Tucker's Reviews > Can a Smart Person Believe in God?

Can a Smart Person Believe in God? by Michael Guillen
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Jan 27, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: finished, less-relativist
Read in January, 2008

One of this book's stated purposes is to show that theists are just as smart as atheists (p. 3). Far from proving this point (by comparing average intelligence among different groups or inquiring whether certain thought processes are inherently smarter than others), Guillen merely shows the reasoning process behind his own theism. The other stated purpose, to help theists "feel more secure in the face of such confrontations" with atheists (p. 4), is a better characterization of the book's contents.

Guillen uses the words "religious" and "spiritual" interchangeably because, he says, what matters for his purposes is that an individual is not an atheist, and that she or he believes in "aspects of reality that transcend what the mind alone can understand fully." (p. 6-7) His indifference towards the subtleties of religious belief do not bode well for his characterization of theism as "smart" and compatible with scientific inquiry. As it happens, plenty of self-identified "spiritual" and "religious" people are atheists (whether they know it or not), and plenty of theists are neither spiritual nor religious. Guillen's book actually seems deist, although he never uses the term; such a belief may be, under certain interpretations, non-spiritual, particularly if the Creator is thought to have no personality and not to interact with the world, thus making itself irrelevant to our lives.

Guillen claims the existence of a Spiritual Quotient (SQ) that complements Intelligence Quotient (IQ). (p. 4) He makes the puzzling statement that science and faith can operate independently, but they can collaborate to improve one's "vision" (pp. 128-9). People who use both "see in stereo," an experience he refers to as his own "stereoscopic faith" (pp. 15-16), whereas people with low SQ don't know what they're missing (p. 7). He declines to define exactly what SQ is, even leaving open the question of whether it is defined by propositional belief in God, attitudes such as awe or humility, activities such as prayer, or the sense of a supernatural presence. Nor does he address whether SQ, like IQ, is at least partially fixed at birth, or whether and how it can be enhanced.

[Aside: One might assume that Guillen's concept of Spiritual Quotient somehow rolls in the concept of Emotional Quotient proposed by others but unmentioned in his book. After all, isn't the right brain (creativity, emotion, and intuition) the complement to the left brain (logic)? Isn't spirituality typically understand as a right brain activity? If this is so, Guillen's characterization of atheists as having "low SQ" might be seen as being disparaging and inaccurate, due to the implication that atheists are emotionally or relationally challenged, or fail to use one-half of their brains. Guillen's diagram of a human face, with one eye representing SQ and one eye representing IQ, either of which can be shut or open, suggests the left brain/right brain paradigm in a literal way. So, too, does his comment that "art, culture, and religion" set people apart from animals, more so than intelligence, language, and virtue (p. 125) and the patronizing comment that "even atheists are capable of loving an adopted child as their own." (p. 142) If it is countered that spirituality is not intended to refer to the right brain at all, then we must question Guillen's scientific basis for identifying the SQ.]

Guillen claims atheists believe in "Randomness, a god whose supernatural-like powers can allegedly transform complete chaos into exquisite order." (p. 2) He further muddles the definition of "religion" by attributing a brand of religion to atheists, as in this sentence: "atheists have relatively low SQs because they worship merely the obvious: the human mind, nature, or the laws of science." (p. 28) (People with high SQs, he says, worship the unseen creator of these things.) His allegation that even atheists have some SQ leads to his conclusion that "atheists are religious," which explains why they seek after "sacred" things. (p. 28) Unfortunately, if everyone has some SQ and everyone is therefore religious, this vitiates the book's opening definition of religion as unique to theists. He motions that "atheists who feel enormously smart about having science for their god" should be chastened by science's periodic shifting of its own core beliefs. (p. 98) He misses the point that atheists recognize nothing as a god, not even science, and that many admit atheism precisely because they are humble about their own capacity for knowledge and because they accept that their spiritual beliefs may need to be revised when new evidence arises. Guillen proclaims, "I revere the scientific method, but I don't worship it," (p. 64) without adequately explaining the difference or showing how atheists cross the line.

When he describes science as "doomed to permanent indecision and debate," he implies he does not like this part of science. (p. 102) But others revel in the opportunity to change their minds frequently in pursuit of accuracy. Guillen's sense of "doom" and his stated personal preference for a method of inquiry that maintains a stable worldview (p. 97) is not evidence for God's existence.

Guillen suggests several types of atheist: "arrogant," "rebellious," or "uncertain." The only good atheist, it seems, is the "Christian atheist" who upholds traditional virtues. (p. 22) With this sleight of hand, he begs the question of whether virtues belong to religion, and he credits any good that comes from an atheist to his own religion, Christianity.

Guillen revels that 85% of Americans with post-graduate degrees believe in God (p. 24), but fails to acknowledge that it is less than the 94% of believers among the overall American population (p. 2) or to provide a theory for why education seems to reduce theism. Surely something has been written on this topic. For a small example, shortly after finishing his book, I read Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz, and was tickled by his claim that Reed College is known in Portland, Oregon as a "godless place" that "receives more awards and fellowships, per capita, than any other American college and has entertained more than thirty Rhodes scholars." (p. 37)

Guillen says that atheists often accuse theists of searching for patterns in essentially random occurrences. He counters that these patterns are, in fact, not illusory, and that science codifies some of these patterns as "laws". It requires equal leaps of faith, he says, to claim that these patterns are authored by God or by Randomness. (p. 33) I am not sold for a minute on this bizarre anthropomorphization of randomness as a design artist who develops patterns. Certainly there are patterns in nature, due to the chemical properties of materials or the behavioral tendencies of living things, and there are also some events that scientists believe to be essentially unpredictable. These scientists are simply reporting what is; they are not making a "leap of faith" by positing anyone who invents what is.

