A reader makes the “little people” argument

July 28, 2022 • 9:15 am

O dear Ceiling Cat, I am so sick of emails like this, which are coming with rising frequency. People seem all angry and wound up, perhaps because of the fragmentation of America, the incipient recession, and so on, and so they bull their way over to this website and start raging, calling names, or making accusations. It’s always the newbies whose first comment is full of accusations and pejorative names. If what they have to say is reasonable but they’re intemperate, I warn them. If what they have to say is a bunch of angry mush, I ban then. So it is with this person.

I’m not going to allow this person, who doesn’t have the courage to give his/her/their name, a response on this website, or even allow the comment through.  But here’s what he/she/they sent under the pseudonym of “randomengineer“, intended as a comment under my post, “What does the Webb telescope reveal about God?“,  a critique of religious mindsets.

Here’s the intended comment from “randomengineer”:

You would not be comforted by religion as your beloved spouse lays dying. But, billions would. For billions, religion tells them *why* the universe exists and science explains *how* it exists. That isn’t incompatible.

Atheism works for you because you have 130+ IQ, but it’s not something that can be grasped properly by a majority of humans. It’s something for the bell curve tail. Leave people alone. You’re wicked smart, we get it. It’s being wasted by writings of assumption of superiority.

I started writing a reply, pointing out that entire countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland are pretty much atheistic, and that those countries aren’t entirely composed of people with high IQs. Further, it doesn’t take a high IQ to grasp the follies of religious faith and teaching. Then I was going to add that the commenter completely neglected the harm that religion does. No, I wouldn’t tell a dying religious spouse that they were going to die and that was it, which accomplishes nothing good, but still—for every person who found comfort in dying this way (by the way, some studies show that the religious seem to experience more anxiety about dying than do atheists, while most studies show no difference), many were killed or had their lives miserable by religion.

Clearly, this person thinks I’m merely using atheism to show how smart I am, which is bogus. He/she/they is one of those who can’t stand atheism, because it mocks of people’s toys, and so “randomengineer” lashes out at atheists with shopworn arguments like this one.

But while composing a response, I thought, “Hey, I’ll let the readers respond.”  So address your comments below to “randomengineer”, and I’ll send him this link.  What would you say if you got such a comment or email?

I don’t think you have to be super polite to someone this rude, but name calling is no substitute for argument. Have at it if you will.

49 thoughts on “A reader makes the “little people” argument

  1. Strange, Randomengineer writes from a position of assumed superiority over the billions who “need” religion, the very thing he accuses you of doing. I am reminded of Tucker Carlson who always starts out accusing Democrats of the smear techniques he himself uses.

  2. 100% little people.

    I caught the pop culture ref to Good Will Hunting – my boy’s wicked smaht. Awesome movie.

    I guess I’d reply with another pop culture lick :

    Ain’t nobody got time fah that.

    Just as effective.

  3. I agree with you completely on this, PCC(E). I’m fond of the general guideline, which I read in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s work, but which isn’t original to him: “That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.”

    And I think your point is important about the fact that death is often MORE anxious for the religious than for atheists because—well, how sure ARE you that you or your loved ones aren’t going to Hell? According to most OTHER religious people in the world, any given person dying is doomed to Hell, if their religions have such things, which most of the really big ones do.

    It’s not as if just below-130 IQ kids believe in Santa Claus. I suspect many of the beliefs of such kids are more elaborate and intricate than those of their peers. But it is not a shame, nor some display of “superiority”, for people to be told that, if they still believe in Santa when they’re in college, they are having trouble with reality testing. Trying to help people take comfort and joy in the “merely” real is a good thing, a benevolent act. not a bad one…especially given all the problems caused by the madey-uppy stuff.

    1. The opening speech by Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom – c/o Sorkin should be update, don’t yer, think for the US… ‘believe angles are real”…

  4. Ok, randomengineer, here goes:
    Would you be comforted by god if you witnessed your favorite pet hen eviscerated by a weasel?
    would you be comforted by god as your beloved daughter lay dying of cancer?
    would you get thee to a nunnery?

    1. Well, I can add an example of something that happened to my family during WWII: A Catholic bishop who had acquired power during a gap between German and Soviet occupation ordered an artist and openly atheistic philosophy professor to be imprisoned with her two teenage daughters, and ordered her to be shot by firing squad in front of her daughters. This Catholic shit escaped to the US and lived on Long Island and my father who travelled frequently to the US often said after a few beers that he would kill him during his next trip.

  5. Not only does religion not describe the *why* the universe exists, it doesn’t even attempt to do so other than stating *it’s beyond your comprehension* and *god has his reasons but he loves you, even if he tortures you with disease, death and other evil*.

