Thursday, April 06, 2017

The bell curve of atheism

Atheists range up and down the bell curve. Let's attempt a classification. 

Before plunging in, how we rank intelligence is tricky. For instance, some people are freakishly brilliant at one particular thing, but not equally brilliant outside their narrow talent. 

Some philosophers are smarter than some scientists, because, to be a good philosopher requires an ability for abstract analysis, whereas many sciences are more concrete, hands-on. However, it takes great ability in abstract analysis to excel as a theoretical physicist. Same thing with mathematicians–or mathematical physicists. 

It's also the case that physicists, mathematicians, and philosophers range along a continuum. 

On the other hand, the complexity of biology may select for a different kind of intelligence. An ability to zero in on something crucial. Ignore the distracting welter of detail. An ability to form a reliable generalization over vast and varied phenomena. 

1. At the very tippy top of the secular bell curve you have some atheists of genius. I have in mind some great scientists, mathematicians, and chess players, viz. Dirac, Feynman, Gell-Mann, Mandelbrot, Pauli, Pauling, Penrose, Poincaré, Shannon, Turing, von Neumann, and Witten. 

I'm not suggesting that all the greatest scientists, mathematicians, and chess players are atheists. But those are stereotypical paradigms of high IQ. 

The people I named, and that's just a sample, are about as smart as humans get. However, there's a catch: the smartest atheists are geniuses who happen to be atheists. It's not central to their self-identity. They don't define themselves by atheism. They don't devote their life to disproving religion and promoting atheism. That's not where they invest their intellectual energies. That's not their area of interest. 

2. A little lower down on the bell curve are some very brilliant secular philosophers, viz. Frege, David Lewis, Héctor-Neri Castañeda, However, like the first group, these are philosophers who happen to be atheists, rather than secular philosophers of religion.

I'm not quite sure where to put Hillary Putman. A super-smart philosopher. Later in life he became an "observant Jew," but from what I can tell, that was about practice rather than faith. 

Similarly, but not in quite the same intellectual league, are Fordor and Chalmers. 

3. Bertrand Russell was both very brilliant and a popularizer of atheism. He could do sustained, probing analysis in philosophy when he put his mind to it. But when it came to religion, he contented himself with witty, moralistic potboilers. 

4. Compared to (1), W. V. Quine is a little lower on the bell curve. Although he rarely if ever directly attacks religion or Christianity, he labored to develop a systematically naturalistic ontology and epistemology. A thoroughgoing alternative to theism. An indirect attack, by attempting to supplant it. 

5. Oppy, Sobel, McTaggart, and Mill may be the most brilliant thinkers who write sustained attacks on religion.  

6. Further down the bell curve than (3-5) are atheists like Antony Flew, Mackie, Rowe. They lack the quicksilver brilliance and rhetorical panache of Russell, but compensate by attempting serious, methodical attacks on religion. And unlike Quine, they explicitly attack Christian theism. 

7. In a niche of his own making is Thomas Nagel, whose intellectual independence sets him apart. 

8. You also have a slew of competent but not outstanding academic atheists, viz. Shellenberg, Gale, Grünbaum, Drange, Draper, Dennett, Smart, Parsons, Pigliucci, Wielenberg, Nielsen, and Quentin Smith. 

In-between (8) and (9) I'd place Michael Martin. 

9. Further down the bell curve are academic hacks like Stephen Law, Boghossian, and Paul Kurtz. These are academic popularizers. 

10. Apropos (9) are affirmative action atheists. Token female philosophers who lack any particular intellectual distinction, but exist to fill a quota, viz. Andrea Weisberger, Louise Antony.

(I don't deny that there are some very brilliant women.)

11. Perhaps even further down the bell curve are the pulp popularizers. From an older generation you have Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, Andrew Dickson White, Mencken. A more recent example is Christopher Hitchens. 

11. Then you have a special category of popularizers who are science writers or washed up scientists, viz. Carroll, Coyne, Dawkins, Harris, Hawking, Kitcher, Krauss, Ruse, Sagan, Shermer, Susskind,  Stenger, Weinberg, Neil deGrasse Tyson, PZ Myers. In some cases they lack the brilliance to make an original and notable contribution to scientific knowledge. In other cases their best work is behind them. Unsurprisingly, they are massively ignorant of philosophy and theology (although Ruse is a cut above).

12. Then there's the category of the celebrity apostate. Bart Ehrman is the current darling, while John Loftus is a wannabe. 

13. You also have secular ethicists and policy wonks like Richard Posner, Peter Singer, and John Rawls. 

14. Near the bottom of the heap is Richard Carrier. Intellectually, he's above average. In high school I'd expect him to be a member of the honor society. If, however, you dropped him into the student body of CalTech or MIT, he'd disappear without a trace. A smart dilettante who doesn't know his limitations. 

15. At the nadir of the bell curve are the proudly, hopelessly dumb and ignorant Internet atheists who swarm Reddit, YouTube, and Debunking Christianity, &c.

16. I should add that there's a bell curve for believers which parallels the bell curve for unbelievers. Christians and theists range along the bell curve, and some occupy the tippy top. 


  1. Steve, did you not mention Jeffery Jay Lowder because he was an acquaintance of yours in school and he sometimes comments here at Triablogue? Some atheists claim that William Lane Craig is afraid to debate Lowder because he is so smart and knowledgeable in the theist vs. atheist debate.

    1. Craig and Lowder are very different. Craig is a man of versatile brilliance whereas Lowder is a very cautious thinker. Has a plodding mind. But Lowder is far more conversant about Craig's repertoire of arguments than most of Craig's opponents. At 67, Craig only has some many debates left in him, so he has to be very finicky as he approaches the twilight of his career as a public debater. Once he loses his edge, he can still write, but to do public debates you need to be quick on your feet.

  2. BTW, here's a link to a collection of "Why I Am Not a Christian" by various atheists. It's interesting the varying levels of quality arguments atheists have.

    The link includes testimonies by Graham Oppy, Richard Carrier, John Loftus, Keith Parsons, Kenneth W. Daniels.

  3. Because atheists often idolize science, they like to point out that most scientists are brilliant as well as being atheists. The implication being that atheism is the intelligent person's viewpoint.

    William Lane Craig destroys the claim that most scientists are atheists. Also, that atheistic scientists usually become atheists before they go to higher education. So, it's not always the science that made (or forced them to be) atheists.

    See the W.L. Craig links


    See also my blogpost Here.

  4. Will you be posting "The bell curve of Christianity" or "The bell curve of theism" as well? I'd be interested in reading your thoughts on that, too.

    1. There's a lot to disagree with in the following lists (e.g. in terms of those included as well as excluded, in terms of their assessments, perhaps understandably there are no historical candidates listed such as my favorite mathematician Euler), but these lists might serve as a good starting point: