I the Lord thy God.

February 26, 2009 | 44 comments

On being smarter than other people at church

You are smarter than many at church. You are better informed. You know that your brothers and sisters believe stupid things, really stupid things, things they read on a xeroxed sheet in their mission about the secrets of the Vatican, or in an email about a secret prophecy someone heard. And maybe you think that your better information and your better reasoning means that the kinds of things you think are less stupid. If only they could be brought to see their errors, things would be better.

You are probably wrong. Research shows that very smart people are just as likely to be prey to many cognitive biases as their dumber brethren. My own experience confirms this. Intelligence, as the man said, is like having four-wheel drive. It just means you get stuck in more remote locations.

There are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other;
there shall be another more intelligent than they;
I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.

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44 Responses to I the Lord thy God.

  1. Julie M. Smith on February 26, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    When I think of the things that I have heard at church that have been most meaningful to me, they are almost without exception the fruit of ‘the least of these’: the small child, the new convert, etc. I am grateful for their testimonies.

    None of which means that I wouldn’t reply to their wacky emails with a link from snopes. I feel obligated to do so; we all have a duty to keep the doctrine pure, and if I become aware that someone is muddying it, I will let them know. I don’t really feel that I have a choice. (Of course, I need to be as kind and tactful as possible, and any gloating would be completely inappropriate.)

  2. Blain on February 26, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    Good point. None of us is God. I’m reminded of a discussion about Mormon history (from Sunstone?) that I listened to on one of John Dehlin’s podcast on “innoculation” that included a presentation on Mormon History coming basically in three phases. The first phase is the one most people in the Church have been taught, with all it’s white-washing and incompleteness. The second phase is where we learn about all the things the historians of the first phase didn’t want to talk about: MMM, post-manifesto plural marriage, priesthood ban, etc. The third phase is where we account for all of those things in a narrative that’s not dissimilar to that of the first phase. Ultimately, the Church is true, priesthood was restored, God runs the Church through fallible men who mess up in large and small ways, but the ways of God are not frustrated.

    I’ve been thinking on this lately. I’ve gone through a bit of an arc over the past fifteen years or so, since I first came to the Internet and had my eyes opened on mail lists like lds-net, scripture-l, lds-hist, etc. by people like Dr. Bob Woolley, the Schindler brothers, Kevin Barney, Greg Prince, Rex Goode, etc. My view of things Mormon changed dramatically, or so it seemed at the time. I learned many things of that second phase, and did feel superior about my understanding of the things I had learned about than others. I also read Robinson’s “Believing Christ” and gained just as different an understanding of issues like Grace, the Atonement and Salvation. I have enjoyed pushing back at the idea that “after all we can do” means that we only get to apply the Atonement to our lives at the end, when we’ve done all we can do — as recently as last Sunday in GD.

    But my HT tells me that I’m becoming more mainstream again — he never knew me back in my first mainstream days. That I’m fitting in better than I used to. So, perhaps, I’m in my third phase. I’m finding myself less interested in trying to correct the understanding of my brothers and sisters in major ways. I’m more interested in serving them and loving them better. I no longer am as literal in my understanding of Scripture as I once was, and I no longer need to impose modern Mormon structure on the ancient Church, be it NT or BoM (unlike the BYU instructors who present Jacob’s sermon in 2 Nephi 9-10 as a General Conference talk — but I do love BYU TV). I still enjoy trying to build historical context in GD so that people can understand why it was such a big deal that the Good Samaritan was a Samaritan, or illustrating that “shew” rhymes with “sew” rather than “grew.”

    But I can’t look at the life I’ve lived and the lives of those around me and see any reason why I should feel superior to them in any way. Increasingly, I see my brothers and my sisters, and I wish I could do more for them and with them. I’m trying. Maybe I’m having the experience of the first part of Ether 12:27 — I’m better understanding my weakness, and learning a little bit of humilty. Not more than a little bit — I’m still an arrogant jerk — but every little bit helps.

    God is smarter than I am. He knows more than I do. And, when we disagree, he’s usually right, and I come to see that more and more often. I’m working on my relationship with him, and it’s hard work, because, well, I’m still an arrogant jerk. Coming closer to him means breaking my heart and letting him reform it, and that hasn’t been fun any of the times in the past that I’ve done it. I want to be done with it, but I know I’m not done, and I’m afraid to take that step again. And knowing more detail about MMM or plural marriage or the priesthood ban doesn’t make one lick of difference in this.

  3. Steve Evans on February 26, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Adam, this may be the best post you have ever written.

  4. Christopher on February 26, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    I second Steve’s comment.

  5. Peter LLC on February 26, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    At the risk of being wrong, let me third that.