    1. But it does provide the “why”, in that it posits a sentient or intelligent being with a will as cause. That is basically the definition of “why” in this context.
      Why anyone thinks that it is remotely comforting that the universe is the result of the whim of a God who explicitly commands genocide, creates viruses, parasites, bacteria and an everlasting hell, not to mention a devil to lead you there, is what is hard for me to figure out.

  6. Dear Randomengineer,

    I understand that religion gives many people comfort in their hours of need, but I value the truth more than I value the comfort that an unsupported belief can provide. Being an atheist for most of my life, I have learned to derive my comforts from elsewhere, and my mind never veers toward God as a source of comfort. Once one commits to truth as a core value, one can unlearn the God myth. The human mind is adaptable, and it doesn’t take genius to steer the right course.

  7. So, according to this commenter, folks with average or less than that IQ’s are too stupid to be atheists so let them have their religion. Talk about being rude to “the little people”. Humph! What hubris! My observation has been that religion generally stems from up-bring. I was brought up by artists, jewish/atheists and I inherited that set of beliefs from them. It works quite well for me. I bestowed it on my son but because he became Bar Mitzvah (M-I-L influence) he has some doubts. He’s an academic living in Europe so he’ll figure it out. Mostly I leave people alone with their moral choices even when I think they are absurd. But you are right, war as a system of religious requirements is heinous. Yet most wars are economic in nature but laid at the alter of god’s righteousness. There is so much to plumb here. But I have a report to write soo…

  8. The scary thing about randomengineer’s comments is that randomengineer might be an atheist but advocates the continued engineering of society with religion. I’d have let the comment post and had its specious arguments meet the fire of real debate.

    1. Well, the comment is now far more visible than it would have been, and people can address it. I don’t want a debate with someone like this commenter, who would just cause a flame war in the comments. I will email him/her/them with this link in a day or so.

  9. If you are sitting by the bedside of a dying spouse, why would you be upset if you think that person will be in some ‘heaven’? Surely you should, like martyrs, welcome death? In fact, why not all go off to your afterlife & leave the world to the realists. Yet still you see the supposedly religious cry at funerals!!!

    Oh & remind me of the biblical idea of marriage in heaven? “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

  10. Movie quote – no meaning intended :

    T.E. Lawrence: “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are.”

    … just had the match scene pop in my head yesterday…

    Lastly (promise) one does not need a high IQ – whatever that means – to understand Christopher Hitchens :

    “… extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

    Sources – well worth a look – are here : https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Christopher_Hitchens

    Especially “Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur”, which is said to be “widely used since at least the early 19th century”


  11. Well now randomengineer, your comment about IQ suggests to me that you think religion is only for people of low IQ. Is this really what you intended to say?

  12. Just who is representing an “assumption of superiority” here? Could it possibly be the person who asserts that “atheism cannot be grasped properly by the majority of humans”?

  13. Dear Prof. Coyne: Your article about the Webb telescope? I have it at the top of my to-read pile but the weather has been too great for bugs the past two days. It’s going to thunder this afternoon, so I will read it then.

    <<You would not be comforted by religion as your beloved spouse lays dying. But, billions would. For billions, religion tells them *why* the universe exists and science explains *how* it exists. That isn’t incompatible.??

    Dear randomengineer: As a widow, teetering between belief and no-belief, I can tell you that God is of entirely no comfort when your spouse dies. You become very deeply angry at God. And when I speak with other grieving believers, they are angry, too. Some non-believers that I know also become angry at God, as if some part of their psyche desires God as they look for comfort and relief everywhere. I don't wish that level of anger on anyone because it is a futile, worthless, frustrating, scary waste of time. Don't generalize so broadly.

    1. Exactly – as if these emotions only arise in Special People – as if human emotion – of any given person – is as mundane and unimportant as a piece of asphalt.

      Whatever IQ says, it says nothing about emotion.

  14. Just based on my own observations and cases I’ve heard about, dealing honestly and openly with emotionally painful events, like the death of a spouse, is the best way forward. Of course, the bereaved person might not be able to fully deal with it right away. But putting a happy face on it is not the way to go.

  15. I really can’t take any credit for my intelligence, good looks or laziness. All these are a product of an unfolding universe.

    The immensely complicated chemistry that goes on in the brain results in all sorts of beliefs eg religions, atheisms and even “little people”. We don’t have easy access to this complex chemistry other than through what we perceive as mind.

    randomengineer has a point people find comfort in religious belief, but that is no more to the point that people find comfort in a bottle (apologies to Shaw).

    I suppose the question I am asking how much of an epiphenomenon is the mind?

