Has Secularization Made Us Smarter?

JCarrey-DumberHere is a common myth:  Intelligence has evolved over the centuries of recorded history, so we’re smarter than people were a thousand years ago. Just look at the remarkable advances in the sciences and especially technology, and it’s clear that our current generation is more intelligent than those of the past, right?  I hear it all the time, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not, but hardly a day passes that I don’t detect it in the background of people’s presuppositions. Think of the frequency of comparisons with the past that run along these lines – “Well once upon a time people used to think that (insert any number of prevailing views from bygone eras), but now we know better.” And much of the time the thing “people used to think” isn’t even accurate. I continue to hear, for example, about how all of the Europeans thought the world was flat right up until Columbus’ voyage.

There’s no disputing that people across history held wrong beliefs about lots of specific things at various times. That’s as obvious as anything I could say about any time period, including our own. The myth is that we now are better than everyone in bygone generations because we have somehow ‘evolved’ past their ignorance and cognitive limitations. Their age was dark, ours is enlightened; their time was harsh and cruel, ours is nice and friendly; their intelligence was not quite up to the task, but now we’ve arrived and know what it’s all about. They had biases and blind spots they did not realize, but we have overcome that and replaced their shortcomings with openness, tolerance, unbiased neutrality and understanding.

This is an especially beloved part of the received wisdom among contemporary anti-religionists whose motivation for propagating the mantra is rather obvious. After all, if nearly everyone in Western history’s past generations was more spiritual and theological in orientation toward the world (including their ethics, politics, family life, etc.), and if those same people from the past were not as ‘evolved’ in their thinking as we are, then it must follow that having a more religious worldview equals being less evolved. Very simple and very tidy. To be truly intellectually advanced must mean to be distanced from the old traditional ways of thinking such that you are largely ignorant of the Scriptures, the arguments, the theological categories and even basic terminology that were so familiar and important for so long. Full secularization is the trademark of progress.

Just ask the ‘sheeple’ who sit in Bill Maher’s audiences and cheer when he describes as stupid and outdated the kinds of beliefs held by the majority of important thinkers whose ideas formed the foundation of our whole civilization. I suspect they haven’t paused to consider that so many of the great poets (like Milton, Wordsworth, etc.), philosophers (like Aquinas, Locke, etc.), scientists (like Copernicus, Newton, etc.), Renaissance humanists (like Erasmus, More, etc.), political leaders (like Washington, Adams, etc.) theologians (like Calvin, Edwards, etc.) and social reformers (like Wilberforce, MLK, Jr., etc.) were adherents and advocates of the very sorts of beliefs being scoffed at by a pretentious comedian whose clever cynicism apparently convinces his dimwitted viewers that he’s super-smart, when in fact he is hardly worthy, intellectually speaking, to clean the latrines of any of these men.

Worse yet, when I talk about the impressive legacy of those long since gone, so many people today still suppose, without any knowledge about it, of course, that all of those people – no matter their contributions in whatever fields – still must have been nevertheless hampered by the deficiency of living in a time before ours. If this seems like blind prejudice, that’s because it is. C. S. Lewis described in Surprised by Joy how his friend and Oxford colleague Owen Barfield helped to cure him of what he called “chronological snobbery,” which Lewis defined as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”  I’ve also heard it called “presentism” and “provincialism in time”, but I like the use of the word “snobbery.”

The thing people despise about snobs is that they look down their noses at other people for the shallowest of reasons. A snob, for example, will think himself better than other people on the basis of the clothes he wears. A snob will assume she should get preferential treatment in life on the basis of the zip code in which she resides. Lewis believed this to be at work in himself as a young, intellectually arrogant 20th Century man. He took it for granted that the prevailing attitudes of elite academics of his day were automatically to be favored above all who had gone before since, after all, those unfortunates did not live in contemporary (and thus superior) times.

How ironic, then, that Lewis went on to spend his entire Oxford and Cambridge career focused on past centuries, his favorite philosophers being long dead and his primary academic expertise centering on literature from the Middle Ages. He became convinced of the direct opposite view than the one he’d held in his younger days, for he came to value the treasures of wisdom and the depths of insight contained in the great volumes from the past. In his inaugural address to the Cambridge student body, he admitted to them that by that time in his life he belonged more to the old world than to theirs. He advised his readers regularly to live in the pages of history enough to gain perspective and not grow myopic and parochial. “It is not the remembered but the forgotten past that enslaves us,” he told the Cambridge students. In an introduction he wrote to an ancient work of Athanasius, Lewis advised, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. … Keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through your mind.”