  6. Kent G. Budge on February 26, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    To the point, rings true, and incorporates an action item for me. Can’t do better than that.

  7. rldds on February 26, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    I already knew this.

  8. kevinf on February 26, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Adam, you’ve uncovered my secret fear. Knowing that I am smarter than my brothers and sisters at church, i fear that I am often less charitable, and less forgiving of others (actually, I know that). It’s wrong. With a new calling at church, I’m being forced to face my pride, and it’s not pretty.

    For once, I am totally and wholeheartedly in agreement with you. Now, anybody got a tow chain?

  9. bbell on February 26, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    This is really true. We all have our own biases.

  10. Geoff B on February 26, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    I am a lot smarter than this post. But sometimes dumber than a post.

    To sum up: Adam, you have hit on a universal truth here. Thanks.

  11. Ray on February 26, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    “Intelligence, as the man said, is like having four-wheel drive. It just means you get stuck in more remote locations.”

    That might be my favorite statement ever in the Bloggernacle.

    Thanks for this post, Adam – for all the reasons others already have given.

  12. Jonovitch on February 26, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Adam, this is one of the best wise-cracks I’ve read in a while: “Intelligence is like having four-wheel drive. It just means you get stuck in more remote locations.”


    BTW, I think I’m exiting phase two and entering phase three. And at such a young age, too. Maybe I am smarter than everyone else after all.


  13. aloysiusmiller on February 26, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Wow, something at T&S I agree with. very well said.

    But I want to say that I do know a lot of people who don’t think they are smarter than other people. I really like these folks. I am trying to be like them. It is hard.

  14. Rameumptom on February 26, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    When it comes to how much I know compared to others, I always agree with the two greatest philosophers in the world: Socrates and Sergeant Schultz.

    “I know nothing.”

  15. Jonovitch on February 26, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Ray (11), that’s what I said! Great minds think alike. I guess that means *we* are smarter than everyone else.


  16. Bryan H. on February 26, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Could someone point me in the direction of this research?

  17. Yet Another John on February 26, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    As a veteran four-wheeling enthusiast, I can certainly relate. As a not-so-smart smart guy, I always find myself working my way back from those “remote” locations.

  18. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 26, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    One of the things that my superior theological reasoning led me to conclude is that, in order for the gospel to work at saving and exalting everyone, it had to be accessible to everyone with average capacities of intellect and education. Anyone who thinks he has come up with special knowledge about God’s program that is available only to an intellectual elite is obviously not talking about the real gospel. He is “looking beyond the mark”, trying to make the way to exaltation so complicated that only an exclusive few can attain it.

    I may be fortunate that I was the first in my extended family to graduate from college. I had the advantage of growing up with parents and grandparents who were not degreed professionals; I didn’t even meet an attorney until my 10th grade Model United Nations group participated in a mock Security Council session moderated by Dean Sam Thurman of the University of Utah Law School. The people who have loved and cared for me all my life have worked on railroad gangs, electric power lines, delivered mail, served food in restaurants, and took care of their children. They also served in Church callings and honored the prophet. Any philosophy that excludes them from exaltation is automatically suspect for me.

    The four-wheel-drive analogy is appropriate. I remember driving down the east side beltway along the foothills of Salt Lake Valley after an early morning snowstorm. The land on both sides of the freeway was blossoming with all sorts of four-wheel-drive vehicles, some of them upside down, whose drivers had thought that, if they could accelerate to a high speed in the snow, they didn’t have to worry about stopping. We all tend to move to the boundaries of our capabilities. Indeed, greater intelligence often brings a need for greater stimulation and impatience with the mundane, so we find ourselves driving too fast on an icy highway.

  19. a random John on February 26, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    I guess that this acts as a counter argument to the impression that I’ve had that the well educated are less likely “stuck” because they are more likely to be modest in their thinking and willing to accept intelligent correction.

    For those that appreciate research:

    In any case, I certainly agree with the scriptures, in that there are varying levels of intelligence with no two alike (Adam and I have argued over this before, regarding The Incredibles, I believe) and that God is more intelligent than any of us.

    Furthermore, if we do get stuck somewhere, isn’t that how we learn? If only we could live life without getting stuck, wouldn’t that be paradise?

  20. a random John on February 26, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    I should add that while the D&C places a lot of value on intelligence (you could argue about whether the definition used there is the common one) raw intelligence isn’t what is going to bring you salvation anyhow. It is much better (in the eternal perspective) to be stupid and have charity than a genius with no charity.

  21. Bryan H. on February 26, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    Cheers, arJ.

  22. Ray on February 26, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    #20 – “Light and truth” has always fascinated me as a definition of intelligence.

