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Are Christians Stupid?

Posted by on May. 23, 2013 at 5:35 PM
  • 196 Replies

Are Christians stupid?

Judging by stereotypes, it would seem that a Christian can be often times considered by non-Christians as close-minded, ignorant, uneducated, simple, unreasonable, gay-hating, racist, bigoted and...dare I say it....somehow from the deep south, Bible-belt states.

It also is often implied that the faith of Christians is a blind faith of simpletons.

Is it fair to label all Christians as ignorant ?



by on May. 23, 2013 at 5:35 PM
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by Ruby Member on May. 23, 2013 at 5:36 PM
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Stupid, close-minded, ignorant, uneducated, simple, strict, gay-hating, racist, bigoted, ignorant and dumb are all different things.

And of course not all Christians are any of these things.

But certain types of Christianity are correlated with some of those things.

For example, membership of the Church of Jesus Christ–Christian correlates with racism.

Yet it would be unfair to stereotype a significant proportion, let alone a majority, of Christians as being more racist than average.

By the way, could we please drop "dumb" as a synonym, here?

by Ruby Member on May. 23, 2013 at 5:36 PM

To answer your title question:

(note the standard deviations inside each group are far larger than the differences between the means of different groups)



by Ruby Member on May. 23, 2013 at 5:36 PM
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It also is often implied that the faith of Christians is a blind faith of simpletons.
Colds pass around when the weather gets chillier or people's immune system are otherwise lowered.  First a person is exposed to a strain of virus they are susceptible to and it gets inside their body - they are infected.   Second, once inside, the virus fights the immune system and is either defeated or it gains hold and overwhelms the system - it grows.  Third, the virus changes to fit the flaws in the host (thus deveoping new strains), and changes the host to better fit it - it adapts.  Fourth, a specific change the virus makes in the host is altering its behaviour to increase the chances of the virus being spread on to new hosts (eg sneezing in the case of colds, but also being passed onto partners and children for other viruses) - it spreads.

In the same way that a cold virus is a collection of DNA genes, we're going to look at a religion as a collection of doctrinal memes, and examine how they fit the flaws in people's mental immune systems:

  • How do Christian doctrines infect?
  • How do Christian doctrines grow?
  • How do Christian doctrines adapt?
  • How do Christian doctrines spread?

How do Christian doctrines infect?

It is a lot easier for a belief (of any sort, not just religious ones) to appeal to a person's emotions and subconscious instinct-driven mind, than it is to appeal to their rationality.  We've already seen how some people are, from birth, more prone to relying upon their feelings and intuition over their conscious logical thought and external senses.   People also tend to be less rational when they are young or stressed.

Indeed, despite children going through rebellious phases where they want to prove their independence and differentiate themselves from their parents, on average young children are primed to accept as true 'general knowledge' they are told by authority figures - it tends to bypasses all objective rational evaluation, because they trust.  Later in life a religious person may change denomination but, if they stay religious at all, less than 5% switch to a religion that is different from the one they were raised in for the first seven years of their life (eg going from Christian to Hindu, or vice versa).

There has been extensive research done on how children think at various ages, and how that ties in with their developing conception of a personal God.  All young children are animists, however as they grow older the concept of a personal God serves as a surrogate attachment figure, and how this is strengthened depends upon their initial parental attachment.  Insecurely attached children are most likely to be strengthen their attachment to God during those periods in their life when their primary attachments (to their parents, or sexual partners) are being weakened, or when they are feeling more in need of security (such as in sickness, in danger or in old age).  Securely attached children, on the other hand, tend to strengthen their attachment to God when their other attachments are also strong. 

It is from this former type that Feuerbach gets his idea of 'religion as wish fulfillment'.  He writes: "the whole world, with all its pomp and glory, is nothing weighed against human feeling. This 'omnipotence of feeling' breaks through all the limits of understanding and manifests itself in several religious beliefs: the faith in providence, which is a form of confidence in the infinite value of one's own existence; faith in miracle, the confidence that the gods are unfettered by natural necessity and can realize one's wishes in an instant; and faith in immortality, the certainty that the gods will not permit the individual to perish."