Again, this must sound like ancient Ugaritic to people today. Our lives have been shaped and guided by technology above all else, and in that realm, newer is always better, and older is quickly obsolete. We can punctuate the periods of our lives by rapid technological transitions, always from worse to better to better still. Little wonder, then, that we’ve come to see everything else in the same way. Add to that the vague notion people have of universal progress via “evolution” (which of course has nothing even to do with the much discussed biological theory by the same name), and the uncritical conviction that we’re simply smarter comes to rest securely in the presuppositions of an entire generation.

But what if we were to approach the question on purely empirical grounds? Is there hard evidence to suggest a steady advance of intellectual growth on the part of the human race over the centuries leading up to our own? Not according to Mark Bauerlein of Emory University, the one-time Dir. of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. He wrote in his 2009 book The Dumbest Generation that the age of hyper-entertainment and the internet has steadily “stupefied” young Americans and thus jeopardized our future. Citing copious amounts of data from the last decade or so on the part of numerous organizations like the National Assessment of Education Progress, Bauerlein demonstrates the startling results that one government analyst called “abysmal.”

Bauerlein’s fear regarding the future does not mean that he thinks there is a literal “de-evolution” taking place. His view is not the equally erroneous inverse of the common ‘newer is smarter’ idea. The intellectual deficit today is not intrinsic or inherent; human nature has not changed. The future he worries about is not exactly like the one pictured in the wacky cynical comedy Idiocracy, where the generations that come after us get steadily and hopelessly stupider until the world is filled with complete morons. But the future may well consist of people too distracted, too entertained, maybe too lazy to care about the truth. People may end up living far beneath their potential simply because they never developed their capacity for critical thinking, for careful reasoning, for discernment, problem-solving, creativity, spiritual depth and contemplation, wisdom and the communication of serious philosophical ideas.

People are basically the same, across time and across cultures. Just as European explorers once assumed they were fundamentally superior to the more tribal peoples they found in other parts of the world, so we tend to think we are superior to those who lived without electricity long ago. But many Europeans came to see in time that the “primitive” peoples they met in those faraway places were in possession of the same intellectual capacity as Westerners. Their technological disadvantages were owing to many factors stretching back through time, but one of those factors was not their being inferior by nature. Being less advanced in sciences and technology is not the same as (and does not entail) being less ‘evolved’ as human beings.

Anyone today who fancies contemporary people as smarter than our ancestors probably has not read much of what they wrote or taken careful note of what they accomplished. Are we, after all, better engineers than the Romans, considering the materials to which they had access? Are we more astute observers of the natural world than the ancient Greek astronomers, who carefully mapped the entire night sky and, using precise mathematics and uncanny insights in the absence of telescopes, theorized with impressive accuracy the workings of celestial bodies? Does anyone dare to claim that he or she employs “reason” more effectively than Plato & Aristotle? Who among you is prepared to measure your inherent mathematical prowess against that of Euclid? If you suppose that ancient people were earthy simpletons rather than abstract and existential questioners, have you ever read Ecclesiastes?

What we need to remember is that the great advances of which we have been the very fortunate recipients were a long, long time in coming.  The foolish thesis about us being more intelligent than people of the past is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how and why progress in the sciences has come to pass over many generations. It has never been a matter of increasing intelligence over time on the part of individuals (as if IQs slowly climbed to the point where someone could finally “see” things better).  Advances in the natural sciences and in technology are the result of records kept and passed down. Since life-spans do not allow the best and brightest in a generation to spend 300 years working in a given field, someone in a future generation gets the opportunity to pick up where the previous genius left off.  Newton is still considered by many the greatest scientist (and some even say the greatest mind) in history. His famous line that he had “stood on the shoulders of giants” was a reference to something echoed by others since at least the Middle Ages, where we find it expressed by theologians and philosophers like Bernard of Chartres and John of Salisbury. The most noted version from these men reads:

We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.