    My dad was ecstatic to leave high school and formal education; he worked as a milkman, a type-setter handling hot lead that left his hands rough and calloused, a farm worker between jobs, etc. He retired after 20 years as an elementary school janitor.

    He’s one of the most intelligent people I have met in my life, based on the D&C definition. He’s also perhaps the most selfless, humble man I know.

  23. clark on February 26, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    Research shows that very smart people are just as likely to be prey to many cognitive biases as their dumber brethren.

    I think the way many present this is that everyone is dumb and irrational, some just more so than others.

  24. ed42 on February 26, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    “Intelligence, as the man said, is like having four-wheel drive. It just means you get stuck in more remote locations.” is cute, but apparently you don’t do much 4 wheeling. My rule is ALWAYS use 2 wheel drive in remote locations, then if I get stuck use 4WD to escape and head back to good ground.

  25. Ray on February 26, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    #24 – the exception that proves the rule

  26. RoAnn on February 26, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    Thank you Adam, and all those who have commented on this wonderful post.

    What a joy it is to come at the end of the day to this thread which offers what, to me, is the best of blogging: thought-provoking observations full of light and truth, which elicit some truly inspiring comments–all seasoned with a good deal of wit!

  27. Ajay on February 26, 2009 at 11:41 pm

    I like Elder Maxwell’s take: “The gospel definition of intelligence isn’t one’s scholastic IQ. Instead, intelligence signifies the totality of the soul and reflects “the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). If we are diligent, we can develop faith, patience, godliness, kindliness, and charity in greater abundance in our lives. These qualities, in turn, will make us fruitful “in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:8).” (The Precious Promise, Ensign, Apr 2004)

  28. MAC on February 27, 2009 at 4:50 am

    Very nice post.

    So what is the intelligentsia’s equivalent of being biased towards factually questionable spiritual anecdotes or great satan conspiracies?

  29. Doug Hudson on February 27, 2009 at 7:55 am

    The more I study Jesus’ teachings, the more it strikes me that humility is the fertilizer of the virtues. While it is possible to be charitable, modest, and loving without being humble, it is much harder–humility makes all the other virtues easier to achieve.

    Excellent post.

  30. Thad on February 27, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Even before we had a four-wheel drive, I used to get my dad’s station wagon stuck in tough places. Most of the time I had to get him to help me get it out. Hmmm. Maybe a lesson there?

  31. aloysiusmiller on February 27, 2009 at 9:07 am

    While we’re talking about this let’s all remember that the worst kind of intellectual pride is the kind that reaches up to pull people bright back into line. “No one can be smarter than me I’ll cut them down to size” sort of thought process.

    It recognizes its inferiority/mediocrity but demands the same mental mediocrity from others. It is manifest in all ideological stripes PC being one of its manifestations.

    As the blog and the comments make clear we are all susceptible.

  32. Madera Verde on February 27, 2009 at 12:18 pm


    The intelligentsia’s equivalent would presumably be even messier and more difficult to extricate yourself from – certainly more difficult to show. Thus the likelihood of someone briefly mentioning X and you saying, ah yes I see is very small. More likely it would ignite a controversy and start a threadjack.

  33. Madera Verde on February 27, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Not to mention require someone even more intelligent than the intelligentsia to know for certain that they are in error.

  34. MAC on February 27, 2009 at 1:07 pm


    I doubt that those biases are necessarily messier, probably just couched in flowerlier language.

    More likely it would ignite a controversy and start a threadjack.

    You are very likely correct, but the ensuing controversy/threadjack itself would probably a pretty good object demonstration for Adam’s original post, add a little empirical to the theoretical.

    As far as knowing certainly that they are in error, to borrow from a wiser man than me, “…the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory…” might just be up to the task.

  35. Douglas Hunter on February 27, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Why is it that discussions of intelligence in the Church so often take the form found here? Even if its presented in a humorous manner the self satisfied smart person seems to be a well loved LDS stereotype, or straw man that is knocked down over and over again.

    LDS culture is unique in my experience, in its competitiveness over what intelligence is or means, that coexists with a strong anti-intellectualism.

    Insecurity anyone?

    How or why does relative intelligence matter? Why is so much attention paid to the stereotype and the straw man?

  36. bfwebster on February 27, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I’ve told this story elsewhere, but it bears repeating in this thread.

    Many years ago, I was visiting Utah and attended church in Orem with a family I knew. For priesthood, I attended the high priests group with the husband, who was a BYU professor with a PhD from Harvard (as he was fond of reminding people). After priesthood and as we were leaving the chapel, he said something to this effect: “You know, I looked around the men in the high priests group, and the differences were quite striking. I mean, you have men who are 3rd and 4th generation farmers, with just a high school education, and then you have men like me and [named a few others], who have PhDs and are college professors. I just marvel that the same Church is able to encompass both types.”

