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The Atheist IQ: Why St Thomas Wouldn't Approve - by John Clark

The Atheist IQ: Why St Thomas Wouldn’t Approve

2 minutes

When I was growing up, reading various lists of the “smartest people in the world,” I sometimes found my faith tested. At that point—ignorant of the various proofs for the existence of God and the entire field of metaphysics—I read about the geniuses of the world who concluded that God did not exist.

My thought process was something like: “I know that these people are smarter than I am, and if some of them don’t believe in God, could they be on to something?” After all, these guys and gals had IQ’s of over 160 for goodness sake!

What I have come to realize in years since is that some accepted measures of intelligence are terribly flawed, especially in how they relate to matters of the existence of God.

Here’s why.

Academically, our primary measure of intelligence is the IQ (intelligence quotient) test. It wasn’t always this way. For most of recorded history, human intelligence was not considered determinable by taking a twelve-minute quiz on the Internet. In fact, it was only in the late 1800’s that an intelligence test was devised. Up until that point, whether someone was considered intelligent was based on quite a number of factors.

If you were writing an intelligence test, you might include questions covering a broad swath of human knowledge. You might design a test that measured—among other things—creativity, artistic talent, wisdom, decision-making, the ability to solve puzzles, the ability to communicate with others, and the ability to recognize cause and effect.

Well, you might.

But that’s not what IQ tests included. On the contrary, early intelligence tests were not intended to measure real-world areas of human intelligence or, for that matter, questions about God; these tests merely measured how well a person would do in school. If you did well in class, you were the kind of person who got a high IQ; if you scored a high IQ, you were the kind of person who did well in class.

Everything revolved around classroom achievement. Despite the plethora of inventors, artists, and mathematicians whose lives taught the contrary lesson, classroom achievement was henceforth equated with intelligence.


Sadly, modern tests have largely remained that way, and accepted definitions of intelligence are awkwardly narrow. Ironically, we have designed intelligence tests that ignore the question of intelligent design. And since both intelligence tests and schools commonly take God out of the equation, no one is the wiser.

People might object by asking: Why would questions about God appear on an intelligence test in the first place? They might ask: Isn’t the question about the existence of God a question of faith?

In a word, no.

As Saint Thomas Aquinas writes, knowing “whether God exists” can be achieved by merely natural reason. If Saint Thomas is correct, the question of knowing whether God exists pertains to reason and intelligence—thus not requiring faith.

Furthermore, Saint Thomas considers that the path to reasoning to the existence of God is not a particularly difficult one to follow. If that is true, and if the way intelligence is scored is unaffected by whether or not one can reason to the existence of God, that definition of intelligence is flawed. If your game doesn’t take points off for denying an Unmoved Mover, then you need to design a new game: an intelligently designed game.

What adds to this intelligence dilemma is that atheists are often crowned intelligent by acclamation. This is sort of a lifetime-achievement award donned on atheists… for being atheists. Atheists, who dismiss Aristotle’s metaphysics and Saint Thomas’ five proofs for the existence of God, often offer one proof for the existence of the human intelligence of others: atheism.

Of course, the mere belief in atheism is rarely the reason that is proffered; even atheists see the silliness in that. Rather, these atheists are often referred to vaguely as “great scientists.” Collectively, they seem to have formed a club of celebrity atheists, which meets in order to look down on the rest of us who, like Aristotle and Aquinas, believe in an uncreated God.

So I return to the question that haunted me as a child: does the fact that “smart” people deny the existence of God cause me any doubt? Not an iota.

Not only do today’s geniuses lack an exclusive or special aptitude for determining whether God exists, they can expect a celebrity status if they deny Him. What I have discovered is that the most interesting truths about God have nothing to do with whether He exists, but Who He Is. Because once you reason to the idea that God exists, you can then explore ideas like what it means that God loves us infinitely and how His love makes us happy.

That, my friends, is why Catholics love theology. Call that school of thought theological intelligence.

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About John Clark

John Clark
John Clark is a homeschooling father, a speechwriter, an online course developer for Seton Home Study School, and a weekly blogger for The National Catholic Register. His latest book is “How to be a Superman Dad in a Kryptonite World, Even When You Can’t Afford a Decent Cape.”
  • gtjarruda

    An intelligent person might also be able to understand that the will is separate from the reason, and that the will might guide the reason along certain paths that help make a person feel better.

    I have no doubt that many atheists are very smart, but I’m sure that they are also very determined for there not to be a God, so they leverage their reason to secure themselves against that conclusion. IQ tests don’t test susceptibility to logical fallacies, research biases, or any other sub-optimal feature of the human mind.

    • Josh

      That’s brilliant insight! I like your reasoning.

    • KevClark64

      You’re right. Believing or not believing in God isn’t like believing or not believing in string theory, where your conclusion really will have no impact on your life. To believe in God is to accept a proposition which creates an obligation on the part of the believer to do the will of God. Someone who refuses to do the will of God is pretty unlikely to believe in God.

  • Athanasius of St. Paul

    IQ tests are simply useless for education or nearly every aspect of life. They serve merely as a way for individuals to brag about something which has very little impact.
    Far more important than sheer mental horsepower is WISDOM!

