JR'S Free Thought Pages
Are Humans Really that Stupid?
by Johnny Reb
Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding... Reason should be destroyed in all Christians - Martin Luther
Ironically, because of our exceptional innate ability to learn, it may be possible to argue that homo sapiens have become the least intelligent species on earth. Perhaps "learn" is not the right word; to be "trained", "inculcated" or indoctrinated" might be more appropriate terms because many people have little discernment or critical filters when it comes to assimilating information, most of which is flawed - or palpably false. This is especially true when impressionable youngsters are fed intellectual rubbish, usually religion, before they reach an age of rational maturity. Certainly if they followed the dictum of the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther, in the quotation above, that would undoubtedly be the case.
The reason for this conjecture is because no other species on our planet can be taught the gibberish, foolishness and endless quantities of idiotic nonsense that so many human beings seem so eager to learn, believe and internalize. You cannot teach dogs, cats, dolphins or earthworms to believe in an invisible friend, to hate each other on the basis of color, shape, size, philosophy or religion. You cannot get them to organize into military factions and march off lockstep to obliterate those who have chosen to believe in the wrong deity or political ideology or live on land and resources your leaders covet. You cannot convince them to build temples to their ancestors, worship cruel vindictive non-existent gods, buy useless junk marketed by morons, attend mind-crushing church services and believe superstitious pre-scientific gobbledygook. In fact, if we humans observed another species believing such hogwash and carrying out these acts we would be appalled, concluding they are intellectually defective at best, and at worst, malevolent.
Yet too many of us accept such aberrant behaviour as simply part of the human condition - an aspect of our “nature”.
Albert Einstein was right when he said: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
We live in a peculiar world in which many consider faith a positive attribute. But a positive attribute for what purpose? People in positions of power, religious leaders, politicians and those who want to sell you something value people who have faith and believe based on claims or propositions having no evidence. Adolf Hitler once justifiably remarked that "it's fortunate for leaders that people refuse to think".
In an episode of the late 1960s sitcom All In The Family, red neck conservative Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, was arguing, as usual, with his lefty liberal son-in-law Michael also known as "The Pollack" or “Meathead,” played by Rob Reiner. Archie insisted that people really need faith while Meathead questioned the proposal, suggesting that it's an intellectual vice. He finally challenged Archie on the conceptual issue; “What do you mean by faith?” Archie replied in all seriousness: “Faith, you know, faith... that’s when you believe something that nobody in his right mind would believe.”
Archie Bunker had it right this time. Perhaps he was merely rephrasing what Mark Twain had declared nearly a century earlier, that faith is simply “...believing something that you know ain’t so.” Encouraging faith is a means of getting people to neutralize or disengage scepticism, inquiry, critical thinking and to believe statements that normally functioning brains would discard as palpable nonsense. When over time a whole society accepts shared ideas based on faith, those ideas often come to be seen as revealed “truth,” making it difficult for an individual to realize that vital questions could and should be raised.
In addition to its intrinsic irrationality, there are countless historical examples of the dark side of faith. How do you explain the hundreds of wars of religion, including the crusades? Why were so many apparently loving, caring, God-fearing individuals even in the 18th and 19th century unable to recognize persecution, torture and slavery as an abomination? Why did thousands of teen-aged members of the Hitler Youth take up arms in the last days of World War II, stand and die in the wreckage of Germany even though the war was clearly lost? Why did Muslims from Saudi Arabia fly into the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001 - and why did so many credulous Americans subsequently believe the loathsome propaganda of their government and support the unjustified invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq? Working people throughout the world are presently suffering from a global depression brought on by a failed neo-conservative economic model of unfettered global free trade with no oversight or checks and balances, deregulation of financial institutions and exploitation of labour and the environment. The foxes (Wall Street and the financial aristocracy) are back in business as usual and now guard the henhouse, even after taxpayers bailed out the criminal vultures. The jackboot is on our collective necks and most still believe and trust conservative politicians and their corporate masters. Can you get any more docile and credulous than that?
Despite the re-election of Barack Obama, neither the economy of the United States, Europe, or the global economy in general, has a chance to survive, let alone improve, because it is built on fraudulent neo-conservative theories, failed economic models and imaginary accounting principles. When countries conceded their money "creation" rights to private banks - and with them the control of their economies for the benefit of the common good and are now borrowing back money they already own by law - they've signed their own tickets for the road to total collapse.