  16. Random Engineer- I don’t know how many religious people have been saved from religion
    by Julia Sweeny and her “Letting Go of God” essay. (Recorded) I was never tempted by such mythology in all of my almost 94 years. She is respectful, was devout, brought up very religiously so knows both sides and many “whys” and searchingly came to the conclusion that the concept of god & company was not for her. Listen to her words and perhaps learn another point of view-

  17. I’m subscribed to this blog for your critiques of religion (and other insights). I’ve never found you to be sanctimonious, but rather matter-of-fact. I’m not sorry randomEngineer is offended. Keep up the great work!

  18. What an utterly condescending line of argument this is. When apologists, like randomengineer, make these noises, they always seem to be attempting to defend the religious, but they end up inadvertently slamming religious folks as ‘less intelligent’. As Professor Coyne rightly points out, “it doesn’t take a high IQ to grasp the follies of religious faith and teaching”. Atheism is not exclusively for ‘the smart people’, and religion is not exclusively for ‘those poor, less educated dummies’. How disgusting and contemptuous to claim that ‘those religious folks can’t know any better, so we shouldn’t criticize their dumb thoughts’.

    1. If you teach six-year olds the tenets of any religion, they will believe you, and unless something kicks them out of this belief, they will keep believing religious nonsense, often up to middle age, or forever. Brainwashing (teaching at an early age) is an universal tool used by many religions (and also dictatorships). I view religious brainwashing to be a crime, and it should be banned from all schools.

      1. Yup, family up-bring is a large part of our belief systems and very often gets us into trouble in the greater world. I suspect that few folks re-evaluate lessons imbued in childhood when they reach the age of 25 or so. That’s the magic of religion.

      2. I couldn’t agree more. I am quite happy for grown-up people to entertain whatever illusions they like, if that helps them to get through their lives, or if it consoles them at their lives’ ends. What I object to is forcing those illusions on other people, especially children.

        Religion should be an activity for consenting adults in private.

        1. I agree with everything you three (Alexander, Deborah, and Steve) said, but we also can’t forget about the people out there – well educated scientists included – who convert to religion later in life (e.g., Francis Collins). My own father, a stellar middle school science teacher (now retired), who was previously agnostic and would ridicule other teachers for referencing God’s magical powers, adopted a Christian worldview and started attending church after he and my mother divorced. Now he spouts nonsensical things like, “It’s all in God’s hands now” and “God didn’t want it that way”, and compatibilist garbage like, “The story of Genesis is consistent with science if you think about it this way…”. It’s all pretty frustrating.

  19. Religion, in the conventional sense, is not the only device that individuals can cling to for comfort
    in the face of tragedy. In his autobiography, Eric Hobsbawm told about a Communist comrade who, in a period when she thought she would die, comforted herself by focusing intently on the image of Stalin—an image that apparently told her “why” the universe existed.

  20. Randomengineer might also have a thought for the countless people with IQ<130 whose lives have been ruined or ended by terror or torture at the hands of the religious.

    It boggles the mind that someone could imagine atheism as good only for the tail end of the bell curve, and religion as the only alternative for everyone else.

  21.  “Atheism works for you because you have 130+ IQ. . . .”
    Dear randomengineer,
    That’s ridiculous. The reason faith works for you has nothing to do with your lower IQ; it has to do with how much of your self-image/reputation you’ve invested in believing there’s a God. Since I have no way to determine that, I’ll save my breath.

  22. I’m not sure it’s “IQ” per se as much as it’s an ability to think critically that allows someone to question the existence of gods, the efficacy of ivermectin as a cure for covid, Bigfoot, alien abductions, claims about election fraud, and a belief that the earth is flat. I’ll bet randomengineer is way smarter than I am in certain disciplines, but never quite cultivated a fully formed ability to think critically and discern likely realities from unlikely fantasies.

    1. That’s right. It’s more about rationality than IQ—the two are positively correlated, but not that strongly. That’s why there are brilliant people who believe in nonsense.

      Still, IQ is negatively correlated with religious beliefs (about -.24, it seems), which could be seen as supporting Randomengineer’s claim. However, presumably no one, not even among those of very modest intelligence, continues to believe in Santa Claus after childhood. On the other hand, no institution or church proclaims that he exists, no one is indoctrinated to believe in Santa for good, no established religion promulgates eternal salvation through Santa; if that were the case, probably those endowed with higher than average cognitive ability would have less difficulty in realizing that belief in Santa Claus is utter nonsense than their less happily endowed brethren.

      In a meta-analysis study by Zuckerman et al on the relation between intelligence and religiosity, the following are discussed as possible explanations for the negative correlation between IQ and religiosity (note number three):

      “First, intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma. Second, intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs. Third, several functions of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by intelligence. Intelligent people may therefore have less need for religious beliefs and practices.”