Principles aside, says Guillen, atheism is violent in practice, citing twentieth-century atrocities committed by atheist communist governments (p. 51); how religion in the twenty-first century escapes the same criticism is mystifying. (Abhorrence of religiously motivated violence was the cornerstone of Christopher Hitchens' recent mega-hit God is Not Great.)

God is no "viral fiction" or "meme," Guillen says, because most people never come to reject God as they eventually reject most lies and childhood stories (pp. 37-38) and because atheist totalitarian governments haven't been able to provide memes to replace belief in God. (p. 39) Guillen does not acknowledge the writers who have said that God is a special viral fiction or meme, meeting certain psychological needs that have evolved for hypothesized evolutionary reasons. He also fails to understand why the inheritance or imitation of our parents' religious beliefs is evidence against God's actual existence. "So what?" is his exact rebuttal. (p. 38) He points out that many people diverge from, or revise, their parents' belief systems. But of course this need not imply a revision in the direction of an external truth about God; they could just be tailoring or elaborating on this special viral fiction.

Guillen says that Occam's razor is "a completely arbitrary rule" that just "seems to work"; despite his admission that it works, he does not want it used to disavow God's existence. (pp. 76-77) Yet he himself employs the rule to argue for God's existence, when he says that God's existence is "the most clear-cut explanation" for humanity's propensity for theism. (p. 40)

We would never have invented a religion that is challenging as well as comforting, Guillen insists. (p. 43) He does not provide the necessary support for this statement, given that humans voluntarily engage in many challenging endeavors from weight loss to martyrdom. Yet, in one place, he admits something close to the invention of religion: He says his love is made divine by the belief that is divine. (p. 142) Here he conceives divinity as an intentional construct, not an external attribute. As a parallel claim, couldn't we say that religion is made meaningful by the belief that it is meaningful, and not by God's actual existence?

He mistakenly claims that evolutionary biology understands love to be essentially selfish, because of his misinterpretation of the "selfish gene" theory (which, in actuality, simply holds that all genes look for ways to reproduce themselves). (p. 141) Just as Guillen observes that the quality of his love is altered by his beliefs about it, evolutionary biology should be able to accept a parallel premise: love is made unselfish by the belief that it is unselfish.
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message 1: by Trevor (new)

Trevor What a wonderful review.

It is an odd choice of title. The word 'smart' has so many negative connotations that 'intelligent' simply doesn't.

It amuses me when I'm told of all the things I am missing out on by being spiritually blind, except, as seems to be the case here, no one ever says what these wonderous things actually are.

The selfish gene theory is not established biological fact, of course, just a metaphor Dawkins came up with and one that has been much criticised by other biologists. Despite Dawkins repeatedly stressing that the apparent 'selfishness' of our genes says nothing about human selfishness this does seem to be a favourite ploy of the faithful.

The figures you quote are interesting too, and would have made for an interesting discussion in this book - one may be able to be smart and believe in god, but an interesting consideration surely must be why is it that the 'smart' are less likely to believe in god?

In the end I think the question itself is silly. How would one define 'smart', or 'belief' for that matter. It seems hardly surprising that he didn't get around to answering his own question. I'm not even sure your suggestions at the start of your review would do much to settle matters. His real point seems to be the standard insult the faithful give - that only people with faith are capable of properly seeing the world and therefore they are the only ones we can properly call smart.

It seems his title would have been more honest to his convictions if it was called 'Only People Who Believe in God are Smart'.

I know one is not supposed to judge a book by its cover - but honestly!




Tucker I do think you've got a good grasp on this book, Trevor, without even having read it! Very "smart" and not at all "blind" of you.

Varities of spirituality's mysterious wondrousness:

(a) Philosophies that are entirely consistent with rationalism or empiricism, and simply happen to strike the philosopher as especially wonderful (examples: holistic eco-consciousness or a penchant to kill all perceived evildoers)
(b) Emotions of mysterious origin (example: a tendency to "sense" a loving presence when one is deprived of human companionship) and which can be explained through scientific study of the human mind

The atheist can experience such thoughts and emotions, and is arguably better off for being able to "see" the causes and mechanisms behind these thoughts and emotions. I have the double pleasure of being able to be amused by profound coincidences in my life AND to be tickled at how clever is the human brain that I can notice such ironies and automatically begin to weave a personal narrative about them...before I deliberately put a stop to this behavior. Spiritual "vision" would seem only to leave me trapped in the narrative of my own making, and thus be the very opposite of "vision." It's like reading a novel without realizing it's fiction. While reading and believing the story, you might think and feel things you never thought were possible, but it's a giant leap to call such imagination and delusion a kind of useful "vision," especially when you could find a way to cultivate the imagination without the delusion.


Tucker Thanks for your engagement, Rick. There may be good grounds for spiritual belief, but this isn't one of them. I am increasingly bewildered by the fact that this man is an acclaimed scientist.


message 4: by Lena (new)

Lena Tucker,

You wrote:

Spiritual "vision" would seem only to leave me trapped in the narrative of my own making, and thus be the very opposite of "vision." It's like reading a novel without realizing it's fiction.

As both a novelist and a recovering New Age person, I don't think I've seen a statement that better reflects my own experience of spirituality. Thank you for that.

BTW, "Communism, Atheism, Free Love" has been Reed's unofficial slogan since the 1920's and t-shirts with said slogan and the college logo are usually available on campus.


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