The irony is amusing when you think about it. Centuries of great thinkers bequeath to us a world with so many more comforts, with less physical pain, with less daily inconvenience, with a rich intellectual tradition, with technological breakthroughs, with libraries of brilliant works in every area of human thought; and our response to all of this – from our easy chairs – is to virtually write them off while we consider ourselves so much smarter than they were.  It’s as if a relay team had a weak runner anchoring the foursome, but the previous runners put him so far ahead that he couldn’t help but win, only to see him then boast to the world about his athletic greatness. Progress in sciences & technology is a step-by-step group effort across generations, with the baton being handed off repeatedly. The unthinking nitwits who repeat the self-inflated theory that we are the smartest people who have ever lived only make themselves seem dumber than if they had remained silent on the issue.

And one last thing for the anti-religionist propagandists:  It might not be advantageous to continue fostering the implied if not overt argument that because people in past ages were more spiritual and religious in their worldviews, and because people have gotten smarter over time, therefore to become less spiritual (more secular) means to become smarter.  In light of the statistical trends today regarding the attention spans, historical literacy, critical thinking skills, and ability to put a coherent sentence together, the argument may end up running in the other direction.  Our culture has moved increasingly away from the biblical categories of thought that framed our worldview for so long, and the collective mind has not exactly flourished as a result.

59 Responses to “Has Secularization Made Us Smarter?”

  1. Thanks for great article Clint Roberts.

    Your sense of history resonates with me :-)

  2. “It’s as if a relay team had a weak runner anchoring the foursome, but the previous runners put him so far ahead that he couldn’t help but win, only to see him then boast to the world about his athletic greatness.”


  3. Bravo! Great article, I agree 100%!

  4. Our technology has made us less critical thinkers today than in times past. The internet, smart phones, computers, the whole gambit of devices and information pushed at us or commanded in an instant. All I have to do to make my teen daughters into blithering idiots is take away their phones or electronic devices and they go into brain freeze. What Clint Robers has masterfully illustrated is the crux of the post-modern condition: snobbery. Everybody thinks that they are all that or know all that when in fact, people haven’t changed much over the centuries. Only our technological advances which have produced a generation of non critical thinkers who are dependent upon said technology. I include myself in this assessment, albeit to a lesser degree. Some of us do look to the past to glean wisdom from the great thinkers in human history. The old axiom, “Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat history’s mistakes” holds true in many instances. I can add to that by saying that those who don’t study Scripture are fools. We are the clay, God is the potter who designs us to suit His purposes, not ours. Blind knowledge does not bring joy to our souls. Joy can only be found in the pages of Scripture which brings truth and true enlightenment to a world stewing in the juices of informational overload. We seek entertainment over discernment which weakens our minds and makes us snobby little gods in our minds eye. Woe to this generation.

  5. “In light of the statistical trends today regarding the attention spans, historical literacy, critical thinking skills, and ability to put a coherent sentence together, the argument may end up running in the other direction. ”

    Too true.

  6. Excellent article. As a brain guy, I struggle with this notion that we are somehow smarter. It seems to presume an evolutionary perspective. I don’t know that we are getting dumber, though. Perhaps we are, though I am not sure about that).

  7. Thank you for your comment Doc Pagala. I appreciate your ideas as well as the way you express yourself :-)

    I still like that movie from the 1940s
    The Time Machine

    I love the scene where he asks the girl to show him books and she doesn’t understand the concept of book.
    Soon thereafter, she spins a ring and a voice emerges describing history of human race.

    I understand how post-modernism is seeking to resolve some of the problems rooted in modernism.
    Nevertheless, once a culture rejects the concept of objective truth, we may be doomed to re-living the dark ages.
    Without objective truth, then there is no purpose in getting an education.

  8. When I was home-schooling my children, I used copier in church library to copy a few pages from booklet on Introductory Logic (published by Mars Hill, a Christian publisher)
    Booklet was later returned to me- but narcissistic preacher of fundamentalist church felt the need to bash logic from the pulpit.
    Fundamentalist preacher also bashed college education. Since my children were 10 & 12, I believed it would not be edifying or beneficial for them to continue to sit under his twisted worldview.

    Thankyou Lord for leading me out of there!

  9. Truth Unites... and Divides May 30, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    “But the future may well consist of people too distracted, too entertained, maybe too lazy to care about the truth.”

    Clint, an inaccurate statement. It’s already happened, and is happening now. And there’s a reasonable chance that there will be AN INCREASE into EVEN MORE apathy.

    Collectively, we are the frog refusing to jump out of the heating pot of water.