Apologetics such as C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia introduce certain concepts very early, and set an expectation of what natural justice is.  And even in children's stories that are not explicitly Christian, magic is common, sarcrifices (or arduous quests) can be demanded by authority figures, and faith is generally rewarded.   Classical art, music and literature are all filled with Christian imagery.  Just by being raised by Christians or in a culture with a Christian heritage, people are likely to think that certain concepts are plausible or good, so when they then get a certain type of mental experience, they are primed to accept it and interpret it as being the love of Jesus or divine guidance, and confirmation of the Christian world-view they've already been exposed to and already half-accept as plausible without having to think about it.   (People raised with different expectations, on the other hand, when they make a supernatural interpretation of such experiences at all, often differ strongly in how they interpret it: aliens, multiple entities, trees and Nature, voices of ancestors, etc.   The emotions and imagery they then associate with it can also vary.)

So what, then, are these experiences, that Christians interpret as absolutely certainty, direct divine revelation and a personal relationship with God?

The temporal lobe is the part of the brain where we process sound and vision signals and tie them in with memory - it is the bit that tells us whether an image is coming from outside or inside, how 'real' it is.  When it doesn't function correctly (such as during an epileptic seizure or after a blow to the head) this can lead to visions; but it can also experience abnormally activity in religious people when they are exposed to certain religious cues (link).  There is debate over whether this can also be externally triggered by a special helmet designed to emit particular magnetic fields (the "Koren helmet") or whether that is just an unusually good cue for those who are suggestible in that direction.  (You can read the two sides of the debate here and here.)   Either way, though, an experience indistinguishable from 'real' religious revelation can be re-created on demand by scientists. (Further info: a program by the BBC, and a book on it.)

Glossolalia (speaking in tongues) is, by the way, also associated with activity in the temporal lobe. (link)

How do Christian doctrines grow?

Once a person has been exposed to Christian doctrines and initially convinced of their truth, how do those doctrines then act to preserve and increase that belief, in the face of increased mental opposition as the person grows older, has less need of comfort, or encounters challenges to the doctrines?  And how does this tie in with how the brain operates?

A lot of religion, as it is practiced, serves to increase the emotional importance to the person of identifying as a faithful follower of that religion.   It redefines what it is to be a "good" person.  It is present at emotional high points in the person's life (marriage, and baptism of new babies).  Religious practice often results in the individual spending lots of time with other people of the same faith.  This ties their social circles and support networks to their belief, and biases the flow of information going to the person in favour of information that supports their beliefs.  It also has a profound emotional effect, because the more someone has sunk into their religious identity and built their life around it, the greater their Escalation of Commitment.

The brain is designed to defend that investment, even to over-riding contradictory external evidence.  The ventral striatum (shown here in red) is part of the brain that is strongly associated with emotional and motivational aspects of behavior, and is connected with disturbances such as schizophrenia:

It shows increased activity in adolescents when acting according to peer pressure rather than sense, and it also shows increased activity when believers assert the truth of religious statements (such as "Angels really exist") compared to when they assert the truth of non-religious statements (such as "Eagles really exist"). (link)

This mechanism exists in order to help humans carry out long term plans with determination, rather than getting side-tracked by self-questioning at the first setback, wasting the effort invested so far.  However it can be hijacked by certain cognitive biases.   There are many believers who say things like:

When I look into the eyes of my beautiful children, I see God. Every flower, bird, rainbow, I see him. Looking around, there has to be a Creator. I don't believe a collision of two stars or whatever it was in the big bang theory could cause the beautiful things in this world.  Seeing isn't believing - believing is seeing. I feel God in my soul, I hear him in the pitter patter of the rain. God is as real as the air I breathe. I cannot see it, but its there.

Such people are not liars, crazy or stupid.


What they are is human.

The human brain uses Bayes' Theorem (the correct mathematical way of updating a probability estimate upon receiving a new piece of information).  A consequence of this is that how we view evidence depends upon which evidence we've seen so far.  In practical terms, what this means is that we have a tendency to carry on believing what we already believe, and downgrade evidence that contradicts our beliefs.   This is known as "Confirmation Bias" and is a very important concept so please, if that's not a term you've come across before, please spend 5 minutes reading the brief summary at WikiPedia.

