There was a time when religious leaders used the highest authority of all – that of God – to condemn and ostracise those who rejected the faith. In the 21st century, those who wish to denounce religion have adopted the same tactic.
The highest authority is no longer God, but that of science. And, sadly, the rhetoric of science has been usurped and turned into a weapon to condemn religious people.
It has just been announced that a meta-analysis of 63 'scientific' studies has concluded that people of faith are less intelligent than atheists.
Outwardly, the study – entitled The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review – bears all the hallmarks of a rigorous scientific monograph.
Atheists looking for an argument can now say "research shows". However, experience suggests that the relationship between "research shows" and the truth is often as dodgy as that between the claim "God said" and what actually occurred.
As everyone who has tried to compare the intelligence of different groups knows, such studies are fraught with difficulty.
At most, this analysis shows that because smart people spend more time in education and because universities tend to be secular institutions, they will produce proportionally more atheists.
Secularism and atheism are part of the cultural script of higher education, to which a significant minority readily conform.
Smart kids who don't go to university are more likely to retain their religious affiliation because they are expected to conform to different values. And secular researchers are likely to discover what they already suspect, which is a correlation between their values and high levels of intelligence.
What interests me is why do people embark on a project that seeks to determine the relationship between intelligence and religious belief.
Most researchers do not get up in the morning and say, "Gosh wouldn't it be great for science if I discovered whether atheists are more, or less, intelligent than religious folk?"
It's not that researchers are dishonest, but that they, like anyone else, suffer from a tendency to discover what they already suspect. In an era where religion is increasingly associated with outdated beliefs, dubious traditions, dogma and prejudice, it is inevitable that the authority of science will be harnessed to prove the religious are stupid.
Is it any surprise that, in a smug tweet, Richard Dawkins refers to this meta-analysis with feigned surprise as to why the cleverness of atheists is even questioned?
Devaluing the intelligence of your opponents is what children do when they call one another stupid. It absolves its practitioners from taking the arguments of their opponents seriously.
As an atheist, I take exception to the claim that my views are the product of my intelligence. Like many others, I exercised my capacity for moral autonomy and made an existential choice.
I believe that I made an intelligent choice not to believe. But I don't think that atheism can be equated with intelligence, any more than religion with stupidity.
Why? Because the experience of life shows that the ranks of atheists have their fair share of idiots.
If you doubt my words, launch a research study that does a content analysis of their tweets.