  10. TUAD,
    I think your metaphor about the frog is right on. I know the hold technology has upon my life (as both a Christian and a brain doctor), yet I continue to sit, apathetically to use your word, rather than developing a more biblical mindset about technology.

  11. Aaron Schroeder-Tabah May 30, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Found this after reading your article:

    “In our age, when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, and to try to solve problems of life in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism which perhps deserves a new name. It is the provincialism, not of space, but of time; one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares. The menace of this kind of provincialism is, that we can all, all the peoples of the globe, be provincials together; and those who are not content to be provincials can only be hermits.”

    Essay on Virgil (1944) – T.S.Eliot

  12. Aaron M. Renn May 30, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    A couple things.

    1. IQ actually has been getting higher over time. It’s called the “Flynn Effect”. It’s unexplained AFAIK but I don’t think it’s been attributed to a genuine change in intelligence.

    2. All of the important questions about life were asked (and a good chunk of the possible answers presented) by the Hebrews and Greeks almost 2,500 years ago. Read the works of classical Greece (including works like Euclid’s Elements) and be humbled at how little you know. (I suggest Greek works for this since they don’t come with the religious stigmas of the Bible).

  13. Excellent post Clint! Well said. You have obviously evolved into an excellent writer. Those morons from previous ages clearly would not have understood your article. I’m thankful you live today.

    Appreciate you brother,

  14. Aaron,
    You are right about the Flynn effect on both accounts, that it is showing rises in IQ, but is also probably not related to true increases in IQ.

    Here is an interesting study from an evolutionary biologist who suggests they may be declining.

  15. Clint Roberts May 30, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    The Flynn studies seem to me too geographically broad (global) and too historically narrow (the last 80 yrs). It’s interesting, I guess, but I can’t figure why in the last several decades there would be a collective gain by a few IQ points, unless in some parts of the world factors like environment, nutrition, etc. have helped make for better test-taking. At any rate, scores in all of the important areas of learning (at least in the U.S.) have been steadily worse overall, according most of the reports.

    By the way, thanks for the T. S. Eliot quote, Aaron. It’s perfect.

  16. Agreed on the Greeks. I’m no intellectual slouch (or I wasn’t, I might be devolving), but I also have to acknowledge my indebtedness to those who came before me. Unlike myself, who has the benefit of generations of thinkers before me, they did it basically from a standing start, laying the foundations we rest on.

    It’s like those inane dribblers who claim that God should have sent Jesus to the modern world in our age of mass media coverage, as if somehow what we have today would have existed without the philosophical and theological shaping of the world provided by Christianity and its offspring Islam.

  17. Secularism has given us more freedom of belief. But secularism was formed by a combination of religious people and non-religious people. Before that, there was intolerance. Secularism has allowed us to be more tolerant.

    We’ve definitely evolved in what we know. To deny this is in fact, to ignore facts.

  18. Who invited the sheeple? Exhibit A in the “Google makes you stupid” meme.

    Secularism is tolerant? Only if you agree with what the secularists say, otherwise you’re out in the cold.

    The Romans were far more tolerant than today. As long as you sacrificed to the genius of Caesar you could pretty much believe and practice what you liked.

    We’ve “evolved” in what we know? As in we’ve changed back and forth and gone nowhere? We’ve accumulated knowledge, but some things we always knew, some things we thought we knew but were wrong, some things we know that we didn’t before, and some things we think we know that we actually don’t. Knowledge is like that.

  19. The only that has changed is our technology.

    We are smart…and stupid, at the same time.

  20. Wow, superb essay!

  21. Greg,

    Secularism is the separation of the church and state. It doesn’t mean “less religion”. It just means “less religion in politics and public issues”.

    One can still find Yeshua in a church. Or Allah in a mosque. Or Yahweh in a synagogue. Free from persecution.

  22. The human heart hasn’t advanced one iota.

    That’s what God is after. So He has to do it, for us.

  23. I would challenge you to revisit your initial argument, which is ‘humans have not gotten any smarter’.

    I don’t think anyone could totally disagree with that. Consider though, do we have more knowledge? Isn’t it knowledge that is important? Knowledge is what you are talking about when you speak of generational progression toward advancements in technology and whatnot.

