IEET > Rights > Contributors > Alex McGilvery > FreeThought
God doesn’t want you to be stupid.
Alex McGilvery   Mar 25, 2012   Ethical Technology  

I was checking out a facebook posting in which people were asked to suggest one additional verse to the Bible.  What was interesting was the number that said directly or indirectly that we were expected to think for ourselves. One of Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples was that they were no longer slaves but heirs. Being an heir means responsibility. It means that we need to think about what we are doing.

That’s right. God doesn’t want us to be stupid. If you haven’t read Lincoln Cannon’s excellent article on faith and thinking please do so. Faith and thought are not mutually exclusive. Faith and science are not enemies. These are lies that you have been told in order to make the world simpler. They are lies and they are insidious ones. It is this thinking that has kept the debate around global warming going long past the time that we should have been making radical changes to our way of life.

There are lots of people who are too lazy to think. They are not all religious people. Read any collection of comments on a youtube video that mentions any element of religion and you will be astounded at the stupidity of the responses, both religious and atheist. Because the world doesn’t work the way you want it to is not proof that God doesn’t exist; because the world seems work the way you want it to isn’t proof that God does exist.

Religion doesn’t make people stupid. Laziness makes people stupid. I know that religion is on Hank’s list of things that damage your intelligence. But I would argue that the causation is backward, the less intelligent chose a religion that won’t force them to think too much. Religion properly applied needs intelligence. To be faithful in the way that Lincoln talks about takes hard work. We look at drugs or neuro-stimulation as ways of enhancing morality, yet religious disciplines have been doing that for millennia.

My brother watched this video on game theory and asked what you would need to do to become a Level 42 Christian. Many people would assume that you would need to memorize the Bible and spend lots of time in prayer to become so holy. Gaming though isn’t about just information. We have Bibles around to read. Memorizing is a useful exercise for the brain, but knowing the complexities of the scripture and how they weave through the stories, histories and poetry of the bible is essential. We need to wander through the landscape of the Bible as people wander through World of Warcraft, in order to learn what it is going to teach us. There are no shortcuts. Just as you can’t shortcut learning WoW to gain levels.

No scriptures are simple. There are no gold bound books that tell us in exact terms what God expects of us. The Bible is not the inerrant word of God. That doesn’t mean that scriptures in general and the Bible in particular are not useful for us to know. Take something as basic as the Ten Commandments. Most people are aware that there are Ten Commandments, but most could not tell you what they are or what order they appear. Even fewer people know that the Commandments make several appearances in the first five books of the Bible.

Hitchens was aware of this and uses it as a beginning place to suggest that the commandments are unsupportable.  The problem is that he has his emphasis backwards. Historians will tell you that the more something, like say, ten rules for living, show up in different sources, the more likely they are to be important in the culture of the day. Variations are expected. Complete lack of variation between one source and another is a red flag and suggests that the sources were altered. Knowing the Ten Commandments is important, but knowing that there is more than one version is even more important. Most important is knowing how to interpret that multiplicity and variation properly. I want to point out that this is not some special religious method of justifying obscure texts, but normal historical practice. I don’t have space to go through the whole article, but it does show that reading scriptures is more work than reading the comics in the paper. You need to understand history, literature, culture and be aware of your own biases.

The same is true for prayer. If you don’t understand meditation and contemplation and you don’t have the mental discipline to follow through, it won’t make much difference. The reason Tibetan monks’ brains are more empathetic is because they have worked for years to make them that way. It isn’t an interesting side effect of meditation, it is the purpose. Mastery takes time, effort and discipline. 

Jonathan Haidt talks about religion, transcendence and evolution in this video. He suggests that we have a lower “secular” mind and an upper “sacred” mind; and that mystical experiences are the result of being uplifted to this sacred mind. While in this sacred mind we become better people. We don’t hate our enemies; we forgive wrongs; we feel love for all around us. Haidt goes on to talk about the evolutionary value of this sacred mind in creating cooperative groups that compete internally and cooperate externally. Nothing unites us quite as quickly as a common threat.