And that's just one cognitive bias.  Other relevant ones are Pareidolia, Subjective Validation and Belief Bias. (do read about the fMRI scan experiment carried out on that last one).  

The people who look at events in their personal past and declare that they can see in those events clear evidence of a divine plan, or even miracles, are exhibiting precisely the same normal human limitations of how bad we are at estimating certain types of probability as most of the human population (excluding, perhaps, certain very wary and skeptical mathematicians) are all sorts of non-religious situation (link, link, link).   People are also bad at estimating how rational or irrational they have been, consistently over-estimating their own rationality (link).

A third brain mechanism some forms of Christianity take advantage of to keep hold of a person is the moral dimension of purity.  The sacrament of confession, with the resulting absolution, can give a feeling of cleanliness that is almost addictive (the way someone with OCD repeatedly washes their hands) - and the church is the only available 'pusher'.

How do Christian doctrines adapt?

Cults use deception to lure people in, extreme behaviour modification techniques to manipulate them while in, and coercion to dissuade them from leaving.  Cults persuade their followers that the cult is the only means of salvation, and the money and effort of the followers is being put to good use, while supporting the cult leaders in a fine lifestyle. (link to "how cults work")

Most religions are different.  The leaders are themselves believers rather than hypocrites.  They don't love bomb new members or give them a false impression of what the holy book or being a member is like.  They are not over-controlling of members' daily lives and associations.  They don't combine intense group events with tiredness or even sleep deprivation to lower rationality.  And they don't force followers to shun others who have left the faith.

But they do share a surprising number of basic behaviour modification techniques in common.  

  • Repeated ritualistic public affirmations of belief - catechisms, confirmation ceremonies, spoken creeds
  • Peer pressure - an emphasis on putting your best face forwards, and testifying giving credit to God
  • Altered definitions - a lot of time listening to or reading the holy text and explanations of it, building up a private technical vocabulary of words and concepts specific to the religion.  They become habituated to the lifestyle.

But the biggest thing Christianity does is to make the follower feel that coming up with reasons for why doctrine is justified is their personal responsibility.   They are exposed to multiple 'strains' of interpretation, and encouraged to seek out or develop one that best satisfies their own personal cognitive biases.   They are made to feel that a failure to be satisfied is a failing on their part, and a sign of insufficient effort or faith.  And so they fill in gaps in the meta model in the same way a subject reads meaning into the Forer text

And the killer doctrine, the one that holds it all together, is that there doesn't need to be any objective evidence that the new interpretation is more accurate than the old interpretation - just it feeling more right is, by itself, all the evidence that is needed.  The only bounds are peer pressure, and the follower can always gravitate to a new denomination that better fits the interpretation that feels most natural to them, where they then share interpretations, infecting others and being re-infected themselves with multiple similar strains, reinforcing the truthful feeling ("others believe this, so it is something I discovered rather than made up").

It is this personal adaption that leads, church by church, denomination by denomination, to evolution of the religion as a whole.

How do Christian doctrines spread?

Historically much of the spread of Christianity has happened through politics (the entirely of Sweden was converted when the King was converted), economics (missionaries followed the East India Company into Africa) and the sword (the Conquistadors).  However there have always been, and continue to be, many doctrines and practices that contribute to spreading on a personal and church level.

Children are taught to honour their father and their mother.  Parents and god parents promise to raise the children in the faith, and are encouraged to bring them along to services and Sunday school.    Doctrines connected with staying married, not masturbating, not using contraception and not aborting all lead to larger than average family sizes (link), even when normalised for age, country and income.  Followers gain social status from having children who are seen to follow the faith (eg First Communion).  The modern extreme of this is the Quiverfull movement which, unsurprisingly, is growing fast.

Doctrines such as the protestant work ethic and prosperity theology lead to men gaining wealth and spreading the faith through marriage and supporting large families.  Doctrines which treat women as objects, such as the high value placed upon sexual purity (abstinence and virginity before marriage), and submitting to the man as the head of the household (including on issues of sex) also affect the spread of the faith.  Sexual mores and restrictions tend to be preached about more often than things like cheating on taxes, or driving politely, because those other things have less impact on the spread of the faith.

Interestingly enough, in the early Church, there was a common doctrine of total chastity for everyone (not just monks or priests) and not having children, because it was felt the second coming of Christ was immanent.  The theological justifications for this were just as strong as for the alternatives, however the groups following that doctrine eventually all died off, leaving the alternative to spread unopposed.   Similarly groups that have preached a vow of poverty have failed to make headway in the general population (because it makes raising families rather hard).

I mentioned earlier that churches tended to encourage followers to invest time and money in the church, because of the emotional impact upon the follower from doing so.  But, of course, on a church level that can provide an active church with vast income.  And, over generations, that translates to vast wealth and power, all too often invested in grand works of art and extensive (tax free) properties.   Here's a church that's 20 minutes drive from my home:

Magnificent, isn't it?  A true labour of love, by the craftmen who build it (or, at least, the ones not making gargoyles that looked like the bishop).  A lot of labour, in fact.  Over the centuries more than 10 million man hours were spent on the construction and decoration.  It wasn't just a place of worship.  It was a seat of ecclesiastical governance and a statement of power - it says "We're going to be here for ever, we hold eternal truth."

Churches have always lobbied for civil power.   In western countries, for most of the last 1500 years, it was a criminal offense punishable by death (or, at minimum, socially very very unwise) to be anything other than a Christian.   Church scholars drafted laws for the kings (think of Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Richelieu), which gives a 'home court' advantage if you're trying to carry out The Great Commission, and even today there are still very real social advantages to presenting as a Christian in most western countries.  Like a fish surrounded by water, this privilege is only noticed when absent - it seems the natural state, because it has been around for so long.  Christians do not lack book publishers, TV channels, radio shows, or access to any other channel when they want to proselytise; and doctrine positively encourages this.  Indeed, Christian practice includes everything from witnessing on personal blogs and discrete fish bumper stickers to megaphone street preaching and knocking on doors at the weekend.  This 'home court' advantage can be so strong that in places like America's Bible Belt many people (who in other areas might describe themselves as agnostic, apathetic or lapsed Christians) will claim the social identity of being a believer out of lazy acceptance, because in that area it is strongly in their self interest to do so (their children are bullied and they can't make friends otherwise).

We can quantify these effects, by looking at a map of the world:

If religious belief were based upon objective evidence then between people who had equal access to that evidence, we'd expect to see that the fraction of them who accepted or rejected it would not vary from region to region.

However when we look at the map what we see is that, even in places like Europe and the United States, where public libraries in all towns stock books on a wide variety of religions and internet access is readily available, there are large swathes of land where most people share the same religion, and clear boundaries between those swathes - boundaries that have not moved much since large wars or migrations over 200 years ago.

Consider two neighbouring countries in Europe, Greece (98% Christian) and Turkey (98% Muslim).  If there is one true religion in the world, supported by objective evidence, then just from straight statistics we can say that less than 5% of the followers of that religion are following it because of that evidence.  And that if there is convincing subjective evidence supporting it of a supernatural origin, the God of that religion is not being even handed in which nations He gives that evidence out to.

Or, alternatively, there is no God.   It is the simpler explanation for the observed pattern.

by Ruby Member on May. 23, 2013 at 5:37 PM

darnit Clairwil you beat me.

by on May. 23, 2013 at 5:37 PM
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Are you really complaining about being accused of playing the victim while you play the victim?   Lol.  


by Bronze Member on May. 23, 2013 at 5:38 PM
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They can be but so could anyone from any faith.
by Whoopie on May. 23, 2013 at 5:38 PM

Some , yes- physiologically/biologically speaking. ALL no.

by Sevrsaxhtharxxa on May. 23, 2013 at 5:38 PM
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Christians as a whole are not dumb

but there are some damn stupid christians

just like there are stupid atheists, pagans, muslims.. etc.

However, I do contend that many chrisitans play the victim card and look for bullshit that isn't there

by Ruby Member on May. 23, 2013 at 5:39 PM
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Quoting Sekirei:

Christians as a whole are not dumb

but there are some damn stupid christians

just like there are stupid atheists, pagans, muslims.. etc.

However, I do contend that many chrisitans play the victim card and look for bullshit that isn't there

by New Member on May. 23, 2013 at 5:41 PM
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Every religion has the dummys of the group. Saddly it is just how people are.

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