    That’s the whole problem, isn’t it? You’ve bashed the entire body of human achievement based solely on whether or not neurons fire any faster in our heads than they did 3000 years ago. Knowledge is where your battle lies. That what you need to argue against. Have studies performed outside of the blessings of religion increased our human knowledge, and is the world better off because of increased knowledge?

  24. ralph schreiber May 31, 2013 at 9:26 am

    If they do these things in a green tree what will be done in the dry. I have yet to experience a doctor make a withered hand like the other and the person who did such says ‘take my yoke and learn of me’.

  25. Due to technology, penmanship is no longer taught in the schools.

    Yesterday a lady told me how her grand-daughter did not know how to write cursive to sign her name…..

    Education system (thorugh technology?) is dumbing people down too….

    We can look at the ancient Greeks, or we can look at those with wisdom who stood upon their shoulders.

    Renaissance humanism prepared Europe for the Protestant Reformation…..trivium from Renaissance humanism used to educate the Reformers.

    Lutheranism spread through the Netherlands during the 1530s.
    Calvinism spread through the Netherlands during the 1540s. At the end of the decade, nearly every man, woman, and child over the age of 6 knew how to read and to write.
    This high rate of literacy was unheard of throughout the rest of Europe.

    Will God bless us with another Renaissance and Reformation?

  26. Greg,

    I would have to look at the context of those quotes and also as to whether those quotes were fabricated. Have you ever read Greg Boyd’s “The Myth of a Christian Nation”? Thomas Jefferson was very adamant about the separation of church and state and for a large part, there were states that persecuted and discriminated against atheists. This much is true. Secularism might largely weaken religious influence over politics but this is to the benefit of all humans.

  27. Okay, thinkalittle is correct.

    The main argument. Has secularism made us smarter. But then we talk about people of the atheist movement in modern times. What about the non-religious people throughout time? Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Paine, Epicurus. The list can go on.

  28. @Greg: Agree! Indeed Aristotle was brilliant, but look where the fullness of Aristotelian logic has lead Roman Catholicism, of course not biblical, to say the least!

    And just where are our so-called “brilliant” theologians taking us today? Here I think of the scientific intellectualism of an NT Wright! But is it really biblical & theological? I guess we all will get to answer about “ourselves” anyway, at the Bema-Seat of Christ!

  29. Clint Roberts May 31, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Thinkalittle writes, “You’ve bashed the entire body of human achievement based solely on whether or not neurons fire any faster in our heads than they did 3000 years ago.”

    That’s strange, because it looks a lot like I PRAISED the accomplishments of those who went before us.

    And F. Robert, I would be interested to hear the connection between the problematic doctrinal areas of Roman Catholicism and Aristotelian logic. Aquinas’ philosophical arguments notwithstanding, is there any specific tie that classical logic has to Catholic dogma (regarding Mary, saints, papal claims, etc.)?

  30. Truth Unites... and Divides May 31, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    People Getting Dumber? Human Intelligence Has Declined Since Victorian Era, Research Suggests

    Excerpt: “Our technology may be getting smarter, but a provocative new study suggests human intelligence is on the decline. In fact, it indicates that Westerners have lost 14 I.Q. points on average since the Victorian Era.”


    Blogpost Title and Question: Has Secularization Made Us Smarter?

    I prefer this question: Has Secularization Made Us Morally Wiser?

  31. Ah, a nice evidence-free anti-atheist rant! No evidence is given that people actually do claim that we are smarter (rather than more knowledgeable) than our predecessors – merely assertion. If it’s really so, surely a single properly sourced quote would be easy to provide?

  32. Clint Roberts June 3, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    A couple of things for you Greg:

    Regarding our pal Nick, I’m not sure if he means to disagree and assert the contrary position (that the idea of us ‘getting smarter’ is not in fact commonly assumed today), or if he just wants to lash out a little. I wonder if he’d like me to properly reference the numerous students in my classes over the last few years who have absorbed this notion from the culture. I said more than once that this is implied and presupposed more often than stated outright. It seems to be in the background of the oft-repeated line about religious beliefs being from ‘Stone Age’ people or ‘Pre-Scientific’ people.

    On the matter of Aquinas, it interests me only because I’ve followed that debate a little in the past. To offer a counter-perspective to what you wrote, Hugh Kerr (B.B. Warfield Prof. of Systematic Theol., Emeritus, Princeton Theol. Seminary) wrote that while Reformation theologians often saw the Thomistic synthesis “as implying that reason was either above or on par with revelation, … this was not part of Aquinas’ apologetic purpose. Reason in the Thomistic system is not by itself sufficient for salvation or even for the understanding of certain cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.”