There are different ways of achieving the sacred mind. Sometimes a place will do it, sometimes being in a large group of people with a common purpose, and sometimes religious practice. Places that cause us to stop thinking about ourselves and just stare in awe are likely to move us up Haidt’s secret staircase to the sacred mind. It is the experience of losing oneself that defines this movement. We are no longer an insignificant speck, but a part of the cosmos. Crowds also create this possibility of losing ourselves to a larger whole. He talks about celebratory crowds, but dances quickly around the loss of self that results in destructive mobs or the acquiescence to evil that happens with extreme nationalism.

It is the third possibility that I would like to explore further. Haidt mentions religious ritual; then shies away quickly, but religions are created around people who spent much of their lives in this sacred mind space. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and others are defined by their insistence on love, self sacrifice and justice – the very things that Haidt talks about as indicative of a sacred mind experience. The interesting thing is that none of these people are tied to one particular location. They are uplifted wherever they go. The reason for this is their spiritual discipline.

Jesus in particular spends much of his time in the wilderness in prayer. In the opening chapters of Mark, the disciples are constantly going out searching for him to drag him back to the people. In Christian tradition it is this being in an attitude of constant prayer that sets Jesus apart from others and connects him to the divine. Even Jesus, who the gospels call the Son of God, has to work at staying connected with the sacred! He emphasizes prayer as an important vehicle to develop and maintain a relationship with God. Paul carries that emphasis into his letters. Much of his general advice is to pray.

So what is prayer? For most of the modern world, including religious people, prayer is about asking God for what we want.  Many of the post-theist authors start on their journey away from believing in a God with whom we can relate with the failure of God to answer their prayers. It doesn’t matter whether God didn’t show up with a new bike or a cure for the cancer that was killing a favourite teacher. Prayer, however, is deeper than just being a spiritual version of a mail-order catalog.

Prayer as practice by the masters is more about changing what we want than it is about getting what we want. It is a meditative discipline – the same kind of meditative discipline that creates a higher level of empathy. It isn’t about talking. The proper practice of prayer takes discipline, focus and careful thought.

Being religious doesn’t mean that you stop thinking. In fact if you are serious about it, like everything else in life, it demands a high level of self awareness and an open mind. You can not check your brain at the door if you are going to be effective at living out your faith, not if you intend your life to be a visible and compelling argument for the value of your religion.

Alex McGilvery
Alex McGilvery is currently living in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada. He is an author and serves as the minister of a thriving United Church congregation.


“Many of the post-theist authors start on their journey away from believing in a God with whom we can relate with the failure of God to answer their prayers.”

Ah yes, that happened to me. I was about 14 at the time, and I had been told (by one of my school teachers who was also a “charismatic” Christian) that if I asked God for anything He would grant it. So I asked Him to make my watch start working again. Of course I got a bit more sophisticated than that before I really packed my bags. I also came to see prayer as meditation. But God-directed meditation, and with the lingering expectation, at some level, that I would be getting something back.

I mentioned (somewhat flippantly) on an earlier thread that I have my religion too. Essentially, mindfulness (as adapted from various religious traditions by Western psychology) with the aim of leading a values-based life. This is also something that you can carry with you wherever you go.

I have also said on previous threads that whether one finds the concept of Godand/or rituals associated with this or that religious tradition helplful or not will depend on one’s upbringing (positively or negatively) and one’s social environment. With that caveat I don’t there is much if anything in this article that I disagree with. There are, indeed, good ways to be religious, and they indeed involve thinking (while also cultivating the ability NOT to think, and when we do think to think better).

Peter, it is a paradox that in order to achieve some form of deliberate transcendence in order to lose yourself, that you need to exercise a large amount of mindfulness and self-awareness.

While there are plenty of times that Jesus and others tell us that we just need to ask for what we need and God will grant it, Jesus himself appears to consistently deny his own needs to obey God.

The first part of the equation has turned God into a magic Walmart with people competing to tell the best stories of how God has filled their needs. There are even a substantial number of people who measure holiness by wealth.

I wonder if the practice of prayer is intended instead to bring us into line with God’s desires. The problem is to know what that might look like. Personally I go back to the first paradox. I set my sights on being more loving, then just life my life in that manner. It seems to work as well as any other path.

Be sure that you are properly distinguishing wants from needs.

It is true, Christian, that we tend to conflate our wants with our needs. The problem with trying to separate them is that while it may be obvious that we don’t need an ipad, we may need some kind of technology to access education properly.

Even the things that we think are certainly needs, like being healthy, wealthy and wise, are more realistically in the category of wants.