The incredible stupidity of quasi-religious economic theories based on "trickle down" Reaganomics and justified by the mysticism of seriously flawed mathematical models over the past several decades is mind boggling. Yet they continue unabated despite their abysmal failures underscored by the global financial meltdown and bank bailouts of 2007-09 because people are complacent, credulous, devoid of logic and will believe anything. The ruling classes of history, with the complicity of state sanctioned religion, discovered thousands of years ago that they can exploit human docility and credulity for their own self-interest and "wealth creation" funneling it into their own pockets, until they too are wiped out and replaced by a new set of conservative crooks.
The most important question for the survival of the human race is how to persuade people to look at facts and evidence, instead of committing intellectual and personal suicide based on faith, human gullibility, stupidity and ignorance of important intellectual disciplines such as history, science, mathematics and philosophy.
Yes, even despite what has happened in the past several decades of never-ending economic bubbles, cycles of collapse and anemic recovery, corruption, cronyism, corporatism, environmental degradation and pillage of the commons, most people continue to have faith in our conservative political ideologues who embrace this ongoing socio-economic nightmare, a system that has enriched only a tiny elite. And why?
It's called faith. Give it up and toss it into the intellectual rubbish pile - before it's too late.
Here's a short quiz:
1. You see a color newspaper photo of the Pope decked out in all his splendid regalia, kingly crowned chapeau, arms raised, blessing the multitude. Your reaction is:
a). You feel a sense of awe and perhaps an emotional tremor as you contemplate the meaning and importance of his mission for god, the cosmos and humanity.
b). You wonder how an apparently intelligent grown man can seriously strut around in an embroidered bat man suit and gown, sporting a silly foot-high pointed hat and waving what looks like a magic wand. It occurs to you with a chuckle that a propeller on top of his hat might be a suitable adornment.
2. You are sitting in your living room. A flick of the TV remote brings a 1-800 TV evangelist onto the screen, gazing out piously from his elaborate church-like studio. His cherub face, bouffant hair and glossy lips synchronize harmoniously to offer you an insider's deal for vials of "spiritual" anointing oils:
a). You consider getting out your check book so you can do some small part in supporting the Lord’s work.
b). You are baffled as to why anyone would want to spend eternity in a heaven filled with fraudulent snake oil bozos like him. You visualize a cream pie floating straight into his pious pompous face.
3. You learn that devout Mormons wear special holy undergarments and that some privileged Mormon males are virtually never without them, even when bathing or having sex with one of their wives. When you think about that:
a). You are impressed to discover that a religion has looked so assiduously into the spiritual aspects of even the most mundane of daily activities.
b). You doubt that even if such a phantom exists, that God would have so little to do that he actually spends his precious time monitoring the sweaty fart stained undergarments of the devout.
4. You read in the newspaper that the Kansas Board of Education eliminated the teaching of evolution in their public schools’ science classes. It occurs to you that:
a). Christians on state school boards are finally finding the courage to do what needs to be done: teach Bronze Age Bible-based Creationism and thereby give kids a proper moral and scientific education.
b). You wonder if evolution somehow ground to a halt in Kansas a hundred thousand years ago and Neanderthals are now running the school boards.
5. You drive by a house with a big garishly painted wooden hand and crystal ball mounted in the front yard with a sign proclaiming, “Psychic Readings by Madam Zeusistria.” As you continue to drive down the street:
a). You feel a twinge of anxiety and think, “Gadzooks, maybe I ought to stop and find out what the future might have in store for me and my loved ones.”
b). You gaze at the dumpy house and the run-down neighbourhood and surmise that if Madam Zeusistria is so great at seeing the future she ought to just pick the next winning lottery number and retire with her millions.
6. It is Easter week and as happens every year the media feature images of some scruffy person in a culture of grinding poverty, dragging a cross up a hill just like Jesus did, surrounded by crowds of chanting or singing true believers. Finally he or she ends up tied or even nailed to a makeshift cross in a burst of religious fervour. Your reaction is:
a). You think, “I can’t believe the degree of reverence, dedication and faith being demonstrated here. I’m sure I could never rise to such a level of piety and self-sacrifice, but sometimes I wish I could.”
b). You think, “What kind of total religious whacko would do something so stupid? If I ever descend into such insanity I hope my friends will put me out of my misery.”
7. You look at TV Guide and find that “48 Hours” is doing a program on “miracles.” You watch Dan Rather explain that a little girl in a long-term coma is believed to heal people who come and pray at her bedside. Your response is:
a). You feel a kind of glow as you think about these miracles and all the other miracles that happen every day. You hope that if you ever need one, God will hear your prayers and pleadings.
b). You sadly shake your head since it seems apparent that if this young girl has miraculous healing powers, she should be able to use them on herself, awaken from her coma, hop out of bed and get on with her life on face book. You roll up your eyes in disgust at another exercise in mysticism and miracles hyped by the mass media.