    Aquinas himself wrote on the relationship of reason and special revelation in Summa Contra Gentiles, saying “Some truths about God exceed all the ability of the human reason. … But there are some truths which he natural reason also is able to reach. Such are that God exists, that He is one, and the like.” He called it a “twofold mode of truth” whereby God reveals some basic things naturally to all men, and some more specific truths divinely via revelation.

  33. Clint Roberts June 3, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    And I might add, just for further interest on the subject, that it’s not merely Aquinas & Roman Catholic tradition that has had a liking for Aristotle that has invited a little controversy at times. In Marsden’s great biography of Jonathon Edwards he describes the influence of one Petrus Ramus of the 16th Cent. upon Calvinist thinkers later.

    Marsden calls the “Ramist” philosophy “a seventeenth-century Puritan staple,” and it was based on an Aristotelian way of “arranging all knowledge in logically distinct categories that would at least dimly reflect the archetypal logic of the divine mind.” Apparently this was quite influential upon the developing understanding of Edwards himself.

  34. Clint,

    I see you are unable to support your assertion with even a single properly sourced quote, and that you and Greg are both keen to attribute to me views I have not expressed. I think the latter illustrates, better than anything I could say, how weak your position is.

    I wonder if he’d like me to properly reference the numerous students in my classes over the last few years who have absorbed this notion from the culture.

    I’d like some actual evidence for your assertion that they have done so, but I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get any.

    I said more than once that this is implied and presupposed more often than stated outright.

    But if you can’t produce any examples of it being stated outright, how do you know it is being implied and presupposed, rather than the view that we are more knowledgeable than our predecessors?

    It seems to be in the background of the oft-repeated line about religious beliefs being from ‘Stone Age’ people or ‘Pre-Scientific’ people.

    It “seems to be”, does it? That line is at least equally compatible with the view that we are more knowledgeable than our predecessors, which of course we are.

  35. I attributed to you views that seemed to be very heavily implied in your line of thought.

    Where? I simply asked for evidence of an assertion made in the OP. You should be a little more careful not to mistake your prejudices for evidence.

    I don’t know whether it is commonly assumed today that we are smarter (rather than simply more knowledgeable) than our predecessors. Quite possibly it is; but if you’re going to base a rant on that claim, you should have more than a few anecdotes to support it.

    Now you attributed to me, without any evidence whatsoever, the following view:

    while intelligence itself hasn’t changed for us as a specie, the acquisition of knowledge HAS drastically increased and that because of man’s fairly recent freedom from superstitious religious constraints, particularly in the realm of the sciences.

    An incidental point: the singular of “species” is “species”; “specie” is precious metal in the form of coins.

    Now the acquisition of knowledge has drastically increased – although of course, some specific types of knowledge have become less widespread, or even been lost altogether. The causal relationships between this increase and the decline of religion are complex. (By “the decline in religion” I mean the decline in the proportion of the population that are religious believers, but also the decline in the proportion even of believers’ beliefs and activities that are determined by their religion.) I’d say that the causal influence has been predominantly in the opposite direction to the one you mention: that the growth of scientific knowledge (and the mental habits the practice of science encourages) has undermined religious belief more than the decline in religious belief has facilitated the growth of scientific knowledge. But other factors altogether were required for either process to get underway – I’ll continue on a new comment as I’m running out of…

  36. …characters. The main such factors were technical and institutional change, and the influx of ancient Greek and early Islamic texts – via Sicily and Spain initially, then from the Byzantine Empire after the fourth crusade. The technical changes included the import of Hindu-Arabic numerals and methods for the manufacture of paper and high-quality clear glass, the spread of water- and wind-mills, new agricultural techniques, the invention of clockwork, and later of moveable-type printing. The main institutional changes were the foundation of universities, and the Reformation. Together, these innovations (in most of which the medieval church played an important role) raised productivity enough to make possible the existence of a significant stratum of literate people, which could recruit intelligent individuals from relatively humble backgrounds, and which did not owe unquestioned allegiance to any single authority. The new Greek and Arabic texts had either to be incorporated into Christian ideology, or refuted, and in the process of attempting this, the Schoolmen invented many of the “obvious” tools for making intellectual labour easier (word spacing, upper-case letters, punctuation, running heads on documents, indices, chapter headings and subheadings, clear references to previous work…). On all this (of course I’ve hardly scratched the surface), see works such as Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine, Arnold Pacey’s Technology in World Civilization and The Maze of Ingenuity, and Alfred W. Crosby’s The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600.