I think this is why the path to transcendence is both mindful and moving away from self at the same time.

Thanks for the compliment, Pastor Alex. I agree that no God worthy of worship would expect anything less than full use of our mental faculties and their extension into logic, math, science, computation and engineering. A God worthy of worship would expect and provide opportunity for us to learn to become God, worshipping through emulation.

“Even the things that we think are certainly needs, like being healthy, wealthy and wise, are more realistically in the category of wants.”

One needs to be healthy, otherwise one is existing, not living. “[W]e may need some kind of technology to access education properly”, but we don’t necessarily need to be healthy?: sounds like misplaced priorities; how can an unhealthy person be truly educated unless by educated you mean educated enough to read a doctor’s handwriting?

What did they on?
Treacle mostly.
They must have been ill.
They were ill, very ill.

Hmm.. Remind us what the 1st commandment is again?

We should also remember that the old testament is taken from Jewish scripture, and that these commandments designate the emancipated Jews covenant with God, (Yahweh), and that although Jesus was reputably Jewish by birth and faith, his views and philosophy differed from Judaism?

This personification of God as viewed “in man’s image” seems to lie at the root of most conflicts between religions, (my God vs your God mentality), and the projection of human wants and needs, (attributes and gender), onto God is at very least limiting in concept?

Did not Jesus declare himself as “the son of man” when quizzed?

I’m a bit intrigued by Christian’s comment about distinguishing wants from needs. Is the idea that, like in the Rolling Stones song, we don’t always get what we want, but we get what we need? Would that it were so. Unless you cleverly (as many God-apologists do) redefine “what we need” to mean “whatever God in His infinite grace and wisdom decides to grant”.

My own take on how best to use these words is: you want what you want (your decision); what you need depends on what you want. You want a car? You need money to pay for it. You want to live a long time? You need to take care of your health. You want to succeed in life? Then you need to get yourself a good education, and an iPad (or similar) might help.

You don’t care whether you live or die? Then some might say you need a priest, shrink, help of some kind or other. I’d say that’s just the rest of us externalising our own wishes onto you.

That being said, there’s what you think or say you want, there’s what you are in practice striving for, and there’s what would make you happy if you got it. Often three completely different things, and we’re not even generally consistent about what we say we want, ,OR what we are actively striving for. That’s how/why we are continually sabotaging ourselves.

Re self-awareness as a route to transcendence, I think the explanation for the “paradox” is that to achieve transcendence (which, in mild form, can take place while reading a good book or watching a good film) requires us to get out of that restless, anxious mental state that we are so often in in the modern world. And that requires work, which in turn requires self-awareness (and discipline).

It’s a bit like going on vacation. To enjoy the surf, you first have to do the packing.

Come to think of it, even posting comments here can feel quite transcendent 😊

“although Jesus was reputably Jewish by birth and faith, his views and philosophy differed from Judaism?”

Judaism wasn’t that monolithic to be able to say that the views and philosophy attributed to Jesus differed from it. According to one theory, which I find quite plausible, it was the trauma of the destruction of the temple in AD70 that caused Christianity, initially a Jewish sect, and Judaism to part company.

Was Christianity merely sectarian Judaism? Many believe that Christianity and gnosticism are linked, or that Jesus was an essene? Jewish essenes still practice today.

How much of Christianity and myth of Christ was cleverly remastered and manipulated by the “Roman” church and St Paul?

of the three, healthy wealthy and wise, health is quite necessary.. while wealth and wisdom—believe it or not—may be undesirable for many at the bottom.
At the soup kitchens I’ve spent thousands of hours volunteering at, the poor are often some of the happiest people you can meet. True, the homeless (unless they are bona fide tree huggers) aren’t happy, but most aren’t homeless for all that long—many programs exist to aid them. Many at soup kitchens are not homeless, the majority are not; or perhaps 50-50 at worst. Many private homes will take in homeless for varying amounts of time.
The majority of soup kitchen clientele aren’t educated, but are happier than most who are because they very often tend to live from day to day and don’t have too many responsibilities- if any. In other words most of them or at the very least half of them are happy go lucky. They don’t mind being uneducated, and don’t actually know what wisdom is; perhaps wisdom to them is knowing the lowest price for a sixpack or a carton of Marlboros, the guy to buy a dimebag of weed from, and so forth.
Strange as it may seem even the unhealthiest among them are relatively content because all their medical bills are paid for by various programs, and if a collection agency should come after them, for deductibles aggregated over long periods of time, there is nothing to sue for; you can’t bring a suit against someone who has little.. you cannot garnishee a bank account with a few dollars in it, can you? or an employee who moves from job to job.