    To which I replied, “Maybe from where the Lord sits, there really isn’t much difference.”

    He was not amused. ..bruce..

  37. gst on February 27, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    Adam, I really enjoyed this post. It’s a nice swipe at Wilfried’s previous post, which was, as he put it, “about … how to better educate our own.”

  38. Ray on February 27, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    #36 – Bruce, I’m going to use that story in the future. Your respnose is so true.

  39. Jim F. on February 28, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Is it relevant that the evidence is that our first response to Adam’s post is to point out how this is something we’ve known all along and that it doesn’t really apply to us?

  40. Alex Valencic on March 1, 2009 at 11:35 am

    “O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think that they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set is aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.
    “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.”
    ~2 Nephi 9:28-29

    I would like to address this post from a slightly different angle. Yes, all of us, I would imagine, have, at one time or another, been guiltier of the “smarter-than-thou-therefore-holier-than-thou” attitude. I know that I certainly have been! But I also know that there is no sin in knowing many things, provided we follow Jacob’s counsel which is to “hearken unto the counsels of God”.

    When I am in my Sunday School classes, or in my Priesthood meetings, I strive to not dominate the discussions. Instead, I follow the counsel of D&C 88:122. I share my thoughts and insights, and I hope that others will share theirs, so that in the end, “all are edified” and we rejoice together in our knowledge of the goodness of the Lord.

    Of course, if none of us knew anything, there really wouldn’t be all that much to share…

  41. Douglas Hunter on March 1, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    #39 & #40 could be closely related. Jim’s question is an important addition. I see two possible readings. First, is that we know it doesn’t apply to us because we don’t make any claims to or harbor a belief in our own intellectual superiority in the first place, so its a non-issue. But I doubt this is what he was getting at. I suspect that what he is getting to is that exposing other’s belief in their own intellectual superiority is made from a position that is characterized by an assertion of superiority, that quickly attempts to deny itself as such.

    In #40 we see the justification (weak as it is) for that kind of assertion of a superior understanding. The thing is we all make some type of claim to wisdom, divergent as they may be. The quote from 2 nephi in #40 is both a denial of one type of wisdom followed by an assertion of a greater wisdom.

    Cor 1. 27 – 28 provides a remedy to this kind of back and forth by challenging the validity of any assertions concerning wisdom or intelligence in the most fundamental terms.

    “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;
    And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are. . .”

    This is a remarkable passage for a number of reasons not the least of which is the final assertion that God choses things which are not to bring to nought things that are. This lays bare a very basic structure that all assertions of knowledge conform to. This being that they are always made in terms of being, of what is. By this understanding then, about the only person we can look to for a reliable source of wisdom that meets the standard of this divine priority of non-being and abjection is Georges Bataille.

  42. Alex Valencic on March 2, 2009 at 12:20 am


    I made no claim of superior knowledge. I only made a claim of knowledge. I do not believe that I have superior knowledge to those around me. Perhaps this is because I live in a major university town, and thus most of my ward members are incredibly intelligent men and women earning PhDs in things I will never understand and are able to understand things of the scriptures that I am just now beginning to learn.

    But, furthermore, I know that I know things that others don’t know, but I also know that they know heaps of things that I don’t know. So my knowledge is neither superior nor inferior. It is simply knowledge. And when we have knowledge, should we not share it?

    All I was suggesting was that, perhaps, we, as Latter-day Saints, fear to share what we know lest we are accused of being smarter-than-thou.

  43. Matt Evans on March 2, 2009 at 1:07 am

    “Intelligence, as the man said, is like having four-wheel drive. It just means you get stuck in more remote locations.”

    No, it means you get stuck only half as often. And can travel twice as far, plus rescue 2-wheel drive cars stuck in their own icey driveway.

    It’s important to distinguish intelligence and knowlege. Smart people do “fall prey” to cognitive biases, but people with knowledge and understanding of cognitive biases (placebo effect, confirmation bias, selection bias, etc.) are less likely to fall prey to those cognitive biases.

    No one should put on airs because of their superior intelligence or knowledge, of course, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all strive for greater intelligence and better knowledge. There are no sound arguments for stupidity, ignorance or gullibility.

    The alternative is to argue the benefits of a Mormon culture that leads the world in the multi-level-marketing of false hope (180 of the country’s top 250 MLM companies are based in Utah), most of which depend on people having cognitive biases (especially the placebo effect and the logical fallacy of anecdotal evidence).

    BTW — love the story of the Harvard Ph.D. being put in his place.

  44. Douglas Hunter on March 2, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    #42 you will notice that my remarks were directed specifically at at the quote from 2 Nephi.


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