      Be all that as it may, I agree with our host that, on the whole, religion is liable to cause more harm than good, even in the lives of the “little people” that randomengineer claims to be concerned about. And that alone should suffice to reject randomengineer’s argument.

      1. Here’s a prop for Randomengineer. If compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment are conferred more by religion than by intelligence in those who lack the latter, maybe we need the less intelligent to be more religious. After all, everyone, not just the intelligent, needs those four desiderata for society to hold together. Even if the dull would be better off as individuals without religion (as the rebuttal to the Little People argument claims), we can’t afford to let them. If the cost to them of their religious belief is that they get used as cannon fodder in religious wars, well, that’s better for the state than revolution.

        For the masses, it’s either religion or opium, right?

        I bristled at Randomengineer’s pugnacious tone. But if only the intelligent can be trusted with atheism, then efforts to push against religion among people not intelligent enough to reject it themselves are misguided. Your converts might lose their only (tenuous) restraint against murdering you in road rage.

        1. If it were indeed the case that religious faith conferred a non-negligible net benefit to the dull, so that, for example, thanks to it and thanks to it alone they tended to become good and productive people, then I think I’d have to agree with Randomengineer that it would be best not to challenge their faith. But if it were bad for them individually yet good for society as a whole, I’m not sure it would be morally defensible to keep them in the dark on that account. I think I’d find it defensible only if the cost to them were negligible and the advantage to society considerable.

          “Your converts might lose their only (tenuous) restraint against murdering you in road rage.”

          None other than Freeman Dyson would have agreed with you. To Steven Weinberg’s famous dictum—“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil, but for good people to do evil – that takes religion”—Dyson added: “And for bad people to do good things—that [also] takes religion.” I think both Weinberg and Dyson were right. I of course don’t think, nor do I think that anybody does, that the only restraint the religious have against crime is their faith, but it must be an important restraint, perhaps even the only one, to some.

          1. I don’t have to agree with an argument to make it. But I’m still glad you didn’t dismiss it out of hand.

  23. Dear Randomengineer,

    I’ve known plenty of stupid atheists. I’m average intelligence at best, and I’m one. I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in god, or a god, and I think it would be an insult to you to pretend I have that faith. I’m guessing there are many like that who are perfectly fine lying to you. But me, hey, average intelligence joe, so what do I know?

  24. Religion doesn’t explain why…religion explains why and how using supernatural claims which are, literally, by definition, outside the natural realm. That is why science and religion are incompatible. Simple, really.

  25. As regards the comfort religion provides to those on their deathbeds, when I was a child I was really quite disturbed by the belief that I might die and go to heaven for all eternity. I think the idea would still disturb me if I still thought it was true.

  26. Randomengineer,

    You express concern for people facing some of the predictable miseries of human life; I commend that. I cannot, however, agree that “a majority of people” need religious ideas to cope with these miseries, or are best served by religious ideas in those circumstances. Human beings need not be of above average intelligence to be well able to seek truth, reduce error, and find meaning within the bounds set by publicly verifiable, empirically observable facts, and to distinguish such facts from fiction of all kinds. Were this not so, human beings would not have achieved what we have – demonstrably – achieved as a species. Genuine knowledge is the firmest foundation for the pursuit of personal freedom, humane values, and the common good. Forms of human life built on that foundation offer the securest comfort available to us human beings in the face of our ordinary and extraordinary trials – as well as our best chance for ever rising above those trials, where rising above them is actually possible. In other words, if human kindness is our priority, I think it will be most truly found in the same place we find all our truth: in reality, as well as it can be known.

  27. Dear randomengineer

    I am an atheist and I am sure my IQ is not more than 100. I agree many atheists would think they are smarter than religious people but statistically most atheists are average or below average as are most of the population. So, intelligence doesn’t make atheist. But to come back to crux of the matter, religion and science are to me incompatible but humans can and do hold opposing beliefs in thier heads. That doesn’t constitute compatibility between science and religion. Far from it.

  28. “Randomengineer writes: “Leave people alone. You’re wicked smart, we get it. It’s being wasted by writings of assumption of superiority.”

    Do these people, including you, go out of their way to go to Dr. Coyne’s website so that they can claim that he is lording over them and not leaving them alone? It is as if someone whines that someone punched him in the fist with their nose. I’m reminded of the black sheriff holding a gun on himself in “Blazing Saddles.”

  29. When it comes to mourning death and dealing with loss, I like a quote from the samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo: “As everything in this world is but a sham, Death is the only sincerity.”

  30. It’s not clear why randomengineer bothered to write this complaint. Presumably the dimwitted billions he seeks to defend against Dr. Coyne’s critiques of religion wouldn’t be up to understanding those critiques in the first place.

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