This is to tell you that you were right, Pete: they who have wealth worry about losing it; while at the bottom, such is not a real problem.

Cygnus, Christianity started as a sect of Judaism, but it very quickly spread beyond that. The first recorded church fight (in Acts) was about whether to let Gentiles in without them being Jews first. Paul won the argument and here we are.

Judaism was, Peter says, anything but monolithic. There is no direct evidence that Jesus was an Essene, but he probably knew of them and there are some very close similarities in the philosophies.

Early Christianity was at least as fractured. In spite of what we might like to think, there was never one “Early Christian Church”. The reason we have the Christian Scriptures we do is because the church needed to define the canon against what the gnostics and others were proposing. Most of the early battles against heresy were debates against those who watered down the Gospel. Gnosticism turned the Gospel into “secret knowledge” which was a popular mode of believing in that period of time.

In spite of Dan Brown and other Christian conspiratists, the canon was pretty much set by the middle of the third century, before there was a really strong central authority. Much of the intervening time was spent avoiding several periods of persecution when people were mostly concerned with survival rather than orthodoxy.

Like any myth there are accretions that built up around the mythos of Jesus of Nazareth and most responsible scholars will state that it is impossible to get back to the “authentic Jesus”. That is why context and history are important.

So where does the term Christ originate? The Gnostic myth professes a holy trinity of “Father, Christ and Sophia” (God, male + female genome), which seems to have somehow transmigrated into Christianity?

Did Jesus actually declare himself as Christian?

“...most responsible scholars will state that it is impossible to get back to the ‘authentic Jesus’.. ”

Because historical Jesus was a composite of different priests circa late BCE- early CE?

Cygnus Christ simply means “Anointed One” same as Messiah. Given the nature of the Gospels, it is unclear whether Jesus thought of himself as the Christ. It is a title, not a last name.

There is more corelation between Logos and Sophia than Spirit and Sophia. Some of the Gnostics got very strange. They were about know the names of angels and demons and understanding increasingly complex structures of the world. The Gospel of Judas is a prime example of gnosticism.

Intomorrow, it is popular with Christian conspiratists to suggest that Jesus was a composite or entirely fictional. The challenge to this theory is that the level of change connected with this person would be unsustainable by a fiction or conflation. At some point somewhere, someone would blow the whistle on the whole fraud.

I’m convinced that there was a person named Jesus who was crucified and that something significant happened to change a ragtag band of losers into a powerhouse that became imperial religion in just three centuries. I am also sure that Jesus would not recognize most of what we have made him into.

“Intomorrow, it is popular with Christian conspiratists to suggest that Jesus was a composite or entirely fictional”

IMO, it is extremely unlikely Jesus is entirely fictional- yet it is also extremely likely (IMO, naturally) He was a composite. His teachings were varied, and it is highly likely many teachings from many priests, including Jesus himself of course, were syncretised under Jesus’ name in the New Testament—which was written primarily by Paul.

“I am also sure that Jesus would not recognize most of what we have made him into.”

Then Jesus would be pleased to know He is a composite, so He alone does not have to bear the shame knowing He would not recognize most of what we have made him into 😊

Paul wrote some of the New Testament, but by no means is he the main voice. It is unlikely that the writers of the various gospels knew Paul’s letters since the theology is slightly different. There are also a number of letters written by other people including some of the letters that claim to be written by Paul. For sheer volume, the Johanine school is as well represented. Luke/Acts is also a substantial work and has its disagreements with Paul.

The truth is that the New Testament, like the rest of the Bible is a mess of different authors with varying understandings of what they are writing about. There is no one clear understanding as there would be if one person had redacted the entire book.

@Alex re “I’m convinced that there was a person named Jesus who was crucified and that something significant happened to change a ragtag band of losers into a powerhouse that became imperial religion in just three centuries.” Yes I’m inclined to agree. But what was that something? Any theories?

