applies even to the most far-fetched of “supernatural” legends. If it were to turn out that vampires actually exist, there would necessarily be a reason why they do, and that reason would necessarily be capable of explanation—it might be hard to figure out for a while, but that wouldn’t mean an explanation didn’t exist. And that explanation would necessarily be a “scientific” one—unless it involved God. It has been posited by some that if God existed, his existence would necessarily be “scientific,” since the existence of anything would necessarily become a part of the sum total of knowledge. And this is true. But it is also true that the existence of God as the major monotheistic religions use the term would necessarily annihilate the usefulness of the term science itself. If everything was created by a being who exists for an inherently unexplainable reason (as opposed to the Universe, which exists for a reason that is just really hard to explain), then ultimately nothing exists for an explainable reason. If a being exists who can do anything, then this necessarily imbues all other beings with the possibility of having anything done to or through them at any time. It would, for example, no longer be true in an absolute sense to say that “penguins can’t fly,” since God would be able suddenly to make a penguin fly whenever he felt like it—the phrase would needs be amended to “So far, God has not made any penguins fly when someone was watching”… and what would be the point of even bothering to say that?
Theism has not been taken to this extreme by most believers, thanks to the Enlightenment meme of the “watchmaker deity” who does not interfere with the universe he has set in motion. This was, of course, a convenient backslide on their parts, designed as a response to the looming threat of science’s being able to explain everything without making use of God. But this meme has largely been abandoned in our society at present. In response to what they perceive as the ultimate insult constituted by the fact of human evolution from apes, theists have taken up once more the banner of a God-legend that necessitates disbelief in empirical scientific evidence. As they are currently outraged by statements concerning the age of the planet, why may they not suddenly decide to be outraged by the statement “penguins can’t fly?” There is no reason why not. This is not a slippery-slope argument on our parts predicting that penguin-outrage will come to pass in the near future, but only a proof of the fact that it is all too logically possible for theists to use belief in God as an excuse to become outraged by any fact whatsoever, as soon as they trump up some reason why the fact in question is worthy of outrage. Some schools are already bowing to pressure to accept “6,000 years” as a correct answer to a test question about the age of the planet—and all that’s stopping the same thing from happening to any question on any test is the matter of how many religious people decide to start bitching about it. The extent to which they will decide to do this is limited only by their desire to piss off smart people, which is, in many of them, apparently limitless.
People who run around looking for Bigfoot may be nerds, but they do not pull this kind of shit.
This brings us all the way back to the question of whether we think that everyone who believes in God is stupid, and the fact that our answer was—and still is—no. One reason for this is the undeniable fact that we have met many smart people who believe in God, some of whom we are proud to count among our very dearest friends. Another reason is that, although it is logically possible to use belief in God as an excuse to discount any and all scientific facts, not everyone who believes in God does so. Many of them are simply people who answer “yes” to the question “Do you believe in God?”, and appear to have no further disagreements with us beyond that. Admittedly, it is a mystery to us why they feel the need to answer that question in the affirmative if they have no other beliefs that necessitate this response for support, but the fact remains. And this is why we specified “belief in God, period” way back in the third paragraph.
Religious beliefs that compete directly with empirical evidence, however, are another matter. Yes, all creationists are stupid. Yes, everyone who believes that Noah’s Ark really happened is stupid. Yes, everyone who believes that the planet is 6,000 years old is stupid.
And this is why atheism per se is, as we stated in the blog discussion, not the be-all and end-all of 1585. We are opposed to all forms of bullshit, and prioritize the ones we feel to be the most dangerous. Religious tenets that necessitate disbelief in science are incredibly dangerous, and belief in God, period—though it is in factual error—is far less so. It seems for some merely to be code for optimism—they have the same moral beliefs and definition of good as we do, and use belief in God as an indicator of faith that this good will one day be achieved. Is this pointless? Certainly. But as we have limited time and energy, we prefer to invest it primarily in making fun of the people who think dinosaur bones were created by the Devil and who want to teach teenagers that you can get AIDS from holding hands.
Why does one person who believes in God argue crazy shit like this and another come nowhere close to doing so? Partly due to a difference in intelligence, and partly due to a difference in emotional maturity. As we’ve shown, the primary function of the God-legend is that it provides a means to assert that whatever you feel like believing is really, really, really true. And someone who is emotionally retarded will feel like believing different things from someone who is not emotionally retarded. The desire to put empirical reality to fire and sword solely for the sake of spiting people who are better than you at something, whether in religious types or P.C. types, is more a matter of emotional retardation than of intellectual failing—the capacity to really believe the retarded stuff that some people claim to believe may be a matter of stupidity, but the question of how many of them really believe what they say they do is very much an open one (indeed, someone who has worked themselves into a permanent rage about these matters may very well have lost the capacity to tell the difference—and when someone is crazy, it is no longer a matter of smart and stupid, but only a matter of crazy).
Of course, the fact that religion inherently allows this is why this behavior is more of a problem with religious types than with others, and provides the answer to the question oft-posed to atheists, “What if there were a religion that exactly asserted all of your own personal moral precepts—would you still be against it?” The answer is yes, for much the same reason that the answer to the question “Wouldn’t a benevolent dictatorship be better than a democracy?” is no: the fact that, even if it starts off good, the very fact of its being a religion or a dictatorship will cause it to become bad. Positions in dictatorships attract people whom you do not want to be in charge (because they love absolute power for its own sake), and religion attracts people who cannot assert whatever they wish to believe through any other form (because it is false). If it is cold outside, and to keep warm you start a fire in the middle of your kitchen, it will keep you warm for about 30 seconds and then just burn your house down.
This is why all religions seem eventually to degenerate into telling people they’re not supposed to have sex. Religion attracts the emotionally retarded, and Rule #1 of being emotionally retarded is that you are scared of sex. You could start a religion tomorrow that has nothing whatsoever to do with bitching about sex, and we guarantee you that in a century or two it will be concerned with doing little aside from bitching about sex.
And there are lots of people with high I.Q.s who are terrified of sex. They’re called nerds. This is why 1585 is always careful regularly to specify that the fact that we praise intelligence does not mean we’re one of those retarded “nerds are superheroes” sites, and very careful constantly to specify that we are hawt and like teh sex, and think that others should also be hawt and like teh sex.
If any of you thought it was just to get more traffic, well… Let’s just say we’ll be careful never to let you catch us watching The Simpsons.
Sexo Grammaticus is Lord High Editor of The 1585