Friday, December 27, 2019

Review: When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World

When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World by Leon Festinger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In 1954, a group of social psychologists heard about a small cult group who believed aliens were coming to save them from a flood that would destroy the earth on Dec 21. The psychologists infiltrated the group to record everything they could about the events leading up to and shortly after the predicted destruction. This book is a detailed account of what happened and is somewhat of a lesser-known classic among psychologists.

Image result for cult card game
I bought this game for my wife for Christmas
and thought it was relevant to this review.
The fact that this book is a true story and an inside account of a cult-type group is amazing. Knowing this really happened is mind-boggling. To read a first-hand account of how people in the group acted and reacted during the time of events offers great insight into the lengths people will go to in order to maintain their beliefs, even when they are clearly disproven. The observations in this book are paralled on all sides of the modern political and religious spectrum.

The authors changed the names of the people involved and the cities where the events took place in order to protect their identities, presumably from further embarrassment since the events made national headlines. I understand the desire to do this, at least for the names, but changing the names of the cities was distracting and confusing because understanding the geography would have been helpful.

While the story, in theory, is extremely interesting, the book is written in a rather dry fashion, making it difficult to get through at times. Essentially. it's too detailed and there's not enough commentary on the events. It's just straight reporting of what happened during the year of the events and it becomes increasingly detailed as the date of the prophecy got closer. There is commentary by the authors before and after the narrative of events, but it's pretty minimal and doesn't help in understanding until after the fact. Even with two psychology degrees, I would have benefited from more discussion of the psychological theories at work.

Overall, the book was worth reading, at least for me because of my background in psychology and how I try to integrate it into apologetics. There were some really great takeaways in the book, they were just spaced out between a lot of irrelevant details. I'm not sure I would recommend the book to anyone else unless they're a psychologist, really interested in cults, or really want to understand biased reasoning.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Are Christians Dumb?

While working on my previous article, Are you a Stupid Christian?, I realized I should probably address the actual scientific evidence regarding intelligence and belief. This was made all the more apparent when I came across some anti-scientific statements by several Christians on this very same topic (ironically, it was by people who lament the anti-intellectualism in the church). Ultimately, there's no reason for Christians to fear this topic or be concerned with any science that seems to reflect poorly on Christianity and I will explain why this is the case.

The Science
Generally speaking, the scientific data reveals what many Christians fear: religious believers are not as intelligent as atheists. On average, they have less education, lower IQs, less scientific literacy, less verbal ability, and lower scores on analytical thinking (which means higher scores on intuitive thinking). On the one hand, most of the research does not distinguish between different religions so it may not reflect Christians. However, most of the research is done on primarily Christian populations and the few studies looking specifically at Christians have similar results. Therefore, it seems most reasonable to conclude that Christians, at least those in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) countries, are less intelligent than atheists.

The first inclination for many Christians is to reject the science by trying to explain it away, but we don't need to do this. For one, it makes us sound anti-science and anti-intellectual, which only confirms these results. Two, there are just too many studies from too many different areas (for example, scientists also tend to be more atheistic than the general population) which supports the same conclusion. This is called convergent validity and when present, especially with such high consensus, the results are pretty hard to refute. Finally, we can't fix a problem we don't think exists, so this type of research can actually help the church become stronger.

Let's be honest, anyone who's into apologetics has experienced extreme frustration with the rest of the church on this very issue. Why ignore this because perceived outsiders are saying what we've known is true since the First Great Awakening (late 1700s). The best approach is to embrace the science and take the time to understand what it actually means (and doesn't mean) so that we overcome the issues.

Deeper Understanding
The reason Christians initially feel the urge to reject this science is because it gives the sense that if Christians aren't as smart, then we're more likely to be fooled about our religious beliefs. While this could be true, there are a couple reasons I don't think it is. On the one hand, it seems like smarter people are more likely to reach correct conclusions, but on the other hand, they are just as prone to bias, so they're not necessarily better able to reach correct conclusions (see bias blind spot). The takeaway isn't that we should ignore experts. I would still trust them over non-experts in almost all cases. Instead, we should carefully evaluate evidence and even question the experts on our own side.
This graph represents a theoretical comparison between
any two groups to illustrate how small the differences
are even when there is a "large" effect.

