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Religion And Stupidity

'You're too smart to believe that'

A Facebook friend posted to his page:

“Shut up! No way – you’re too smart! I’m sorry, that came out wrong…”

The reaction a good friend and Evangelical Christian colleague had when she found out I’m a Catholic.


I had to laugh at that, because it recalled conversations I’ve been part of (alas) back in the 1990s, as a fresh Catholic convert, in which we Catholics wondered among ourselves why any smart people would be Evangelical. After I told a Catholic intellectual friend back in 2006 that I was becoming Orthodox, he said something to the effect of, “You’re too smart for that.”

It’s interesting to contemplate why we religious people who believe things that are rather implausible from a relatively neutral point of view can’t understand how intelligent religious people who believe very different things can possibly hold those opinions. I kept getting into this argument with other conservative Christians when Mitt Romney was running for president. They couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him because he’s a Mormon, and Mormons believe “crazy” things. Well, yes, from an orthodox Christian point of view, their beliefs are outlandish, but come on, we believe, as they do, that the God of all Creation, infinite and beyond time, took the form of a mortal man, suffered, died, arose again, and ascended into heaven — and that our lives on this earth and our lives in eternity depend on uniting ourselves to Him. And we believe that that same God established a sacred covenant with a Semitic desert tribe, and made Himself known to mankind through His words to them. And so forth. And these are only the basic “crazy things” that we believe! Judge Mormons to be incorrect in their theology, fine, but if you think they are somehow intellectually defective for believing the things they do that diverge from Christian orthodoxy, then it is you who are suffering from a defect of the intellectual imagination.

My point is not to say all religious belief is equally irrational, or that it is irrational at all. I don’t believe that. A very great deal depends on the premises from which you begin. Catholics and Orthodox, for example, find it strange that so many Evangelicals believe that holding to the Christian faith requires believing that the Genesis story of a seven-day creation must be taken literally, such that the world is only 7,000 years old, and so forth. But then, we don’t read the Bible as they do. I find it wildly implausible that they believe these things, but I personally know people who are much more intelligent than I am who strongly believe them. I wouldn’t want these folks teaching geology or biology to my kids, but to deny their intelligence would be, well, stupid.

We could go on all day with examples from all over. I can also point to you things that atheists believe that are incredible, but they insist on them, and call anyone who doesn’t believe them idiots. (In fact, atheists are the worst at insisting that those who don’t share their beliefs do so from a lack of intellect; see The Brights.)

The more interesting questions have to do with why people believe what they believe, even though those beliefs seem irrational or at least implausible. We all do this, and part of doing it is thinking that those who believe as we do are the rational ones who see the world clearly. For religious intellectuals (or atheist intellectuals who think about religion), there’s a particular temptation here, because they tend to understand the world through ideas and syllogisms. The truth is, people more often come to embrace the ideas that they do primarily because of what’s going on in their hearts, not in their heads.

In the Russian Orthodox tradition, there is a character type called “fool for Christ”, defined like this:

Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. (1 Corinthians 3:18-19 KJV)

One form of the ascetic Christian life is called foolishness for the sake of Christ. The fool-for-Christ set for himself the task of battling within himself the root of all sin, pride. In order to accomplish this he took on an unusual style of life, appearing as someone bereft of his mental faculties, thus bringing upon himself the ridicule of others. In addition he exposed the evil in the world through metaphorical and symbolic words and actions. He took this ascetic endeavor upon himself in order to humble himself and to also more effectively influence others, since most people respond to the usual ordinary sermon with indifference. The spiritual feat of foolishness for Christ was especially widespread in Russia. –(Excerpted from The Law of God, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY: 1993)

St. Xenia of St. Petersburg was a fool for Christ. The great contemporary Russian novel Laurus features a couple of fools for Christ. The great contemporary Russian film Ostrov (The Island) is built around a fool for Christ. I have found that some American readers of Laurus find the fools for Christ in the narrative to be the most difficult element of the novel to understand. I can easily see why. The concept is ultimately about humility, and reminding us that God sometimes reveals himself through those the world considers foolish. For Christians, it is critically important that God chose not to enter into time as a king, a high priest, or a theology professor, but as a poor man from Nazareth. That Catholic, that Evangelical, that Orthodox — or that Hindu, Pagan, Muslim, Jew, even atheist — may be closer to the Kingdom of God than those who believe they hold the right beliefs realize. This doesn’t make the heterodox person correct in what their minds have concluded, but it does draw our attention to the primacy of the conversion of the heart. The Orthodox abbot Tryphon writes:

Of all humanity’s faiths we must know that we have perhaps more, but we must never judge those who are not Orthodox. We rejoice in the knowledge they do have, but must not be filled with such pride as to think we have the right to judge, correct or teach those who are not Orthodox.

This does not mean that we see Orthodoxy as anything less than the very fountain of Truth, and the Church Christ founded. But we must not allow ourselves to think we have the right to correct or teach anyone. We must honor other peoples beliefs and not give in to the prideful position that we have the right to teach or correct others. The truth that is found within Orthodoxy must be shared by living our faith in love, and not in judging or correcting others. Truth, wherever it is found, is Orthodox Truth, and if other religions embrace some of these truths, we must rejoice and give thanks for what they do have.

People who love God and are trying to live holy lives pleasing to Him, according to the knowledge they have been given, are to be respected. They may not have the fullness of Apostolic Truth, but if they are believers, and are trying to live a life pleasing to God, we must give thanks to Christ for what they do have. They have God as their Father, just as do we. But they can have the Church as their Mother only if they see in us how Orthodoxy has impacted our lives, and made us a loving people who do not judge others, but only love everyone.

Note well that the abbot is not saying that the non-Orthodox Christians are right in their belief (“They may not have the fullness of Apostolic Truth”), but that they must be respected. I don’t know Abbot Tryphon’s work, so I don’t want to impute to him views he may not have. Taken too far, the opinion he shares above would seem to justify refusing to evangelize. That is not justifiable for Christians. On the other hand, he does seem to be saying here that the better way to evangelize is by living out what we know to be true in love, and bearing witness that way, instead of through polemics. I recall reading a NYT piece from just after the Rwanda genocide, which was a Christian vs. Christian slaughter. The piece talked about how some Rwandan survivors left Christianity and became Muslim after that, finding it impossible to believe that Christianity was true, given they way they had seen Christians behave. We find now reports of Muslim refugees to Europe converting to Christianity for the same reason. It’s about the heart, people, not the head. The desires of the heart must be rightly ordered by reason, but the desire for God starts in the heart.

Anyway. I can report some good news to you. Evgeny Vodolazkin e-mailed a couple of days ago to say he has signed a major film deal for Laurus. I can’t give you more details just now, but the film will be made in Russia, in the Russian language. Evgeny still owns the film rights for North America and Europe. I am thrilled that this great and astonishing novel will be made into a film by Russians, but I hope that some American filmmakers will read it and try to do the same here. If Scorsese’s version of The Silence succeeds artistically and commercially, it will give Laurus a chance to be made in America.

UPDATE: I was just thinking about what a difference it made to me early in my undergraduate years, when I was wrestling with whether or not I believed, to consider that many of the thinkers I most admired — especially, at that point, Kierkegaard — were believing Christians. If they could believe in God, then the narrative I had accepted — that religious belief was an intellectual defect — had to be false.



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