  • Micha Elyi

    When I was growing up… I read about the geniuses of the world who concluded that God did not exist.
    –John Clark

    There’s a much longer list of geniuses of the world who do conclude that God exists. And they’re much more genius-errific too. Aquinas is not a lone God-fearer in genius-land. Among his fellows are stellar intellects including Einstein, Newton, Leibniz, Galileo, Descartes, Mendel, Pasteur, and a long list of other geniuses–compared to them today’s noisy atheists in their university sinecures are rather dim bulbs.

    The atheists only appear noteworthy because they call attention to their atheism while their superiors in intelligence who fear God do not crow about being believers.

  • Uber Genie

    IQ is a red herring. I could be a complete moron thinking the moon were made of cheese, but if I state that, “The Earth revolves around the Sun.” It is a true statement. The claim, “God exists,” is true in the Jurassic age, and on Pluto where there are no subjects to perceive that truth.

    Subject’s perception of truth is always a red-herring meant to lead us away from the abductive logical claims. Claims like:

    – God is the best explanation for objective moral values
    – God is the best explanation for the cause of our universe
    – God is the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe to support life
    – God is the best explanation for the initial creation of massive amounts information found in first DNA molecules

    The IQ thing is a ruse. A ham-handed attempt to manipulate and confuse rather than engage the likelihood of the premises and arguments!

  • Edward B. Connolly

    Perhaps the most persuasive and compelling and self-evident principle of all is this: Ex nihilo, nihiil fit. Nothing comes from nothing.
    Following this to the logical conclusion, one is compelled, I think, to say that, inasmuch as “something” exists now, then “something” must always have existed.
    I was stunned a couple of years ago when, attending a lecture on atheism given by an ex-Catholic candidate for a Ph.D., I distinctly heard the speaker say that “ex nihilo nihil fit” is not a self-evident truth. He said that he believes that it is possible and even probable that, “once upon a time”, something did come from nothing.
    I had to conclude, with all due respect, that the speaker was either unintelligent or else insane.

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  • Hola! I’d like to add a little context to the IQ discussion. The Stanford Binet Inelligence Quotient test grew out of some work done by Alfred Binet and a student of his named Theodore Simon. Mr. Binet would be horrified to see how his test is being used today. The test is a quotient, but he never saw it as a measure of intelligence, and specifically did not want it viewed that way. The purpose of the test was to identify students that were performing below typical grade level so that steps could be taken to help them get to grade level. It was never his intention that it be used to classify people as ‘dumb’ or ‘smart’. All it was intended to do was to identify gaps in learning. So, if a 6 year old scored as a typical 5 year old, then 5/6 =.833. If 6 year old scored as a typical 6 year old, then 6/6 = 1. If 6 year old scored as a typical 7 year old, then 7/6= 1.16. Multiply all those by 100 and you get IQ scores of 83.3, 100, and 116. (That is an over simplification but that is where the quotient comes from.)

    Binet never saw this as a measurement of intelligence. Because it was not. It was a comparison of general knowledge against peers, and general eye-hand coordination, etc. against a population of people not done developing. Clearly a comparison of a 6 year old child of a tribe in a South American Rain Forest with a 6 year old child in Silicon Valley would identify one as an idiot and one as a genius, depending on the parameters and whether the testing presumed knowledge of edible plants and identification of poison dart frogs vs how to use a microwave and play video games. Meaning depending on the parameters, either the kid in the rain forest or the kid in CA is an idiot in need of remedial schooling.

    This was of course understood, so the efforts were made to standardize and homogenize the “IQ” test across the typical population it would be used on, but the premise is flawed. All it measures is performance against a group on a subset of measurable abilities. It does not measure intelligence. It perhaps measures achievement, and while there may be correlations, achievement is not intelligence and vice versa. It may measure ability to learn, and it may not.

    So, reduction to a score and then labeling is frankly very poor application of an assessment test that was not designed to label people, it was originally simply intended to be a quick way to identify whether or not someone needed some extra help with math or reading.

  • Norman

    I studied psychology before acknowledging God’s existence and found that intelligent people are more likely to possess characteristics like narcissism, arrogance, and practice deception (more likely, not all); yet thinking one is correct has nothing to do with actually being correct anymore than Hilter trying to “purify” the world being a “good” thing. Purity is a great thing, it just so happens that his definition of a “good” thing (along with Mao’s or Stalin’s, etc), can be tailored to ones liking and do a much better job of tailoring due to the intelligence within themselves… There’s a reason we know the name Socrates, and the Oracle of Delphi proves it.

  • raymond waters

    i’m always wary of, and feel very sorry for, anyone claiming intelligence over another, which to me seems to be a very unintelligent, as well as unwise, thing to do.
    i often ponder the fate of the most intelligent but most foolish angel, and those who strive to emulate him!
    i often marvel at Our Lord making faith hope and charity, not intellect, the prerequisite for eternal happiness!
    thus making heaven easy access for the humble, but next to impossible for the proud, so that we lesser mortals don’t have suffer their unbearable haughtiness in eternity!

    • KateGladstone

      Marvel if you like — I’d rather go to an intelligent Hell than to an unintelligent Heaven.

    • KathleenWagner

      Oh, this isn’t spiteful and passive-aggressive AT ALL. Have you ever considered becoming a freelance writer for the Holy Father?

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