Critical Thinking, the Intellect, and Religion

Posted on: May 1, 2023 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: From Duane

Critical Thinking, the Intellect, and Religion


A personal story
I have a friend, an atheist, who was raised by fundamentalist Christian parents. Over the past several years she has regaled me with many stories of her upbringing. She told me that her parents believed that everything written in the Bible was true exactly as written, that, of course, being one of the defining characteristics of Christian fundamentalism. She said her parents told her that a specific passage of the Bible implies that the value for pi is 3. Exactly 3. She argued that that is obviously false, that all math textbooks give it as something like 3.1416 (the digits actually extend many hundreds of places beyond 3.14159, so books tend to round up). Her parents claimed that all the math textbooks were wrong. She said that she could demonstrate right in front of them that pi was not exactly 3 with a round plate and a piece of string. They declined the offer. If the Bible told them 3, then it was 3.

When she announced that she was enrolling in college, they worried what effect all that education would have on her, that it might cause her to question her faith. When after a few years, she announced that she decided to go to graduate school (in psychology), they worried all the more. By that point she had already made the switch to atheism, but had not made the decision explicit to them.

This personal story demonstrates the very real conflict in the minds of many—between reason (along with logic, knowledge, and science), on the one hand, and faith, which is essentially holding a belief in the absence (or in spite) of logic, knowledge, and science, on the other.

Martin Luther, the early-16th century German priest and theologian whose beliefs formed the foundation for Lutheranism, put the issue bluntly:

“Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”


Our data
That brings us to ex-Seventh-day Adventists and the survey. Question 37 asks: “To what extent do you feel that your critical thinking skills (e.g., awareness of scientific knowledge) were diminished while a member of the SDA?”

A whopping 44% of respondents answered, “A great deal,” the most extreme choice. A further 17% answered, “A lot,” the second most extreme, while 14% indicated, “A moderate amount.” Only 11% said “A little” and 14% said, “None.”

Thus, 75% of the respondents (or, three quarters of the total, which was more than 950 individuals at the time that the percentages were extracted) indicated that being in the SDA diminished their critical thinking abilities at least to a moderate extent.

Some context
A research study is instructive here. A team of psychologists was interested in determining the effect that religious (Christian) instruction had on the critical thinking abilities of children. In this particular study, the subjects were 5- and 6-year-olds and the task set before them was to see how well they could determine fact from fiction in a series of stories. The most relevant point for our purposes is that children who attended church or who went to parochial school, or both, were significantly more likely than those children who did not (the secular kids) to consider stories with elements of magic to be realistic. The researchers posited that exposure to accounts of supernatural beings (God, angels, etc.) and supernatural activities (miracles, etc.), as one would normally encounter in religious settings, dampen children’s critical thinking abilities and make them more prone to errors of reality testing in the real world.

In fact, many studies have been conducted on the relationship between cognitive abilities and religiosity. The general finding is a negative correlation: that is, more intelligent people are less likely to be religious. People with higher cognitive ability, better grades in school, and higher educational attainment are all less likely to endorse God-beliefs. The most prominent scientists in America are very high in atheism. States in the US with high educational attainment, on average, tend to be less religious.

There is, of course, a cause-and-effect question to be answered. Does low cognitive ability lead to a predisposition to believe in religious teachings, or does immersion in a religion lead to poorer than normal cognitive development? Many researchers would argue that individuals who are lacking in critical thinking skills by nature are more prone to illogical, supernatural religious messages. So people low in intelligence would be ready-made customers for religions. On the other hand, many researchers argue that a steady indoctrination in a religion makes an individual less able to think critically in general. This view is supported by the study on the children asked about stories containing magic, as well as the ex-SDA members responding to Question 37 on the survey. Of course, these two options need not be mutually exclusive. Personally, I believe both are true. That is, people of naturally lower intelligence and critical thinking ability are more susceptible to religious indoctrination and people who are subjected to religious teaching will tend to suffer a decline in critical thinking skills.

More questions
Where do some of the lapses in critical thinking in combination with a literal interpretation of the Bible lead? One venue is Flat Earth belief. The Flat Earth Society was founded in the early 1800s in England, by Samuel Birley Rowbotham. He contended that by a literal interpretation of the Bible he could deduce that the Earth was a flat disk. Further, the sun, moon, planets, and stars were only a few hundred miles from Earth.

Of course, scientists would argue otherwise. The Earth is a somewhat misshapen sphere, the sun is 93,000,000 miles away, and so on. But the Flat Earth Society was not deterred. It maintained its set of beliefs in the face of all evidence and reason. Various flat Earth societies came and went. There is still at least one today, making the same claims, against all science and reason, still based on a literal reading of the Bible.

In the 1800s clergyman James Ussher calculated that the Earth was created exactly in the year 4004 B.C. His source was the Bible. He made a careful reading of names and ages lived and so on to come to his conclusion. The idea of the Earth being a very new planet survives in the minds of Young Earth Creationists, who estimate the Earth’s age at 6,000 to 10,000 years. They say that the Earth and all its lifeforms were created by the acts of the Abrahamic God in the first few days of this period. Of course, scientists who study such things disagree. Modern estimate put the Earth age at about 4.5 billion years. This is about 500,000 times older than what the New Earth Creationists would have it. Still, the Young Earth Creationists, and other Fundamentalist Christians, start with a literal reading of the Bible and go from there.

Of course, besides the shape of the Earth, the distance of the stars and the planets from the Earth, and the age of the Earth (and the value of pi), there are numerous other nonsensical things that a literal reading of the Bible or religious instruction would have one believe. Prominent atheist Seth Andrews, himself a former devout Christian for decades, writes about trying for years to explain his religious beliefs—the inconsistencies, the illogic, the multiple weird leaps of faith. The title is instructive: “Christianity Made Me Talk Like an Idiot.” Other ex-Christians have come forward with the same sort of confession.

Our respondents
Incidentally, Question 55 on the survey asked, “What is your highest level of formal education?” The responses were:

High school                                          14.0%

Bachelor’s degree                                 45.8%

Master’s degree                                    23.3%

PhD or other post-graduate degree        17.0%

According to the US Census Bureau, for the year 2018 the percentage of Americans over the age of 25 with a PhD or other post-graduate degree was 7.7. The number for our survey sample was 17%, disproportionately higher than the national average. I don’t know what the average educational attainment for SDA members is (that is, those who stay affiliated), but I would dare to say that the ex-SDA members who answered our survey are better educated (and more intelligent) than those who remain. So I am led to wonder if those who decide to leave have the cognitive skills to see through what they perceive as the illogical and anti-scientific messages of the SDA church and leave behind those of, on average, lesser cognitive ability.


Andrews, Seth. (2022). Christianity Made Me Talk Like an Idiot. Outskirts Press

Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2015). Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity. New York: Routledge Press.

Zmigrod, L. et al. (2019). Cognitive flexibility and religious disbelief. Psychological Research. 83: 1749-1759.




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