    Recently, the decline of religion has been most marked in those societies with least socio-economic insecurity: Japan and western Europe. There is a correlation between religiosity and social pathologies, see here, but again the causal influence seems to be predominantly to, not from, religious decline.

  37. So in your view knowledge gained by truly objective inquiry necessarily extinguishes religious conviction in anything like the historically orthodox sense.

    Where have I said anything about “truly objective inquiry”? Inquiry can certainly be more or less objective, and I do think, based on historical evidence, that the development of methods for increasing the objectivity of inquiry, and their systematic use, tends to undermine religious conviction. This happens, I think, partly because religions make factual claims which such inquiry shows to be untenable, but also because once one is in the habit of questioning claims based on authority, even those religious claims that are not directly contradicted by empirical evidence are called into question.

    Necessarily? No, that would mean it’s logically impossible that it wouldn’t happen, which it clearly isn’t. For example, if there actually were a god that did all it could to make its existence obvious, the most rigorous inquiry would support its existence.

  38. Clint Roberts June 4, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Against my better judgment, a few things to point out for the cantankerous Nick …

    While it is the pension of some to find something to nitpick, even if it misses the point or is beside the point, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and act as though you really and truly took issue with my saying the ‘intellectual evolution’ thesis is common today.

    Note first that the point of my post was not to demonstrate that fact. I frankly assumed it as more or less apparent to most of us who live in society. The main point of my post was to question, challenge, even refute that notion, regardless of what percentage of people hold it to be the case. I could have said something like, “I’ve met a few people who seem to think … but here’s why I think they’re wrong.”

    You claim ignorance on the matter, meaning that you are not exactly disagreeing with the idea that this view is widespread. You remain agnostic. But if that is so, shouldn’t you consider the possibility that a good number of people today think that way? And again, even if it is only, say, 15% of people today who think along those lines, most of my post is still relevant, since it challenges the view of that 15%.

    But I suspect you’ll still be wearing me out about not citing people. I wonder if you troll every blog asking for citations. Is this a research paper I’m turning it? You Gotts to be kidding me (sorry I couldn’t resist). This is just a blog, let me remind you.

    Apparently my presupposition that this idea has traction among the commoners of society is shared by a whole lot of people, judging from the preponderance of responses to it. And it has some history, as indicated the words of C. S. Lewis, who was well aware of it in his time. So if you remain unsure about just how many people think that, so what?

  39. Interesting that you think a request for evidence is “cantankerous”.

    Note first that the point of my post was not to demonstrate that fact. I frankly assumed it as more or less apparent to most of us who live in society.

    On what grounds did you make that assumption? If it were really the case, it should be easy to support it with evidence. Clearly, you can’t, or you would have done so by now.

    I could have said something like, “I’ve met a few people who seem to think … but here’s why I think they’re wrong.”

    If you’d said that, I’d have had no quarrel with your post; but then, you’d have been deprived of your target, “contemporary anti-religionists”, wouldn’t you?

    Apparently my presupposition that this idea has traction among the commoners of society is shared by a whole lot of people, judging from the preponderance of responses to it.

    So what? Your own rant relies on the point that an idea being widespread does not imply that it is correct.

    You Gotts to be kidding me (sorry I couldn’t resist)

    How old are you? 13?

    So if you remain unsure about just how many people think that, so what?

    So if you can’t show any evidence it’s widespread, your post was just an evidence-free rant, as I said in my first comment.

  40. Clint Roberts June 4, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Greg, has it occurred to you that maybe my wrong word choice was a Freudian clue that I’m overly concerned about retirement in this unstable economic climate? Maybe I’m 65 instead of 13, as Gottzilla indicated (now that I’m on a roll I think I’ll keep exploring the interesting options regarding his name, which is more entertaining, frankly, than enduring further gobbs of his ‘gott’bledigook).

  41. So what does that say about those of us who stubbornly persist in these religious convictions.

    A historical fact about the decline of religion in general doesn’t, in itself, tell one much about an individual.