@Intomorrow re “Strange as it may seem even the unhealthiest among them are relatively content because all their medical bills are paid for by various programs” I’ve read about studies suggesting that health is essentially uncorrelated with happiness. IMO it’s not so much because of medical bills being paid, it’s just how the hedonic treadmill works.

By the way your soup kitchen anecdote is highly relevant to the discussion we were having on James Hughes’ recent piece “After happiness, cyborg virtue”. Jonathan Haidt has also pointed out (in The Happiness Hypothesis) that Gautama seriously overestimated the suffering of the very poor by imagining how _he_ would have felt if he were that poor. But this raises the question: is that the kind of happiness we want, and if not, to what extent is this a problem for utilitarianism?

Great article Alex. It is always very important to stress these concepts. It is as trivial as the old - intellege ut credes, crede ut intellegas - but often superficial people tend to believe they can simply rely only on mere blind faith, or mere logical understanding. Scientists base their work on many unprovable assumption, aesthetic preferences, and emotional motives. Men of faith, on the other hand, cannot but use logical reasoning when they have to talk publicly about their most irrational beliefs.

This is why I believe that any ethical dimension cannot but have a religious thrust. And by “religious” I do not mean necessary “theistic” or “connected with traditional religious movements”. Let us consider the etymology of the word “religion”. It is about binding twice. I always considered this as a metaphor for transcendence. Secular laws bind once. They set the behavioral norm for a given human community, binding all the members of the community together. Then there is the ethical level behind laws - this ethical level adds a second dimension, it is a generator of behavioral norms, and it is about where the legislators want to lead people. It might be a vertical transcendence (i.e. supernatural, like paradise), or a horizontal one (i.e. a better place to live/to leave to our children). Anyway, without this second, transcendent attractor - there can be no ethic, but only a constant, disruptive tension between politicians/police officers who try to impose a certain moral code and citizens who follow their own moral code.

“By the way your soup kitchen anecdote is highly relevant to the discussion we were having on James Hughes’ recent piece ‘After happiness’ “

Anything to do with health care for the indigent or anyone else is IMO relevant at IEET.

@ Alex..

There may be early links between ancient Indo-Iranian and Indo-Vedic cultures and belief systems Zorastrianism and early Hindu philosophies that may have influenced the ideas of Jesus of Galilee?

I take it you have read the Gospel of St. Thomas, now widely regarded as one of the many existing gospels omitted from the bible because of its esoteric content? Yet have you compared its similar content with the bible gospels?

I also believe that Jesus most likely did exist, yet rather as the “son of man”, a prophet, (as does Islam), and who possibly became a priest of an esoteric order, perhaps aiming at reconcilling his Jewish heritage with other philosophies as above?

Jesus was also shunned from preaching in his home of Galilee, why?

I do believe that Jesus was a rebel, a “loose canon”, who was determined to “rattle cages”, as is the historical tradition of most prophets?

However the inspired myth, (Roman), surrounding the “man” should be further investigated for validity?

I have read the Gospel of Thomas and many of the other non-canonical gospels. The Gospel of Thomas is the most interesting and complete of the bunch, but it does stray heavily into the gnostic need for secret knowledge.

I certainly expect that Jesus and all of Israel were influenced by Eastern though. Israel spent 70 in Persia in exile and would have picked up some philosophy there. On the other hand there is a commonality to religions that suggest that there are similar religious experiences behind the different faiths. Not too surprising since we are all human.

Jesus was a prophet and historically prophets didn’t do well in their home towns. What is amazing is how much he quotes from the OT.

I have to agree with the sentiment that ‘God doesn’t want you to be stupid’ but it may be the case that the theological foundations of the church are themselves the greatest dumbing down of our souls?

And to redress that historical deficit, what science and religion thought impossible has now happened. History has its first literal, testable and fully demonstrable proof for faith.

The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new teaching is predicated upon a precise, predefined and predictable experience and called ‘the first Resurrection’ in the sense that the Resurrection of Jesus was intended to demonstrate Gods’ willingness to real Himself and intervene directly into the natural world for those obedient to His will, paving the way for access, by faith, to the power of divine transcendence.

Thus ‘faith’ is the path, the search and discovery of this direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power to confirm divine will, Law, command and covenant,  while “correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries.” So like it or no, a new religious teaching, testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation and definitive proof now exists. Nothing short of an intellectual, moral and religious revolution is getting under way. To test or not to test, that is the question? More info at,

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