8. A 20-car train wreck results in the death of two dozen passengers. One of the survivors interviewed on Fox News describes the tragic wreck and then emotionally observes that people in the seats next to him were killed outright while he walked away with minor scratches. “I really felt the presence of the Jesus our Lord and my guardian angel at that point, I’ll tell you,” he whispers with tears in his eyes, “And I thank Jesus I was spared.” As you listen:
a). You too thank heaven for the Lord Jesus and guardian angels and suspect that some of your own hard-to-explain close calls with death may have involved a guardian angel helping you out when you really needed it.
b). You eagerly wait in vain for Bible believer Fox News anchor Sean Hannity to ask, “Tell me, while your guardian angel was busy saving your life, where were the dead people’s guardian angels, off on a Starbucks coffee break?”
9. A thousand middle-eastern men are shown on the evening news, lined up row upon row, each prostrating himself, forehead on the ground in prayer to Allah. Looking over this impressive scene:
a). You think, “Even if I don’t share their faith, I have to admire their piety and spiritual dedication, praying toward Mecca like this five times a day, every day for their entire adult life.”
b). You wonder if Allah has a legion of bean-counters keeping track each time one of these dim bulbs performs a head plant on the floor so that when he eventually arrives in heaven he will hear, “Uh Oh, Abdullah, look here. I only show three forehead-bonks back on October 5, 1977 and four on March 3, 1991. That means no 72 virgins and a few extra years of self-flagellation for you. Here’s your cat of nine tails. Get on with it pal.”
10. You pick up a magazine and read about a best-selling author whose book describes what awaits in heaven after death. It seems she was pronounced “clinically dead” following an accident, went through a pulsing tunnel to a bright light, and then thoughtfully came back to life to let us know all about the other side. Your most likely reaction is:
a). You feel a surge of hope, perhaps joy, knowing that a positive and beautiful experience awaits believers at the end of life so you have nothing to fear.
b). You question how she could really have been “dead” since she is obviously still alive. You recall hearing a brain surgeon comment that a shortage of oxygen in the brain during trauma naturally produces strong emotions and visual images, including tunnels and lights. You consider brain malfunction and hallucination a more likely explanation for her experiences than a quick visit to St Peter at the Pearly Gates.
11. You are watching a New York Yankees baseball game and one of their multi-millionaire prima donna outfielders hits a home run and races around the bases with his hands pointed in the sky, thanking the Big Man who resides there for facilitating the ball's flight into the bleachers. As you watch the ball arc into the crowd:
a) You marvel once again at the Lord's work in providing the power in your baseball hero's steroid filled body.
b) You are dumb struck as to why the same beneficent all-powerful good Lord in his infinite wisdom decided to allow the same player to hit into two double plays, a pop fly ball and strike out in his four previous plate appearances?
12. The tennis match you are watching on TV is interrupted by an advertisement, complete with outrageous testimonials and parlour tricks, for a rubber wrist band with a hologram in the middle, referred to as the "power balance energy bracelet". It makes the same magical claims to enhancing balance, heath and athletic performance as another piece of junk called the Q-Ray bracelet. Your immediate reaction is:
a) I must order this miraculous new medical miracle device at once so I can hit a forehand like Roger Federer, serve 240 km/h like Milos Raonic and kick everyone's ass at my local tennis club.
b) I think to myself: "How can there be so many gullible idiots on this pathetic planet who know so little about science that they would even remotely consider wasting $50 on this useless garbage that looks like third rate costume jewelry I could purchase at my local Dollar Store. Bullshit is everywhere. There's a sucker born every second so caveat emptor! As the late Christopher Hitchens said, "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." There's as much evidence that a costume jewelry bracelet will cause an epidemic of double faults as produce aces. Hey, why not consider the Homeopathic Wrist Band (it's invisible) or perhaps the "Placebo Wrist Band" that cures everything from your abysmal golf game to cancer?
This quiz could be extended to another 1000 queries such as these within the context of religion or any other mind-numbing superstition.
But I'm sure you get my drift...
If you answered mostly "a", you're likely to have an imaginary friend and wait with breathless anticipation for the next mass media tsunami of marketing scams appealing to human stupidity: best-selling spirituality, pseudoscientific drivel and paranormal books about heaven, angels and psychics and television programs such as This Week in Bible Prophecy , Touched by an Angel, Ancient Aliens, Searching for Bigfoot and reruns of The X-Files.