    Maybe I’m 65 instead of 13, as Gottzilla indicated (now that I’m on a roll I think I’ll keep exploring the interesting options regarding his name, which is more entertaining, frankly, than enduring further gobbs of his ‘gott’bledigook).

    Someone’s certainly going in for gobbledegook here, in place of rational argument. But it’s not me. 13 was clearly an overestimate, at least as far as mental age is concerned – looks more like 9.

  42. Due to grade inflation and failing American schools one could actually make the argument that a crop of graduating bachelors students today is actually worse-educated than a graduating class in the 1960s.

    Any college professor can tell you the entire first year of college is wasted teaching the students stuff they should have learned in high school. And the high school curriculum itself is appallingly shallow. As for a Bachelors degree – it’s basically the new high school degree.

    It’s really quite abysmal.

    And what’s most disturbing is that in the midst of this rampant intellectual poverty, the country has been blighted with one of the most arrogant and cocky generations the planet has ever seen.

    Really, the only way in which you can say that American education has improved from the 1800s is that it’s succeeded in spreading a trashy and worthless liberal arts education to more people than before.

    Instead of a few with excellent educations, we now have millions with crap educations.


    Never have we had a nation so full of people who are ridiculously proud of so little.

  43. But since Bill Maher has access to Wikipedia, that MUST mean he’s smarter than “idiots” like Thomas Aquinas.

    And it’s no surprise that, as the population grows dumber and dumber, atheism has become more and more fashionable.

    After all, it’s certainly the least mentally demanding belief package on the planet to ascribe to. To be an atheist, you don’t have to study anything, believe anything, or even really engage anything.

    All you have to do is poke holes in the mental work of others. If mocking people doing all the mental heavy-lifting, while doing little or none yourself appeals to you – you may have a bright future as an atheist.

    Start practicing your sneer guys!

  44. Seth R.,

    Actually, you’ll find that many of those countries where religious belief is considered least important also do remarkably well in educational terms. But I’m sure you won’t let a few inconvenient facts disturb your prejudices.

  45. Aquinas…..didn’t the Roman Catholic church appoint him as their official philosopher to refute the errors of the Arab philosopher Averroes?
    Isn’t this the reason Aquinas frequently referred to Aristotle?

    The other philosphers (Cicero, Plato, etc.) were found and translated several centuries after Aquinas.

    Furthermore, IMO best description of complementarist view of faith and reason held by Aquinas (and Locke) is written by the Reformed philosopher Nicholas Worlterstorff.

    Aquinas viewed light of nature as faith according to reason (general revelation)
    Aquinas viewed light of grace as faith above reason (special revelation)

    Problem is 20th century theology has ignored and denigrated general revelation (faith according to reason) due to 1934 debate between Emil Brunner and Karl Barth.
    Like RC Sproul has pointed out-we need to restore the classical synthesis between general and special revelation—-

  46. Greg,

    I agree with your view of Karl Barth.
    Nature and Grace debate between Brunner and Barth in 1934 touched on “point of contact” for a believer communicating gospel to unbeliever.

    As far as Reformed epistemology…I see presuppositionalism as a reaction to Enlightenment philosophy and a reflection of the 20th century.

    Stepping outside of the 20th century (back into history) and reading Calvin’s Institutes for myself (and Acts 17) has helped me to have a better understanding of my own epistemology.

    Epistemology is academic—but it is also personal.
    This is something each one of us needs to discover for ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

  47. To define is to control.

    Reverance for the Holy Spirit means each one of us needs to be very careful that we do not attempt to “play Holy Spirit” in the lives of other believers.

    During this lifetime, no one’s epistemology is complete. Therefore, certain aspects of epistemology are objective (Trinity as three in one) and subjective (reading and understanding John Owen’s work Communion with God).

    The Holy Spiirt teaches each one of us in mysterious ways that cannot be defined by another person.

  48. Has secularization made us smarter?

    Answer to question can be guessed at but cannot be completely answered.

    Interesting quote from Rollo May:
    Psychotics build castles in the sky; Neurotics live in them; and therapists collect the rent. :-)

  49. This is the proper weblog for anyone who desires to search out out about this topic. You realize a lot its almost onerous to argue with you (not that I truly would want…HaHa). You undoubtedly put a brand new spin on a subject thats been written about for years. Great stuff, simply nice!


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