The other reason comes down to understanding group data and effect sizes. When scores for a bunch of people are all averaged together, we can only make inferences about the group. So even though atheists as a group tend to be smarter, we don't know if this is true for any particular person. Once we consider effect sizes (see chart), the problem becomes even more complex. Most of the studies have a small to medium effect size, which means there is a huge overlap between atheists and Christians on measures of IQ. In other words, if you choose an atheist and a Christian at random, it's more likely the atheist will be smarter, but there will be a lot of times that the Christian will be smarter.

On a similar note, the difference in populations among groups means there are way more Christians or theists at every intelligence level than there are atheists. So if we were only to consider as valid the opinion of smart people or only people with a super high IQ, then Christians and theists would be in the majority and we should accept their opinion.

Finally, the differences between groups are pretty small. This means that the average atheist's IQ is only a couple points more than the average Christian. If you met an atheist and a Christian with average intelligence for their group, you wouldn't be able to tell who's smarter without doing a series of rigorously controlled tests. So if someone wants to make the claim that Christians or theists are dumb, they need to make the same claim about non-theists.

Other Factors
While I maintain this research is valid and useful, it also doesn't reveal a causal link, or at least the mechanism through which causality works. Religion could be causing people to turn off their brains, people with lower IQ may be more drawn to religion, more intelligent people may be more likely to disagree with cultural practices, and lots of other factors may explain the relationship (being a religious minority, personality factors such as openness to experience, lack of apologetics training, wealth, education, purpose, etc.), or some combination of these things.

In fact, much of the research uses education as a measure of intelligence. There's a high correlation between education and IQ so this is a valid method that we have no reason to reject, especially because it helps at the individual level. For example, professional and aspiring apologists typically have substantially more education than the people they debate or argue with, which means in most of those cases, the Christian is likely the smarter person. This doesn't mean the Christian is correct, but it shows that even if atheists are generally smarter, it's not always the case.

Biased meme from someone who's probably never read
1 Thessalonians 5:21 or read the rich philosophy and thinking
of Christians throughout history.
I've spent my entire professional life working with highly educated people in academia or other research centers. Generally speaking, most of them are oblivious to the intellectual side of Christianity, including the smart Christians. I think it was Richard Dawkins who said that most of the scientists he knows don't really even think about God even if they do believe (I'm trying to find the exact quote so if you know it, please let me know).

The fact that atheists tend to be a little smarter than religious believers is somewhere between irrelevant and a very very minor point in favor of atheism. I wouldn't ever use this as an argument if I were an atheist because it doesn't actually deal with the arguments, ignores the research showing intelligent people are just as biased, and shows a misunderstanding of what intelligence actually is. This claim lobbied against theists is just a distraction away from the content of the arguments, especially when considering that many intellectuals have never seriously investigated Christianity or sophisticated arguments for God (as opposed to dogmas or strawman arguments).

Thankfully, this is a problem that can be fixed. Intelligence is a composite of two factors, crystallized and fluid intelligence. Crystalized intelligence is our knowledge and it grows over the lifespan whereas fluid intelligence is our thinking ability and is generally stable over the lifespan. This means the church can educate believers, or at least encourage more education, which will lead to increased intelligence among believers.

As the church reconnects with its intellectual roots, it will also be more attractive to intelligent people. Incidentally, getting the church to engage more with their minds will help Christians be more well-rounded humans who are just as capable of loving God with their minds and they are with their hearts.

Apologetics is an obvious way to do this, but it's not the only way. Encouraging deeper study of theology and biblical studies will also do the trick, as will studying science, philosophy, and the humanities.

"The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out." Proverbs 18:15

To access articles use Google Scholar and if a free version is not available, use Sci-Hub. You can also message me if you're having trouble getting access.

-Caldwell-Harris, C. L., Wilson, A. L., LoTempio, E., & Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2011). Exploring the atheist personality: Well-being, awe, and magical thinking in atheists, Buddhists, and Christians. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(7), 659-672.
-Clark, R. (2004). Religiousness, spirituality, and IQ: Are they linked. Explorations: An Undergraduate Research Journal1(1), 35-46.
-Dutton, E., & Van der Linden, D. (2017). Why is intelligence negatively associated with religiousness?. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 3(4), 392-403.
-Gervais, W. M., van Elk, M., Xygalatas, D., McKay, R. T., Aveyard, M., Buchtel, E. T., ... & Svedholm-Häkkinen, A. M. (2018). Analytic atheism: A cross-culturally weak and fickle phenomenon?. Judgment and Decision Making, 13, 268-274.
-Kanazawa, S. (2010). Why liberals and atheists are more intelligent. Social Psychology Quarterly73(1), 33-57.
-Kinnaman, D., & Lyons, G. (2007). UnChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity... and why it matters. Baker Books.
-Lynn, R., Harvey, J., & Nyborg, H. (2009). Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations. Intelligence37(1), 11-15.
-Pennycook, G. (2014). Evidence that analytic cognitive style influences religious belief: Comment on Razmyar and Reeve (2013). Intelligence, 43, 21-26.
-Pennycook, G., Ross, R. M., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2016). Atheists and agnostics are more reflective than religious believers: Four empirical studies and a meta-analysis. PloS one, 11(4), e0153039.
-Pew Forum, Scientists and Belief, 2009.
-Rios, K., Cheng, Z. H., Totton, R. R., & Shariff, A. F. (2015). Negative stereotypes cause Christians to underperform in and disidentify with science. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(8), 959-967.
-Sherkat, D. E. (2010). Religion and verbal ability. Social Science Research, 39(1), 2-13.
-Sherkat, D. E. (2011). Religion and Scientific Literacy in the United States. Social Science Quarterly, 92(5), 1134-1150.
-Stagnaro, M. N., Ross, R. M., Pennycook, G., & Rand, D. G. (2019). Cross-cultural support for a link between analytic thinking and disbelief in God: Evidence from India and the United Kingdom.
-Stoet, G., & Geary, D. C. (2017). Students in countries with higher levels of religiosity perform lower in science and mathematics. Intelligence, 62, 71-78.
-Thomas, R. (2017). Atheism and unbelief among Indian scientists: Towards an anthropology of atheism (s). Society and Culture in South Asia, 3(1), 45-67.
-West, R. F., Meserve, R. J., & Stanovich, K. E. (2012). Cognitive sophistication does not attenuate the bias blind spot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(3), 506–519.
-Zuckerman, M., Silberman, J., & Hall, J. A. (2013). The relation between intelligence and religiosity: A meta-analysis and some proposed explanations. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17(4), 325-354.
-Zuckerman, M., Li, C., Lin, S., & Hall, J. A. (2019). The Negative Intelligence–Religiosity Relation: New and Confirming Evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167219879122.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Are you a Stupid Christian?

This view represents what we're up against.
Christians have a reputation for being stupid. Anyone engaged in apologetics has probably been told (usually by someone in complete shock) that they're the first intelligent Christian they've met. The charge that Christians are stupid also comes in related names such as anti-science, anti-intellectual, ignorant, uneducated, unintelligent, dumb, and any more. The point is that there are a lot of people who think Christians are intellectually inferior to the rest of society and the list below are things that will confirm that stereotype.

Whether this reputation about Christians is true is not the point of this article (but I do discuss this in my next one, Are Christians Dumb?). In this article, I'm not trying to argue about whether any of the beliefs below are right or wrong. All I want to do is point out that if you have any of the beliefs below, even the ones that seem completely unrelated to religion, it will negatively impact your evangelism and apologetics efforts.

For the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 9:23)
People make automatic judgments about others very quickly, often without conscious thought, and these perceptions are very hard to change. If I told you I believe in Santa Claus and you believed that I meant it, would you trust anything I tell you about God if you don't already believe it? Certainly not! If anything, you might be less confident about your beliefs about the things that we agree on.

Granted, belief in Santa Claus is not like belief in God; however, some atheists do think that it is and many people would argue that some of the beliefs below are just as ridiculous as an adult believing in Santa. Again, this article isn't about critiquing Christians, but being aware of how others see us. For more on how perceptions affect evangelism, check out my series on persuasive apologetics. The article on authority is particularly relevant to this article.

If you believe any of the things below, be aware of how ridiculous these beliefs sound to unbelievers and consider whether it is worth talking about with non-Christians or posting about publicly on social media (and the same goes for politics). If you think that discussing these topics might bring people closer to Christ, then it might be worth discussing with non-Christians.

In cases when we do decide to stand against the experts, humility is key. This isn't a popular view among some Christians, especially those without actual expertise, but true experts (Ph.D. scholars in the relevant field, not a semi-related field), really do know what they're talking about. They've studied the issue in way more depth than most people even know is possible. If it seems like they don't know what they're talking about, it's almost certainly because of your ignorance, not theirs.