The illustrious philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) urged people not to “...feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.” If you can’t help doubting, you may simply be what Steve Allen called a natural-born questioner. Perhaps you were lucky enough to have a parent, friend, teacher, or mentor who actively encouraged your curiosity and propensity to raise questions. Whatever the reason, the legions of authority figures demanding, “believe" and "have faith" have for some reason failed to discourage your inquisitiveness. Good on you. Contrary to widely held opinion, ignorance is not bliss.
It was Voltaire who correctly said that "those who believe in absurdities will commit atrocities." Beliefs, after all, are propositions we accept and act upon and I surely don't need to present an overview of the holy horrors of religion to convince anyone of the ignorance, violence and misery it has let loose on the world.
People's religious beliefs are not innocuous and without consequence for the rest of us. Consider the mindset of President George W. Bush, who, while lying to Americans as he geared up for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said that “This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins?” He mindlessly referred to the campaign as a "crusade" on numerous occasions. Or consider the obtuse views of Newt Gingrich who, during the 2012 Republican Presidential primaries and recipient of 2.4 million votes, declared during the campaign that an atheist is ipso facto morally unfit to be President? How about the beliefs of the Taliban, one of whom recently shot Malala Yousafzai, a 14 year old student in response to her activism aimed at ensuring the right of girls to go to school? Or the vile hateful biblical views held by the opponents of gay marriage? Or those that underlie patriarchy in much of the Islamic and Hindu parts of the world? Would it be difficult to cite countless other examples of the more recent sort I have just provided?
Organized Religion by its very nature is hierarchical and authoritarian, the very antithesis of freedom and democracy. It's no accident that it has always aligned itself with wealth and political power - to the detriment of the working class majority. It is also no accident that in the face of massive public debt, increasing inequality, poverty and a wretchedly inadequate social safety net, various levels of ostensibly secular government in the United States grant tens of billions of dollars in subsidies annually to religious organizations. In addition these religious institutions pay no taxes. But in Mathew Jesus tells us the poor will always be with us, but like most biblical declarations, provides no reason why it must be the case. Hence, it's not surprising and no accident that economic inequality and poverty throughout the world are strongly correlated with levels of religious belief. Although they are generally overlooked, the unjust and deleterious products of the intersection of political economy and religion are, with a little effort, not difficult to notice. In 2009, Gallup Polls measured religiosity in 143 countries. They showed that in nations “where average annual incomes are $2,000 or less,” 92 percent of residents “say religion is an important part of their daily lives.” By contrast, among the wealthiest countries surveyed, “those where average annual incomes are $25,000 or more” the percentage was 44 percent. In the U.S., religiosity closely correlates with income inequality (Tomas Rees, Journal of Religion and Society, 2009). Nine of the ten poorest states are located in the Republican dominated Bible Belt.
So when someone encourages you to “have faith,” they are invariably inculcated with religious dogma or are in some position of power, authority or have something to sell. People such as these despise skeptics and questioners who ought to remain quiet and acquiesce with whatever they claim and the demands they make. Many absurd, vile and destructive events of history have been built upon a foundation of blind faith. The countless wars of religion and wars of capitalist colonial power such as the two World Wars of the 20th century were a remarkable test of the faith of individuals in their nations, political systems, and religious leaders. That faith led to the needless slaughter of millions in conflicts that not one soldier in a thousand could have wanted or explained. All they knew or needed to know was that their "country" (that is, the people who own and run it) called upon them and insisted they have a sense of duty and faith - as they marched in lock-step to their slaughter. [I urge the reader to consult a recent book by Adam Hoschschild on World War I called To End all Wars.]
The rare gift of thinking critically and logically can be helpful and enriching, but it can also set you up as a target of contempt by true believers. After all, we live in a society which, despite all the talk about “freedom,” does not value doubt or critical analysis of widely-shared beliefs of faith about religion and ideology embraced by the majority. If you are like me and enjoy engaging people into discussions about important issues such as religion and politics, even with strangers - and receive blank stares as though you are an alien for another galaxy - it's the norm. People of faith don't like their emotionally charged precious beliefs challenged, many of whom have a lifetime invested in them. Get used to it, develop a thick skin and by all means don't give up. There are other heretics and iconoclasts like you out there who prefer to think for themselves and don't mind being a member of an unloved minority. And you may even convince someone to join the reality based community and a life as a faith free skeptic and critical thinker.
A Generation of Dunces?
