When I was in Graduate School, I took a course that I definitely expected would be (and later proved to be) incredibly interesting: History of Economic Thought and Method (yes, I am a nerd). The Professor was definitely an intelligent man, and, through the course I definitely gained valuable insight on how current economic orthodoxy evolved over time and how economic thinking interacted with history (as well as discovering quite a few heterodox schools). However, the lecture that I remember the most clearly, and the most specifically, had very, very little to do with economics.
I forget what this lecture was supposed to be about (I think we were in the middle of discussing Thorstein Veblen, but it doesn’t really matter), but, almost instantaneously, this normally intelligent, although somewhat eccentric (as academics can be), man descended into an absolutely batty discussion about why he believes that the world will end in December, 2012. Now, why anyone would trust the ancient Mayans (intelligent as they were) to predict our fates when they couldn’t predict their own demise is beyond me, but this otherwise very intelligent man had a seemingly reasonable proof for his belief–that just happened to fall on its face when its premises were made subject to any scrutiny, but that’s not the point.
What does this have to do with atheism or religion? Well, lots, actually. Thousands–no millions–of perfectly intelligent people who whole-heartedly believe the quite silly belief that the God of Abraham impregnated a virgin with himself so he could be born, give a few speeches, perform a few miracles, and get murdered after being betrayed so that mankind would finally be forgiven for one woman (who probably didn’t exist) eating an apple (or pomegranate) that she wasn’t supposed to. Holding this belief, silly as it may be, does not make someone stupid, per se; it just requires a little cognitive dissonance and a lot of mental gymnastics.
A wise man once said that smart people are great at coming up with smart justifications for beliefs they obtained through less than smart means (I really wish I remembered who that wise man was, so I could properly attribute the sentiment–for now it will just have to do for me to say that the thought isn’t mine). The idea of a personal god is so pervasive in our culture that you pretty much believe in one by default if you’re young enough (Hell, I believed in some sort of god when I was little, and I’m the son of an atheist and an agnostic). It’s not that we have an army of hyper-intelligent toddlers that is able to comprehend metaphysics and come to a reasoned conclusion that there is one, very specific personal god; it’s that children, whether through culture or
indoctrination being raised into a faith, are, constantly and repeatedly, told that not only is there a god, that god cares about you.
Needless to say, a near Clockwork Orange-style indoctrination at an early age is not what comes to mind when we think of someone making an intelligent, reasoned decision as to what beliefs will be at the center of their worldview, but that belief, whether it be through the culture, social-ties, or culture that it may foster, becomes second nature. Intelligent people begin to feel as if their theistic belief, no matter what god it refers to, becomes inseparable from themselves (which might explain why people get so touchy when their religious beliefs are challenged). Defense of this belief, as a part of their being, becomes an instant reflex, and it is the sophistication of the defense, not the belief itself, that determines the intelligence (or stupidity) of the individual.
Firstly, and characteristic of a stupid person, is the rage defense. In less civilized times, this would involve violence (in some places it still does, sadly); now (in America, usually), it involves all manner of insults, raised-voices, tears, and often the offending party being informed that he (or she) is destined for hell (or some equivalent torturous end). This is not rational or logical, so I’ll just not treat it like that and ignore it.
The intelligent person will actually have used their brain muscle (and I know that brains aren’t actually muscles… smart ass) to think of a reasoned, logical defense of their beliefs–even if those beliefs are, themselves, silly. It’s because of this that we even have theology and apologia in the first place: intelligent people either create some logical (kind of?) defense of their beliefs (like the teleological argument) or some reason why it can’t be discussed or disproved (“It’s just faith” or “Non-overlapping Magisteria“). Either way, there is some sort of thought out, logical explanation for what they believe.
Maddeningly though, some intelligent people, who really are skeptical in their everyday lives, just refuse to apply their intellect and skepticism to their own beliefs (they usually rely on the “It’s just faith” card).
So, though it can certainly seem like no intelligent people can actually believe some of the things that the religious tend to believe (Virgin Birth, etc), we, as skeptics and atheists, should do the best we can to assume we are talking to intelligent, rational people. If they just turn out to be morons and ineptly rage at us, then we can just accept their stupidity and move on.