Image result for dunning kruger effect
Graph of the Dunning-Kruger effect
Getting information from reporters, news stories, blogs, pastors, theologians, or other Christian leaders does not make you an expert or even make you well-informed. To have a well-informed opinion, you need to read and understand the peer-reviewed articles on the topic. Real experts have read hundreds, if not thousands of them, depending on how broad the topic is.

In most cases when I talk to someone who holds beliefs contrary to expert consensus (think Jesus mythicism), they haven't read any peer-reviewed academic work on the subject. In the rare cases that they have, they clearly didn't understand it or they just cherry-picked a couple quotes or articles that support their view.

We as Christians can choose to hold ourselves to higher intellectual standards than the rest of society. If it's really that important for you to hold a strong view in opposition to the experts, read, understand, and save relevant articles for and against your view so you can refer to them when the topic comes up. This way, if you have a discussion on the topic with someone who disagrees with you, you won't sound like just another stupid Christians (obviously this is assuming you don't get belligerent and yell the information at the person or overload them with a list of 50 articles they need to read 😀)

Here's a list of several beliefs and practices that make people sound stupid (even though I think a small handful of them are actually true and/or good). This list is a result of talking to many intelligent non-Christians over the years, researching perceptions about Christians, my own formal education related to these topics, and some help from crowdsourcing. If you think of any others to add, please let me know. Additionally, I fully recognize that Christians may have their own list of things they think make unbelievers sound stupid, but that misses the point.

Terrible meme, but it reflects what
people believe about Christians
and other religious believers.
1. Denial that global warming/climate change is happening and humans are at least partially responsible.
2. Using and promoting the enneagram.
3. Visiting a chiropractor for illnesses or other treatments beyond their capacity.
4. Use of essential oils for medicinal purposes.
5. Putting amber beads on your children.
6. Being against vaccines.
7. Claiming that vaccines cause autism.
8. Rejecting evolution.
9. Belief in a young-earth.
10. Belief that GMOs are unhealthy.
11. Belief that contrails from planes are harmful chemtrails from the government.
12. Going on a fad diet techniques or products (detoxing, Thrive, Glutton-free (without having Celiacs), paleo, and many many others).
13. Believing bigfoot exists.
14. Belief in UFOs.
15. Thinking homeopathic remedies are generally effective.
16. Opposition to fluoridated water.
17. Believing in the accuracy of astrology/zodiac signs/horoscopes.
18. Claim organic food is healthier (as opposed to favoring it for environmental or moral reasons)
19. Belief that near-death experiences are the soul temporarily leaving the body.
20. Belief that reincarnation happens
21. Thinking that inanimate object, people, or animals are possessed by evil spirits
22. Belief that ghosts exist (and haunt places).
23. Thinking the earth is flat.
24. Using citronella to repel mosquitos.
25. Thinking the moon landing was a hoax.
26. Believing conspiracies about JFKs assassination.
27. Thinking that 9/11 was a government-orchestrated conspiracy.
28. Believing that a full moon affects behavior.
29. Using magnetic bracelets for healing.
30. Belief in psychics (not physics).
31. Belief in the Lochness Monster.
32. Saying (and believing) that sugar causes kids to be hyperactive.

Just to reiterate, believing these things does not mean you're wrong or stupid. What it means is that your beliefs on these topics contradict what a large number of other people believe, particularly educated people and experts. Being aware of this can help you have humility, potentially reevaluate your beliefs, and more effectively interact with unbelievers.

Clark, R. (2004). Religiousness, spirituality, and IQ: Are they linked. Explorations: An Undergraduate Research Journal1(1), 35-46.
Kanazawa, S. (2010). Why liberals and atheists are more intelligent. Social Psychology Quarterly73(1), 33-57.
Kinnaman, D., & Lyons, G. (2007). UnChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity... and why it matters. Baker Books.
Lynn, R., Harvey, J., & Nyborg, H. (2009). Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations. Intelligence37(1), 11-15.
Pennycook, G., Ross, R. M., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2016). Atheists and agnostics are more reflective than religious believers: Four empirical studies and a meta-analysis. PloS one, 11(4), e0153039.
Stagnaro, M. N., Ross, R. M., Pennycook, G., & Rand, D. G. (2019). Cross-cultural support for a link between analytic thinking and disbelief in God: Evidence from India and the United Kingdom.