In a recent survey, 64% of Americans couldn't find Iraq on a map, only 52% of US high school seniors were able to identify Germany, Japan, or Italy as allies of the United States in World War II. It gets worse and I won't shock you with the disturbing statistics. In recent books such as Idiot America* and The Dumbest Generation forceful arguments are presented that support not only my contention that most humans don't know how to think effectively, but the situation is getting worse. People are relentlessly bombarded by worthless, distracting and often harmful trivia, spectacle, pseudoscience, celebrity worship, marketing, conservative bias and propaganda by the mass media. To add insult to cognitive injury people are wired into their self-flagellating i-pods and cell phones every waking hour, engulfing themselves in a self-flagellating and lobotomizing techno-nightmare.
* This book, along with Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, are vital contributions to the long history of anti-intellectualism in the United States of America. The author, Charlie Pierce, is not hesitant to a depict know-nothings like Fox News' Bible thumping Sean Hannity a bona fide idiot. Pierce has propounded the three great axioms of Idiot America: 1. Any theory is valid if it moves product or units; 2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough; 3. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it. From the Creationist Museum, to the 2005 Dover Intelligent Design Case, to the tragedy of Terri Schiavo, to the deification of Jack Bauer, Pierce has traced the transformation from the traditional American crank to the modern American idiot.
Thomas Jefferson counted heavily on public schools to ensure the moral and intellectual continuance of the Republic. Only the broad education of each generation would sustain the nation, "the diffusion of knowledge among the people," he wrote in 1786. If "we leave the people in ignorance," he warned, old customs will return, and "kings, priests and nobles . . . will rise up among us." Indeed, Jefferson would have it that no person would qualify as "a citizen of this commonwealth until he or she can read readily in some tongue, native or acquired." Education would preserve the sovereignty of the people, and without it the very system designed to represent them would descend into yet another tyranny in the dismayingly predictable course of nations. He even relied on public schools to identify promising young men of merit but lacking wealth and birth, who would be supported in higher education by public funds. Jefferson, Madison, and the other founders realized that men in government often behave all too humanly, allowing special interests and influences and the power they wield tempt them away from the common good. We need only examine the present predicament of wealth and corporate control of the political environment throughout the so-called democratic world. The world is now under the tyranny of an ideology of corporatist global capitalism that in form is no different from the theocracies, monarchies and feudal autocracies of the Middle Ages. Knowledge, intellectual engagement, inquiry and the ability to think critically are crucial component for a flourishing democracy and there's seems to be no doubt we are quickly losing these qualities. Along with the dominance of right wing media and endless propaganda, the anemic education system which has also been subjected to mind-numbing corporatization. Sadly, most individual voters are abysmally ignorant of even very basic understanding of science, mathematics and how to think critically and important areas of the liberal arts such as history, literature and philosophy.
One is not born with critical thinking skills. They must be taught. Much of what we remember and believe is flawed or simply false. Our brains seem to constantly generate false observations, memories, and beliefs - and yet we tend to take the truth of our experiences for granted. Moreover, a host of logical flaws and cognitive biases plague our thinking, unless we are specifically aware of and avoid those fallacies. Many teachers and school boards have attempted to introduce critical thinking programs into the public schools but have been up against powerful conservative forces and religious opposition every step of the way. I know this from personal experience. As early as possible our schools need to teach logic, logical fallacies, recognition of cognitive biases, how our brains distort reality and how students can specifically use critical thinking skills and tools to combat the deceptions of their minds. Students also need to be taught the history of mathematics and science, how science actually works and how to tell the differences between good science, bad science and pseudoscience. Moreover, students need to also understand the role of science and critical thinking in democracy, the importance of a high-quality science education, and how to skeptically approach religion, marketing and the media. None of this has been seriously attempted in the schools. Left to our own devices - what psychologists call the default mode of human thinking - we will be subject to the vagaries of perception and memory and slaves to our emotional needs and biases.
There are literally hundreds, likely thousands of books and courses on skepticism and critical thinking and I'll recommend just a few that I personally own: Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things, Thomas Gilovich's How we Know What Isn't So, Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World, John Allen Paulos' Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences and a wonderful course offered by TLC (The Learning Company) called Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking which is available in video or audio book here. You can listen to the 24- 30 minute lectures by Steven Novella in mp3 format in your car! There's a good reading list on critical thinking to be found at:
One sometimes thinks that there must be some sort of sinister conspiracy at work to keep the masses ignorant, credulous and docile. Rule one is "question authority" and understand what sources can be trusted. Religious leaders, politicians and marketers are the three most toxic purveyors of egregious self-serving bullshit. The blind obedience of most people to authority is disturbing, as the experiments by the social scientist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s graphically demonstrated. If you are not familiar with Milgram there's a web site devoted to his work at: