The Confident Christian
9/12/12 at 07:41 AM 112 Comments

Are Atheists Smarter than Christians?

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A few years ago at the Crystal Clear Atheism convention, which was held in Northern Virginia, atheist Richard Dawkins was asked what the difference was between Christians and atheists. “Well, we’re bright,” said Dawkins.[1] The website and organization The Brights personify this thought.

Agreeing with Dawkins is comedian Bill Maher who said: "We are a nation that is unenlightened because of religion. I do believe that. I think that religion stops people from thinking . . . . I think religion is a neurological disorder . . . . I am just embarrassed that it has been taken over by people like evangelicals, by people who do not believe in science and rationality.”[2] 

Maher’s last point seemed to be somewhat echoed in a study published in the April 2012 edition of Science. According to the article “Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief”, exercising analytic thought supposedly erodes belief in God.[3] 

In a Huffington Post article that cites the study, writer Rob Brooks spells out the cultural ramifications of what this means (at least, to him): “As it becomes clearer that religion is, in some senses, the opposite of rational thinking, we may have to shed the comfort of ‘I'm OK, you're OK’ ideas”.[4] 

In other words, if you believe in God, you’re really not OK; at least, not where your brainpower is concerned. That, says Brooks, may mean believers are on a collision course with the more enlightened unbelievers in society where there will be cultural winners and losers because “we probably can't keep pottering away in our different sheds forever.”[5] 

Are unbelievers really smarter than Christians or other people of faith? Or is there something else at work? No one denies that throughout all of history there have been brilliant men and women who have believed in God and there have also been equally intellectually equipped individuals who have denied the existence of any gods. Why is that?

The Atheist Position 

In general, the atheist positions on the matter have traditionally been articulated best by Freud and Marx and have filtered up into today's thinking.

Sigmund Freud sums up his thoughts on religious beliefs when he says, “They are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. . . .We call belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relation to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification.”[6]   

Freud saw religious belief as a coping mechanism that assisted people in dealing with the harsh realities of life. The desires of the individual, says Freud, cause them to look past their intellect to something that isn’t real and can’t be verified. However, the belief satisfies a strong desire that the person has for some emotional need to be met and so they yield to it.

For example, a person I know lost a loved one some time back and commented to me that she was only a Christian for the end game; that she just couldn’t go on living and thinking that she wouldn’t see her relative again. Such an attitude fits perfectly into Freud’s theory.

Freud also believed that such illusions can and should be resisted by people, and that those who choose to participate in religion are “guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor.”[7] 

Karl Marx thought two things about religion. First, that it was a mechanism of control used by society’s elite to manipulate the masses.

But second, he said “Religion is the self-consciousness and the self-feeling of the man who has either not yet found himself, or else (having found himself) has lost himself once more. . . .This state, this society, produce religion, a perverted world consciousness, because they are a perverted world. . . . Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people” (Marx’s original emphasis).[8] 

So Marx believed that religion arises from a perverted consciousness that is a sort of collective cognitive dysfunction brought on by a distorted social order. Marx’s ideas have spawned a number of similar contentions in the same vein throughout history.

For example, Richard Dawkins asserts that children are genetically programmed to believe without questioning the word of authority figures, especially parents, and this leaves children open to “infection” by religion, which is a virus and “warped reality”.[9] There is also the widely discredited work of Dean Hamer, author of The God Gene, who claimed that a VMAT2 gene in humans was responsible for a belief in God and therefore aimed one’s faculties in the wrong direction.

The idea propagated by Marx and others that believers have a true mental disability is more widespread than one might think. For example, a short while back I was asked to talk to a rather aggressive atheist about some questions he had regarding Christianity. He would only discuss things via email with me. One of our emails contained the following exchange:

Atheist: “I believe that people that think they understand the true meaning of things through god are interesting.”

Me: “You mean crazy?”

Atheist: “Clinically, yes.”

The Christian Position 

The Christian answer as to why very smart people disagree on the subject of belief in God takes two different forms.

It should first be understood that Freud’s sword cuts both ways. Could it not be true that the atheist/agnostic has wishes and desires of their own? Perhaps a wish that no Deity exists who will call them to account one day for their actions? Such a desire can be very motivating and could drive a person to hold an atheistic/agnostic position.

For example, Charles Darwin said: “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friend, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”[10] 

The next Christian response notes that Scripture has much to say about the mind, why some turn away from the idea of God, and why others believe. First, contrary to what many atheists believe, the Bible commands its reader to think and use his/her reasoning powers. God says to Isaiah: “Come now, and let us reason together, says the LORD” (Isaiah 1:18). Paul told his apprentice Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim. 2:7). Paul also told the church in Corinth: “Do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor. 14:20).

So, any argument that says Christianity promotes some sort of fideistic approach to thinking and belief about God is simply out of touch with the Bible’s teachings.

If that’s true, then why don’t all highly intellectual people believe in God? Scripture says that everyone is born into this world with a spiritually dead mind (Eph. 2:1) that is driven by desires, which are in rebellion against God. Where God is concerned, the natural mind is polluted by sin (Rom. 1:28), blinded toward God (1 Cor. 2:14), thinks in futile ways (Eph. 4:17), is ignorant about God (Eph. 4:18), is openly hostile towards God (Rom. 8:7), and is completely unable to come to God on its own or understand His truth in a saving way (1 Cor. 2:14, 2 Cor. 3:14).

So, if all are born with this condition, how does someone then believe and become a Christian? The answer is twofold. The primary cause of a person’s salvation is God and the secondary cause is the exposure to God’s truth.

The Bible teaches that no one understands or comes to God on their own (Rom. 3:11, John 6:44), so because of that, God is the One who initiates a person’s salvation; He is the One who comes to seek and save the lost. God is the one who first grants repentance (2 Tim. 2:25-26), regenerates the lost person (John 3:8), and it is “by His doing you are in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:30). Without question, the Bible says that God is the primary cause of a person being enlightened about spiritual truth and being able to accept it.

But that does not mean that a person does not acquiesce to the teaching of the gospel and rational, evidential, logical, and reasonable arguments that are presented to them. These things always existed and were true, but were not acceptable to the person prior to the Spirit’s work. They are the secondary causes of a person’s salvation and are absolutely necessary in the Work of God, as C. S. Lewis observed: “Nearly everyone I know who has embraced Christianity in adult life has been influenced by what seemed to him to be at least a probable argument for theism.”[11] 

A perfect example of both causes in action is found in Acts where Paul preaches to a group of women, with the writer of Acts noting: “A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Lydia needed to hear Paul’s message (the secondary cause) to believe, but she also needed God (the primary cause) to open her heart to accept the things she was hearing from Paul.

Who’s Right? 

So, who’s correct as to why there are very smart people who don’t believe in God and highly intelligent people who do? Freud? Marx? The writers of Scripture? Someone else?

As a Christian, I obviously believe what the Bible teaches, but that wasn’t always the case. Although I knew about Jesus and had heard His statement, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30), I couldn’t have cared less. I had absolutely zero affection for the things of God.

But that all changed at age nineteen for me. God had mercy on me, reached down and opened my heart just like Lydia’s so that I would accept the teaching of Bible prophecy that I began studying at that time and the testimony about Christ, which God was using as a secondary cause to bring me to Him.

I’m certainly not the smartest person in the world, but I’m no intellectual laggard either. Once I didn’t believe, but now I do. Is an atheist smarter than me because he/she doesn’t believe or am I smarter than them because I do?


I’m a Christian because God revealed Himself to me, used reasonable and evidential means to bring me to Him, and changed my spiritually dead mind so that today I can say with Paul, “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, (New York: Anchor Books, 1964), pgs. 47,49.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction,” in On Religion, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, tr. Reinhold Niebuhr (Chico, CA: Scholar’s Press, 1964), pp. 41-2.

[10] Nora Barlow, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1958), pg. 87.

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